Why CNN and Fox News’ gaffes over health care ruling are causing more serious look at social media

The debate goes on and will for some time about social media vs. mainstream as trustworthy sources of news. Let alone preferred or more used. But the problems that some mainstream outlets had in misreporting the Supreme Court ruling on ObamaCare is revealing.

Here’s the take from Mashable on this important subject titled why the Twittercycle trumps the traditional news cycle. The mistakes of CNN and FOX recall “Gore Wins Florida” and “Dewey Defeats Truman.” One might expect a leader in online communications such as Mashable to exhibit a bit of triumphalism in this latest display of mainstream media failure.

I’m currently reading David Westin’s (former head of ABC News) excellent memoir, Exit Interview. Truth is, I have more respect and appreciation for the mainstream outlets and the severe challenge the internet poses. Westin was in charge when ABC along with other major news outlets put out the Gore Wins message in error, then corrected it by saying Bush wins, then having to retract that and admit: we don’t know. His reflections on speed vs. accuracy in time of intense competition is very valuable–yet reveals no real answers:

“The problem is that it’s not only about getting it right; it’s also about getting it first if humanly possible. And the two are often at war with each other.”

But he admits the high price media paid for getting it wrong in 2000:

“We paid a price in our credibility with the American public. A month after the election Gallup conducted a poll in which almost two-thirds of Americans said they found that ‘news organizations’ stories and reports are often inaccurate’…Nine years later a Pew study similarly found less than 30 percent of American’s believed that news organizations got their facts straight, while 63 percent said that news stories were often inaccurate.”

But “everyone knows what you read on the Internet is wrong.” It may be true, but when someone on the Internet gets it wrong, there are a few billion standing ready and oh so eager to correct them.


McDonald’s transparency over burger photo shoot raises questions

Transparency is a good thing, right? But what if that transparency is about how you “doctor” photos to make your products look better than they really are?

The marketing manager of McDonald’s Canada did a noble thing in today’s world of transparency: she answered a social media question with a nice little video giving a straight ahead entirely credible honest answer.

Holy hamburger, batman, that little video answer has taken off into viral world and now the world knows just how McDonald’s ‘cooks’ its photo shoots to make those burgers look so darn good. In fact, at this writing it has nearly 5,5 million views on YouTube making the marketing manager a bit of a media star. Those hits were fed by lots and lots of twitter comments and lots of media stories, such as this one in the Ottawa Citizen.

PR folks in a chat session LinkedIn (where I discovered this little incident) are raising the question: is this just some darn good PR or is this another example of transparency gone horribly wrong?  It certainly appears that there is room for both perspectives, as the video has given those who dislike McDonalds as well as those who think Photoshop is the epitome of all that is wrong with the corporate world plenty of fodder. The website “Red Ice Creations” gives a hint along with a pretty good photo that shows the food styled burger vs. the one bought in the store.

But, to my surprise [and gratitude], I’m finding an awful lot of appreciation for the transparency shown by McDonalds and the presentation of the photo shoot by Bagozzi. Twitter comments surprisingly positive. And mashable’s story has 68 comments at this point with many of them expressing appreciation to McDonald’s for their honesty. Those who are complaining are making it plain that they have other gripes with the company, ala:

If McDonalds wants to be honest they should be honest about the quality and Hygiene of their products, do the same for what kind of meat you guys are using, what part of the world and under what conditions you produce that meat. Same goes for the souces its been used in the burgers and how healty they are. Now that would be being honest.

It seems to me, in looking at this event, the “Internet” (my term for the community of people who dominate Internet conversation) is appearing to have a conversation with itself about transparency. They see it as a huge value and want to encourage it. But they also see in it that such openness carries risks to companies and reputations. So they appear quick to shout down the nay sayers quick to criticize a major brand when they are being surprisingly transparent.

Here are my take aways from this story:

– transparency continues to be an exceptionally important value today, particularly among “the Internet.”

– honesty is also important and transparency and honesty go together, but there is a certain degree of queasiness about doctoring photos. Consider the heat BP took in the middle of the spill when it came to light that someone photoshopped in some images to show a control room full of lit-up screens rather than some being off. Innocent it seemed, but not treated that way at all by the press or the “Internet.”

– all things being equal, a company demonstrating transparency is going to more of a pass

– when you have critics, they will jump on any little old thing to try to belittle you. Their gripe might be something unrelated but anything that looks questionable will garner a response that says, “See how odious these people are?”

– don’t let sinners drive your policies. By that I mean there are three groups: saints (those you have with you no matter what), sinners (those you have against you no matter what) and saveables (those who can be swayed by the sinners or saints.) Play to the saveables. Too many companies have let their most outspoken critics drive the discussion. In the heat of social media criticism make sure you know where your saveables are at and they may not be participating in the online discussion.

So I’m coming down on the side of those who are saying to McDonalds: good job. George Washington didn’t get spanked when he owned up to chopping down the cherry tree. But, if Papa Washington had discovered it and little George had hid the ax, he’d be in a world of hurt. McDonalds should be very glad the Hope Bagozzi did the video and not someone sneaking into the photo shoot to do them damage. The story would be quite different.

On babies farting and laughing at kitties: chasing pageviews and the future of the web

I remember one of my young employees in the late 1990s talking to me about Cold Fusion and dynamic websites. That conversation changed my picture of the future and consequently, my world. I suspect that discovering the projection by Cisco about the use of video on the web may have a similar impact. Cisco said that in 2010 30% of web traffic was viewing video, but that by 2013 it will be 90%. That is truly astounding and if correct, it means that websites will be used primarily for distributing video.

But, and this is the question faced by anyone in marketing, what do people watch? What goes viral? With the gazillions of options for information and entertainment (really only infotainment), why do people choose one thing and not another? Anything that offers a hint at what attracts audiences is of interest to me. That’s why when Nieman Lab offered an article on Gawker’s experiment in driving pageviews, I tuned in.

Gotta admit, I’m a little depressed after reading the article. Sure, I laughed at the baby’s hilarity over the kitty chasing his blanky. And the baby who burst into tears after being frightened by his own noise, that’s cute. But to think that this is what journalism is coming to, where you hire people simply to find the videos that will go viral to feed page views, well, I find that a little depressing.

On the other hand, I just talked to Dave Statter, one of my favorite bloggers and a man who is having tremendous influence in the world of public safety, helping bring those leaders into the light of the Internet realities. He has created tremendous value and a great audience by making available to the fire and public safety professionals the incredible range of videos about fires and other emergencies. Not only is the public fascinated by these stories (witness the focus of local news channels) but they are also very valuable for professionals to learn about fireground tactics and the like.

Web video is here to stay–which is one reason I’m getting into that business. If you have a website (and if you don’t, I doubt you are reading this) there is almost a 100% certainty that in the next months or years you are going to be dealing with the issue of how to produce an on-going stream of videos. And the question of what it takes to get people to watch them, and even better, share them with others will become very relevant. Please, please, don’t just rely on farting babies and cute kitties.

White House and BP legal wrangling: more damage to collaborative work in disaster response

The relationship between the federal government and a company held accountable for oil spills has always been touchy. After the ExxonValdez accident in 1989, it was seen that the role of the government in responding a major spill was unresolved. That was settled with the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 which put the government inside the command of a spill response with the company owning the oil, the “responsible party” running the show but with very close government supervision. The Incident Command System was used with the federal official part of “Unified Command” and having the authority to “federalize” the response at any time, meaning they would assume direct control and essentially kick out the responsible party from response management decisions.

That’s the way it was for over 20 years. The goal in that time was collaboration. Everyone involved saw it as in their best interests to work together. The Responsible Party (RP) knew they had to get approval from the FOSC (Federal On Scene Coordinator) or face federalization. The Joint Information Center (JIC) came along, codified by the Coast Guard in 2000 in the first JIC Model manual, with the primary purpose of providing the response facts while standing together with a key message of “we’re in this together.”

I participated in a number of ICS/JIC responses in my career and even more drills and exercises. This, I can tell you, was the policy, the plan, the intention. There were always wrinkles (like when WA State Dept of Ecology demanded they be the sole authority much to the consternation of the Coast Guard) but for the most part it worked very well.

That ended with the BP Oil Spill. The Obama Administration starting with the President, his senior staff and the Secretary of DHS clearly had no awareness of ICS and JIC protocols, nor the history of standing together. Given the media and public pressure, they felt it essential to throw BP under the bus and break down any pretense of partnership or standing together. BP was unceremoniously thrown out of the JIC and one official said the response was being federalized. Hold on, said the National Incident Commander Thad  Allen, not so fast. BP is essential to this response, they have the equipment, expertise and manpower that the government doesn’t. Plus, it’s their money that is paying for everything.

So this uneasy situation emerged: the White House running all communications and turning the JIC into a part of the political messaging machine–with the primary purpose of focusing public outrage on BP (remember the “who’s ass to kick comment”?) Part of that communication was to assure the public that the government was running the response. They were telling BP what and how to do it.

OK, that’s history. Now the legal issues take front stage. This article, (thanks JD) is about a legal wrangle between BP and the White House over access to White House emails. The federal government is suing BP for all the damage, including damage while responding. And BP is saying, but since you were telling us what to do, shouldn’t the demands and dictates you prepared be included in the trial? We have a strange situation where the government is attempting to hold a major corporation accountable for actions which, to some degree, it dictated.

One example from the article:

One e-mail, “Re: Flow Rates,” contains discussions between White House officials, Interior Secretary Kenneth Salazar, National Incident Commander Thad Allen, with copies to Energy Secretary Steven Chu, “concerning how and when to address information in future press communications” about the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

As you know BP was pilloried in the press (and among crisis communications pundits) for underestimating the flow. Yet post spill analysis (check earlier posts here) showed that it was Unified Command led by the Coast Guard who prepared the flow estimates and released them. (Don’t get me wrong–I’m not blaming the CG, they all had the best available info at the time and accusations of underestimating are prime examples of brilliance by hindsight.) The White House overall was remarkably effective in blunting public outrage and blame directed against itself and ensuring through its powerful office that the President in particular was innoculated.

The effect of this on the National Incident Management System, the Incident Command System and the Joint Information Center is massive and will continue to be felt for years. Two recent examples: conversing with oil industry communications experts recently made it clear that in any future major events under this administration, all communication will be cleared by WA DC (either White House or CG HQ as needed). This is a massive change, undermines the authority of Unified Command, and almost guarantees that any news coming out of an official JIC will be very late and largely pointless. Except for “talking points for the White House” as CNN called the emissions from the JIC after the White House took control.

Another example, in discussions with city government officials about their plans for joint communication with other agencies in a JIC, the primary problem to be addressed is demand of elected officials to have approval authority over JIC communications. Again, this slows it down, removes responsibility for communication from Unified Command, and is a direct violation of NIMS. However, what elected official is going to be concerned about that given the example provided by the highest office of the land? We saw that with the Governor of Montana in the Yellowstone River spill a year after Deepwater.

The damage is done. I can only hope that more in government communications and those who may need to work with the government in major events become aware of this, adjust plans accordingly, and hope for a day when there is a return to collaboration and standing together.

(Full disclosure, my previous company was engaged by both the US government and BP in the oil spill.)


Why some in news love Twitter and some apparently don’t

I tend to think (despite my initially dissing it) that Twitter has transformed how news is done almost as much as the telegraph did–and that was big. A conversation with a client the other day highlighted why some in the news business love Twitter and some don’t seem to like it too much.

While on the phone with this client he said, hold on a minute, I’m getting a question via Twitter from a reporter over the city in a helicopter. I chuckled while holding. Talk about monitoring! In less than 30 seconds my client was back on the phone. He had answered the reporters question, and since his Twitter messages are fed to his newsroom website, he also informed anyone else who might be asking a similar question. I said, “that’s pretty slick and easy media management.”

He went on to explain that reporters like the guy in the helicopter love using Twitter and use it extensively, but a number of news producers do not. That stunned me for a moment. Why would anyone not like using Twitter? Why would these producers prefer to pick up the old phone, try to get a hold of someone who is chronically very busy, and wait to get an answer? At first I thought the only answer was age and the related phenomenon of ludditism. But, in discussing this with the client, I think there is a better answer than refusal to adapt.

News competition used to largely about scoops, about covering something significant that no one else had. Being the first with a big story. Or, if you can’t be first, then getting a little gem that no one else has. I remember in one of my first big events that I was involved in, one newspaper reporter hung around after the press conference was over to ask his questions. He never asked questions during the press conference. Turns out, he didn’t want to tip off the other reporters to what angle he was going after and he kept probing until he thought he had something unique.

News competition today is more about speed, which is why the guy in the helicopter wants the answers right now. But those producers (age may indeed have something to do with this) are looking for the angle. They don’t like the idea that if the communicator answers his/her questions with a tweet everyone is going to get the same info. He/she doesn’t like to ask questions on Twitter where everyone else can see the question. They’d rather probe for the unique angle.

I can understand that. But, my answer to that is, unless there is compelling reason to give someone an exclusive, their hesitance to use Twitter for this reason is all the more reason to use it. Start training the reporters covering your beat that if they call you, probe and poke they can get something no one else can, and you will find that everyone will be probing and poking and taking up precious time with phone calls. Twitter, like the news website itself, is a great equalizer and contributor to transparency.