The Tuscaloosa News Drags the Media into the Twenty-first Century

Earlier this week, the Pulitzer Prize Board at Columbia University issued this year’s list of award winners (yay, Philly Inky!). While there was at least one thing that was unusual, those of us in the media-watcher segment of the world found something else that was altogether amazing.

The award recipients in the Breaking News Reporting section were the folks at the Tuscaloosa News for their breath-taking coverage of the April 27, 2011 EF-5 tornado that devastated Tuscaloosa, Alabama. While the award language notes the “in-depth print accounts even after power disruption forced the paper to publish at another plant 50 miles away,” PIOs and, I’ll bet, newsroom directors are all talking about the Tuscaloosa News’ staff use of Twitter to, in the words of the Prize Board, “provide real-time updates, [and] help locate missing people.” Some, like Gerald Baron and the Poynter Institute, are saying that they won because of their collective Twitter feeds.

Poynter interviewed City Editor Katherine Lee about the campaign and provided the following quotes and statements. (And frankly, I’m pulling them out so I can work them into the coverpage of my crisis comms plan.)

“Calls couldn’t get through, but texts and tweets could.”

“The first indications anybody was getting of how widespread this devastation was, was through [our reporters’] tweets.”

The News journalists arrived at many scenes of destruction even before emergency first-responders. The National Guard relied upon some of those tweets to decide where to deploy first, Lee said.

Those tweets were the Tuscaloosa News that day. The only way to get the latest, most up-to-date information. And possibly, they were used to save lives. Wow, kudos where deserved.

So, what’s next? Well, there’s another quote in the Poynter story that I think newsroom directors have already tacked to the cork board in the newsroom. And it’s one that we as PIOs simply cannot ignore, and I’ll explain why.

“They made it clear to all of us who were judges this year for Breaking News that we needed to look very hard at realtime reporting,” [jury member Kathy] Best said. “Were the news organizations that entered taking full advantage of all of the tools they had to report breaking news as it was happening? We took that really seriously and eliminated some of the entries because they waited too long to tell readers what was going on.”

Now put on your newspaper hat. What’s the best argument for not cutting newsroom staff? Win awards, get recognized! Win big awards, like the Pulitzer!

And how is the Pulitzer now awarding (at least) one of their awards?

Social media. Immediate. Real time. Not waiting too long.

Now, read it again; what’s the best way to keep from getting staff cut? Twitter, as the fireball is still curling into the sky.

If you had ANY belief that you could EVER get ahead of a story that isn’t COMPLETELY internal, you can stop deluding yourself. Those who award the biggest brass ring in reporting just lined up the greyhounds and let fly the rabbit. Not only will you not ever have the first word on a subject, but you’re likely to see reports from news organizations on social media before you’re even notified internally that something’s up.

Welcome to the twenty-first century.

Permission to Enjoy Yourself

If  you have no idea what the above picture is all about, (you really need to catch up on your internet memes) it’s from a Tumblr blog dedicated to taking a picture that shows US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presumably sending a text message on her Blackberry and inserting funny language. The blog is called Texts from Hillary and it’s taken the political world by storm. From the outside, it seems that Secretary Clinton’s icy demeanor has finally gone too far and she’s being made fun of.

Right? Not really.

You see, the picture above was submitted by her staff. And built with her input. She even invited the guys who run the blog to her office and gave them a signed print of the picture.

So what in the world does that mean for us as PIOs? With just one picture, someone with one of the most difficult and treacherous jobs in the world, who has a history of being icy and standoffish, showed her human side. Showed she was a human being, not some government automaton. Someone who could not only make jokes, but make them at her own expense. While she’s still Madame Secretary, she’s also a real person.

While I’m pretty sure that no one reading this blog will ever be Secretary of State (though you never know), we all have difficult jobs. Jobs in which we’ve got to stand there and issue stiff, approved language. Language full of hurting words, like dead, killed, injured, not coming back. While I don’t advocate that you put together a funny image then, taking some time now to demonstrate that you’re more than a press-release-reading talking head could do wonders for your and, more importantly, your agency’s image. Your publics will see you as more than just the constant drone of bad news, delivered woodenly. They’ll instead see an agency staffed with folks that are real; that make funny jokes; that laugh and cry just the same as any of us; that demonstrate that the empathetic statement that your script said to say actually means something to you.

Consider this your blanket permission to enjoy yourself, to be yourself.

On the Recording of the Police

Gizmodo put together an amazing piece this week on the rules around video recording police officers. Everything. State laws, judicial decisions, disarming body position, tech tools, you name it. Love it.

I love it for two reasons: one, as a citizen who supports the public’s right to document and publish freely (hey, that might be me one day); two, as a PIO seeing the play book for how citizen-journalists will behave this summer (I seem to be on an Occupy kick this week). G.I. Joe said it best, “Knowing is half the battle.”
Here are the seven rules:

  • Know the law (wherever you are)
  • Don’t secretly record police
  • Respond to “shit cops say”
  • Don’t share your video with police
  • Prepare to be arrested
  • Master your technology
  • Don’t point your camera like a gun

Earlier this month, I had the distinct honor and pleasure of hearing Toronto PD Deputy Chief Peter Sloly (and on Twitter) recount the Department’s experience with social media during the G-20 Summit. Everything that he said was spot on, but I was very intrigued by the story of one “Officer Bubbles,” who became internet-infamous over some bubbles during the protests.

I was moved by the Chief’s worry that other officers might have to go through something similar, alone. He implored public safety agencies to consider ways to protect their officers from, for lack of a better word, internet-infamy. This article is just one more clue that recordings of police will continue, and because of the lack of context in those videos, even folks doing their jobs correctly can find themselves on the wrong side of viral pop culture. All of us, as PIOs, need to realize that one day, it will be our employees in front of those cameras, not just the police. Learning to prep now is simply the prudent thing to do.

UPDATE: Yeah, that just got easier thanks to a new Livestream hardware product with unlimited HD streaming for $45 per month.

Facebook Purchase of Instagram Highlights Weakness in Crisis Monitoring

So the big news this week is online. If you haven’t heard yet, the mega-social network Facebook purchased the social media darling, Instagram, this week for an obscene amount of money (I really like Instagram, but a billion dollars is insane). And there is no shortage of coverage or articles picking apart the deal, just Google it.

As is our way here, let’s ignore the herd and what it means for the future of social media, Instagram, the presence of any bubble, any of that. Instead let’s focus on the process, the sausage-making, as it was. How did we find out about the purchase? Not by press release, not by SEC filing or investor call, not by leak or broken embargo. Nope, by Facebook status update. That’s it. And I think there are two things we can learn from this.

First, this is a viable way to break news. Billion-dollar news. News that’s way bigger than almost anything you need to talk to the media about. Deriding it as a fad or anything less than the future of breaking news is tantamount to malfeasance as a communicator.

Second, once you’ve accepted that Facebook is a real breaking news medium, you should be realizing how poorly we monitor Facebook for breaking news. Sure, we’re getting good at monitoring Twitter and other breaking news media, but Facebook is so distinct, so large, so disparate… And sure, Mark Zuckerberg is a good newsmaker to follow, but what about that person you don’t know that will make news tomorrow? All of her social network will know before you, before your agency, before the media. It will be viral before you’ve even heard about it. Good luck getting ahead of that or “being first.”