Social Media and the Arts: The Unbearable Nuance of 140 Characters


Quick disclaimer: I am not an attorney, so no part of this article should be considered legal advice. When considering a social media policy in the workplace, one should seek appropriate legal counsel.

This week the social media world burst into a flurry of conversations thanks to a Wall Street Journal article that revealed the New York City Ballet was working on a social media policy for its employees and artists, and that this policy may have been driven by the Twitter behavior of a single dancer, Devin Alberda. While many artists, writers, and audience members within various social media dance circles greeted this news with almost angry surprise, many administrators may have spent the past few nights wondering, “Should I have a social media policy?” “How can I create a social media policy?” and “What should my social media policy say?”

Should I have a social media policy?
Absolutely yes. Not only is a social media policy a key asset of an effective organization, but one of the best uses for social media allows audiences to get a glimpse of what goes on “behind the scenes.” By enhancing a company’s overall engagement with the public, it is sharing the private and somewhat secretive inner workings of an dance organization with the outside world.

If there was a giant waving flag that proclaimed, “Get a social media policy now!” it was raised a year ago when The New York Times ran an article about ballet stars on Twitter. Two days later, New York Magazine followed with a piece titled “Which Ballerina has the Coarsest Twitter?” that specifically featured Alberda as a ballet bad boy.

These articles made clear that dance company employees are communicating directly with the public information that could impact on the perception and brand of the organization, and that the national and international press are paying attention.

That NYCB and other companies are finally having this discussion is an important step. As a field we need to support this process. While it is unfortunate that, within the secondary coverage, the facts are being obscured by attention-grabbing headlines, it appears from the Journal article that NYCB is considering the right issues.

The good news is that a social media policy doesn’t need to be complex or onerous. In fact, your organization’s policy could be to not have a social media policy. However, whatever policy an organization decides on, it should be written down and distributed among the organization’s employees and board members. Once in place, the policy can serve as a valuable reference when rumblings arise and provide internal clarity as to whether someone’s public online behavior is or isn’t appropriate.

What are the core elements of a good social media policy?
In my opinion, a good social media policy contains three critical elements:

1. It respects the needs of all of an organization’s stakeholders.
Employers and employees need to know that no laws are being broken, nor are rights being trampled. The sanctity of a safe workplace is preserved and internal operations and private information are not made public. Company managers must also make board members aware of board responsibilities when discussing company matters in public and online.

2. It recognizes that transparency is essential.
Companies don’t earn the trust of their audiences by carefully sculpting every communication that comes out of the door. Audiences want to see the human side of what we do in the dance world, and a good social media policy will let both the polished artistry and the grit, sweat, and tears shine.

There is no better way to communicate openness and transparency than through our artists, and, in that regard, companies should consider themselves very lucky to have artists willing and available to serve as ambassadors. If this line of communication is cut, or censored, it would simply hurt the organization’s long-range goals.

3. It is inherently flexible.
An organization cannot expect to incorporate a perfect social media strategy. The best any company can hope for is one that is effective for everyday use, as new products, features, and functionality are added that modify the rules of the social media matrix. Therefore, at a fundamental level, any social media policy must be flexible and accepting of the fact that it will always be imprecise.

If a social media policy can’t be changed overnight, it’s not flexible enough.

What should be considered in a social media policy?
My first day at business school, a lecturer told us, “Don’t do anything you wouldn’t want to read about in the Wall Street Journal.” Of course, given that we live and work in the arts, it’s a bit difficult to find something that meets that standard, because publicity these days, good or bad, can translate into ticket sales, especially when regular advertising is so expensive.

While the default guideline for a policy to “show good judgment” is a great starting point, effective social media practices need to consider more nuanced questions. The following is a partial list that should be asked, both in creating a policy and implementing a strategy.

1. What is the context of the message?
2. Are there existing policies that can and should be adapted to this context?
3. What is a reasonable expectation of privacy for those within the organization?
4. What about the outliers?

Context
Under what guise is the social media message being sent? Does the messenger represent the corporate brand? A policy needs to distinguish between messages being sent under a corporate moniker, for instance a dance company’s Twitter account, and a personal account, such as the marketing director’s personal Facebook page. In an era when work and social lives often intermingle, particularly on the Internet, this gray area should be addressed. When is a company member representing the organization and when is he or she a free agent?

When it comes to a corporate account, the rules can and should be fairly strict. Just like “old media” printed materials, each message needs to be considered carefully. It only takes a few milliseconds for the wrong message to make the rounds online, and we have to accept that it’s not difficult to log in to the wrong Twitter account and also that the delete button can’t reach someone else’s computer fast enough.

While guidelines for corporate accounts can be black and white, personal accounts, particularly those for artistic personnel, can be a vast gray area. What a company can do is often at odds with what a company should do, especially in the arts, where freedom of expression is the air an organization breathes. While certain indulgences might be given to some personnel that might not be granted to others, it is important that this distinction is clearly made and not crossed. These sorts of issues need to be addressed as companies develop social media policies, including the fact that for most companies artistic personnel may not be under contract all year and may work in other companies or settings during a hiatus. In that case, how far can a social media policy reach?

In the case of Alberda, a group of notable tweets landed in this gray area. Shortly after it became public that there were troubles in NYCB’s union negotiations this year, he posted a tweet. Although difficult to do in 140 characters, Alberda should have made clear that he was a member of the negotiating committee representing the dancers in the talks. Of course, adding to the nuanced complications of social media policy, it could be a lengthy discussion as to whether or not he was tweeting as a representative of NYCB, AGMA, his fellow dancers, or none of the above.

Adapting and/or Extending Existing Policies for Social Media
If the last section didn’t make your head explode, have hope. There are some ways to whitewash the gray. Social media policies should be 95 percent common sense, and a significant chunk of that can be found in existing labor laws and standard employment practices and policies. If you have a policy that employees shouldn’t speak to the press about certain topics, that policy can extend to the social media world as well. Likewise, sharing information about dancer injuries, something that is also covered in the new NYCB social media policy is a strict no-no as it violates federal laws related to disclosure of personal health information. In crafting new policies, organizations can start with what they have, and evolve a policy from there.

Expectations of Privacy Within the Organization
The general rule is not to expect privacy when dealing with social media. While a private comment could easily be made public, sometimes that expectation can be greater than others, and organizations should make an effort to understand the nuances between different destinations.

For example: a dancer has a Facebook account, and makes a disparaging comment about her workplace. Should she expect privacy? That depends.

1.) Did she make an effort to “friend” only people that she knows, or does she accept requests from strangers, even fans or audience members?
2.) Has he set his privacy settings to restrict access to his comments to only his friends?
3.) Is she integrating Facebook status updates with her Twitter account? (Twitter clearly states that it has no expectation of privacy, private tweets or not, especially as the entire system emphasizes retweets.)

While it’s easy to assume that social media is never private and be done with it, as organizations we still must differentiate between someone whose privacy is violated versus someone whose privacy is abandoned. Anyone can have their privacy violated, and they don’t need social media for that to happen – many have made the mistake of sending a highly inappropriate email to a few thousand of the wrong people. Or maybe not.

The Outliers
The toughest scenarios are the ones that we wouldn’t normally anticipate. One could read through every social media policy and still not be prepared for a situation until it arises. Whether or not you think Alberda’s comments are appropriate is, for all practical purposes, irrelevant in this discussion. However, his comments are worth consideration, as they raise far more complicated questions than their 140 characters would appear to provide.

While the simplest route would be a policy that prohibits all talk about people affiliated with the organization, this may not be possible. Although appropriate when the person being discussed is a private individual acting privately, when he or she is a public person acting publicly, a distinction can be made. When it comes to speech, our legal system strongly differentiates between the two, just as a good policy will distinguish between comments made by employees as a public or private individual.

Furthermore, we have to look at the broader context of a public remark. As it relates to Alberda’s tweets, public conversations about the individuals in question were taking place. Even the act of booing can be placed into a specific context. This is not to say Alberda was in or out of bounds with his comments, but the facts certainly make for a complicated discussion.

When private lives become public, as with dancers, more questions arise. It’s easy to expand my prior comments – that the speech is part of a larger conversation – to other situations. But there are also differentiators. The aforementioned public disclosure of private health information is one exception. Commenting when a fellow employee has a pending civil or criminal legal matter could (and may have to) be another. 

Ultimately, a broad policy may or may not cover these exact issues. What is clear is that if companies choose to institute social media policies, they must be malleable enough to incorporate a litany of issues and an ever-changing public-private landscape. While the need for our arts organizations to have a social media policy is clear, what that policy will look like is not. However, for the policies to work, our organizations need to be able to act quickly, react responsibly, and, at times, even make bad decisions in good faith.

Some additional reading (with special thanks to Dancehunter Nancy Wozny):
http://mashable.com/2009/04/27/social-media-policy/
http://socialmediagovernance.com/policies.php

Marc Kirschner is the founder and general manager of TenduTV, and is a member of the Dance/NYC Advisory Committee. The opinions expressed are his own, and do not represent those of TenduTV or Dance/USA. He can be followed on Twitter at @tendutv.

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