Citizen Journalism

A couple of months back I was approached by Dawn Leader, a student at Leeds University in the U.K., to answer some questions on citizen journalism for her dissertation.

Initially, I was pretty wary about the fact that, to an extent, my answers could directly affect Dawn’s dissertation mark and, therefore her degree and employment prospects. That was a two-foot wall  and once I got over it I was happy to help out.

Seeing as I’m a little short on time/inspiration, here are her questions, and my answers:

Dawn Leader: Do you think that the advent of Citizen Journalism has lead to a loss of control for PR practitioners?

Ed Lee: I think that PR practitioners are deluding themselves if they think they had “control”. PR is an inherently disintermediated industry where there is a lot of massaging of messages which are, ultimately, put into the hands of an impartial third party to spread that message. Sure there is a lot of control at the start of the process in terms of messaging, but by the time that message gets to the consumer, either through word of mouth or directly through the media, it has changed beyond all recognition.

Q: How much importance do you place on social media  (web-logs, RSS, social networking, citizen journalism) being a useful tool for communicating, when compared to traditional media?

A: From where I’m sitting, it’s obvious that the tools of social media are less important than the philosophy that they are built on – namely honesty, openness, transparency and the importance of doing something “remarkable”. An organization could adopt all the tools of social media but if it doesn’t act with those four principles in mind, it will be doomed to failure; especially when compared to a company that spurns social media tactics in favour of those four principles.

In terms of tactical execution, social media are *just* another communications channel for organizations to reach their stakeholders and should be considered complementary to the traditional public relations channels.

Q: Do you think the rise of social media/citizen journalism has influenced the way companies are communicating with their publics?

A: Social media is yet to affect the sort of change within organizations that the zealots would have you believe. But, more and more organizations are coming to terms with the fact that there is a giant throng of conversations going on, and, good or bad, that some of those conversations are about them. For marketers and PRs alike, social media provides additional channels to reach their publics but it’s up to the organization to experiment with the best to reach their audiences. Social media may or may not be the best way to reach your publics, depending on who they are, but it is another way.

Q: Do you think the use of social media tools has improved communications between PR organisation’s and their publics?

A: That’s a tough question. Social media is in such a nascent stage that it is impossible to say for sure. Social media has the potential to improve the level of dialogue between an organization and its publics but for every Direct2Dell type break-through, there is a Target-style break-down. Direct2Dell’s IdeaStorm initiative led to Dell machines being shipped with Linux while Target recently announced it did not respond to non-traditional media requests.

I can certainly say that social media is stretching PRs (both in-house and agency) to the limits of their resources as they realise that everyone could be a media outlet and look to determine where they should direct their efforts.

Q: Do you think that the prevalence of two-way communication has allowed for more transparency between PR organisations and the public?

A: The “public” still doesn’t really understand what public relations is and when they do have some sort of contact with PR, it’s either the media’s distorted view of PR or through some god-awful shill publicist like Max bloody Clifford. However, the amount of PR people who are blogging with transparency about a much maligned function will, hopefully, lead to a greater level understanding of what real PR is. And real PR in my mind is about dialogue and conversation rather than manipulation and spinning. (Even though that was one of the things that sucked me into the business after watching and reading the Michael Dobbs House of Cards trilogy)

Q: To what extent do you think consumers are influenced by what they see or read on social media sites?

A: Again, it’s hard to say. You look at an innovative initiative like Facebook’s beacon and the way people were not happy about it but then you read Edelman’s trust barometer and the number one most trusted thing is “people like me”. Social media will certainly offer the opportunity to connect with more “people like you” and it’s certainly allowing influencers to self-identify and create their own brands outside of the mainstream media but are consumers any more influenced by social media than traditional media? Who knows. One thing I will say is that social media, and blogs in particular, show up higher and higher in search engines which can only increase their influence.

Q: How reliable (trustworthy) do you find the information found on social media sites and blogs?

A: I think trustworthiness and reliability depend on the source, rather than the medium. Clearly, some “top ranked” blogs pride themselves on providing a high level of accuracy, while some are more concerned with breaking stories and not so concerned with accuracy. However, the beauty of the medium and the social media movement in general is that the cream will find its way to the top so if your blog/Web site consistently carries inaccurate and/or out of date information, then it is unlikely to gain in popularity and readership.

Q: Do you think having a public facing blog allows a company to develop a stronger relationship with its customers?

A: Absolutely! Social media has allowed for a complete 360 degree conversation to happen between an organization and its customers. With a blog, an organization can start conversations that are important to its mission and, even more importantly, get immediate feedback from its customers. If the social media ecosphere is like a giant conversation, organizations can harness this critical mass to access a customer research group of millions of potential customers.

However, this can only be achieved if the organization embraces honesty, openness, transparency and the importance of doing something “remarkable”.

Q: To what extent do you think blogging, citizen journalism and social media activities can effect the reputation of companies?

A: You only need reference the Kryptonite bike-lock crisis and Jeff Jarvis‘s “dell hell” experience to see how this new medium affects an organization’s reputation. Blogs are essentially built for search engine optimization which means that a negative blog posting, that criticises an organisation, can appear above the organization’s own Web site. Considering search is the average user’s portal to the Internet (21% of users have a search engine as their home page), this can be very scary to organizations and to the communicators/marketers within it.


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