On the Media, Post-Paterno

In media and media law circles, there is a smoldering conversation
about the role of the media. This line of questioning is essentially a
crisis of identity, as many media consumers have begun to utilize
non-media sources as stand-ins for the so-called mainstream media.
There are any number of reasons why this changeover is occurring,
including accusations of bias and Hollywood-centric reporting, a
growing dependence on wire reports and the consumers’ infatuation with
new media tools like social media and social networks. I make no
judgement abut why or to what extent this crisis of identity is
happening, I just note that it is. Many ask, where does the media fit
in a world where anyone can make, break or fabricate news for,
essentially, no cost?

Some reactionary media types have struck out against the new media
encroachment by demonizing the toolset, competence and, in some cases,
motivations of members of this new media. They seek to deny the
benefits of being labeled as members of the media (and yes, there are
tangible, positive benefits to being part of the
media
),
they make snide remarks about bloggers living in basements, and
frankly, Jude Law’s portrayal of a blogger in the movie, Contagion,
didn’t help much either (some of my colleagues who know of my blogging
even snickered at me!).

As a blogger I’ve felt these stings but never doubted that, venom
aside, they were making a good point. I am not the media. I don’t
have the resources to place events in proper, larger context. I don’t
employ editors to make sure my grammar-esque blogging makes any sense.
I don’t have fact checkers and folks “on the ground” to verify what’s
going on (that is, unless, you see bloggers as some sort of hive mind
who, through the process of
hit-or-miss-10,000-monkeys-and-typewriters, we eventually get it
right). The mainstream media does. That’s the role they fulfill. They
are the wizened conscience of information collection, packaging and
distribution.

Right?

Well, the events of the last week or so have got me wondering about
the identity of the media. The specific event that caused my crisis is
something that everyone in PR, crisis communication and media circles
has to have heard of already, former Penn State football coach Joe
Paterno’s death from lung
cancer
.
Now, Coach Paterno’s death would’ve been national news in any case,
but with the stain of former Assistant Coach Jerry Sandusky’s
indictment on child abuse charges and Coach Paterno’s subsequent
mid-season firing brought the media attention to fever pitch. His
death would be above the fold across the nation. And as word spread
that Coach Paterno’s health was rapidly fading, Happy Valley,
Pennsylvania swarmed with members of the press.

On the afternoon and evening of Saturday, January 21, everything came
to a head. Reports from all kinds of sources noted that the Coach was
likely on death’s doorstep and it was just a matter of time. Then a
local college newspaper, Onward State,
issued a report via Twitter that Coach Paterno had passed.

And then all hell broke
loose
.
(Seriously, go to that link. It’s that good.)

And now you see my crisis. CBS Sports is a paragon of reporting. And
yet they trumpeted a single, unsourced report from a news outfit that
99.9% of Americans have never heard of to millions of news seekers
anxiously awaiting that specific report. And they never even gave
attribution to Onward State so that others could follow up and confirm
the report. Just, he’s dead. And other news outlets that had learned
to trust CBS Sports duly passed along those reports. I mean, why
wouldn’t you? They’re the (big M) media!

In the aftermath of the premature declaration and the subsequent
ass-covering, the Poynter
Institute
has
issued a number of articles reviewing the situation and assigning
blame about a truly shameful
situation
.
They chide CBS Sports for pursuing gotcha journalism in a situation
when respect and exactness was called for. CBS did what they accuse
bloggers of doing.

And you know what? At some level, I’m okay with that. If that’s the
kind of journalism an outfit like CBS Sports feels they should
practice, that’s the kind of journalists they’ll be. There’s nothing I
can do about it. But it makes me think about how I should approach the
media, both as a private media consumer and a professional media
interacter. If the rush to “first” is more important to than the rush
to “right,” then maybe I shouldn’t take any first report as gospel,
no matter if it comes from a respected member of the media or some
yahoo off the street. (Because sometimes even the yahoo gets it
right.) It’s more work for me, as a PIO and as a media consumer, but
it ensures that the messages I push out and receive are right. That
was one of the greatest benefits of the professional media: 100%
correct, verified truth.

Some news organizations have realized that their role in the expansive
media universe is becoming more specialized. In fact, the Poynter
Institute makes an extended reference to the stance that AP took in
both the Gabby Giffords’ shooting and Coach Paterno
situation
.

“At every juncture we have a trigger point that says, ‘Are we ready to file this? Do we have the sourcing? Are we going to make the decision to tell millions of people this?’” Anthony said.

Nothing would go out until those questions were answered to everyone’s satisfaction.

AP believes that the value they add to news reporting is correct,
sourced information, 100% of the time. That’s why you pay for AP
wire reports, because you can trust that they are perfect. That’s
their business model; that’s why they’re better than bloggers.
That’s (big M) media.

(PS. You really should read the linked article about the AP, if only
for the “Applying a lesson from Giffords” section about how constant,
present messaging further strengthens one’s overall messaging.)

All of the Tools

There was an interesting post the other day on Shel Holtz’s great PR
blog

about how companies block access to social media websites on their
networks. (There’s almost always something interesting on Mr. Holtz’s
blog, by the way.)

(Begin rant)

So yeah, this type of behavior is pointless. And counterproductive.
Mr. Holtz points out NINE different ways employees having access to
social media can help their business:

  • Recruiting
  • Idea testing and decision support
  • Brand and product/service evangelism
  • Reinforcing organizational culture and values
  • Competitive intelligence
  • Content curation
  • Access to subject matter experts
  • Training
  • Having a voice in processes that could affect the employee’s industry

In fact, Mr. Holtz gives two concrete examples of why employees
legitimately need access—at work—to social media websites:

Two recently formed groups are the culprits. Both are work-related. The first is the home to a largely intellectual discussion of how Wikipedia can work more closely with official representatives of organizations to ensure their companiesí entries are accurate and up-to-date. Wikipediaís founder and Wikia owner Jimmy Wales has joined the closed group and the discussions with him have been mostly respectful, with information and ideas moving in both directions. Edelman Digital Senior Vice President Phil Gomes started the group after posting an open letter to Wales about the situation on his blog.

The second group, also a closed group, is one I started along with Joe Thornley, CEO of Thornley Fallis Group, as a place for the 80-plus participants of an eight-week IABC training program in social media to gather.

The problem?

I was chagrined when one of the participants in the IABC program expressed her dismay that Facebook would be the home for our discussions. Her company, she said, blocks Facebook. Her participation in the class that sheís taking for work purposes, and for which her company is paying, will have to wait until she gets home.

And now you’re saying, but Jim, those folks are in the private sector.
They don’t have the crushing responsibilities and dictates that we in
government have. How about another scenario? One that I personally was
involved in, and could have only happened because we have access to
social media website at work.

You remember the bomb threats in cargo holds of
planes

from last year? Philly airport, Newark airport? Printer inks from
Yemen? Well, here in the Health Department, we think that’s pretty
important. Something to keep an eye on, I would say. Well, I heard
about it before anyone else in the Department. And I told my Program
Manager, my Division Director and the Commissioner’s Office. And then
I conducted some pretty hardcore social media monitoring, and kept
them posted on what was going on on the ground throughout the event.
And they could respond truthfully and knowingly about maintaining
situational awareness on the problem. We were leaning forward. And
only because I was on Twitter.

Another story? Okay, but just one more before bed. It’s H1N1 season.
The pandemic is just starting to kick off here and we’ve got limited
supplies of vaccine, and we’re pushing hard to make sure that all of
the priority groups get access to that vaccine. And some lady comes
into one of our clinics and gets her vaccine, but the nurses say that
her child cannot. Not in the priority group. (Which you’ll remember is
wrong.) She reached out to us via our newly set up Twitter account and
asked if that was true. (Obviously not.) We apologized, made sure she
knew where her child could get the vaccine, and began to retrain all
of the nurses at that clinic. How many more folks in priority groups
would we have missed if we weren’t monitoring social media? Would our
response have been less meaningful if she had to wait until one of us
got home and reviewed all of the comments we got that day?

Counterproductive.

And pointless. Because your employees are already on social media.
During the day. At work. In their cubicles and offices. Mashable says
so right here

The three biggest [Facebook] usage spikes tend to occur on weekdays at 11:00 a.m., 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. ET.

I know the economy is bad, but some of those folks are at work and on
Facebook. How? Blackberries. iPhones. Android phones. All restricting
access does is force people to waste time figuring out ways around the
firewall—which actually makes them less productive.

One day we’ll get there, but for now? Question why social media is restricted.