How often have you heard Twitter described as a self-indulgent fad used only by shallow, insecure and vacuous types to broadcast the inanities of their little lives… or some such? How many times have clients or employers stared at you blankly as you gamely tried to explain how social media will either help or hinder them in a time of crisis, depending on how they’ve prepared the ground? If you’re anything like me the answer to both questions is “dozens”.
Well, this week Canterbury confounded the critics and gave PR folk the perfect case-study on the power and benefits of social media. As the earth shook and buildings crumbled, Twitter roared.
From 4.35am on Saturday little messages of 140 characters or less started giving the outside world a montage, a mosaic picture of what was going on. Long before most ‘traditional’ media kicked in.
Russell Brown has already written an excellent piece about the role played by Twitter during the crisis. Check it out if you haven’t already done so. He says:
“The point isn’t that it’s better than established media (although it can be more useful), so much as that it’s a new media layer: one sourced closer to the ground. The way Twitter forms news is a matter of many small pieces forming a bigger picture. When (a friend) tells (us) the family is safe and damage is minimal, it matters crucially to us – but it also contributes to a more nuanced picture than a news bulletin can draw.”
What I want to touch on here are a few other thoughts from a very specific PR perspective – this being The PRBlog and all…
What became really clear as the tweeting rose to a crescendo was the sheer variety of people who were doing it: kids sharing news with their classmates, friends alerting Kiwis in the diaspora, siblings reassuring each other they were OK, academics sharing bits of information, even parents getting in touch with their offspring. The Canty quake of September 2010 is proof, if any were needed, that this isn’t a fringe medium; the preserve of geeks, air-heads and hormonally-challenged school kids.
As Russell says: it’s a credible new layer of media sourced closer to the ground than anything else we’re used to working with.
The immediacy of information, and its specificity, was also noticeable. It’s now some days afterwards and the debate around New Zealand television’s tardiness with the news rages on. The international TV networks were broadcasting the facts before our reporters had even got out of bed, it would seem. And they were being fed by a steady stream of updates and images from where? You guessed it – social media.
While Radio New Zealand National and Newstalk ZB did a great job of pushing news of the quake out to the rest of the country while also keeping Cantabrians up-to-date with important Civil Defence messages, they just couldn’t match the variety or specificity of information flooding through Twitter. One message I saw asked people living near a certain street to check up on a little old lady living by herself in a block of flats there. It was re-tweeted by many others before being acted on very soon afterwards by someone living nearby. Truly heart-warming stuff.
That leads nicely into the other eye-opener: the sheer versatility of Twitter and the range of uses to which it was put. Entire communities were kept informed about the location of their nearest Portaloos, when the heroes from Orion might be around to restore electricity, where there was a supply of fresh water to be had, and what things were needed at the various refuges. It didn’t matter that only a small percentage of the populace was actually using Twitter. What mattered was that Twitter was acting as a source of information, which was then being passed on through families and communities by word of mouth.
It was also the source of some misinformation. Rumours about cordons that were about to be moved, incorrect curfew times, and suggestions that the army was about to move in to forcibly evacuate people from certain badly-affected Christchurch suburbs.
Even mainstream media were in there, boots and all, trawling links to the growing pool of amateur photography that was being posted online and Tweeting the photographers for credit information and permission to use the images.
In other words, this electronic nest was alive with activity; information being shared, opinions being forged and behaviour being influenced. By a whole heap of people.
It staggers me how few businesses and brand guardians have cottoned on to the constructive and destructive potential of this medium.
As a brand-owner, why would you not want to at least be keeping an eye on the general conversation? If not actually taking part. Seriously, it still staggers me how few businesses and brand guardians have cottoned on to the constructive and destructive potential of this medium.
As Russell says: “Debating whether anyone doing this is a “citizen journalist” or not is beside the point. We know that people, ordinary people, do know how to report – and they know when reporting is asked of them.”
As the guardian of a brand that could potentially be the subject of this phenomenal information source and reporting power, you better believe that it’s in your best interests to be playing in this space. And to know its nooks, its crannies and its conventions inside out. Just like all the other media you work with.
If you don’t yet know how to tap into and start managing the Twitterstream, check out this excellent blog from the wonderful Joyce Seitzinger of Napier who, from the moment of waking early on Saturday to find a single-word Tweet from a mate in Christchurch (“QUAKE!!!”), has been a key figure in communicating and managing Twitter information coming out of, and going into, Canterbury. In the process cementing her reputation as a social media communicator and educationalist.
She has also contributed superb pieces on the importance and use of Twitter hashtags and how to make the most of social media in a crisis. Both required reading, I’d suggest, for any PR practitioner not yet fully versed in the medium.
[On a separate but related note, this piece by Catherine Arrow about Facebook’s Community Pages is definitely required reading. Immediate action required, PR peeps…]
This was an excellent week for social media. It highlighted the power, relevance and versatility of the medium. A “self-indulgent fad used only by shallow, insecure and vacuous types to broadcast the inanities of their little lives”? I don’t think so.
So – bottom line: if you’re one of the too-many PR professionals out there who either “hates” Twitter, or isn’t yet properly conversant with social media, the role it’s already playing as a community voice and its potential to hurt (and benefit) your brand, it’s time to get your skates on and talk to someone who does. Before your boss does!