Freelancers learn to maximize social media skills

Why do some journalists have thousands of followers and others barely a handful? Is it better to tweet, ‘gram or Facebook? What about Snapchat? Should you have separate personal and professional accounts? What’s the best way to deal with trolls and negativity? Attendees at Health Journalism 2018 learned how to up their social media game from those who do it well — and how to avoid potential problems — at the “Freelance: Flex your social media muscle” session on April 14.

This lively and fun discussion included independent journalist Andrea King Collier; Andre Picard, health columnist, The Globe and Mail; and Shaun Spaulding, J.D., assistant director, New Media Rights. Independent journalist Sonya Collins moderated the session, which could have easily lasted another hour thanks to some excellent tips and questions.

One key to being good at social media is to find the platform that fits your personality, according to Andrea King Collier, an avid Facebook user. For her, “Facebook is like a salon. It’s a party and I’m inviting you to my house, and we engage.” Her desire for conversation means platforms such as Twitter which limits users to 140 (now 280) characters, isn’t a good match. It was a post following Michael Jackson’s death in 2009 that Collier discovered the real power of social media — it prompted her to create her own community and a tribe of like-minded users who shared thoughts about the singer. “As a journalist you can do this, but it’s important to consider the ‘what’s in it for me’ aspect,” Collier said. “There were things I wanted to say and write about so I created a community space to hear what others thought. It wasn’t just about what I thought.” King now manages several Facebook groups, including one just for women writers whom she knows. It’s a chance to connect with others in a safe space and provide a support system for each other.

She uses her personal Facebook page to source stories. “I engage with people and they trust me,” she said. She related an anecdote of how she put out a call out to interview Trump supporters following the 2016 election.  Within an hour she had 250 emails, and wrote a piece before it even had a home. Thanks to her social media visibility, Salon magazine reached out to run it.

Collier unfriends and blocks those on Facebook who don’t act respectfully within her various groups. “I won’t even tell you. You’ll just be gone.” It’s not about the number of friends, it’s about the quality of engagement.

For Globe and Mail health columnist Andre Picard, less is sometimes more. He’s a prolific Twitter user (@picardonhealth), with well over 72,000 followers. The key to good social media use is “be deliberative,” he said.

Use what the social media platform is best at and find your comfort zone, he suggested. Picard uses LinkedIn for cultivating sources, Facebook for self-promotion, Tumbler as an archive of his work, and Instagram to archive his photos and travel.

Twitter is his primary platform, which Picard uses akin to a newswire. He follows researchers and health policy experts, sharing health news in a predictable manner.  He sees his role as a curator and given the sheer number of followers, doesn’t engage with followers much. Picard said one key to gaining followers is tweeting at regular intervals during the day, and only about a few important topics — journalism, health policy, and his passion, exercise, especially running.

He avoids the mundane, like what he’s had for breakfast, or tweeting about his favorite sports team. “That’s what Facebook is for,” he said. Twitter users should “be rational and pragmatic”, and “make deliberate choices” about staying on topic, Picard said. He also advised attendees to use common sense about who they follow, making sure there is a real name, image, and contact information. “You’re less likely to get trolled.” And of course, be professional. “Don’t say anything online that you wouldn’t say in church or to your mum,” he cautioned.

That’s all well and good, but how do you get all those people to find you in the first place?

Shaun Spaulding took an opportunity to explain the differences between open and closed platforms. There are different algorithms at work for each: open platforms want people to find new information; closed platforms want people to find good information. Think of when YouTube first started, he said. Users would get suggestions of videos similar to whatever they’d just watched, good or bad, for however long they watched. Now YouTube uses data and analytics to find out how much time users spend actually viewing or engaging, and makes suggestions based on quality, not quantity. “What you want to be known for is quality,” he said.

Gaining more followers is easier on non-established, newer platforms, but of course, there are fewer participants on these. Sites like Vine and Medium are examples of how relatively obscure people gained a lot of followers quickly. Now, there’s more noise on these platforms and it’s more difficult to find good users. Spaulding said one idea for getting noticed is to band together with others who do exactly what you do and create a mini-network that shares and highlights each other’s work. “It’s simultaneous promotion,” he said.

Spaulding provides legal help to many independent creators, such as journalists, writers and photographers who are bullied by larger companies to “cease and desist,” because they’ve depicted the company in an unflattering way. Defamation can happen even in 140 characters, so be careful about how you say things. Be factual, not opinionated, he advised.

Spaulding reminded the audience that once a work is created, it’s automatically copyrighted, so there’s no need for a freelancer to register each and every article or photograph. No one can use your work without permission, but neither can you use another person’s work without their permission. Works also cannot be modified without permission, even under “fair use,” claims, such as for news reporting or teaching. Fair use is governed by many complex factors and is highly arbitrary. “Only a judge can decide, after the fact,” Spaulding said.

Retweeting something in its original form within a platform is not a problem, since companies like Twitter include certain sharing permissions in user agreements, but don’t take something off one platform, change it, and repost onto another system.  “That is not necessarily appropriate and may be a copyright violation, he said.

We know about inappropriate behavior on social media, from sexual harassment to bullying to xenophobic, racist, misogynistic or homophobic comments. With 72,000 followers, trolling is almost unavoidable, Picard said. But, there’s a simple solution. “Use the mute feature,” he suggested. Twitter allows users to be silenced without giving them the satisfaction of being blocked. “So they can rant away all they want but I can’t hear them.”

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