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CONTROL!Newspapers of the world take note: The New York Times has hired its first social media ‘editor’.

Jennifer Peston, a new veteran with a quarter of a century’s experience, has been given the role to further embrace the likes of Twitter, Facebook, Digg and YouTube.

But a social media ‘editor’? Maybe a ‘manager’ or ‘evangelist’ would have worked better. As it stands it sounds a little bit like the NYT has brought in a social media censor.

Gawker asks the question: “Could this be the beginning of the end of the Golden Age of NYT Twittery?” Peston may have been brought in to control the more rampant NYT tweeters.

A memo cited by Gawker explains more about the role: “Jennifer will work closely with editors, reporters, bloggers and others to use social tools to find sources, track trends, and break news as well as to gather it. She will help us get comfortable with the techniques, share best practices and guide us on how to more effectively engage a larger share of the audience on sites like Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, Flickr, Digg, and beyond.”

At face value it seems like a smart move, albeit a temporary one. In time all journalists and editors should be familiar with all of these tools, and using them as part of their daily routines. But is it necessary to have somebody controlling social media from within? And is the label of ‘editor’ the right one?

From the NYT’s perspective, it might be. Peston is also going to bring those pesky Twittering reporters into line. The memo continues: “She will work with Craig Whitney and others to ask and answer the many tricky questions that arise in this context: What is the proper balance between personal and professional? What best practices should we adopt or adapt? How can we do the new stuff in a way that honors the old stuff?”

It makes sense for one or more individuals to steer the social media strategy in an organisation (and more so if that organisation is a massive publisher that accumulates thousands of links on user-powered sites in any given day). The keyword in that last sentence is ‘steer’, as opposed to ‘direct’, or worse, ‘enforce’. I don’t think that a top-down, hierarchical approach to social media is the right way to go about it. It feels a bit totalitarian.

In social media terms, your staff should be your best asset. They should be empowered to get involved, and that extends to allowing them a certain amount of freedom. After all, censorship sucks.

There’s a fine line between making staff do things your way, and allowing them to get involved on their terms if they want to. People need to be responsible to whatever brand they’re representing, but surely it works the other way around too? The ‘brand’ needs to allow people to be people. After all, aren’t these personal social media profiles we’re talking about? And hey, there’s no point trying to shoehorn staff into weird PResque roles that they never signed up to…

We’re pretty flexible about our own Twitter usage policy. Most of my colleagues have accounts and they are, first and foremost, viewed as personal accounts. If they’re used to big up Econsultancy articles / reports / events / training courses (etc) then so much the better. But mainly it's about engagement, about listening and responding, and about learning from our followers. It is also about using sites like Twitter to be more efficient (it is a marvellous tool for journalists and researchers; if you follow the right people it works as a superb filter).

Guidance is of course a good thing. I asked Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh to explain his Twitter policy, expecting a bunch of tips and loose rules. Instead, he delivered the Zappos Twitter policy in seven words: “Be real and use your best judgement”. Brevity is rarely so brilliant.

Zappos also provides staff with Twitter classes, should they wish to learn how to tweet. It doesn’t force anybody to do anything they don’t want to. Be real. Use your best judgement. Simple.

On Peston, only time will tell as to whether or not she’ll go down the Zappos route. I’ll leave the last word on this to Mashable’s Ben Parr: “Consolidating social strategy and having one person direct operations could help, but only if he or she is socially savvy and open to feedback and new connections. To be honest, it didn’t help that Jennifer Preston protected her Twitter updates until after the news broke.”

At any rate, good luck to her. Let's see how it all pans out.

Do you have a Twitter / social media policy? Do tell...

[Image by RenatoTarga via Flickr, some rights reserved]

Chris Lake

Published 27 May, 2009 by Chris Lake

Chris Lake is CEO at EmpiricalProof, and former Director of Content at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter, Google+ or connect via Linkedin.

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