A little while ago, I came across this photo, purportedly taken inside Kanye West’s studio in Hawaii.
On the wall behind him, Kanye’s studio rules are plainly displayed. They read:
- No tweeting
- No hipster hats
- All laptops on mute
- No blogging
- No negative blog viewing
- Don’t tell anyone anything about what we are doing
- Total focus on this project in all studios
- No hacking focus while music is being played or music is being made
- No acoustic guitars in the studio
- No pictures
- Just shut the fuck up sometimes
Although it’s anyone’s guess what Kanye has against hipster hats or acoustic guitars, the other studio rules provide a helpful framework for anyone visiting or participating in his recording project. You can be under no illusion that Kanye’s priority is the music and that he craves and demands focus on the task at hand – distractions will not be tolerated, and nor will indiscretions. Perhaps my favourite of Kanye’s studio rules is the last: “Just shut the fuck up sometimes”. These are words we could all benefit from attention to, once in a while….
As social media has become more widely used over the last few years, there’s been increasing focus on and interest in different organisations’ social media guidelines. Some are very prescriptive and limiting, requiring employees to caveat everything and/or maintain a (false) sense of neutrality in all things. Others simply say “don’t do it”.
A couple of years ago at The Guardian, I put together a dedicated intranet site (“Really Social Media” – pun intended) which contains training resources, case studies/best practice guidelines for e.g. playing nicely with Flickr, advice (on everything from Twitter ettiquette to how to spot a troll and tips on responding to critical comments), an internal directory of staff twitter IDs (personal and professional) plus guidelines for digital engagement (covering social media, blogging, commenting and so on), to be used by staff in conjunction with established company policies about internet use (we’ve had guidelines for personal blogs for a few years, now).
For the last three years, I’ve been running regular social media workshops for staff in which we talk about the opportunities & challenges of social media tools on and off our site and answer questions about them. In recent months these have been transformed from awareness sessions to “skill-sharpeners” aimed at levelling staff up in social media ninja skills.
As this is an evolving field, we regularly update the guidelines to reflect best current knowledge and to help staff navigate the changing landscape of sites/services, skills and situations.
(I contributed a chapter and entries on social media to the most recent edition of the Guardian Style Guide)
Although there’s been social media activity at the Guardian for years (in the form of comments, social sharing, Twitter and Flickr experimentation and so on), last January’s Cudlipp lecture proved a motivating force within the organisation around a common focus: a more “mutualised” approach to journalism.
I’ll be writing in due course about mutualisation, and what that has meant for us as a company (and what it means for readers, users, the internet, media…) but for the moment, suffice to say it meant an enthusiastic focus on and support of participation on and off the Guardian site for the majority of last year – and beyond.
During summer 2010, the editorial management team worked on the current refresh, which includes interaction guidelines, as well as legal notes and editorial best practice. When publishing the updated guidelines internally at the Guardian, we thought it would be interesting and appropriate to be transparent with readers about the advice we’re giving to staff members, so we published them on guardian.co.uk as well, as part of the relaunched info section.
At the beginning of November, I temporarily stepped into the Readers’ Editor’s column at his invitation, and wrote a column for the paper and Comment is free site to accompany the recently-published advice to journalists on using social media platforms.
The US department-store chain Nordstrom famously gave new starters an 8in by 5in card as an employee handbook. As well as welcoming the employee and outlining the company’s commitment to customer service, it read simply: “Rule 1: Use best judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules.”
Although this sounds like a recipe for chaos, it was successful because the “handbook” stressed the primary corporate aim while encouraging employees to interpret the rule however they saw fit.
Nordstrom has been lauded for recognising that trust is often cheaper than control when it comes to employee activity. It’s also more effective in other ways.
An exhaustive list of commandments is rarely the best way to influence behaviour. Prescriptive rules have the effect of infantilising staff, and make it harder for them to adapt to different situations. This goes as much for digital communication as for selling socks.
While we created clear guidelines for participation by staff, we didn’t do it in the form of a line-by-line list of commandments about social media participation: “thou shalt not…”. Our overall approach is to empower people with knowledge of risks and common sense about approach, and then ensure that we clearly signal affiliation to users when interacting in these social spaces. Education and empowerment are key – if you ensure people understand the context, risks and opportunities, they’re more able to exercise good judgement in all cases.
I think of it as an extension of that famous proverb:
Give someone a fish and you feed her for a day.
Teach someone to fish and you feed her for a lifetime.
Educate someone about the marine ecosystem, weather forecasting, how to sail, whittling, tying flies, hypothermia recovery, how to build a fire, whipping up a marinade, plus nutrition tips and hunting/foraging skills so there will always be alternatives to fish (how nutritious is seaweed?) and she’ll be all set: able to make educated decisions enabling her to successfully navigate and flourish within her environment, plus help others to boot.
OK, it’s not very catchy. But you get the idea.
But how do you get everyone on the same page? I’ve written before about using proposition development techniques to drive focus around a particular product at a previous company.
this document was intended to unite a global team (working across five geographic locations and in disciplines from design to development and marketing to business planning) around a common set of values – an operating approach statement. The idea was that anyone on the team should understand that these points would inform and influence every decision which was made around the project, and anyone not on the team would understand why we might be doing things or asking to do things in a different way.
It’s a good way to focus thinking and provide a handy list of easily-referenced decision-making criteria, and I’d recommend it as an approach.
So a couple of years ago at GNM, in this vein, I consulted with editors, technologists and other staff at GNM about their hopes and ideas about social media, and used this information to formulate a ‘social media approach statement’, to inform decision-making about social media activity on the guardian.co.uk site.
1. Participation adds richness and perspective to media objects.
2. As part of our mission to become the world’s leading liberal voice, we want to encourage the world’s voices to come together on our site to discuss or participate in conversations about liberal contexts or issues.
3. In a really social media company, the role of the journalist becomes more important, not less. Journalists become curators of contexts and experiences – interactive storytellers, trusted guides and interpreters of fact and experience.
4. We should embrace, not replace, successful external social applications (e.g. Flickr, Facebook, Delicious, Youtube, Digg etc) and encourage people to use applications they’re comfortable with to promote, extend and share our content and their experience of it
5. Quality of conversation is more important than quantity. We aim to inspire, recognise and reward quality contributions. Engagement matters.
6. Communities and conversations need nurturing after creation. We need to put in work after launch or publication, though it may use different skills and tools as the work put in before.
7. Not everything will work for a mass audience, but the long tail is important: we support niche interest communities.
This approach – an articulated value proposition which can be signed up to and communicated to all concerned – combined with education, guidelines and support, has proved effective in framing and enabling social media activity to flourish at the Guardian.
And without a hipster hat or acoustic guitar in sight.
Well, not many, at least.