Recreating the golden age of “Letters to the editor”

Do you remember the letters to the editor? The missive that we used to write to express an opinion and our views, hoping that it would get published…..

These missives, which were the print version of on-line commenting, tweeting and blogging  and often works of art, would get published in reputable newspapers, magazines and weeklies.

They were works of arts, because of their rigor, because of the fact that they followed a protocol in expressing views and opinions, because they hardly ever used profane and/or offensive language, because they were combatant in a respectful manner.

Today the internet and social media have become preferred communications channels for many as they allow us to easily connect and engage in conversations. The “social” web has fundamentally changed how we consume news and content in general. We are using digital tools to insert ourselves in conversations and connect with other people.

As our news consumption pattern evolves, we have developed the urge of immediately reacting and expressing our opinion and ideas.

While there is nothing wrong with this urge, however, in doing so, we need to remember the protocol, the rigor and the respect of the “old century letters to editor”.

As development workers, UN officials and civil servants we have an obligation to express our opinion and views in the most respectful manner. While each and every UN organization has its own code of conduct and ethics, there are certain things that are universal and applicable across the board.

When commenting and engaging in an on-line conversation, you may wish to consider these common-sense guidelines which I had put together sometime ago:

Be a good ambassador: Be aware that your behaviour and opinions on social media channels directly or indirectly reflect on the organization. Make sure your profile picture or avatar reflects your professionalism.

Be honest, transparent and open: If you are blogging about your work, identify yourself. If you have a vested interest in something you are discussing, be the first to point it out by making it clear that you are expressing your own opinion. Bear in mind that transparency does not mean disclosing confidential and/or proprietary information. And remember not to disclose confidential information in your on-line conversation. If you make a mistake, admit it and correct it.

Be passionate, enthusiastic and engaged: Share the passion you feel for your work and talk about your successes and challenges. If you are writing a blog, encourage your readers to provide feedback and comment. Read the contributions of others and see how you can contribute to the conversation.

Be responsible: You are responsible for what you write and how you behave on social media channels. Participate in online social media, however,  do so properly and exercise solid judgment.

Be conversational: Talk to your readers and avoid being pedantic. Do not be afraid to bring in your personality. When communicating on social media, consider content that is open-ended and one that solicits response, so that you can engage in a conversation. Cite others when you blog and solicit comments.

Be respectful: Respect your audience’s privacy, respect your colleagues and peers. Respect your “competitors”. Disagree in a respectful manner.

Be conscious when mixing professional and personal: Sometimes the professional and personal may intersect. While respecting freedom of speech, as  international civil servant, we have certain obligations and need to abide by our organization’s code of conduct.

Be aware of global implications: Your interactions on social media channels can have global significance. The way you answer a question online or write may be appropriate for some parts of the globe, but considered inappropriate or illegal in other parts of the world. Therefore, keep the “world view” in mind when engaging with social media tools.

Bring value: The best way to get your thoughts and words across is to write things that people will value. Write informative, interesting and thought-provoking content. Help build a sense of community by sharing and discussing your experiences and challenges.  Do not forget you are responsible for what you write. Aim for quality and not quantity.

Build relationships: Engage with your audience and build trust to develop “relationships” rather than just exclusively using social media as an advocacy tool.

Correct mistakes: If you come across a misrepresentation of your organization’s work, identify yourself and correct the mistake. In most cases people do not mind being corrected. However, if you get the feeling that someone is deliberately misinterpreting what you are saying, ignore them. On the other hand, if you have made a mistake, do not hide it, be open and admit it.

Give credit where credit is due: Do not claim authorship for something that is not yours. If you are using third party content, make sure you have permission to use it and provide appropriate attribution. Do not use copyrighted and trademarked content without asking permission.

Know that the internet is permanent: Once information is published online, it becomes a permanent record. Remember on the internet everything stays on Google!

Respond to constructive criticism: Turn negative comment into positive discussion. Thank the commenter and engage them in a conversation. Take time to read between the lines and understand the arguments. In correcting factual errors and responding be respectful, sincere, confident and truthful.

Separate opinions from facts: When interacting on social media, make sure you separate opinions from facts.

Spread the work and connect with people: Do not talk about yourself exclusively, but also share the successes of your colleagues, peers and the organization you work for. 

Think of CNN, your mother and your boss: Do not say anything online that you would not be comfortable seeing quoted on CNN or other television networks, discussing with your mother or explaining to your boss! Remember, there is nothing private on social media and all your posts and comments may be traceable.

Use a disclaimer: If you publish on a third party website or on your personal blog, use a disclaimer similar to:“The information posted on this blog and/or website are my personal views and opinions and do not necessarily represent my organization’s positions, strategies or opinions”

Write what you know: When writing about development-related issues, write in first person and stick to your areas of expertise.

The above are excerpts of what the social media guidelines I had prepared for IFAD. Hope you find the above useful and if you are interested to know more, here is the link to the full version of the guidelines

Roxanna Samii

Chief Digital Strategy at UN Environment

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