Objectivity or Obfuscation?

September 30, 2009

Never being one to shy away from public controversy, the Washington Post has found itself again the center of attention, this time in online circles. The brouhaha? Their new—or belatedly published, at least—guidelines for social network involvement by staffers. The online community hasn't been very accepting, considering they are intended to cover personal use as well.

Apparently, WaPo thinks ALL YOUR SOCIAL MEDIA ARE BELONG TO US. Before you post pictures of yourself doing keg stands last weekend on Facebook, make sure no political messages are shown on your shirt. And don't even think about using Twitter to rave about the macaroni salad at your latest church social, as that could be misconstrued as religious favoritism.

Jokes aside, most have agreed the guidelines raise important points about appropriate social media use by journalists, possibly even by those in other industries. Extending them to personal accounts, however, is being treated as just another example of old-school media failure to accept the modern-marketing love fest of transparency and openness.

Ok, so it makes them seem stodgy. But does it actually hurt their credibility? I doubt it. Having been both student and practitioner of journalism, I know darn well the Post can't win in this situation. I'm more curious about how other industries might consider this.

Can you, or should you, police your employees online social habits?

Bear in mind, I'm not talking about clear-cut cases of insult, abuse, criminal activity, etc—anyone engaging in that kind of stuff deserves what's comin'. That goes double for my fellow Texans, what with our at-will employment rules and fondness for firearms. But what about those murky areas?

There has to be some give and take here, in my opinion. Employees should understand that online privacy is more elusive than the chupacabra and that professionalism is clouded by personal behavior. Employers should understand that prior restraint never works well, especially in new media that tend to be judgmental and surly.

What do you think?