By Gerard Braud
Social media is like a compass. A compass has 360 degrees or points on it. If you face one direction, the opposite direction is 180 degrees from you.
In social media, any time you take a position on a topic, you can be assured that someone else has an opinion 180 degrees away from you – or the exact opposite opinion. And for that much, if we keep with the compass analogy, if you were to put 360 social media participants in a virtual space, you can bet that no two feel exactly the same. Each has a different opinion, ranging from just one or two degrees off to being 180 degrees off – or feeling exactly the opposite of someone else.
Disturbing television media trend #7 is the trend of reporting what people think on social media. Rather than conducting a scientific poll to measure public opinion, television reporters and producers turn to Facebook and Twitter to report how people feel about any issue. This replaces a previous disturbing, sad trend of the “man on the street interview.” This is where a television reporter hopelessly stands on a street corner trying to get sound bites from random people, to fill a hole in a new story.
A case in point of social media opinions run amuck, is the story that came to light on April 6, 2014, when a mother and father on a round-the-world sailboat trip sent out a distress signal because their one-year-old daughter was ill and their boat had lost steering 900 miles southwest of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Four California Air National Guard members parachuted into the water to rescue the family and bring them safely aboard the USS Vandergrift, which was headed to San Diego.
Facebook and Twitter lit up with criticism. The parents were called “irresponsible” and other things that won’t be mentioned here. People called into question the cost of the rescue. Opinions were all over the place.
In times past, such a story would have run on the news and people would have voiced their opinions at the office water cooler, at the corner bar, or at the beauty parlor. But social media is a virtual office water cooler, corner bar and beauty parlor all connected to the world’s largest amplifier. Add to it that search engines and hashtags allow the amplification to be searched and then amplified through the television news media, means the television media will tell you what people think.
Sadly, and with a degree of bias, the media tell you what they think the prevailing thoughts are, even though my compass analogy tells you that whatever one person thinks about this sailing trip and the rescue, someone else thinks something slightly or very different. For example, for each person who verbalizes their belief that the parents are crazy and that they put their infant at risk, there will be others who say life should be lived to the fullest.
Social media is full of opinions. Many of us have heard a variety of quotes about opinions. They range from the mild, “Opinions are like Belly Buttons, everybody has one;” to the slightly more crude, “Opinions are like farts. Just because you have one doesn’t mean you have to let it out;” to the even more crude analogy I heard during my television news career, “Opinions are like assholes. Everybody has one and thinks that everyone else’s stinks.” (Google “Opinion Quotes” to see countless more.)
The sad reality is the media, for nearly 20 years, has laid inflammatory opinions out for the public to hear, just to fuel a degree of outrage, so that people keep talking about what they heard on the news and where they heard it. News Talk Radio pioneered it and I’d say Rush Limbaugh turned it into an ugly ratings bonanza, copied by local talk radio, which has then been copied by Fox News and CNN each time they assemble a group of pundits who scream at each other with opposing views.
The story of the family on the sailboat has ushered in the most profound example of reporting based on anonymous opinions amplified on social media.
So how does this affect you if you are in PR and communications, working for a corporation, non-profit organization or government agency?
First, you must be more aware than ever that you will be judged harshly by critics for any and everything done by your organization, its executives and its employees. Your efforts at good news publicity will be condemned by naysayers. Your future crises will become the focal point for public hostility in social media. I predict that someday in the not too distant future, companies will go out of business simply because of public pressure on social media.
Long term, your company could see serious damage to both reputation and revenue because of social media pressure. You could be forced to apologize for harmless acts or actions that capture the ire of social media.
Just such a thing happened to Ann Taylor Loft on May 22, 2014, when people on social media criticized an image of a model that, in the opinion of some, was too skinny. Others complained the photo had been retouched and contributed to the stigma that young women must be thin. Ann Taylor Loft reportedly said it was an awkward pose. Either way, the social media firestorm was enough to cause reputational damage and likely a degree of monetary damage to the company and the brand.
In conclusion, every corporation, non-profit organization and government agency, and the executives and employees of each, face tougher scrutiny than ever. The time is now to rethink your media relations, social media and crisis communications strategies. What got no attention in the past will be more amplified than ever in the most costly ways.