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January 21, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 9:57am

BBC’s Sophia Smith Galer on TikTok fame and why she’s ‘flummoxed’ more publishers don’t copy Washington Post’s ‘Dave’

By Charlotte Tobitt

BBC journalist Sophia Smith Galer has revealed she was once followed home after being recognised in the street as a result of becoming well-known through social media platform TikTok.

She also shared advice for news providers wanting to reach Gen Z (young people aged up to about 24) through the platform, saying she was “flummoxed” so few are following in the footsteps of the Washington Post’s TikTok guy Dave.

Smith Galer joined the BBC in May 2017 as a social media producer for BBC.com and is now a visual journalist in faith and ethics for BBC World Service but she spends about two to three hours each day on her TikTok content creation in her own time.

She uses the platform to join in with the latest trends, create videos around her own interests and promote her journalism. She has also used it for newsgathering and has produced journalism about TikTok for the BBC based on videos or trends she has spotted.

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It has been time well spent: since she made her first video in November 2019 Smith Galer has gained 168,000 TikTok followers, mostly women aged between 18 and 24, and 3.7m likes. She was named by TikTok as one of its top ten Voices for Change in 2020.

But this success comes at a price and, speaking at a seminar on using TikTok for news for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, the 26-year-old said: “I’ve really suffered from loss of privacy in terms of I get recognised in the street now probably once a fortnight.

“I never got recognised before from any of the work I had done. I’m not someone who’s on-air much, I’m really at the bottom of the career rung at the BBC, I’m not an on-air personality, and TikTok’s kind of made me one and what’s happened is there was even one point where someone followed me to my house.

“Nothing bad happened but it was a bit of a moment where I thought ‘oh my goodness, okay, this is now the reality, I have to be careful maybe when I’m out’.”

Despite this Smith Galer doesn’t generally get trolled online, saying people are much more positive in their comments than on other social platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

But she does experience “constant sexualisation” in her direct messages which she described as “pretty intense”.

“Frankly I’m really used to it and there are times when it really bothers me but most of the time I think in general I am pretty self-confident and I just think I can’t let this bother me, I’ve got better things to do, and I ignore them.

“I get people asking me all the time if I’m married as well which I know is kind of harmless but it’s also not totally harmless and even this morning I replied to one of them ‘why?’ because I just want to know what they want to get out of it. But most of the time I completely ignore it.

“To anyone who does think that they want to DM a female journalist anything of a romantic or sexual nature – don’t.”

However Smith Galer said because of TikTok there were now hundreds of thousands of people in both the UK and US who know her face and her work, adding that it had “accelerated my career way more than if I’d never gone on there”.

“This year I’ve done a live on Breakfast, I’ve been on BBC Women’s Hour, those things just wouldn’t have happened to me so early on without TikTok.”

Smith Galer pointed to three other examples of journalists successfully utilising TikTok to build trust and boost both their own profiles and their newsbrands: CNN’s London correspondent Max Foster, the Washington Post account run by its video producer Dave Jorgenson, and Cincinnati news anchor Megan Mitchell.

Of Mitchell, who has more than 1m TikTok followers, she said: “She doesn’t do journalism on there, she doesn’t newsgather on there, but she does talk about the reality of being a queer anchor – something that has gained her a lot of followers.

“She’s become a really inspiring person for people who long to see more queer visibility on TV and on the news and she shows the behind the scenes of her life, which I think if we’re thinking about how we can build trust with our audiences that’s something she’s done really well, by showing the behind the scenes and personal side of her career.”

But the most well-known example is the “Washington Post TikTok guy” who has built 32.4m young followers for the newspaper on the platform.

Smith Galer said it had been successful because the Post gave Jorgenson the editorial freedom to have fun with it.

Many of his videos are quick comedy sketches without immediately obvious news value but she explained why more newsbrands should be following in his footsteps.

“Someone may be quick to criticise and say what value are these, it’s a newspaper, they’re supposed to be telling people the news and this is just a silly 15-second TikTok,” Smith Galer said.

“But actually if Dave got 30,000 followers from that one silly TikTok and then the next TikTok he makes is a really impactful news TikTok that does share information – that’s what it’s all about. It’s about accumulating highly engaged followers who will then be there following you when you bring that newsier content to them. It’s really smart.

“I’m still flummoxed as to how many news providers are getting on TikTok and aren’t basically copying Dave. You’ve seen so many news providers get on TikTok but they’re just trying to do what they’ve been doing on Instagram and very few of them have gone over 100,000 followers even.”

She added that although there is no clear evidence whether building a big TikTok following brings in an engaged and even paying young audience to a brand’s output elsewhere, she has noticed many young people sharing her work or messaging her who are unlikely to have seen it without her presence on the platform.

“From a BBC World Service perspective where reach is really important to us that’s proven to be very helpful for me.”

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