There was a minor kerfuffle in the intersection of journalism and social media this week when the Washington Post told its staff not to respond to critics on the paper’s official Twitter accounts following a not-so-great interaction with @glaad about a controversial editorial decision.

Reaction in the social media world was about what you’d expect.

David Heyman, a former Post employee, commented on TBD’s story, “So if I’m understanding correctly, the Post branded accounts are to be used for old-fashioned publishing, pushing the Post’s stories out to an appreciative audience or for the Post to receive UGC to again, push out. To use SM for actual interaction with interested parties is forbidden.”

And there were tweets, most like this one:


It’s the Post’s prerogative if they don’t want to have outward-facing replies to critics on their biggest Twitter accounts. They probably aren’t alone in adopting such a policy – and it isn’t an entirely bad one. The problem is when “don’t respond publicly on this account” really means “don’t respond at all”.

This memo has prompted a good bit of soul-searching by journalists and the audiences they serve.  Media blogger Ron Mwangaguhunga explored both sides of the comment/no comment issue. In Mashable’s coverage, readers were polled as to whether or not they think news organizations should respond to readers on Facebook. Almost 50 percent said “Yes, there should be an open dialogue” and 23 percent more said “Sometimes, depending on the situation”.

Social media was created for back-and-forth interaction – and that’s what Twitter users want from the brands they follow. The best companies out there know this and they’ve taken advantage of the medium by using Twitter as an extension of their customer service department.

Many news organizations, on the other hand, use their social media accounts as little more than a big mouthpiece to broadcast their links to an adoring audience. This practice is a prime example of an adherence to an old way of thinking about the relationship between media outlets and the readers who keep them going.

I’ve been running Twitter accounts for a news organizations of some sort since early 2008, so I have a little bit of experience with handling complaints, criticism and questions from readers and competitors. I’d never call myself an expert, but I have a few words of advice gathered from my own anecdotal evidence and years-long tinkering.

How a news organization should manage customer service on Twitter

If the person follows your account, reply via direct message: If you do this, immediately follow them as well, so you can receive a direct message in response.

If they do not follow you, first, follow them. This will show you saw their tweet. Now you have a choice:

1. Reply directly to them from the organization’s Twitter account. If it is a direct reply, the only people who would see if are you, the person you’re replying to and anyone that follows both of you. This has to be a tweet starting with @theirname.

2. Reply on your own account, but be sure you either identify in the tweet or in your bio where you work. There are good reasons to take this route – maybe the information shared is somewhat exclusive, or maybe you don’t want to bog down your followers with excess tweets. Remember, while this may be “your” account, you’re answering as a representative of your company – so be professional.

3. Re-tweet/reply. If there are a lot of people with the same point, or you want to address it to a larger audience, re-tweet a user and work in a short reply. This will go to all of your followers, so you may not want to do this all of the time with customer service responses to avoid filling followers’ feeds.

Whatever you choose to do, don’t ignore a complaint or a question sent your way. Even if you don’t have an answer, say so. Thank them for commenting, give them an email address of someone with more info – anything so long as you acknowledge you are listening.

I can’t express how many times people have seemed genuinely thankful just to be answered on Twitter, though with so many brands being active in social media these days – replies are getting to be expected instead of just thoughtful.

To take it a step further, you should also have a running Twitter search up for your organization’s name and primary link. This will give you the people who are passing on your links, those complaining without addressing the organization directly and those who may not even know the company’s Twitter handle.

This is one way reaching out can really open doors with critics. They weren’t even talking to you, but you took the time to answer. That’s excellent customer service – and it can really win over critics.

Excellent Twitter customer service, above anything else (even breaking news), is the way to build a loyal, re-tweet happy follower base.