A Journalist in Every Room (Jeff Hankins Publisher's Note)

by Jeff Hankins  on Monday, Jun. 1, 2009 12:00 am  

While most of the stories about social media marketing these days focus on the opportunities for businesses and executives, we should also pay close attention to the challenges and pitfalls.

Anyone speaking to a group used to be able to determine whether there was a "journalist" or "member of the media" in the room or declare comments to be "off the record." The presence of such a person could alter the speaker's remarks since there are some things you might be comfortable saying to a small, private group but not for general public consumption.

Today, we have to assume that everyone in the room is a journalist just itching to post to a message board, blog or Twitter account. Everyone is on the record all the time as far as social media are concerned.

Will community journalists follow the same generally accepted practices of mainstream media? No way. Most of them don't know what those practices are.

And while mainstream media continue to carry insurance coverage for libel claims and remain diligent about making sure reporting is substantiated and factual, social media have far more freedom and protection under Internet content laws. You can go online and say just about whatever you want about any person or any company in anonymity without much fear of litigation or other repercussions.

Most newspapers have always required letters to the editor to be signed and verified, but anonymous blog and Twitter postings are routine. Mainstream media routinely publish corrections and clarifications, but citizen journalists rarely point out their errors or the erroneous information from others that they pass along.

Heaven forbid that a false newsworthy report about you or your company reaches the blogosphere. You can't make it go away.

Let's take Les Wyatt as an example. He's president of the Arkansas State University System, and recently a blog in Mississippi named him as a candidate to become chancellor at Ole Miss. It's not true. He had told a headhunter emphatically on two occasions that he had zero interest in the position and has done nothing to seek the position.

But mainstream media in Memphis, Jonesboro and Little Rock, as well as several blogs, repeated the original blog report. In the first five results of a Google search late last week for "Les Wyatt Ole Miss," four are links to blogs or Web sites that passed along the false information. Wyatt can't make all that go away with a phone call to a newspaper editor or television news director.

I recently contributed to this phenomenon of redistributing erroneous information through my @JeffHankins account on Twitter, the microblogging service. First was the KLRT, Fox 16, report about 38 million votes being cast in Arkansas for "American Idol" winner Kris Allen, and second was the USA Today report about Arkansas being one of four states that don't allow people to smile for driver's license photos.

Both stories turned out to be wrong, so I posted follow-up "Tweets" to say that. However, several other people on Twitter had already redistributed my original posting (that's a "Retweet") and didn't necessarily redistribute the follow-up.

In another case involving old-fashioned e-mail distribution methods, a local restaurant was recently the victim of an angry customer who e-mailed a digitally enhanced photograph showing a cockroach in a plate of food. People who didn't know better kept forwarding it with additional disparaging comments, and the myth continued to grow and likely hurt the business short term. The restaurant's response wasn't forwarded to everyone nearly as quickly.

The value, relevance and opportunities of social media and citizen journalism are clear to me. We at Arkansas Business are active participants in the phenomenon from every direction.

But as business people, we have to be keenly aware of the pitfalls. Leaks of confidential information and general marketing nightmares can develop and spread fast and freely. We already see this happening almost daily for politicians.

We're all living in a fishbowl for the world to see because it's not just mainstream journalists you have to worry about anymore. It's the Twitterer next to you at a restaurant, the blogger at the airport, the texting booster at your private athletic club meeting or the disgruntled former employee who just posted anonymously to a message board about the company layoffs.

And you thought staying out of our "Whispers" column was all you had to worry about.

(Jeff Hankins can be reached via e-mail at jhankins@abpg.com and followed on Twitter @JeffHankins.)

 

 

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