How much confidence do you have in mainstream or mass media?
If you thought or said not much, you would join a growing group of Americans -- not just those who use Twitter and Facebook to share and get information. According to a recent Gallup poll, distrust in U.S. media edges up to record high. The survey consisted of telephone interviews conducted Sept. 13-16, 2010, with a random sample of 1,019 adults, aged 18 and older, living in the continental U.S., selected using random-digit-dial sampling.
Which is interesting, in view of another study by the Pew's Research Center Project for Excellence in Journalism. Among the findings of the 100 days of media coverage of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, Pew found that the public had a huge appetite for news -- exceeding the level of coverage by mainstream media.
That gap in interest was partly bridged by social media. However, according to the study, the spill story generated considerably less attention in social media, on blogs, Twitter and You Tube. Among blogs, for example, it made the roster of top stories five times in 14 weeks. But during those weeks one theme resonated—skepticism toward almost all the principals in the story.
For a source of information to be credible, a couple of things need to happen. First, it needs to report on facts, not opinion alone. In PR circles, we refer to those as third party facts. Of course, when you have subject matter expertise, you have license to extrapolate and make sense of the data.
And so you should. There is also a responsibility on the part of the public to not just absorb the information passively. Especially if you are creating content, you should do your homework, look to diverse sources. A greater share of voice comes with greater accountability.
Honestly, do you believe that mass media does a good job at selecting unbiased third parties? Do you think that pundits who want to show their expertise by capitalizing on a mainstream story exist only in social networks?
There is much conversation and advice online about companies communicating with customers directly. There are both risks and opportunities with going direct.The most glaring risk is that the organization (or even third party) experts are seen as biased.
However, we are forgetting that PR doesn't equal press release or publicity. It means public relations - relations with all publics. And a brand still needs to communicate its message. There are things organizations must do to communicate with stakeholders -- and not just shareholders.
One important aspect of communications is community relations, for example. In case of a crisis, like a spill, as in the Pew study, organizations should bridge the gap between mass media and the public. If you're a PR professional you know that mainstream media's role is not to be your friend. In cases as complex as a disaster that involves so many organizations, and not just the company, it's easy to miss that.
Attention and permission
Mass media's role is to get eyeballs and ears. They are facing stiff competition from other networks and outlets -- especially online. Their point of view is going to be very sharp to break through with a story, day in and day out.
Look at the Gallup data, and at the Pew's findings linked here. The public knows that something is amiss, wants to learn more -- so it is paying attention. This is not just people in social networks. Organizations that clamp up or work behind the scenes in a crisis miss a big opportunity. Yes, it needs to respond to bad reports and misinformation.
That's a big one that is often overlooked. In the case of the spill, because a Unified Command was handling all communications on the onset, the response was collaborative. Working with agencies and responders is one of the best practices in case of crisis.
With new media there is also an additional opportunity -- that of having permission to provide direct communications to the public. One mistake many organizations make is to overlook this one aspect of public relations.
Just like in other areas of the business, how and what are as important as why. Organizations that are serious about earning that permission, should:
- communicate directly with the public beyond canned statements -- in the case of the spill, people did go directly to the Deepwater Horizon site launched by the Unified Command. The site had approximately 155 million hits, defined as people pulling information off the site, with an average per day peak of 3 million. The data transfer was approximately 8TB (8 million MB or equivalent of 2000+ feature length DVDs). [Source: O'Brien's Webinar]
- show them, don't tell only -- the live video feed had 3,600 simultaneous viewers when video first launched on PIER servers 300 MB per second. Then was moved to Akamai (unknown viewers) 38 TB in 24 hours (June 9) 850TB to June 9 with 1 million unique live video viewers [Source: O'Brien's Webinar]
- share information on your Web site and outposts -- between April 20 - September 30 the Deepwater Horizon site received 68,000 inquiries, responded to 65,000 and received 5 million unique visitors. The mail List grew to 60,000 and the email distribution to approximately 200,000 per day (180+ days) for a total of 30+m distributions. [Source: O'Brien's Webinar]
- put a robust monitoring and response system in place -- it's not enough to just listen, you need to be able to track issues and respond quickly. In the case of the spill, there was a high expectation of response by the public. Most was managed virtually with “Answers” used for efficient response and approved information. There were over 35 categories and email distributions by categories with an auto add to mailing list. Rumor management & sentiment analysis was built in the PIER system. Direct communication gave the opportunity for venting outrage. It also uncovered that almost 40% of the inquiries were “suggestions” and approximately 10% were negative or abusive. [Source: O'Brien's Webinar]
- respond to bad reports and correct misinformation -- do that with the media and also directly, especially if you are not getting your side of the story told by the media.
- be prepared for the role culture will play in the news cycle -- this is often overlooked by organizations. Think about responding more than reacting.
If you write about crisis and news items, remember it's not about you. In fact, if you do hope to gain credibility as a source or to have a voice in the matter, you need to give the organization a fair hearing and do some homework. Basing opinions on what is reported in mass media, or what you think you know, doesn't cut it anymore.
Culture clubIt's not just about the new media fishbowl. We will address the other side of this conversation in another post.
Consider that communications now live in a global environment, while your organization may be a multinational -- a company that has many locations around the world, however it has not learned to speak the cultural language of the country where the crisis or issue is being discussed.
For example, a Japanese company with a U.S. issue -- Toyota. An engineering-driven British company with a U.S. crisis -- BP. Or, just as likely, a U.S. based organization that operates abroad -- how many issues are taking place in China that the U.S. mass media cycle doesn't cover?
Think locally, leverage technology to your advantage to enable your team of communicators and PR support to be on the same page, act globally, and be prepared to go direct -- with permission and impeccable execution.