The citizen journalist: a double edged sword?

What opportunities and challenges do citizen journalists pose for public relations?  Image source: Tony Webster, Flickr creative commons

Image source: Tony Webster, Flickr creative commons

Much has been written about the rise of ‘citizen journalists’, their influence enabled by the immediate connectivity of smart phones and social media.

Their potential as ‘on-the-ground’ sources of ‘as-it-happens’ information can be a double edged sword, as the ‘news’ they bring to light can go viral with little or no fact checking.

The best practice mainstream media approach to verify such information with due diligence before publishing, reinforced by MSM’s remote and often inaccurate coverage of Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

But what challenges do citizen journalists, empowered by the hyper-connectivity of Web 2.0, pose for public relations?

It’s a dynamic which has been discussed as early as 2005, when global PR firm Edelman detailed two sets of ramifications for PR practice, in promotion and crisis management.

“Citizens are no longer spectators. A new era has begun in which regular citizens can become reporters whenever they so desire, and by doing so contribute to public opinion,” Edelman declared, recommending practitioners expand their scope of promotional tactics. (Edelman, 2005)

Ten years later, firms like InsidePR have well and truly welcomed citizen journalists as an opportunity, suggesting PR operators keep track of an individual “with something to say, covers a subject on a consistent basis and moves on to being a contributor to larger and more influential sources”.

How PR practitioners respond to citizen journalists during times of crisis is infinitely more challenging, particularly when faced with those who live up to the reputation of ‘tweet first, ask questions later’.

Both dynamics could be seen unfolding during the 2014 Hazelwood Mine Fire – a chaotic situation rife with public confusion and misinformation – when a handful of citizen journalists became a thorn in the side for State Government communication teams.

A self proclaimed ‘Voices of the Valley’ social media presence (twitter account discontinued – originally authored by outspoken citizen Simon Ellis) began collating and publishing everything from front line eyewitness photos to speculative rumors circulating the Latrobe Valley throughout the unfolding smoke crisis.

As government departments and power industry persisted with a collaborative communication strategy to transmit consistent key public health messages (through a time consuming inter-departmental approval process) social media users turned to sources such as Voices of the Valley for ‘up to date’ information from the front line.

(It was a dynamic which had government communication teams reactively putting out spot fires of misinformation for weeks on end during the crisis. The government’s communication strategy was later came under scrutiny in the Hazelwood Mine Fire inquiry’s post-mortem)

Meanwhile, the above advice of InsidePR to engage citizen journalists of influence was being put into action by proactive environmental communicator Shaun Murray of Friends of the Earth.

Mr Murray was subsequently taken on board as the communications consultant for Voices, which had since grown to become a proactive community activist group, later authoring the controversial claim the mine fire lead to 11 deaths in the area, which became a large factor in the Labor government’s reopening of the Hazelwood mine fire inquiry.


Paddock fertile ground for PR pioneers

The agricultural sector, where farmers spend day in day out working livestock and the land, may not be the most obvious place to kick-start a social media campaign.

But as landholders increasingly include smart phones into their must-have inventory (using phone apps to keep track of weather conditions and follow market prices while on the job) it was only a matter of time before farmers evolved from ‘Web 2.0’ users into active social media engagers.

In an effort to bolster support for a Free Trade Agreement with China, the public relations team at industry lobby group Dairy Australia last year encouraged farmers to take a selfie for the Twitter hashtag campaign #FTA4dairy.

Through the campaign, the voices of farmers, normally isolated by the tyranny of distance, joined as one in an effective lobbying pitch to ensure the Australian government held strong in negotiations with China, which at the time were a decade old.

The campaign was reported to have reached over 1.7 million people through twitter, which had Dairy Australia CEO Natalie Collard “overwhelmed and exhilarated” by the campaign’s success.

(The campaign was a national finalist for best social media campaign at the CommsCon awards this month.)

For an industry and demographic which has been slow to engage with the internet beyond Web 2.0 two-way interaction, the campaign was a powerful introduction to the interconnected benefits of social media.

While the amount of people ‘reached’ in this instance was minuscule compared to larger social media campaign success stories of note, it was an impressive first step by farmers into the social media paradigm.

On the farm, the voice of south Gippsland farmer Graeme Nicoll and his trusty dog is limited to an audience of dairy cattle. But as part of the twitter hashtag #fta4farmers, this image contributed to a powerful lobbying message in the first large scale social media campaign in the Australian farming sector. Twitter source: @hoddlecows

Aaww, that journalist is trying to internet. How cute!

With the onset of the social media release (SMR), the ‘future’ of public relations has arrived. At least that’s the impression given by a range of PR sites spruiking their SMR services to the constantly evolving online media landscape.

Let’s step back for a moment into my world where I work as traditional print journalist. I trawl through hundreds of media releases and pursuits of media traction on a daily basis, however I can count the number of actual SMRs I have ever seen in my inbox on one hand.

Compared to the wordy formats of traditional releases, the multi-faceted format of the SMR, serving up facts, segmented quotables, photos, links, social media tags and videos is relatively innovative.

According to Cutting Edge PR, SMRs do not replace traditional media releases but are in fact “complementary”; traditional releases target traditional media while SMRs target social media, and can “open up dialogue in new ways”.

But what is a traditional journalist to make of this innovative? Do I have any use for it? Or perhaps the question should be ‘what can a purveyor of a dying format learn from the expanded capabilities of the SMR?’.

Currently traditional print media’s most valued social media function is its ability to direct readers to website versions of stories to keep traffic levels up, in preparation for the day we’ve survived long enough to work out how to turn a buck for our online product. Hold your snigger please.

(It’s also gives an open feedback for readers to respond to our work, such as this honest and insightful appraisal received yesterday. Thanks Web 2.0)

facebook photo

A key feature of the SMR, according to PR firm RealWire, is its multimedia and video offerings, which “can deliver a very effective message in a very engaging way”.

According to this bloke-heavy whiz-bang SMR sales pitch, “3 out of 4 journalists are much happier to receive multimedia content than the written word alone”. (The journo in me has a sudden urge to see their research methods)

Some traditional media such as The Age, through its online edition, are embracing these ‘more effective’ communication tools, through video packages at the beginning of major news stories, and noted increase in visualised ‘data journalism’.

However, the print product, along with the legions of regional newspapers whose circulation continues to decline, remain largely part of one way communication medium.

If anything, the apparent rise in popularity of social media releases should be yet another wake up call to traditional media, particularly print, that their modes of communication are quickly becoming outdated.

As a purveyor of print media, perhaps it’s time I got over my contempt for online PR buzz words and took a leaf out of the social media PR playbook, and equip myself with the skills and know-how to better engage in this Web 2.0 thingy.

Will keep a closer eye on my inbox for inspiration….