I’m relieved to know that I’m not the only one who has a rare case of “I have no effin’ clue what to blog about today,” but as I was about to give up for the night and roll through the rest of the editing shift tonight on autopilot, I noticed an odd theme that I haven’t seen anyone else pick up on yet in some of the bigger discussion items of the last couple of days: public relations. There have been some examples of handling potential PR crisis excellently, and examples of handling it in a way that can lead to the dreaded ‘user revolt.’ What I’m seeing is that there is no one size fits all course of action.
Let’s back the train up to where the germ of this idea started forming, though. Earlier this evening, Steven Hodson posed the rather pointed question: “can ‘real’ journalism rise from the ashes?” In the piece, he talks about something I’ve mentioned many times: Old Media is broken. Too much of the editorial agenda is driven by business, as opposed to actual social factors as is intended by the philosophical intent for the ‘fourth estate.’ As such, it seems inevitable that the real role of news and editorial responsibility will fall on the shoulders of we, the New Media, and the mechanisms for socially driven news that are evolving from the culture and tools around us. From Steven’s post today:
Journalists are facing both a scary time in their profession as well as a time that is full of promise. This is a time when news can once again become something we can place our trust in rather than constantly question the motives behind who is bringing it to us.
To expound on that concept a bit, before we move on, I’d like to emphasize the nature of New Media and why I think it makes an inherently safer medium to place one’s trust in rather than what has obviously come to be regarded as the broken Old Media. The big faux pas often referred to from Old Media have catchy names, and stick in our minds: Rathergate, the Halperin Memo, and The Fox News Channel.
All of these foibles have far reaching effects in American culture because they originated from monolithic news organizations. CBS, once the apparent bastion of trustworthy news was brought down because Rather and his fact-finding team would rather have a juicy story that fit their worldview than make sure all the evidence they used was, you know, real. Mark Halperin had the same issue in his news room when he issued a memo essentially ordering political correspondents to be ‘more critical’ of the President, since he obviously deserved it. Fox News has a reputation for being a Republican sympathetic organization, but most conservatives I know these days can’t stand it either due to their propensity to spend months on insignificant stories because they want to grab some of the ratings usually reserved for TMZ.
None of those foibles would really register on our radar if they originated from a New Media organization. If I were to accuse Revision 3 of being a haven for liberal reporting (to completely fabricate an allegation for the purposes of illustration), it wouldn’t matter, since there are literally hundreds of video podcasters to step up and take their place if their reputation falters too far from good. Not so with the Old Media networks. We’re still stuck with CBS, ABC and Fox.
Three PR Incidents
I digress, though, since my point is made regarding how New Media rules and Old Media drools. Let’s explore how companies should react to potential PR disasters in the New Media. Take the perfect example of the averted Digg revolt from late last night. The company was, by Jay Adelson and Kevin Rose’s own admission, screwing up by not having consistent open lines of communication with their users for an extended period of time. Rather than let the problem fester and turn into a full-on revolt, Jay and Kevin exhibited the awareness and presence of mind to track down where the conversation was happening and join in to resolve the issue. The whole thing went from spark of irritation to mobilized action to full resolution in a matter of hours.
Contrast that with a potential PR crisis brewing for retail company Target over a perhaps somewhat offensive image they’ve used in a recent advertising campaign. The Consumerist today made a pretty decent set of points. The image in question is to the right, so feel free to make your own judgment calls on whether it’s offensive, but Amy from ShapingYouth.org thought it might be, so she contacted Target to see if they realized that their ad had a girl’s nether-regions centered on a bulls-eye. The Consumerist published Target’s burn of a response today:
“Good Morning Amy,
Thank you for contacting Target; unfortunately we are unable to respond to your inquiry because Target does not participate with non-traditional media outlets. This practice is in place to allow us to focus on publications that reach our core guest.
Once again thank you for your interest, and have a nice day.”
Probably not the best choice of words, as it now gives Amy, the Consumerist, and now me something to chat about for our collective millions of readers.
And then, as if we didn’t have enough examples to evaluate, we have the case of the “International Delete Your MySpace Account Day,” which is a story that has grown to what can only be described as Spartacan proportions. I covered the story literally on a lark, and it gave me a moment to riff non-committal on the usefulness I got out of my MySpace account as opposed to my other social media presences. I took a look this evening, and to my surprise the story has almost as many comments and trackbacks as when I referred to Obama as “B. Hussein Obama,” and this time they’re not all angry liberals.
I did a little bit of digging, and apparently most of the press coverage seems to have come as a result of MySpace issuing an official statement in response to the blogger in the press, saying: “This Delete-Your-MySpace day is just about being controversial. MySpace is still the biggest social networking site in the world.” While even Mashable’s Sean P. Aune expressed his own doubts today, asking if the blogosphere is being gamed, Simon assured us that wasn’t his intent.
Let’s Play ‘What Did We Learn Today?’
But the examples are out there, and we can assume that even for non-tech companies, the incidents are going to occur with increasing regularity. What is really going to separate the men from the boys, so to speak, is how companies react, and how engaged the brains company of spokespersons are when it comes to filtering what is a potential incident, and what is simply link-bait.
I think we can all agree that Target has an intensely stupid position. While the issue may be minor, it still warrants comment, or at least a “we’ll get back to you,” not a “you’re a second class journalist, and we don’t take kindly to your type around here” response. That combative attitude is exactly what will take a small faux pas and turn it into a story.
Similarly, MySpace should have either taken the tactic of completely ignoring the issue if they’re unwilling to actually address the underlying problems (since, as they said, they’re of a size where it might not really matter that much), or come out, as Jay and Kevin did, and address it with a conversational attitude with the leaders of the upset user base.
As with the Digg situation, though, MySpace must be willing to back up their words with actions. Jay and Kevin at the end of the Drill Down podcast made a commitment to fully investigate all complaints and remedy the communications gap between the userbase and the management. If MySpace isn’t willing to act similarly, perhaps the less said is the better (a strategy that will only work for so long, by the way).
They are all interesting case studies for those of us who aren’t faced with the same at our companies, and certainly issues that all of us (myself included) can take lessons from.