Felix Salmon

Holding corporate tweets to a higher standard

By Felix Salmon
June 28, 2010

“NO,” shouts Joe Weisenthal today at Clusterstock, “The Supreme Court Did Not Just Strike Down Sarbanes-Oxley.” Well, of course it didn’t: it’s just an obscure auditing board which was deemed unconstitutional. So why would anybody think otherwise? Maybe because of this:

BREAKING: Supreme Court strikes down Sarbanes-Oxley, the landmark anti-fraud law. Much more to come at http://wsj.comless than a minute ago via TweetDeck

The WSJ’s Twitter feed has 326,000 followers: it’s an important news source for a very large number of highly influential people who want reliable news in fast, easily-digestible form. Twitter is a fantastic way of forcing news organizations to get straight to the point, and it’s great that the WSJ has embraced it. But at the same time, and for exactly the same reason, it’s crucial that a flagship Twitter feed like @WSJ be accurate on matters of important breaking news.

There’s also an important distinction to be made, I think, between corporate accounts like @WSJ or @Reuters, on the one hand, and personal accounts like @davidmwessel, @preetatweets, or @felixsalmon. Twitter’s personal accounts are a great equalizer, and a way for individuals to communicate with each other. Corporate accounts are different: they explicitly speak for the corporation and exemplify its standards.

A lot of companies, including Reuters, have social media policies, but I haven’t seen any of them draw this distinction. Maybe they should. To err is human, and I have gotten things wrong on my Twitter feed just as I have on my blog. That’s OK: if you’re having a conversation (and blogs, too, are conversations), you don’t have the time or the ability to fact-check everything you say, and when you find out you were wrong you can simply say so. The flagship twitter feed of a big media company, by contrast, is a different animal entirely: it’s a broadcasting mechanism more than it is an attempt to engage in conversation. The @WSJ account only ever links to WSJ.com stories: as far as it’s concerned, if something isn’t on the WSJ website, it hasn’t happened. As the Twitter face of the company, even if it has a human voice, it’s natural to hold that account to a higher standard than one would the personal account of a company employee.

I don’t want to strip the humanity from corporate Twitter accounts, which can be dry and boring if their owners second-guess themselves too much. But in the case of big media organizations’ news feeds, I think it’s probably a good idea to err on the side of excess conservatism. Especially if creating a distinction between corporate and personal accounts takes some of the pressure off employees with respect to their own personal feeds.

Update: The person behind the @WSJ account, Zach Seward, has an excellent response in the comments, and points out that the account does indeed link to non-WSJ sites, and even retweets me on occasion. Do the WSJ’s follow-up tweets constitute a correction? Not in the sense that they explicitly say that the intial tweet was wrong — but they do clarify matters. (I’m torn on whether or not the WSJ should have deleted the initial tweet when they found out it was wrong: my gut feeling is that it did the right thing by leaving it up, but it’s a very tough call to make.)

Ultimately, Seward and I agree: a corporate Twitter account should have a human voice and be held to a higher standard. The WSJ fell short of that standard in this instance, but its aspirations are in the right place.

3 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

I agree that upper-class tweets could be less imprecise, but that would be so unlike them as to be uncharacteristic. In the present instance however, unless and until PCAOB members have any kind of job security immune from the Fed and whims of Wall Street, which may be regarded as one and the same thing, the whole of SaBox might as well have just been suspended.

Whether anyone will actually notice remains to be seen.

Posted by HBC | Report as abusive

Well, I posted that tweet on the @WSJ account, and it was indeed a mistake. Followers of the account got the true gist of the Supreme Court’s ruling in the tweets that followed. Which is not to say that rectified the original tweet, but we also replied to people who expressed understandable confusion about the ruling’s scope. I don’t know what more to say except that you’re right.

On the second half of this post, however, I think you’re wrong. The @WSJ account absolutely links to non-WSJ stories. Here we are linking to you. Here we are retweeting one of your links to a Lifehacker post. Here we are linking to a New York Times scoop.

You say, “The flagship twitter feed of a big media company, by contrast, is a different animal entirely: it’s a broadcasting mechanism more than it is an attempt to engage in conversation.” For us, it is actually both. We respond to readers all the time, fielding questions about the news, complaints about delivery issues, and whatever else our followers want to talk about. People tweet at us with corrections, and we make them. It’s good journalism. Can’t we have a human voice and be held to a higher standard?

Anyway, I don’t mean to obfuscate the original point, which is that the first Sarbanes-Oxley tweet was a mistake. I just don’t think it’s related to the human voice of our Twitter account.

Posted by zseward | Report as abusive

I hadn’t given this topic much thought until I read through this post. I agree with Felix that corporate accounts do represent the corporation and as such need to stay within the boundaries of truth. Zach’s response above says much about the fact that @WSJ recognized and corrected the error. We are human even if representing corporate and accepting errors should be a part of the process.
I admire both writing styles here and look forward to continued correspondence between the two!

Posted by jackietewing | Report as abusive

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