Who Owns, Controls Social Media Activity?

Stations are carefully wending their way through the minefield of social media dos and don’ts. With no industrywide standards yet established, they must determine how to oversee what employees — especially high-profile on-air personalities — post; whether they should be using station or personal accounts; and who owns such accounts and their growing legions of followers.

Now that the use of social media is part of the TV newsroom norm, the industry is wrestling with the next wave of issues associated with the medium — hashing out matters ranging from who owns on-air personalities’ Facebook accounts to delineating between professional and personal tweets.

Individuals on all sides of the equation, from station group owners to newsroom staffers, are pushing to add more structure to the use of social media both on and off the job, primarily so the practice doesn’t come back to bite them, industry watchers say.

The lack of industrywide standards regulating social media practices also is starting to create unexpected problems, particularly for anchors and reporters who, to some degree, are winging it.

“If you are not going to get direction and input and you are doing it half on [your] own and half on behalf of [your] stations, you are going to get in hot water,” says Jaime Spencer, a Magid VP who specializes in social media.

Just last week, for example, Rachel Barnhart, a reporter at WHAM Rochester, N.Y. (DMA 79) who spent years building a robust Facebook following on a personally created page, publically raised one such issue when she told fans that she would start using new social media accounts during work hours in keeping with new station owner Sinclair Broadcasting’s policy of “owning” such accounts of its on-air personalities.

“This raises a lot of questions for journalists about who owns your online presence and identity,” Barnhart says.


Barnhart says she understands Sinclair’s rationale for requiring talent to have station-related social media accounts, as well as owning the content that’s on them. (Sinclair’s attorney was not available to discuss the matter).

But having invested countless hours in personal Facebook and Twitter accounts, which together have about 20,000 followers, Barnhart says she is concerned that stations will ultimately be able to “own” their talents’ followers as well, much like a company owns a salesperson’s rolodex.  Barnhart says she could see the day when those sorts of questions will be hammered out in contract talks.

“Anchors have traditionally been paid for their followings, which is how many people watch them,” she says. “Social media changes that game because now that popularity is quantifiable. Yet stations are telling them they don’t own their popularity on the digital realm.”

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A host of station owners, including large groups like Gannett and Hearst, are taking such issues to heart, and are in midst of revising their social media policies so that they can address the range of rapidly emerging concerns such as that one, company executives say.

Others already spell out specifics — like who owns what and what sort of behavior on social media is expected from news staffers, regardless of whether they are speaking on behalf of a station or not — primarily “to keep their staffs out of trouble, or in some cases to protect the company,” says Jeff Sonderman, the Poynter Institute’s digital fellow.

Many station groups won’t share the details of their social media policies, saying employment-related topics like this one are not up for public discussion.

But we do have a sampling of some of the stricter policies stations are putting in place — and models that groups will likely follow as the medium evolves and becomes more complex.

As reported in June, NBC Owned Television Stations requires individuals who work in its newsrooms — from interns and production assistants to reporters and anchors — to follow the company rules governing social media use, regardless of whether they are using the platform to promote news or their personal lives.

Scripps’ social media policy also extends to the content and tenor of staffers’ personal social media accounts.

Employees will be held responsible for material on any accounts “that could reflect badly on Scripps, its business operations or your colleagues, or is contrary to Scripps policies,” and could be disciplined – or even lose their jobs – as a result, according to the policy, which was posted online when first issued.

Scripps’ policy also gets into the nitty gritty of who owns personalities’ various social media accounts — as well as what they post on them. It states, for example, that Scripps is the explicit owner of its news talents’ professional social media accounts, while the employees own their personal ones, which “should focus on your personal life.” But any “work product” posted on a personal account still belongs to the company, it says.

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Soderman says he believes news organizations’ social media policies and discussions too frequently resemble “a list of all the things you should be afraid of, imposing an overall sense of fear or danger” rather that reinforcing positive ways to use it.

But Chip Mahaney, the digital director for Scripps’ TV stations, says that a real key to a successful social media policy is allowing air talent to work the medium in ways that work for them.

“Social media that’s generated by an individual has to be within the realm of comfort for that individual,” says Mahaney, who has conducted social media training for a range of groups, including RTDNA.

“Our policies are very much guidelines for behavior and for what’s personal and what’s business related,” he says. “But inside of that we don’t treat this as a one-size-fits-all product.”

“Let people dictate for themselves how they participate,” he advises.

Yet the very nature of social media — which, in many cases for the first time, gives reporters an unedited line to their audiences — puts news staffers at risk of screwing up.

Which, in turn, has people like Steven Dickstein, a Philadelphia-area attorney who represents TV talent, advising newspeople to use social media to do what the job requires — and no more.

“There is no substitute for deliberation and sadly social networking short-circuits that process,” Dickstein says.

The way Dickstein sees it, “Just because technology gives us the ability doesn’t mean it’s something we have to embrace.” And even when it comes to using personal accounts, Dickstein advises clients to abide by his larger rule: don’t do anything publically — regardless of whether it’s online or on a street corner — without getting management’s approval first.

“At least then, no one can accuse [you] of being an insurgent or doing something rebellious or embarrassing,” he says.

Besides, on-air news talent should simply be smart enough to know better, regardless of what the company rules say, Dickstein says. “You damn well better be discreet and adult.”

Read other Air Check columns here. You can send suggestions for future Air Checks to Diana Marszalek at [email protected].

Comments (5)

Leave a Reply

Christina Perez says:

January 29, 2013 at 12:16 pm

A covert U.S. government censorship regime run by Lockheed Martin under contract to various U.S. government agencies, commands and the fusion center network covertly controls — and CENSORS — social media in the U.S., says veteran TV and newspaper journalist Vic Livingston, former business reporter for Fox 29 in Philadelphia:

    kendra campbell says:

    January 29, 2013 at 2:39 pm

    Phiily – Please take your meds.
    P.S. – your crazy rant has been reported to the moderator for removal.

Matthew Castonguay says:

January 29, 2013 at 12:38 pm

This has to be said: For all the hand-wringing and paranoia about “bad stuff happening”, and even though every little incident gets national coverage, given the number of news people involved in social media, and the sheer volume of their posting, the actual problems are miniscule compared to the benefits. That doesn’t mean don’t have a policy or plan…it means “get a grip”.

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