SHOOT FIRST, FORGET THE QUESTIONS

Would Jennifer Aniston be the ultimate girlfriend? Was Led Zeppelin the best live band ever?  Is Jeremy Clarkson funny? The answers to these questions are, of course, highly subjective and likely to cause debate.  Just like journalism.

A journalist’s copy is usually fact-checked and verified, sometimes by a lawyer, but that won’t make the story objective.  The communications department has long been comfortable with this arrangement, understanding the rules and working within them.  In fact a good press officer can often turn a journalist’s subjectivity to their benefit.

But the growing army of citizen journalists – bloggers, facebookers and tweeters – seldom apply the same levels of validation and veracity to their news and views.  This, together with the speed at which a digital story can circumnavigate the world, gathering pace and readers as it crosses time zones, is creating new challenges for any comms department more familiar with managing ‘mainstream’ media.

When news of Whitney Houston’s untimely death broke recently, some celebrated the fact that the story broke on Twitter 27 minutes before any mainstream media outlet.  It wasn’t that the Twitterverse was more awake or more aware.  The mainstream press have processes to follow before announcing the death of a personality.  The Associated Press couldn’t publish until the story was validated – 27 minutes later – by Houston’s publicist.  Bloggers and Twitterers seldom trouble the comms dept before posting a view, informed or otherwise.

Kony 2012 is a powerful piece of film making from an organisation called invisiblechildren.com. It has already enjoyed over 100 million views on Youtube and Vimeo in less than a week, making it the most viral video of all time. Now, the accuracy of some of the film’s content is being challenged.  But perception is reality with a time lag and many of the film’s viewers won’t get to see or consider those subsequent objections.

And just this weekend, many of us were waiting for news of the wellbeing of Fabrice Muamba, the 23 year old premiership footballer rushed to hospital after collapsing on the field of play. The mainstream media stayed with the story but provided no substantial updates until a formal statement was released by the hospital.  Long before the hospital statement, we learned via Twitter that Muamba was ‘stable’. This was just the news the country wanted to hear and it spread across cyberspace with enthusiasm.  Except it wasn’t true.  Muamba was, and remains at the time of writing, in a critical condition fighting for his life.

And my point is?  Well, the rules of the comms game changed some time ago but there are still people in the comms department who don’t accept this yet. “There has always been gossip and tittle tattle,” they say.  “This will pass.”  I’m not so sure.

And worryingly, Journalists are becoming increasingly vexed when consistently beaten to the tape by ‘amateurs’ and many would prefer shortcuts to the checks and balances that handicap them in the race.

If I was an investor, the first question I would ask of the CEO is whether the company has a social media strategy and team.  If the answer is ‘Yes’, I’d ask who around the board table has accountability for it.  If the answer is IT or customer service (which is more frequent than many believe), I’d ask the CEO to imagine a scenario where their brand could come seriously unstuck from a single tweet with only a loose familiarity with the truth.  If they couldn’t imagine such a scenario, I’d sell the shares.  Why?

Because things go wrong.  Because disgruntled former employees, misguided but aggressive competitors and Internet trolls have fervent imaginations and they can spell trouble in less than 140 characters.

That, of course is a subjective answer.  But who isn’t subjective when the topic is money?

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