NY TimesMargaret Sullivan (@sulliview), the New York Times’ public editor, has a piece this week discussing the New York Times’ social media guidelines. It follows what she describes as insulting and profane Twitter messages by Andrew Goldman, a freelance writer at The Times, to the author Jennifer Weiner.

Sullivan shares that in response to Goldman’s tweets the associate managing editor for standards, Philip B. Corbett, acknowledging the Times’ increasing use of social media, reminded staff members – and freelancers – of The Times’s social media policy.

First, we should always treat Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms as public activities. Regardless of your privacy controls or the size of your follower list, anything you post online can easily be shared with a wider audience.

And second, you are a Times journalist, and your online behavior should be appropriate for a Times journalist. Readers will inevitably associate anything you post on social media with The Times.

Corbett explained the Times deliberately keeps its social media guidance broad and simple.

Those two basic principles should be enough to guide us in most situations. Be thoughtful. Take care that nothing you say online will undercut your credibility as a journalist. Newsroom staff members should avoid editorializing or promoting political views. And we should be civil – even to critics – and avoid personal attacks and offensive remarks.

While the terrain may be new, these principles are not. Our Ethical Journalism policy says this about dealing with the public:

We treat our readers no less fairly in private than in public. Anyone who deals with readers is expected to honor that principle, knowing that ultimately the readers are our employers. Civility applies whether an exchange takes place in person, by telephone, by letter or online.

Or, as the policy suggests elsewhere: When in doubt, ask yourself if a given action might damage The Times’s reputation. If so, it’s probably a bad idea.

The New York Times social guidlines could be a good fit for your law firm. Though you may be tempted to get into greater constraints and detail, being broad and simple fosters the use of social media.

Rather than creating an air of distrust, your law firm would benefit from giving your lawyers general social media guidelines.

  • Be aware what you say is public and effects your reputation and the reputation of the firm.
  • Be civil – even to critics – and avoid personal attacks and offensive remarks.
  • Be thoughtful. Take care that nothing you say online will undercut your credibility as a lawyer.
  • Civility applies – always.
  • When in doubt, ask yourself if a given action might damage the law firm’s or your reputation. If so, it’s probably a bad idea.

There may be more you’d want to include, but such guidelines would get your lawyers using social media to build relationships and enhance their reputation. A chilling social media policy has the opposite effect.

Image courtesy of Flickr by jphilipg.