Tim Weber, BBC News Interactive: 'Be on Twitter or be sacked'

Social media are essential tools for journalists and media organisations as digital takes over.

No journalist, no media organisation, can afford not to have a social media strategy. Only half-jokingly, BBC director of global news Peter Horrocks tells his journalists: 'Be on Twitter or be sacked.' Raju Narisetti, managing editor of The Washington Post, says he wouldn't hire a journalist who doesn't use Twitter or Facebook.

What was once a minority sport is now mainstream. The @BBCbreaking Twitter account has nearly 1.4 million followers. The @BBCbusiness account has more than 315,000 followers. There are plenty of well-respected programmes, even broadcasters, that would love to have that kind of reach.

Media consumption habits are changing rapidly. Yes, while newspaper circulation is slumping, television and radio audiences are holding up well. But more and more media browsing, snacking and devouring is happening in the non-linear digital world. If we were not present in the digital and social media space, the 'BBC News' brand would fade and - in the long-term - disappear from the audience's daily news flow.

To stand out in the sea of digital choice, companies and media organisations need a strong brand. Trust is at the heart of our brand value. Social media, with their tools for sharing, retweets and 'likes', create a virtuous circle: the trust placed in our reporting is enhanced by the trust audience members have in their social networks. Content sharing on social media networks helps us reinforce our brand - and extend our reach.Facebook is a particularly strong driver of traffic to our website.

Because social media are viral, they make content more discoverable - helping it find its target audience.Facebook, YouTube and the like help us extend the reach of our programmes, brands and personalities, especially to younger audiences. And they let us monitor the buzz around our content. When the BBC invited BNP leader Nick Griffin to appear on Question Time, we received a lot of negative publicity. Monitoring Twitter during the broadcast allowed us to watch in real time how the mood turned 180 degrees, and the BBC won praise for subjecting the party's policies to public scrutiny.

Audience engagement and interaction are equally important. Broadcasters know all about talk radio, and social media let us extend this expertise into the digital space. However, the size of our audience and the cost of curating their contributions - bearing in mind the UK's stringent libel laws - present tough choices.

But arguably the most important use of social media, from a journalist's perspective, is newsgathering.

Yes, we subscribe to text, picture and video feeds from news agencies, but selecting the right mix of sources for my Twitter stream provides me with a customised and curated news feed that complements, but does not replace, traditional sources.

Monitoring social media lets us gauge public mood, find case studies, and spot trends and breaking stories.

When the tills of a large UK retailer go on the blink, when a bank's online banking system crashes, when a company's clumsy reply to an unhappy customer goes viral - the chances are that we will know about it before the firms' PR teams know, courtesy of social media.

All this comes with a caveat, of course. On social media, a dubious joke can become rumour can become fact. Astroturfing and flaming are rife. A storm in a teacup can be made to look like a tornado. But that's true for 'old' media sources too, and we simply have to be on guard. What we can't do is ignore social media's potential.


How can a corporate website become a media channel?

Look at the range of your content and think how you can make it work on the web. Your most important tools will be user interface, interactivity and engagement. Think what your audience or consumers might be looking for.

What are the essential elements of content that is 'liked' on Facebook?

Tricky, and often unpredictable. The content has to resonate with people's experiences, or truly surprise them. It can be a picture, a piece of video, a poignant observation or a link to a long analysis piece. The content has to add value to the news experience, although not necessarily in a heavyweight way.

Tim Weber is business and technology editor of BBC News Interactive

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