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Social Media and Changing News Landscape

Social media is transforming public relations from top-down process to a two-way street. And social media is also transforming journalism. Social media has forever altered how news is reported and broken. Journalists are no longer restricted to solely interacting with public relations professionals for access to stories and information. The relationship between public relations professionals and journalists has changed. Public relations professionals need to be aware of this changed relationship. We no longer have the journalist’s ear. Thanks to social media, journalists have the opportunity to connect with stories and sources quicker and frankly easier with a Google or hashtag search than going to an organization’s public relations department. Often bypassing the PR function of an organization all-together. Add in citizen journalist as another dimension to media.

The speed at which news is broken has been accelerated. We no longer live in the 24-hour/7-day news cycle created by cable news networks in the 1980s; today social media has accelerated the news cycle. The news is now more than ever. In his autobiography A Journey: My Political Life, former Prime Minister Tony Blair talks about an incident on the campaign trail in 2001, when his Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott punched a protester after someone threw an egg at him from close range. Blair comments that they had until the next press briefing to strategize how they were going to approach this damaging situation. Those 24 hours were golden. If that incident happened today, someone would film the incident with a mobile phone and upload it to YouTube within 30 seconds, then share it via Twitter or Facebook in 60 seconds. Gone are the days of having until the next media briefing to deal with a situation.

Social media has changed the news-gathering landscape. There are now citizen journalists “reporting” news as it is breaking in many cases replacing traditional news organizations as the first source of the story. Thanks to YouTube, we are now able to see and understand what is happening around the world like never before, and viewers and news organizations alike are eating it up. Amy Mitchell, director of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ), explains, “There’s a new form of video journalism on [YouTube]. It’s a form in which the relationship between news organizations and citizens is more dynamic and more multiverse than we’ve seen in most other platforms before.”12

YouTube has launched the channel CitizenTube to keep track of what’s happening in YouTube News and Politics. In addition, CNN’s citizen journalism initiative, iReport, has grown to epic proportions, with over 1 million iReporters around the globe submitting stories. YouTube videos have become commonplace on broadcast news reports.

With each major event that occurs around the globe, the number of YouTube videos uploaded by those who were there grows, and the power of the online video site becomes more apparent.

Everyone has an entry into the public sphere either through Twitter or Facebook or other digital means. Organizations can no longer manage their reputations solely through traditional mainstream media. While placement in mainstream media such as The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, CNN, or BBC is still important, non-traditional media outlets such as The Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, Slate, and The Atlantic are equally important. The venerated American weekly, Newsweek, discontinued their print version and will be an online only publication. The traditional media does not own the news today, says Richard Sambrook, professor of journalism and director of the Centre for Journalism at Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University and former BBC director of news.13 Traditional media isn’t the gatekeeper it once was. While it can facilitate, verify, and/or host discussions around news, traditional media is no longer the arbitrator of news it once was. Sambrook says that the era of the news media saying to the public “If you want to know what is happening in the world, then you must sit down at 6 o’clock and listen to what we think you need to know” is gone forever.

Despite the fact that the news media is no longer in the driver’s seat, social media has been positive for journalism. It allows for more access to sources and information. Journalists have always interviewed and used eyewitness accounts to tell stories. Social media has greatly expanded the opportunities to connect with sources. In many ways, social media allows the media to bypass organizational public relations. The media is no longer reliant on press briefings and on organizations providing them with vetting individuals.

Social media has made it easier to seek out sources and content experts and to cast a wider net for witnesses. Chris Hamilton, BBC News social media editor, shares that in 2000, people would come to BBC News regarding stories via the website.14

Now, with social media, BBC News can go out and identify people who tweeted or published videos, photos, or eyewitness accounts. Social media makes it easier to track down sources. It has lowered the barrier of publication. Before social media, news organizations were dependent on either having a photographer on site or an agency providing the photo or video. While using “amateur” content was once looked down upon, it has become more acceptable in recent times. Think about the 2009 elections in Iran. Most global news organizations were banned from broadcasting out of Iran during that time. Those organizations couldn’t rely on their own staff to get the stories. In the past, news organizations would have had to resort to using agencies or local journalists, which might provide them with only a narrow view of the situation. According to Hamilton, social media has given news organizations the ability to tell a wider story more quickly. For example, says Hamilton, it took two weeks for news to be shared from the Crimean War in the 1850s, and now a bomb blast in Kabul is publicized within minutes.

Hamilton says that whole stories can be harvested directly from social media, based on trending topics and what people are saying on the various platforms.

But, he says, there is a danger to basing stories solely on social media. The attitude still exists that if it is typed up on the Internet, then it must be true. He says that, in theory, social media gives journalists a much wider news-gathering capability, but we may not be getting the full picture. People on all sides of a conflict or situation are using social media to get their views out. And there could be biases at play. While this isn’t new—biases have always been out there—due to the speed of social media, the vetting process is often either shortened or circumvented. Verifying content is a massive issue facing news organizations today. Before social media, checks and balances would have been used to verify stories before they were reported to the public. Today, content is bypassing traditional media and entering the public sphere without those pre-checks. It is being openly discussed and analyzed in real-time.

The BBC, like most other large news organizations, has ways to authenticate content. The BBC uses a detailed checklist. As a global news organization, it can pull in experts from within the organization to assist with the authentication process. They review previous history of a poster of a video on YouTube, for example. The BBC’s experts evaluate how the video compares with other sources. Details matter, such as the vehicle license plates, weather forecasts, clothing, languages of the speakers, and so on. The experts look at the quality of the sound and editing of the video. They seek out the creator/poster to question them. The verification process takes time and resources.

News organizations must determine how much to report on any given content. The fact that people are talking about posted content and are sharing it makes it part of the story. The race to break news first has led many news organizations to be conflicted. Consider, for example, the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011. The Internet was alight with this news story. Recall from Chapter 2 that on Twitter, there were 306,000 tweets per minute during U.S. President Barack Obama’s speech, announcing the death of Osama bin Laden. News organizations ran a graphic photograph of Osama bin Laden that surfaced just after his death. Many quickly pointed out that the photo was a fake, woven together from other photographs widely circulated on the Internet previously. Those who ran the photo qualified it with the statement that they didn’t know if the photograph was real, but it made it into the news story, which gave it weight. If a news organization runs an unverified photograph or video, it gives the content weight that it may not deserve.

Hamilton’s take on this conflict is that his role—and the role of everyone else at BBC News—is to find and report the truth in an impartial way. Being committed to impartial reporting has become more important with the lower barrier of publication created from YouTube, blogs, and other platforms.

When I talk about traditional media, I’m talking about media used before the Internet, such as newspapers, magazines, and radio and TV broadcasts. At one time, they were divisions with the media: Print was print, radio was radio, and TV was TV. There was rarely crossover between print and broadcast. Now those lines have been blurred due to the Internet and the advent of news organization websites. Journalists today have to be multimedia journalists. Not only do journalists have to know how to write but they need to know how to take compelling photographs and shoot and edit video. And the reverse is true of photojournalists. Digital media has allowed news organizations to blend disciplines to provide readers with a rich online experience. Traditional media has been transformed from, for example, just print newspapers, to an interactive website where video is incorporated into the story and discussion boards that allow readers to weigh in. Journalists having their own blogs within a news organization’s website, allowing for more in-depth analysis and discussion with readers. Radio and TV stations are streaming live content via their websites.

Social media is allowing news organizations to get news out faster. For example, when breaking news is happening, a newspaper can start publishing on its website instead of waiting to go to print on paper. During a disaster, the power of social media and websites becomes apparent. During Superstorm Sandy, which ravaged the mid-Atlantic states in the fall of 2012, social media was a driving force in getting the news out to the public. Many were without electricity and cable TV, but mobile networks were still working. Journalists (as well as their citizen counterparts) were getting news out to the public via Twitter and Facebook. With production and distribution routes disrupted, news websites became the sources of breaking news and important updates. News organizations tweeted news updates to drive users to their websites.

There is no such thing as just a “hometown” newspaper or station any more. With a website, any news outlet becomes a national or international one. And this is all searchable on the Internet. In addition, citizen journalism increases our ability to share news. Public relations professionals need to come to terms with this reality.

Richard Sambrook and Chris Hamilton agree that social media, despite challenges, is positive for news organizations. Like other types of organizations, new organizations are coming to terms with how they fit in the social media sphere. There will be missteps along the way. News organizations, like corporations, are still working out how to use social media tools.

The New Sense of Influence

Influence has always existed. People have always looked to others to get information, opinions, guidance, validation, and so on. This is nothing new. People have always sought to identify and cultivate relationships with those they believe are influential in order to advance themselves. Organizations behave the same way. They want to be connected with those who are beneficial to them in reaching their organizational objectives.

In social media terms, usually an influencer is someone who has a large following on a particular platform (usually Twitter), an early adopter of the medium, and/or a specialist in a field where people want to hear what they have to say. Influencers can play varied roles. Their influence can be positive, negative, or neutral. Influencers can be used to share information as an independent third party. They typically produce and share relevant content, appealing to the interests of a community, which can result in stimulating discussions and interactions that might sway behaviors. Danny Brown, co-author of Influence Marketing, drills down and takes it a step further. He believes a true influencer is someone who can make you have a physical reaction—someone who is able to change your mind and, with a call to action, get you to buy something or donate to a charity, for example.15 An influencer gets you take real measurable action. Brown likens it to shopping: You find an item that costs $5, but when you start talking with a salesperson or even another knowledgeable customer, you find out about the $100 option of the same product type. A retweet could be considered an impulse buy and may not be worth anything of value. An influencer will get you to forgo the $5 impulse buy and get you to purchase the $100 similar item because it is deemed better.

Most of the influence on social media isn’t real. The current models are based on numbers of followers, not the quality of relationships with followers. Influence is perceived. Studies are showing that high follower count doesn’t equate to high influence. Retweets and mentions measure the audience responsiveness to a user’s tweet and are used as metrics in measuring influence. People may have a million followers and be mentioned and retweeted widely, but this does not correlate strongly with having more influence. A user with a lower follower count may have more influence. It comes down to the value in the information and interactions that person brings.

Those with large follower counts most likely are not making people change their habits or take action. That said, social media influencers can create a lot of noise, and the noise is amplified. Social media influence becomes real when it crosses platforms and channels. The lyric “But when the wrong word goes in the right ear” from the song “One Thing Leads to Another” by the The Fixx comes to mind.

When Southwest Airlines removed American filmmaker Kevin Smith from a flight because of his weight in 2010, his complaint online spread quickly because of his more than 1.5 million Twitter followers at the time. Mainstream media outlets picked up the story. Having a large follower count played a huge role in the situation; however, I think what made the situation expand to different channels is that it struck a nerve in many. Why? It was an outrageous experience of a person who represents the two-thirds of the U.S. population that is considered overweight or obese. It resonated, and it caused community outrage.

Community Outrage

Outrage is outrage, regardless of where it starts. It could start online or offline and then move to social media and spread. It doesn’t matter. It is real either way. There is a human being behind that angry tweet, Facebook post, or blog comment, says Dr. Peter Sandman, who is an author, a risk management consultant, and an outrage expert.16 We talk more about outrage in Chapter 6.

Social media is a perfect tool for outrage exasperation. It is a better tool than any other channels for spreading outrage. People are more linked. The cost of access is very low. Before social media, people who were angry at an organization or a situation had limited options. They could just shrug it off and throw up their hands. They could tell their friends about their experience. They could conduct a one-onone battle with the organization via letters or phone calls. Or they could try to get people outside their sphere of influence interested by writing a letter to the editor that might or might not be printed. There was really no way of knowing who agreed with these people or of connecting with these outraged folks, even if they lived in the same location. It was very difficult to start a movement.

Social media isn’t a level playing field when it comes to outrage. It favors those who want to spread outrage, not those trying to mitigate it. According to Sandman, we’ve created an institution that makes it easier to spread the outrage than to suppress it. It doesn’t matter if the outrage is justified; that’s irrelevant. Organizations must deal with outrage immediately. Before social media, it was hard for outraged people to organize, and it was easy for organizations to ignore them. Social media has changed that. Organizations are slowly getting more sensitive to outrage and are putting a higher priority on dealing with it. Social media is teaching organizations to take outrage seriously. Social media is giving activists a powerful channel to express themselves.


Activists are good at nurturing and mobilizing the public’s fear around a situation. They excel at creating and spreading outrage. Outrage is based on emotions, not on facts. And activists are good at garnering media attention for their cause. The media tends to focus more attention on emotion than on the technical aspects or facts of a situation.

Before social media, people had very few tools to help them organize. Organizing was difficult, and it was localized. Word got out through literal word of mouth and printed pieces such as posters and letters. Activists would send letters to the editor or pitch stories to journalists, with no guarantee that they would be picked up. There was very little interaction among groups. Social media has allowed people to organize more easily. Activists now have a channel for spreading their message and creating outrage about a situation. Recall the example from the Introduction of the Arctic Ready campaign. (This example and others are discussed in more depth in Chapter 5.)

The Internet as a Virus

The Internet has been described as a “virus” to organizations. The Internet and social media are contagious. Information on the Internet and social media can spread quickly. It spreads regardless of whether it is the right or wrong information. The playing field isn’t level but is tilted toward people rather than organizations. And once a digital footprint is made, it never truly disappears.

The arrows for the flow of communications were once linear, pointing only between public relations departments and the media. The arrows are now curved, creating a circle among public relati ons, journalists, and the public.

Organizations need to be very aware of their environment and their digital footprint. Organizations need to listen to conversations. They need to be willing to join in those conversations. Social media gives us the ability to share our voice publicly and anonymously. Social media circumvents the traditional gatekeepers of information—the news media and public relations—and it opens up a new channel of communications that doesn’t have filters or rules.

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