3 steps to consider when working in the age of citizen journalism
United Airlines has certainly experienced its share of unexpected media attention the last few weeks. The first powerful wave occurred after passengers at an airport observed airline employees restricting two young ladies from boarding a plane, apparently due to their choice of clothing. Then, just a week later, viral video surfaced of federal law enforcement officials forcefully removing a passenger from one of United’s planes. Neither of these situations may have publicly played out as they did if it hadn’t been for the ever-present “citizen journalist.” Armed with camera phones, regular, ordinary Joe’s and Jane’s are serving as first-hand eyewitnesses and posting, tweeting and sharing unchecked snippets, which fuel a sensationalized news stream for all to consume.
For PR people, this new reality poses various hurdles. What steps can PR pros take to properly prepare themselves for media attention resulting from the influence of citizen journalists?
- Monitor the digital universe 24/7.
As a PR pro, you should understand that the news cycle is 24/7, and once a citizen journalist posts a photo of your client in a compromising position, you better be the first to know. Once set forth, information sticks and spreads like a virus. Maintaining close watch on reviews and social media platforms is paramount. Immediate response is no longer a courtesy; it’s an absolute necessity.
- Recognize that influencers come in all shapes and sizes.
Even an unknown blogger can turn an accidental fender-bender into a life-threatening crash. Citizen journalists don’t require press credentials or jobs at well-known media entities. They don’t care to fact-check, aren’t interested in news releases and certainly won’t make time to speak with company executives. What they will use is video or photographs (without context) married with an opinion (often one-sided). The lack of formal training or unwillingness to present an unbiased story ultimately has a downside. Citizen journalists present information as fact, even if it isn’t. PR pros are therefore in the passenger seat attempting to drive the car, which makes for a very tumultuous ride.
- Educate clients.
Most true journalists opine that citizen journalism isn’t journalism at all. And it isn’t. It’s a movement comprised of individuals posting, tweeting or blogging from an eyewitness account or simply one’s personal view at a particular point in time. In other words, sources. Sources, often protected by the media that leverages them, are now writing, recording and sharing opinions as fact. This is a slippery slope given libel and copyright laws, about which true journalists are well-versed. PR pros, therefore, must educate clients about this evolution, so that when unexpected postings or blogs appear, there is clear understanding of the difference between true, vetted media versus eyewitnesses or sources. In the latter of United Airlines’ public smearing, a pilot’s wife blogged about the undocumented truth. In doing so, she too became a citizen journalist attempting to correct (i.e., properly fact check) the news media’s coverage, much of which was based exclusively on citizen journalist video and accounts presented as “facts.”
The ubiquity of modern technology and ease of sharing information has resulted in citizens serving as news influencers – a trend that will continue. PR professionals must take into account how these influencers impact communications programs and prepare for what may come. Axia Public Relations’ Essential Social Media Management Guide provides an overview of how to manage online presence, a benefit to temper the influence of citizen journalists, when necessary.
Wendy Bulawa Agudelo has more than 15 years of experience in technology, business, consumer and non-profit public relations. She regularly pens feature articles on parenting topics for Bay State Parent Magazine, serves on the Massachusetts Down Syndrome Congress PR Task Force, is a culinary enthusiast and champion for the special needs community. Wendy has worked for Axia Public Relations since September 2014. Learn more about Wendy Bulawa Agudelo. Read Wendy's recent blog posts below.
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