Finding Your Old Media

Yesterday we talked about best practices for working with the media via social media. But the first step in being able to reach out to them is to know where they are. The problem is that there’s a lot of them and they can be tough to find. Just look at your existing media list. You’ve probably got hundreds of phones numbers and emails listed. And how much time do you take managing that list. Hours and hours.

And now I’m telling you that you need another field in that database, just for social media contact information. It’s a wonder you read my stuff at all.

But there are ways to streamline collecting that information. When I wrote about this last time, I recommended using the website MuckRack.com to collect information on local reporters that have signed up. While there is a subscription that you can sign up for, poor folks like me who aren’t lead media folks probably shouldn’t, as it doesn’t make sense to subscribe. But, with a bit of elbow grease and a few hours of copy/paste, you can put together a pretty good Twitter list. (Shoot me a message if you want to learn how I did it.)

But there might be an easier way. I just recently learned that one of our local newspapers, the Inquirer, has put together a page of all of their Twitter accounts. And it’s awesome. You want to know what the Inky is writing about these days? Want to know what scoop they’re looking for? You can see it all just by going through that page once and saving them all to a list.

Frankly, I wish more news organizations would do this. Frankly-ier (?), I wish more governments would do this. Have a list of all of your subject matter experts Twitter accounts. All of the different official agency accounts. Maybe a list of all of the official PIO accounts? I’d love to know if you know of any agency or government that’s got something like this. If you know of one, definitely reach out to me, or comment below, I’d love to get in touch with them.

New Media and Old Media

1960s Reporter Reading News Into Microphone With Global Map In BackgroundSince we’ve been talking about media this week, first about the supposed demise, then about what’s coming next, I thought we should talk about how we, as government communicators, can use the new media to help work with the old media. And it’s happening already. Some enterprising government folks are way ahead of you, and they’re reaping the benefits.

We all know about the Boston Police Department during the Boston Marathon bombings and manhunt, and Emily Rahimi at FDNY, but there are lots of more examples of social media to help work with the media. That’s right, not just get information to the public, but actually facilitate working with the media, and one of my favorite examples comes from one of my favorite people on Twitter, Erica Creech, from the Cleveland Department of Public Safety:

On the morning of the press conference, Creech said, “we were trying to create a distribution list from all these media that were calling, and there just wasn’t time to create it. We said, ‘Well, let’s not waste any more time — let’s get something out and see if it works.’ ”

She got set up for the press conference, then began going through the DPS Twitter account to follow journalists and outlets who wanted to send her a direct message asking for credentials. (Twitter requires both parties follow each other so they can message privately.)

My local Red Cross Communications guru, Dave Schrader, regularly uses social media to drum up media interest:

A local university PR guy used it to direct media looking for quotes on breaking news, which is great, especially for topics that the reporters aren’t familiar with:

Our good friend Marcus did the opposite by trying to manage media expectations:

https://twitter.com/MDeyerin/statuses/337763590310354944

PR News interviewed Los Angeles County CEO Director of Public Affairs, David Sommers, earlier this year and found that he uses Twitter not only to engage with the media, but also to prep his office for what might be coming down the pipe that day:

PR News: What can PR Pros do with Twitter and LinkedIn to boost their media relations efforts?

Sommers: Our recent efforts have really focused on Twitter—using it as a monitoring platform to listen in on what the high-propensity reporters routinely covering County issues are saying about us, or about issues we are involved in. We’ve built several private lists in Twitter of reporters and media outlets of interest to us, and we strategically engage them. If I see what they’re writing about, I look for opportunities to connect them with a subject-matter expert. Anyone can find similar opportunities to engage. Look for ways to make a reporter’s job easier. Anticipate their needs. Twitter is a powerful resource for anticipating the needs of the media.

I love that final quote. Because news rooms are getting buffeted by financial storms (kind of like us!), isn’t it in our best interest to try to make it easier on the media to find us, to report positively on us, to help them out a bit? Not explicitly quid pro quo, but hey, man, I’m here for you, why don’t you take a second to listen to my pitch? Can’t hurt, right?

The Rise of the New Media

ESO_AW_logo_b_cFollowing up on yesterday’s post about the exceptional opportunity afforded to people willing to embrace a new form of media, I wanted to talk a bit about what that new kind of media will look like. And I’m going to do it using the voice of the Gray Lady herself, the New York Times.

Recently, the Times has published a few articles that look, almost in awe, at the rise of public figures and non-traditional news entities using social media to avoid the traditional media. The first article that caught my attention was titled (appropriately enough), Who Needs Reporters?:

For her big announcement last week, Michele Bachmann neither convened a news conference nor waited for some other moment when she was in public, reporters and television cameras nearby.

She went for something less extemporaneous than any of that, packaging the declaration that she wouldn’t seek a fifth Congressional term in a lacquered online video. It could easily have been mistaken for a campaign ad, with lighting that flattered her, music to her liking and a script that she could read in as many takes as she desired. There was no risk of stammer or flop sweat, no possibility of interruption from reporters itching to challenge her self-aggrandizing version of events.

The reporter bemoans this, saying:

[The] videos […] simply ratchet up the effort to marginalize naysaying reporters and neutralize skeptical reporting. And as Chris Lehane, a Democratic political strategist, pointed out to me, they take a page from corporate America, whose chieftains have used that same format, as opposed to news conferences or interviews, to distribute sensitive communiqués.

Over time it seems they’ve mellowed when confronted with this new reality, become more accepting. David Carr, writing for the Media and Advertising section, says:

The business disruption in the media world caused by the Internet has been well documented. But a monopoly on scoops, long a cherished franchise for established and muscular news organizations, is disappearing. Big news will now carve its own route to the ocean, and no one feels the need to work with the traditional power players to make it happen.

The article then goes on to talk about Glenn Greenwald’s unique position as a newsbreaker and how the media was caught unawares by the NSA snooping story (Between you and me, I don’t know how you can call the Guardian a non-traditional news source.):

“There has been an institutional bias that traditional outlets cling to — that anyone who doesn’t do the things that they do in the way that they do them isn’t doing real journalism,” Mr. Greenwald said in a phone interview. “Since nobody can say that the stories that we did are not serious journalism that has had a very big impact, the last week will forever put an end to that myth.”

And that’s the lesson here. It doesn’t matter who is breaking the story. Whether it’s Deadline Hollywood, the Guardian, Gawker, the New York Times, or me, news will break. For all of the complaining that today’s mass media does, they’ve got just as much ability to break news as I do.

And that’s the secret. I am the new media. You are the new media. They are the new media. Anyone can be. While the media laments their diminished (but absolutely not disappeared) role as, “breakers of news,” there are still other roles in the news-making world that they can fill. They are the ones that can tell the full story of Edward Snowden, they are the ones that can get do in-depth reporting and ferret out lies, they are the ones that can connect dots on disparate stories. Breaking news has been democratized; news reporting is still alive and well.

That is the new media.

The Demise of the Media

Business-DinosaurQuick show of hands: who thinks the media is a dinosaur? Dying? Bloating and/or out of touch? Think so? I’m not so sure.

Earlier this year, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism published their tenth annual State of the Media report. It was full of doom and gloom. Full of statistics that support all of those adjectives I used above. The first two sentences one reads on the entire website published to support the research are as follows:

In 2012, a continued erosion of news reporting resources converged with growing opportunities for those in politics, government agencies, companies and others to take their messages directly to the public.

Signs of the shrinking reporting power are documented throughout this year’s report.

Talk about leading one’s audience.

The media, acting in a completely disinterested and objective manner I’m sure, repackaged the bad news, tore at their hair and clothes and bemoaned their position.

The public is fleeing traditional mass media. And funding and staffing is being cut left, right and center. But correlation doesn’t always equal causation. Some commenters read this report and saw these two things as separate phenomena that are feeding each other. They think that the public is fleeing traditional mass media not because of fewer reporters, but because they’ve been presented with more options, namely reporting recommended by their friends and families, shared on social media. Howard Kurtz, writing for CNN, says the solution is to come down from the white tower and engage with the public with top-quality content:

As that balance of power shifts, media organizations are scrambling to adapt. They can no longer simply deliver the headlines from on high. They need ordinary folks to serve as their ambassadors, spreading the word about their journalism like the town criers of old.

Hanging out in the social media playground, of course, means enduring the taunts and jeers of the crowd. That’s the price of admission.

But the key to getting talked about and texted and retweeted is having original content. And continuing to water down the product in this age of austerity could amount to slow suicide.

But even as positive as Mr. Kurtz’s view looks, it’s still predicated on the idea that something negative is going on, and the media needs to do something to “fix” it. Matthew Yglesias, writing for Slate, disagrees, calling this the Golden Age of American Journalism (and I agree very much with him):

This viewpoint is not wrong, exactly, but it is mistaken. It’s a blinkered outlook that confuses the interests of producers with those of consumers, confuses inputs with outputs, and neglects the single most important driver of human welfare—productivity.

Pew notes with alarm that just over 30 percent of poll respondents “have deserted a news outlet because it no longer provides the news and information they had grown accustomed to.” Phrased more optimistically, in a competitive marketplace content producers who don’t meet their audiences’ needs lose market share to those who do.

Is it harder to make money as a journalist? Absolutely. But that’s a song that’s been sung by industries that have been upset by productivity gains for years centuries. Using Yglesias’ terms: phrased more optimistically, now is exactly the time for entrepreneurial and motivated folks to be in journalism; people who want to turn back the clock will suffer.

Evolving Terms

I have, in the past, complained about the terms we throw around, especially on the weather side of things.

But I’ve also been known to give props when positive change is made.

My point is this: what we doing, especially in the world of emergency messaging and alerting, is evolving. There are better practices, but best practices are few and far between. Experts are little more than folks with quick minds and oodles of experience. And they’ve got to have a willingness to learn because things are changing. For example, after Sandy:

[T]he weather service announced Thursday[, April 4, 2013] that starting with this hurricane season, “the definitions of hurricane and tropical storm watches and warnings will be broadened” to allow these watches and warnings to be issued or remain in effect after a tropical cyclone — or hurricane — transitions to become post-tropical, when such a storm still poses a significant threat to life and property.

In addition, the weather service says the new system will “ensure a continuity of service by allowing the National Hurricane Center to issue advisories during the post-tropical stage. These changes were motivated by the special challenges posed by Hurricane Sandy, which was forecast to evolve from a hurricane to a post-tropical cyclone prior to reaching the coast.”

And after the 1999 Moore, Oklahoma tornado, the term tornado emergency was born:

“We had a large, violent tornado on the ground about to head into the most populous center in the state of Oklahoma and we were trying to make people aware that this was something different than normal. We were trying to do anything that we could at that time to get people’s attention.” -Scott Curl, senior forecaster

And the movement towards refining our terms continues as some of the most forward-leaning organizations start to advocate away from the old terms, like ranking hurricanes by the Saffir-Simpson scale:

This year, Phillyweather.net is going to refrain from using Saffir-Simpson in any posts. We encourage others in our field to do the same. It is an outdated classification system given a storm like Sandy can produce more damage than Irene at the Shore, given both were similarly ranked storms, yet we communicate them both as “just” Cat 1 storms.

No two storms are ever the same. Throwing them into a simple ranking based on one factor is not beneficial to the public. It may be easy for TV consumption but it’s not helpful for public consumption. People, we think, need to know more than that.

And the continual refinement isn’t limited to just weather. Even the World Health Organization has recently updated its pandemic alert system in an effort to make it more realistic and timely:

The World Health Organization (WHO) today[, June 10, 2013] proposed a new pandemic alert system, one that’s designed to focus more on disease risk than geographic spread and to streamline communications to the public.

The revised global phases are more of an “average” of the situation in all countries and don’t reflect the situation in individual countries, the WHO said. For example, it said in the “alert” phase, one country might be in full response mode, while another might still be at the earlier preparedness steps.

These changes, and I’m sure these aren’t the only terms that connote danger that are being reviewed and updated, are important to note for two reasons. First, they indicate a more subtle understanding of emergency situations, and it is thus critical that we as communicators understand them.

Second, and possibly even more important, is that our publics (who, between you and me, never really got the terms we used to use) now need to be taught what these new terms mean. What is a pandemic and how is it different than H1N1, what should I do during a tornado emergency, but it’s not even a hurricane anymore. It’s our job to not only integrate those terms into our work, but also to start from scratch and teach them.

Timing is Everything

When I follow emergencies unfolding online, I follow them using Twitter. It’s where news breaks these days. The problem is that it keeps breaking. Over and over and over again until the entire situation is a mish-mash of unhelpful posts.

Let me explain.

See this post?

Topical, relevant, timely, eminently share-able, excellent. And it was shared, at least four times. Viral emergency messaging for the win!

But what you don’t see on this snapshot is when those retweets came. I know that at least one of them came around 10:30am that day, which was when I saved the tweet. I saved it because, well, a tweet about a Severe Thunderstorm Warning at 10:30am doesn’t do much when the Warning ended at 10:15am, and the storm about ten minutes before that.

Now, imagine if the original OEM tweet didn’t have a time on it. Every retweet thereafter runs the risk of alerting people to information that is out-of-date. Runs the risk of unnecessarily scaring folks, inflaming folks, misleading folks. And in some emergencies the cost is much worse than confusion. Think of the Oklahoma tornadoes from last month, when some meteorologists told people (incorrectly) now was the time to go home to avoid the storm. Delays in delivering that information could have life-threatening consequences.

The absolutely amazing Greg Licamele discussed a similar topic recently around flash flood warnings in the DC area.

Two-day old info is obviously not true and storms are not minutes away. It’s impossible to “train” casual Twitter users to manually add a date and timestamp, so those of us in the response business must be diligent to timestamp our info when appropriate so our own tweets are not errantly retweeted days later.

Greg recommends that Twitter update their time-stamping tool, which would be ideal, but in the meantime, I think that our good friend Marcus Deyerin had a great suggestion for what we should be doing in the meantime, very similar to what Philly OEM did:

If you’re sending tweets with time-sensitive info, add your own time stamp (e.g. 1015hrs).

Maybe we should include more, like a time and a date. Maybe more consistent messaging, such as posting when a message is out of date. In an information vacuum filled with a need for more, more, more, people will take the last thing you posted as the latest information, often incorrectly. And we should be careful about what we retweet. You’ll notice that everyone that retweeted our Thunderstorm Warning above was an agency, so it was one of us that passed along out-of-date information. We can do better.

Using the Science

stormGovernment communicators get asked to do lots of not fun things. When things have gone sideways, we’re in charge of cleaning up the mess until the underlying mess (which is never our fault!) is fixed. When the press is looking for blood, or inches, or quotes, we stand guard at the gate and beat back the hordes. We sometimes have over-inflated visions of what our jobs are. But through it all, we are the ones that have to say something about a topic that most likely we’ve had nothing to do with until that moment when the phone rings.

So when I see headlines like this:

FEMA Scales Back Flood Zones After Controversy

It really gets my goat. Because, one day, some poor communicator will be asked why FEMA said a home wasn’t likely to flood, and then it did. Again.

The agency released advisory maps in December that vastly expanded the so-called V-zones, where waves could cause severe damage to property. Many homeowners and elected officials objected, because those areas carry much higher reconstruction costs and higher flood insurance rates.

In new maps, officially out today, much less of the coast is considered in the highest risk category.

Just to demonstrate that I’m not totally heartless, I understand why the public and elected officials complained. Many would be absolutely priced out of their homes and businesses. That’s upsetting and they’re upset. I get that. But, assuming that the first maps published by FEMA were science-based, that’s where the recommendation should lie. Even if it makes people upset. Because it’s the right thing to do.

When those houses flood again, and they will, the media will swamp that poor communicator asking why all of those homes weren’t required to have flood insurance, and whatever they say in reply won’t be completely honest. They’ll say it was based upon the latest models, that it was it was most cost-effective, that no one could have predicted. But they did, and then they walked it back. Unless she says, “We wanted to say they were in the 100-year floodplain, but we crumbled due to political pressure,” whatever she says won’t be the full truth. And that is something that no communicator can fix.

Instead, we need to let the science dictate what we say. Because the science is our answer to why we did it that way. Not politics, not underhanded dealings, not sweetheart deals, nothing reproachable. We did it because the science said that we should. And it doesn’t matter if you hate me for it, this is our rationale and it’s defensible. A communicator can work with that.