I had a colleague who used to challenge every reporter that he felt was off base with the question, “What is it, a slow news day?” Back then, reporters would try to uncover stories by calling you on the phone, testing a theory, a rumor and sometimes just fishing for news. It was pretty easy to identify the rumors about your company before they became pervasive. And while we didn’t know it at the time, it was a lot easier to contain them.
We’ve observed for years now that social media has fundamentally changed the news cycle. This is particularly true in a crisis, where social commentary can take on a life of its own. And while we may long for the days when a response within 60 minutes was considered the gold standard of crisis communications, in the current environment, it is more like 60 seconds.
But the rise of social media and the plethora of easily accessible opinion makers have also fundamentally changed the news business. Today, it’s better to be first than to be right. And often, no one will ever know if you are right because the race to join the conversation creates a lot of copycat headlines until the opinion becomes accepted as fact.
The most recent case in point: Michelle Obama’s visit to the Saudi Arabian king without covering her head. Widely reported as either a snub to Saudi culture or a bold stand to support women in the Arab world, the missing headscarf was actually neither of those things. It was a continuation of long standing protocol. Our First Lady wasn’t the first to bare a naked head, and she won’t be the last.
Twitter, once considered a channel, is now a news source. Couple that with the emerging universe of bogus news outlets – like the fake medical journals with authentic sounding names that agreed to publish a fabricated Harvard medical study entitled Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs and the environment becomes complex, indeed.
How can a company protect itself from an attack of “tweeters gone wild?” It’s important to actively monitor what is being said about your company or brand on social media. And while active listening is good, all listening is not created equal. Pay attention to who is talking about you, and how – particularly if those people are highly influential – with large numbers of followers. Take note of sharing, re-tweeting and other activity that gives the conversation legs. And most importantly, participate early and often, establish and preserve your role as the primary source of factual information, to the media and to the world.
Because not everyone gets the same opportunity to correct the record as the White House.