Does AP Style matter in 140 characters?

Social media needs a style sheriff, but who’s the best to govern the land?

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Social media is traditionally fast, loose and style-free. Some businesses have adopted their own methods of dealing with grammatical idiosyncrasies, but others simply let the interns fire out whatever they come up with.

For business, social media represents a sort of lawless frontier town. It’s an exciting place to be until somebody smashes up the saloon and you have no sheriff.

If you want to maintain a uniform voice for messaging in the social media sphere, you’re going to need a style sheriff. The question is, “who can do it?” The Associated Press stepped up in June with a list of 42 new guidelines to govern social media writing, but its traditional rules won’t allow for the casual writing often found on social media sites.

Obviously you want to avoid typos and other grievous literary felonies. But writing for social media should have a measure of flexibility built in. Style guidelines like AP are perfectly logical for print journalism but tacking on social media guidelines seems to miss the point that social media is not monolithic.

Your business may need to develop an internal style manual that allows for flexible, unique and creative writing while still meeting an acceptable standard which matches your brand.

Another issue that can arise from following a rigidly defined set of style guidelines is the inability to adjust writing styles to target specific audiences. If you follow a strict writing protocol but ultimately fail to engage the reader because the writing style doesn’t match the audience, you’ve failed miserably.

Remember the first rule in Communications 101? Thou Shalt Know Thy Audience. Form should not triumph over function for any writing—especially social media. If you’re creating content for an audience composed of serious techies, your writing will need to reflect that. Alienating a small segment of readers is always a distinct possibility, but the overwhelming bias of a majority should determine writing style.

If you want social media updates (statuses, tweets, etc.) written from the point of view of your PR department, you may like the consistency that the AP stylebook for social media writing provides. If you want writing to reflect the unique voice of an individual with the express purpose of inspiring purchases or building brand loyalty, you likely will want the more relaxed style manual.

If you are really serious about incorporating social media as an integral and important part of communication, you may consider a different tactic altogether. Depending on a set of writing guidelines to achieve one voice when you have a multitude of writers can be like herding turtles. The outcome may be predictable but you’re never going to generate a lot of excitement.

Having social media writers assigned to particular writing styles that tap into their unique strengths can be an effective way to amplify your brand’s message. If a writer is really good at writing in tech language, make sure that’s where you’re using them. Some writers will write well for male motorcycle enthusiasts and others may have a knack for writing about issues that appeal to largely female readers.

Using writers’ natural talents to communicate effectively to specific audiences, while adhering to a relaxed company style manual, may work better than relying on the AP stylebook sheriff.

Whitney Jones is never far from her AP Stylebook, but she occasionally takes a time out to check her Facebook. She’s an advocate for online education and writes on behalf of Colorado Technical University

A version of this article originally ran on Communications Conversations.

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