Six types of news journalists

[from MediaPost]

American journalists are ready and eager to speed up the transition from print to digital, and almost half surveyed believe their newsroom is moving way too slowly.

The Northwestern University’s Media Management Center came to this conclusions in a report, “Life Beyond Print” (3.8M PDF) based on a survey of almost 3,800 print, digital, and hybrid journalists in a cross section of 79 U.S. newsrooms.

The survey classified journalists into six groups:
1. Digitals (12%): They already spend a most of their time working online. They are either online editors or producers, but about 17% are reporters or writers, and more than half are journalism grads. They are newer to journalism (< less than 10 years experience) but are open to change, new career options and more likely to try something new. In a typical newsroom, they likely got the most training last year.

2. Major Shifts(11%): Those who are currently doing the least digital work but would like to increase it by five times. They are the most dissatisfied with their current state, more pessimistic about staying in the business long-term and want the most pronounced changes. An equal mix of reporters, mid-level editors, copy editors, designers and videographers, most of whom have been in the business at least 15 years are deeply engaged online in their personal and social lives, but see a disconnect at work. They could help the newsroom adapt faster, but need a sign they should stay in newspapers.

3. The Moderately Mores (50%): Those who would like to double their current digital activities to achieve a 50-50 split with their print efforts. They have been in news business more than 20 years. They believe their newsroom transition has been too slow although they do think it is headed in the right direction.

4. The Status Quos (14%): They believe the 30% of effort they currently devote to online is sufficient and prefer to see no change. Most believe the pace of change to date has been “about right.” This group is slightly older than the overall population. Nearly half are age 50 or older and 1-in-10 is 60 or older.

5. Turn Back the Clocks (6%): Those nostalgic for a return to print and wish online would go away. They report about 30% of their current effort is spent online, nearly triple the amount they would prefer. This is a group that has tested the online environment and they don’t like it. They less satisfied than their Status Quo colleagues and have the lowest opinion of leaders of all the groups and are least likely, in particular, to believe executives really understand what it takes to put out the newspaper.

6. The Leaders (5%): Publishers, editors and managing editors, most of whom have been in the news business more than 20 years. Most report their roles are primarily print-focused but want to shift to online. Like Digitals, they describe themselves as open to change and optimistic about their career options. The Leaders report spending about 25% of their work effort on online matters, but believe the emphasis should shift to favour digital (53%) over print responsibilities. 28% of Leaders think their job is changing too fast overall, which could reflect the lack of clarity around a business model to sustain digitally delivered journalism but nearly 70% say the newsroom is on the right track. This group reports somewhat greater Internet use outside work than other journalists.

There are differing expectations for leaders among the segments:
* The Digitals want The Leaders to be even more immersed in online trends and to sharpen the digital vision.
* The Major Shifts want more risk-taking.
* The Status Quos generally like what leaders are doing and advocate staying the course.

The study by Vickey Williams, Stacy Lynch and Bob LeBailly, found that online desire in the newsroom is not driven by the fallacy of youth.

The top predictors of wanting to switch to digital are:
1. Heavy Internet use outside work.
2. Online customer knowledge.
3. Openness to change at work and adaptability.
4.Digital training: Receiving training necessary to learn online skills.
5. Personality: Keeping up with company initiatives, online trends and industry changes.

THE STUDY CONCLUDES:
1. Journalists’ passion for the mission is there, but they need basic tools for reinvention and more engaged leadership. More than half of the journalists working primarily in print had no training in the previous year to equip them for a digital transition. One in four journalists reports having had no training at all.

2. There are major gaps between how leaders think they are doing and how staff view them, in such areas as fostering collaboration, seeking out input from employees at all levels, and communicating strategy in a way that relates to employees’ jobs.

3. Senior managers rate research about what online users want low on their list of priorities suggesting that editors are at risk of repeating the errors of the past by not ensuring that everyone in the newsroom develops a deep knowledge of who their readers are and what they want.

4. Despite the turmoil in the industry, the vast majority of the journalists surveyed reported that they were “still satisfied with their jobs and believed they would be in the news business two years from now — and more than half with the same newspaper.”

5. The surveyors advised: “Leaders should encourage all employees to use downtime to edit video, tweet, upload mobile photos to Facebook pages and otherwise keep current in online trends. Even for employees who don’t have any online work responsibilities, the more engaged they are with the Internet on their own, the more eager they will be to transition to online at work.”

Links: Life Beyond Print (3.8M PDF)
MediaPost

10 things I learnt from Mary Meeker’s slides

  1. Apple iPhone + iPod Touch + Apps is the new ecosystem. Apple Mobile share of market will surprise on the upside in near-term.
  2. Mobile Internet will outpace desktop Internet and grow faster than most people expect.
  3. Facebook, and other social networks, on mobile will explode.
  4. Celcos will face serious bandwidth/traffic issues as mobile Internet use explodes.
  5. Celco portals and walled gardens (Maxis, Digi take note) may die in favour of apps from App Store, Android Market and direct browsing.
  6. Mobile and online ad spending will grow in 2010.
  7. Mobile users will pay for premium services.
  8. Location-based services will be the ’secret sauce’, as real-time, cloud-based mobile services grow rapidly.
  9. Mobile Internet revs will mirror that of Japan’s mix today with mobile ecommerce*, paid services* and advertising growing faster than mobile data.
  10. There is moolah in mobile – it’s an ATM in your pocket, and it’s a very, very deep pocket.

Link: Mary Meeker’s presentation
*Mobile ecommerce = retail sales of physical and digital goods ie. music, games, ringtones, wallpapers, avatars. Mobile paid services = real-time banking, brokerage, hotel + travel booking

Mobile media as a force for change

Full script of the extended presentation on “Mobile and social media as a force for change.”

Hi. My name is Julian and I have five stories to share with you on today. One from Iran, one from India, one from Kenya and, because I really don’t like government slogans, 2 from Malaysia.

1. IRAN: This is Neda Agha-Soltan. She was 26, an university student in Teheran studying philosophy, music and was planning to learn how to play the piano. She’d already ordered the piano.

On June 20, 2009, at around 6:30 p.m, Neda was stuck in a traffic jam for more than an hour inside a Peugeot 206 with a poorly working air conditioner. She and her music teacher, a family friend, decided to get out of the car for some fresh air.

The two were near where protesters were marching and chanting. Suddenly, Neda is on the ground — felled by a single gunshot wound to the chest.

Cameraphone footage show men kneeling beside her trying to help. But it is too late. Neda’s eyes roll back, her body falls limp and blood streams from her mouth and nose. The teacher is heard calling out: “Neda, do not be afraid, do not be afraid.”

She died on the way to hospital. Later, a witness said her last words were: “I am burning, I am burning!” Neda neither supported Mousavi nor Ahmadinejab, the two candidates in the elections.

Here is the video. Warning to weak-hearted — the scenes are graphic and explicit.

Neda became the symbol of injustice in Iran. Her killer was never found. Protesters took the streets with the graphic images of her bloodied face. By marching they risked arrest, and possibly a bullet themselves.

The online community used Neda icons and badges on blogs and personal sites and replaced avatars with Free Iran buttons in sympathy.

In France, a 40th memorial day march was held in her honour and the marchers held up Neda images to their faces as if to say “We are all Neda”.

The video struck a chord with sympathisers around the world. President Obama himself described it as “heartbreaking.” To date (Oct 20, 2009) it has racked over 4.6 million views from various copies on YouTube and other sites. The trending topic #neda on Twitter continues to be used until today on any news coming out of Iran.

I tell you this story without ever having stepped in Iran. But based on Neda’s story and the 17 others reportedly killed in protests on the streets of Teheran, there is definitely an underlying and seething unhappiness in Iran.

These people were young, urban, self-motivated and self-organising as far as we can tell. There was no backing from any invested party. They marched because they were angry on the results of an election that didn’t reflect their beliefs. I don’t even think Mousavi or Ahmadinejab knew what was going on until the protests began.

The bottomline, the peaceful protesters connected with each other, armed only with their mobilephones and the power of social media skills.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead said it best: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

2. INDIA: The second story takes us to Mangalore, in India in Jan, 2009. A group of about 40 followers of Hindu fundamentalist group Sri Ram Sena pulled out women found drinking at two bars in Mangalore and then proceeded to beat them up. Two women were hospitalized. The videos of the attacks were shot with cameraphones and posted on YouTube.

Sri Ram Sena chief Pramod Muthalik (left) condoned the beating of women , Nisha Susan (right) fought back with Facebook

The man on the left is Sri Ram Sena Chief Pramod Muthalik. His organisation also planned to protest the upcoming Valentine’s Day and he warned any couples found in restaurants and pubs would be dragged to the nearest temple to be married. Thank god, good sense prevailed and police arrested most of the men involved in the incidents and Muthalik himself was held on the eve of Valentine’s Day.

But the incident riled many people around the world who saw the videos. Tehelka journalist Nisha Susan turned to Facebook and formed a protest group called “The Consortium of Pubgoing, Loose and Forward women”. Within days, the group grew exponentially, and Susan decided to launch an offline activity via a blog: the Gandhigiri-inspired Pink Chaddi campaign.

To mock the fact these religious conservatives are called Chaddi-wallas – people who wear big, loose underwear – The idea was to send Sri Ram Sena cadres pink underwear. Over 39,000 people joined the Facebook group within ten days from all over the world and dispatched a variety of underwear to Sena’s offices. The group page was later hacked.

But the protest had already struck a chord with women and women supporters around the world. They were encouraged to write whatever they felt on the underwear – these women (above) scrawled Discrimination, Bigotry and Intolerance, then sent the pic and underwears off.

The Pink Panty Protest was non-violent. It shamed the perpetrators and brought global attention to the issue. It wasn’t easy like an email petition which wouldn’t have had the same impact. The protesters had to mail in the panties. The unusual protest received worldwide coverage.

Clay Shirky in his book Here Comes Everybody says efforts like these suggest how ridiculously easy it is to organize people now. “The cost of all kinds of group activity – sharing, cooperation and collective action – have fallen so far so fast that activities previously hidden beneath the floor are now coming to light.” He has gone so far as to call what is happening a revolution — “When we change the way we communicate, we change society.”

3. KENYA: This third story is from Kenya. The United Nations agency Habitat is working with 15 youth groups to build businesses through microfinancing and the use of mobile phones in the slums of Nairobi.

This is Kibera in Nairobi. It is the largest urban slum in East Africa with an estimated population of between 600,000 to 1.2 million inhabitants. Kibera accounts for less than 1% of Nairobi’s total area, but holds more than a quarter of its population.

Kibera is one of the most studied slums in Africa, not only because it sits in the centre of the modern city, but also because Habitat, the United Nations’ agency for human settlements, is headquartered close by. Ban Ki-moon visited the settlement within a month of his selection as UN secretary-general.

Kibera is heavily polluted by garbage and contaminated with human and animal faeces, thanks to the open sewage system and the lack of sanitation and no regular supply of running water.

The dam water that people use is the root to cholera and typhoid. It is estimated that one-fifth of the 2.2 million Kenyans living with HIV/AIDS live in Kibera. Access to a cheap alcohol called Changaa, drugs and glue-sniffing has led to crime, rape and and unwanted pregnancies. Just 20% of Kibera has electricity. This place is the closest version of what you would call hell on earth. The children and youth here often ask “Why was I born here?”.

The government, UN-Habitat and a contingent of NGOs, charities and churches, have made brave attempts to lift these settlements out of squalor. On Sept 16, 2009, the Kenyan government started moving families out of Kibera as part of a mass relocation project, which is expected to take five years. However, more than 80 people – a mix of “landlords” and residents – have gone to court to fight the government from demolishing their shacks. If you had watched the science-fiction movie District 9, shot in South Africa, you will find many parallels to what is going on in Kibera. If you read our local newspapers you will find parallels to Kampung Buah Pala and other squatter re-settlement issues.

But there is hope and it comes in the form of a Mobile Movement. Here is the video that is self-explanatory on the initiative.

4. MALAYSIA: TWESTIVAL: My fourth story is closer to home. This is about the Twestival movement which is reaching hundreds of thousands of Twitter users across the world and here in Malaysia too. Twestival is an event run via Twitter and combination of the words Twitter + Festival. It started from an idea a group of friends had in Britain to do something for a charity – something real-world and meaningful from all their chatter and friendship in the online world. Twestivals allowed tweeters to meet and socialize in person over drinks, music and entertainment and tie the social event to a fundraising activity.

The first global Twestival
was held in Feb 12, 2009 across 200+ cities. It raised US$250,000 that went to non-profit charity:water. Charity:water builds wells in African countries and raises awareness about the serious issue of contaminated water in the developing world.

On Sept 12, 2009 there was a second global Twestival event, and participants could raise money for local charities of their choice. In Malaysia, the KL Twestival was organized in two weeks, via Twitter, SMS, Facebook and blogs and utilized the talents and financial support of the local Twittersphere to make this happen.

By rallying together, under short timescales, for a single aim on the same day, the KL Twestival was a small but significant success. There was entertainment, music and dance performances, an auction and participants left with goodie bags.

A number of sponsors and celebrities came in in short notice and every sign-up was announced on Twitter – so you could see it in real-time. The event raised RM11,000 and two free desktop PCs with broadband access which went to a deserving home for delinquents in Klang.

On Sunday, (Oct 18) the PCs were delivered to the home and a friend who helped organize it said the pastor of the house was so grateful for the money and PCs he hugged him.

The common grounds again: The Twestival participants were young or young-at-heart, self-motivated, armed with mobile devices and the power of social media.

This is Niki Cheong. He perhaps exemplifies the demographic we have been talking about all day today. He was a co-organizer of the event.

He is an assistant editor for The Star, the largest English daily in Malaysia, he writes a column called Bangsar Boy, he manages several reporters under him including a section called R.AGE, he is a blogger and manages his own personal website.

He also helps train the young teenage journalists who attend the B.R.A.Ts programme and teaches them journalism and multimedia skills. He dabbles in theater and has over 1,650 friends on Facebook, and 1,770 followers on Twitter. Niki has been involved in media activities for the last 15 years, and get this he just turned 30. In a sense, Niki is the kind of person we look to to bring change in this country.

Full disclosure — I met Niki through our training efforts. For the past three years we have been training journalists and media professionals in various industries on multimedia skills.

As former IT journalists ourselves, my partner Anita and I were shocked at the huge gap with those who had the skills and those who didn’t. So we designed and developed modules on how to use Google for research, how to edit audio and photos, how to conduct interviews via email, instant messaging and Skype, how to write for the web, and we extended the training to other companies on how to use social media, how to monitor your brand online and engage with your online constituents, how to fight negative feedback online or react to an incriminating video, how to do effective media relations and crisis communications in the online world.

We are still surprised that many companies, even public-listed companies still don’t get it. They put up walls and lock off YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, photo sites and blogs. But how will they firewall this – the mobilephone? These companies fail everyday to tap a golden resource – the very youths we spoke of in Iran, India, in Kenya and in small ways here in Malaysia.

5. MALAYSIA: CITIZEN JOURNALISM: My last story is about Malaysiakini, the independent news site that hits a milestone in its tenth year in Malaysia in November. Malaysiakini has been profitable for the last four years. Its pageviews on some days exceed that of The Star Online. It has successfully built a subscription model that works, and even advertisers that were previously terrified to advertise have come in.

Malaysiakini started an interesting project last year to train citizen journalists – people who were keen on reporting on the news they were witnessing. The course is short and intensive and covers all the tools to equip Malaysians with the know-how to be responsible citizen journalists.

These CJs submit videos every week and some are picked up and published by Malaysiakini.com. I would like to show you one example done by Jimmy Leow in Penang, of an uncompleted highway in Balik Pulau and the danger it poses.Remember this is done by someone who only recently learnt about scripting, handling videocams,, editing and putting a whole package together for a news site. Shortly after the video was posted, the agency responsible for the project re-started it.

Here in summary are what I hope you takeaway from these stories.
1. Everyone is the media.
2. We are no longer passive consumers, we are ACTIVE participants, creators, producers and organizers.
3. This change is fundamental, permanent and messy.
Live with it.

Slides and video: on Slideshare. A shortened version of this presentation was made at GoMobile Conference 2009 on Oct 20, 2009.

The fun theory

As media trainers, we try to make our workshops fun for our participants. When you have fun learning something new, the higher the probability the learning will be remembered and internalized.

I like the ideas at thefuntheory.com, an initiative of Volkswagen.

How do you get more people to use the staircase instead of the escalator? Turn it into a giant piano of course:

The other idea, posted so far, makes throwing rubbish more fun, with some sensors and sound effects:

Cool.

How to apologize

In crisis communications, we tell our clients that if they have to apologize – do it quickly and sincerely and suggest specifically the remedial action you will take.

This advice, however, gets lost when a crisis hits. The human thing to do is take things personally, get caught up with heated emotions, be in denial, try to deflect and play the blame game.

When the sh*t hits the fan, we have heard CEOs and public figures explode and wonder how such “terrible things” could happen on their watch.

David Letterman seemed calm and was his usual deprecating self when he told his audience his “little story” of “terrible things” on Oct 2, 2009.

He claimed he was the victim of an alleged US$2m extortion bid by someone, later named to be Robert ‘Joe’ Halderman, an Emmy-winning producer of CBS’ 48 Hours Mystery.

Apparently Halderman was going to write a screenplay and a book exposing him for “creepy stuff” he did. Dave then told the audience this: “And the creepy stuff was that I have had sex with women who work for me on this show. Now, my response to that is -’Yes, I have.’ ” That statement was met with laughter and applause.

He then went on to say: “I have had sex with women who work on this show. And would it be embarrassing if it were made public? Perhaps it would. Perhaps it would. Especially for the women.” Again more laughter and applause.

Halderman was arrested after allegedly trying to cash a fake cheque made out to him and has since pleaded not guilty to the charges.

On Oct 5, Dave continued to use the show, now with an obvious rise in ratings, to paint himself as “the victim” and try to deflect the odd confession he made:

As I suggested in a previous post, by talking about his previous indiscretions, Letterman immediately made every woman in his employ, currently and previously, fair game for the media.

His disclosure definitely warranted the apology to his staff and his “horribly hurt” wife.

But here’s the blunder in the statement that comes at 1:00 into the vid: “I’m not having sex with these women – those episodes are in the past.”

Sorry, Dave, that sounds like a flip-flop to me. You are sorry for mentioning the “creepy stuff” but you are not sorry for doing it, and now even deny having done anything wrong.

Letterman seems to suggest this: “Having sex with interns, subordinates and women who rely on you for their pay cheques, bonuses, raises and positions, is okay, as long as it was a LONG TIME ago, and no one complained about it publicly.” To underline it, he says at the tail-end that “I still feel I did the right thing.”

To me, that just seems like a 62-year-old man trying to wiggle out of past indiscretions, without being accountable for his actions. Shades of Roman Polanski and Bill Clinton come to mind.

CBS’ rules and guidelines on the conduct of its employees TMZ.com points out may not apply to Letterman because he isn’t in their employ. He merely heads Worldwide Pants Inc, the production company which produces the show for CBS, and also The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson and previously, Everyone Loves Raymond.

I think as apologies go, Letterman comes across as sincere and genuine. But by repeating his indiscretions on camera, he’s digging a deeper and deeper grave on his image.

By throwing wisecracks such as “This is only phase one of the scandal. Phase two: Next week I go on ‘Oprah’ and sob”, Letterman seems to be capitalizing on the scandal. He continues to feed the flames, daring the media to find out more, while profiting from the revelations with a higher ratings boost.

Wrong move, Dave. You need to suspend the show, take a vacation, save your marriage, and stop speaking out in any platform for awhile.

Here’s Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz’s take on the unfolding crisis:

Top 10 reasons why David Letterman will be fired


“Dave this is creepy stuff, even for me.”

As a fan of David Letterman, I enjoy his brand of humour, his intelligence and interviewing skills.

But I fear the crisis he is now mired in, and the strategy with which he has chosen to address it, will likely end his career.

Here are the facts so far:
On his show on Thursday, Oct 1, Letterman said he was the victim of a US$2 million blackmail attempt over charges of sexual affairs with staff members, claims that he conceded were true. The alleged perpetrator, later revealed to be CBS producer Robert Halderman, was arrested in a sting. Letterman said he testified to the affairs in front of a grand jury.

In any crisis, a quick and truthful admission of guilt is sometimes the best and only solution. All the better to make the revelation when you have all the facts in hand and are willing to acknowledge and accept your mistakes, and then apologize to the aggrieved and suggest your remedial action.

If any public figure or CEO of a company were to make the revelation that he had slept with members of his staff, for any reason, and despite it being consensual, the right thing to do is then to call a press conference, offer his suspension from duties and save the company and stakeholders at large further embarrassment, until the crisis was over.

But by using the show, instead of press conference, to candidly admit the “terrible things” and “creepy stuff” he did, Letterman has opened himself to being ridiculed for hypocrisy and attempting to bump up ratings, and, therefore, profit from this unfolding fiasco.

During the show, Letterman said “Would it be embarrassing if it were made public? Perhaps it would – especially for the women.” “I feel like I need to protect these people — I need to certainly protect my family.”

Although he seemed genuine, Letterman was certainly mistaken that “these people” were his first concern. If anything, Letterman’s only concern was for himself. Otherwise, he would have suspended the show and taken a leave of absence and mitigated an already bad situation.

All the women still in his employ are now fair game. The media scrutiny and spotlight that Letterman has opened them to may likely destroy their careers.

As the crisis unfolds – with more salacious revelations coming forth – the public and his many celebrity guests will likely be divided on this issue but the fact remains Letterman may never be viewed the same way again.

The backlash to CBS, as long as Letterman remains on air, will be devastating. Which leads us to the sad, and inevitable countdown.

Top 10 reasons why David Letterman will be fired:

10.Halderman will counter sue, allege harassment from Dave and say the extortion story was a cover-up.
9. Halderman’s surrogates will leak copies of Dave’s ‘terrible things’ to TMZ.com
8. One or more women, currently or formerly from CBS, will sue CBS, Letterman and his production company.
7. Right-wingers that haven’t forgiven Dave for his Sarah Palin put-downs will likely organize advertiser boycotts and post high moral ground, holier-than-thou op-eds screaming ‘hypocrisy’.
6. More workplace harassment and sexual trysts allegations at CBS, NBC, ABC and various cable stations will continue to feed the media frenzy for months to come.
5. Several planted guests will attack Dave with lemon meringue pies.
4. A sex tape of Dave and several interns in the Green Room will emerge.
3. Celebrity guest Madonna or Drew Barrymore will offer to have sex with Dave on air and he will oblige.

2. Dave will break down in front of his mum on air and confess to being a “bad boy”.
1. Dave will shave his head, don a kurta, convert to Hinduism, join an ashram and rename the show The Late Celibate Show.

Dealing with Internet rumours

Shout out to Neil Gibbons, editor of UK-based Communicate Magazine, for the use of my comments on countering Internet rumours in an article entitled, “Ugly rumours” in their most recent issue.

“In the digital age, a reputation that has taken years to build can be destroyed in seconds – by anyone,” says Julian Matthews of international media training consultancy Trinetizen. “Rumours can spread via the internet like wildfire. And what’s scary is that anyone can have an impact on your brand. An especially motivated, persistent and vindictive individual can be a nightmare.”

And later…

“Official tweeters on corporate Twitter accounts already help to manage the discussion of Zappos, Honda, Dell, Comcast and Southwest Airlines. “They do a great job addressing potential crises in real-time,” says Matthews.”

Some valid points brought up in the piece:
1. PERMANENT SECTION: Internet rumours spread quickly and can linger long after you have addressed it officially – if necessary, have a permanent section on your website addressing the issue.

2. TOUGH CALL: Lawyer Simon Smith, partner at Schillings, said: “If you don’t act it may be perceived as a tacit admission, if you do respond it can give credence to the rumour and validation to those spreading it. It is a difficult decision.”

3. MONITOR NOW: Watching should be a company’s first line of defence: it can only manage rumour if it knows what’s being said. “Every rumour that pops up should be considered a credible threat in the first instance,” says Peter Roberts, senior associate director of Hill & Knowlton Issues & Crisis.

4. PLAN YOUR TERMS OF ENGAGEMENT NOW: Paul Miller of media intelligence firm Cision says: “If it’s just low-level, respond to the user and ask for a retraction… if the rumour is being mentioned by top bloggers or the mainstream media, I’d advise putting something on the corporate website.”

5.ENGAGE CONSTITUENTS NOW: Certain brands are fortunate enough to have a loyal, sometimes evangelical, online following. By engaging with these advocates, a company can have much of its work done for it. A rebuttal from a loyal customer may carry more weight than a company spokesperson.

6. BE PRO-ACTIVE OR YOU MIGHT FAN THE FIRE: Roberts says: “The biggest pitfall is inflaming an issue. The risks will be things like perpetuating an issue that would otherwise have died away all on its own; and bringing legitimacy to the rumour by giving it your brand’s credibility in a response. The ideal approach is to be an active participant in online conversations, both listening and engaging. The better you know the environment in which you’re operating, the easier it is to manage, and the less likely it will be that an issue will take you by complete surprise.”

My complete reply to Mr Gibbons:

In our experience, as media trainers and consultants, we find many companies underestimate the damage an email, blog post, photo or video can do to their corporate reputations.

Some companies have crisis management plans tucked away in a drawer somewhere which have not been updated in three years or more.

These plans possibly do not include the crisis communications plan as a subset, nor do they incorporate responding via online communications as a crucial channel.

We have seen in the famous cases of Wendy’s (finger in bowl of chilli), Kryptonite (bike locks easily opened with ballpoint pens), Dell (exploding notebooks due to faulty lithium ion batteries) and Tommy Hilfiger (false racist statements attributed to the founder apparently said on the Oprah show) that speed is of the essence.

The fact is in the digital age, a reputation that has taken years to build can be destroyed in seconds — by anyone. Rumours of a corporate impropriety or an incriminating video of a faulty product can spread via the Internet like wildfire. It can cause serious damage to corporate reputations and substantially reduce shareholder value.

We always tell clients: “If it’s good news get it out fast, if it’s bad news get it out faster.” The caveat here is to have your facts in order when you decide to face the media or respond to the rumour. Most companies can’t react quickly enough. They feign ignorance of new media when outed, suggesting lack of resources or time.

In our training, we emphasize that companies have to get pro-active in their approach to online reputation management.

They have to employ online tracking tools and dashboards to track every mention of their brand, products and services in blogs, social networks, photo- and video-sharing sites and Twitter.

They must have a long term strategy in place to engage with “online constituents”. These may be your customers, prospects, partners, suppliers, stakeholders or whatever term you may want to use for the 1.5 billion people online.

What’s scary, and I can empathize with many corporations on this, is that anyone can have an impact on your brand.

An especially motivated, persistent and vindictive individual can be a nightmare.

With an online rumour, it’s a four-way problem: One, it is difficult to identify source. Two, you can’t tell how widespread it is. Three, if you choose to ignore, it may go viral later. Four, if you choose to fight it, it may attract even more negative attention than it deserves.

The worst rumours are those that are partly true. People are likelier to believe that where there is smoke, there is fire. An all-encompassing denial may seem insincere, fan the flames and amplify the rumour rather than kill it. In every case, it’s always better to stick to the truth.

My advice is if it is an email or blog post, go to the source and engage the person. If there are factual errors or inaccuracies, point it out as a representative of the company. If you are at fault, use the 4As method: accept, acknowledge, apologize and act. Whatever the rumour, do not take it personally, even if it is a personal attack!

You will find it is often the case that once the aggrieved person is officially acknowledged and a solution provided, he or she will likely be accepting of the remedial action. The person may be even blog positively about it, which is the ideal outcome.

On Twitter, you can see the official tweeters of companies in Zappos, Honda, Dell, Comcast and Southwest Airlines, do a great job addressing potential crises in real-time.

Rumours that are persistent and longterm need to be addressed with a consistently updated page, a blog, mini-site or a complete separate site.

The Coca-Cola Company has addressed persistent rumours on its Coca-Cola Facts and Myths section of its website. Barack Obama used FightTheSmears.com to tackle the many rumours during his presidential campaign. Lionel Menchaca, the chief blogger of Dell Inc, was the first to acknowledge the fiery notebook issue when it blew up on the net.

Corporations, who care about their reputations, need to test the waters. They need to start listening and engaging with people online, it’s a skill that can only be honed through trial and error. It requires learning a new language, less of the corporatespeak and legalese that bog down real communication.

They may begin with at least one channel, a blog, a Twitter account, or Facebook page, to encourage conversations, to listen and gauge what their constituents are saying. They have to start getting their feet wet soon before the swirling tide starts to rise around them.

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