Inside The AP’s Social Strategy

In the spring of 1846, five New York daily newspapers made journalism history when they founded the New York Associated Press to help incur the costs to deliver news from Texas during the Mexican-American War. After some legal issues between it and the Western Associated Press, which led to the downfall of the NYAP, the Western Associated Press became the Associated Press in 1892 and over the next 150-plus years, has become one of the most important news services in the world.

Beyond delivering news to its 1,700 newspaper and 5,000 television and radio partners, the AP historically sat at the front of news technology innovation. Whether it was introducing the rotary press to speed up printing, bringing in teletypewriters (a printer connected to a telegraph) or launching the WirePhoto Network (ability to send images over phone lines), the AP offered new ways of information distribution. Now it’s confronted with the rise of social media.

Broadly speaking, the AP uses social media in two ways: gathering and disseminating information. The AP approaches each social network differently; what it does on Facebook is different that what it does on Twitter.

“Part of what we’re doing is sharing content in a curated way,” Eric Carvin, the AP’s social media editor said. “It helps as news gathering; if we’re looking to find someone who has amateur video, we put out a call and a good chance we’ll hear back from people.”

About a dozen staffers run the AP’s flagship Twitter account, and the AP’s 20-plus Twitter accounts are run by around 100 staffers. Carvin is based out of the AP’s Nerve Center, which is its main central news desk that handles everything. Here, he and the social team monitor the Twitter for both sources and news.

“When big news breaks, it’s one of the first tools we turn to to see if people are on the ground there, to get right to — and looking for — expert sources,” said Carvin.

The AP doesn’t have a single overarching Twitter strategy, but does create individual strategies for each of its accounts. For example, the AP fashion account (@AP_Fashion) takes a conversational approach with its almost 200,000 followers. The AP fashion writer manning the account includes her thoughts about what she’s seeing at, say, Fashion Week, but also is looking to break news about fashion. On the other hand, the AP’s main account, (@AP) rarely engages with its 900,000 followers because the types of news that comes from the account is varied.

“There are a whole bunch of micro strategies because each account is used with a different purpose,” Carvin said. “Most of our accounts are run by separate departments around the AP.”

The AP also uses Twitter for promoting its own reporters, as well as its other social accounts. A big part of its overall strategy, according to Carvin, is to highlight the expertise of AP people around the world.

“It’s been a challenge for the AP through the years,” he said. “We’re not a recognized brand as a lot of other news organizations are, mainly because our model is a B2B one. In a social world you need to connect with people, and the notion of getting the AP’s brand out there is something everyone seems to agree on.”

The AP finds that Facebook, not Twitter, is the best social tool for engagement. It has five or six accounts that actively communicates with its fans. It also does a lot of crowdsourcing on Facebook.

Carvin highlighted the AP’s use of crowdsourcing memories for the tenth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. He said they received dozens of responses that were thoughtful and interesting, and in a nimble move, decided to take many and put them out as two separate stories across the wire.

“It contributed to our journalism,” he said.

However, Carvin noted that the AP has scaled back its use of Facebook. What used to be hourly posts now are between four and six per day.

“We go to Twitter for breaking news, not Facebook,” Carvin said. “If it’s important, we’ll toss it onto Twitter right away. We go to Facebook only when it’s transcendent. Twitter is a breaking news platform, both in terms of what we put out and how we gather news. If news breaks, we look to Twitter more than Facebook.”

There are challenges for all journalists and news outlets using social tools. The AP has created its own set of social media guidelines, which have created some conversation in the industry. Most notably, there’s a section that says, in effect, don’t break news in social media.

“We are a B2B operation and if we tweeted every news break there would be little value to our paying customers,” Carvin said.

Debating the policy is a bit of splitting hairs, since it’s about minutes between when something goes on the wire and when it hits Twitter. Still, in a world gone real time, minutes make a big difference.

“The process is sacrosanct for us,” Carvin said. “When something big happens, even though we won’t break news on Twitter, you’ll probably hear it from an AP tweet first because we move quickly.”