top of page

Social media tips: 10 rules to follow to build your social media community (and 10 things to avoid)


Global Business Journalism co-director

Most of us use social media to share information, gain insight and have fun. (I'm not going to discuss the insolent minority that uses social media to spread their anger and sow discord.)

If you are using social media to build your journalism brand (or your personal brand), the best way to approach your mission is to be yourself. Don't create an artificial persona. Be real. Be relaxed. But be prepared.

Here are 10 simple tips that will help you build and sustain a social media community. They are followed by 10 behaviors to avoid on social media.

What to do

1. Be informative.

Social media is not a headline service, a data dump or a photo repository. Say something. Show something.

2. Be interesting.

Say something you would like to read. Post a video you would like to watch. Post something you might want to share.

3. Be special.

Be clever. Be funny. Be entertaining. Have a personality. Have a voice. Be yourself. Be smart.

4. Speak in an authoritative voice.

You’re the expert! Act like it. People follow others who know what they're talking about.

5. Focus!

Don't post about everything. Develop an area of expertise. (It's OK to have hobbies and passions, too, as long as you don't offer an opinion on everything.)

6. Always think visually.

Use visual elements – photos, videos, GIFs, memes, or informational graphics. These types of posts are more likely to be shared and can help you build your community. On visual platforms (Instagram, YouTube), make sure your images are high quality and consistently compelling.

7. Share!

Become a hub of useful information. Share articles and social media posts from your area of expertise. Share interesting posts your followers would get something out of. Share best practices (and worst practices) examples. Share insightful infographics. Share compelling photos and entertaining videos. Of course, you'll want to post plenty of original content of your own too.

8. Interact!

Engage in conversations on social media platforms in your area of expertise. Show others why you are someone worth following. Recommend other people who your audience might want to follow. Respond to messages and comments (with the exception of trolls and nihilists). Strategically seek out – and engage with – people who have more followers than you do. Their followers might just benefit from your wisdom and wit.

9. Give credit to others.

After all, you are not the font of all wisdom. Use other people’s @handles and #hashtags liberally. They might reciprocate and be nice to you. And even if they don't, you are showing that you are a constructive member of the social media community.

10. Tout your brand

Include your logo, #hashtags, your social media handle(s), your website or your email. Use it in posts, on your email signature, on videos, in media appearances or on articles you publish. Touting your brand helps to build your brand.

Professor Rick Dunham in the Global Business Journalism classroom at Tsinghua University

What to avoid

1. Don’t use overly formal language.

Social media should be social, not stilted. It is not a headline service. Don't simply repeat a headline. Don't post the first sentence of a story. Don't replicate a photo caption. Don't just post the title of the video. Say something. Say something interesting.

2. Think before you click "post."

You might think it's cute right now. But that drunken party photo – or that ill-considered quip – could be embarrassing to you for a very long time. Remember that potential employers sometimes scour your social media posts when they are making hiring decisions.

3. Don’t share something you can’t confirm.

You see something on social media and you just have to share it. It seems important. But is it true? Remember that you are a reporter and a truth-teller. Are you sure the information is correct? Do you know the source? Have you tried to independently confirm the information? If you can't confirm it – and you are not sure someone else's post is accurate – don't share it. One mistake can tarnish your brand.

4. Avoid personal rants.

Speaking out for justice or fairness is fine, but personal pique is not. It's unattractive. Journalists have gotten in trouble (and sometimes lost their jobs) for using their public profile to settle personal consumer disputes with companies. Is your flight delayed? It's OK to post that fact. But don't say that the airline is the world's worst or doesn't care about its customers. That's an ethical violation for a journalist.

5. Avoid vulgarity.

Don't confuse profanity with profundity. Rude is rude. Don’t be rude. Don't be crude. Don't be lewd. If you are going to use profanity, make sure it is in service of wisdom and not for shock value.

6. Be very careful about politics.

Social media (like society at large) is often deeply divided along political fault lines. Sometimes, social media is censored for political reasons. You need to navigate carefully if you are posting about politics. If you are blogging as an independent, unbiased reporter, refrain from offering political views. It is fine to offer analysis and fact-checking. But opinions should be left to pundits and opinion writers, not to "objective" journalists.

7. Don’t personally attack people.

It's OK to analyze and even criticize, but it's best to avoid "ad hominem" attacks on others. Stay away from commenting on people's general appearance ("ugly," "dog," "redneck"), their hair, their weight, their clothing choices and such. Stick to facts. It's always better to be clever than mean.

8. Don't spread rumors.

Social media can become a cesspool of rumors. You will not build your social media presence by spreading rumors about public figures or upcoming policy announcements. Be valuable. Be a source of factual information, not guesses and gossip.

9. Private is private.

There are ethical boundaries for social media posts. You should not invade people's privacy or trespass on others' property. Some locations such as museums and airport checkpoints prohibit photography. Some conversations with sources are off-the-record. You can't post something on social media just because it's interesting – if you already have agreed to it being off-the-record. ABC News journalist Terry Moran was widely criticized after he posted off-the-record material about celebrity Kanye West from then-President Barack Obama.

10. Don’t forget: You’re always “on the record.”

Everything you say can and will be used against you in the court of public opinion. And sometimes in the workplace. As I've said before, think before you post.


Rick Dunham is co-director of the Global Business Journalism program at Tsinghua University and is author of the journalism textbook Multimedia Reporting (Springer, 2020), which includes a chapter on community-building on social media. This tip sheet will be included in the second edition of the textbook, scheduled for 2022.

66 views0 comments


bottom of page