Big business and the citizen reporter

Written by Lahra Carey

In the reactive media space, the corporate affairs departments of major companies – particularly those that offer goods or services – are increasingly finding out about what’s happening in the field from social media reports which can often make it into the mainstream media news cycle before the company’s internal PR department has time to shut it down.The kinds of situations we are talking about here include anything from an incident on an airline, to bad customer service, a negative product review or an unfolding natural disaster. What they all have in common is that none of these situations are predictable, and any of them can end up on the 6pm news.

In our experience, how these are managed differs from organisation to organisation – mostly depending on how many levels of bureaucracy there are to navigate before someone is empowered to respond.

And therein lies the biggest challenge for today’s Big Corporates; they haven’t evolved their communications teams from the structures that were established to manage a daily- deadline news environment. Further, each of their communications departments are in silos – dealing with a specific aspect of outreach; internal communications, external communications, corporate communications etc.

Sure, there is also a social media department, but these operators are not – and never have been – journalists. The problem this poses is their inability to distinguish between the issue that is likely to become a full-blown news story, and those that will probably disappear under the blanket of nano-second social media reportage. And this sixth ‘news sense’ cannot be taught – but is honed from years on the road and working in a newsroom.

The way Big Business counters this vulnerability is through a (valid) sense of paranoia, and a series of checks and balances ensuring no-one is left out on a limb in taking full responsibility for any snowballing media disaster. In other words – a lengthy hierarchy of sign-offs for any response, which necessarily takes hours, and in some cases days. By the time the last signatory has put a stamp on the press release or post, the social and traditional media tidal wave has long hit the shoreline and debris is already flying.

How widespread the damage will be from here depends on a number of factors – many of these now impossibly hard to control by the corporate giant who is now in crisis management mode – or reputational free-fall, depending on the circumstances.

In any David and Goliath battle played out in the public domain, customers and clients will always identify with the underdog, and social media plays well into this realm. After all, the entire tabloid current affairs genre was built on these stories of human interest.

But previously, the media was bound to wait for fed-up customers to go to some effort to share their story; writing a letter to the program and developing photos. Today, no effort is required on the part of the customer – and the media is able to easily mine the myriad social media sites filled with complaining, wronged and ripped off customers.

It’s time for Big Business to connect the dots and ensure their own communications systems are as savvy.