The Iranian government may have last year succeeded in having tight control of the information reaching most news media, but information had been spreading on Twitter (you could type in #Iran election into the search box for the latest updates). Whether this is always accurate highlights one problem with such news, in that not all sources can be proved to be reliable.
When Michael Jackson died in June 2009, again the power of social networking came to the fore. First the story was reported on US celebrity gossip site TMZ, and then online conversations began about it hours before the death was announced on traditional news programmes such as on the BBC mywebmagazine.co.uk , which had to make rigorous checks about the validity of the story before it could be broken.
Another example of the power of the social media is the recent Facebook campaign to end a long-running Christmas chart domination by Simon Cowell’s stars, The X Factor winners. In this campaign thousands of people joined a group encouraging them to buy Rage Against The Machine’s track ‘Killing in the Name.’ The campaign worked; Cowell’s empire was temporarily toppled, and Rage Against The Machine were holders of the UK’s official Christmas number one single in 2009. Proof that social networking can be used in a rebellion against popular culture, as well as being an informant to the masses.
How the news spread of Michael Jackson’s death at music festival Glastonbury illustrates how gossip sites work in conjunction with face-to-face gossip. Vanessa Collu, onboard sales senior sales executive at the BBC, describes how she first heard the news at the festival: “On Thursday night at Glastonbury we started hearing people shouting ‘Michael Jackson is dead’ around the site, and then became aware that various stalls were playing his songs. The news gradually spread around the festival by word of mouth from people who were checking their Twitter and Facebook accounts, so social media played a major part in ensuring the news was quickly shared around.”
There is no doubt that social media resources are changing the way that people access news, and James Poulter, digital strategist at Ogilvy PR, goes on to say that social media is the most important development for the PR industry since the invention of newswire services. Poulter says that social networks are being integrated into everything he does, from using Twitter for media relations, keeping clients in the loop via wikis and blogs, to creating full-service digital campaigns of a global scope. He adds: “We are not only witnessing an evolution or upgrade of the internet but a revolution in how people engage with media and communicate with one another.”
The way that social media allow interaction with audiences means that the days of talking ‘at’ people are long gone. Mark Mellor, managing director at communications consultancy Firefly, says he wouldn’t dream of launching a client’s new service or product without engaging the relevant blog communities and forums, or holding an event without drawing attention to it via blogs and tweets. Mellor says the current main social networking applications are Facebook and Twitter and discusses how such networks mean everything is live and immediate. He adds, “…there are no deadlines anymore, no embargoes, information is instant. This can be good and bad. In raw terms, it means we’re more in tune with audiences, events and issues than ever before, but on the other hand it means we’re always on.”
As well as being used by people to find out information that is not yet be being widely reported, publicists can use social networks to communicate what they want, when they want, without having to be translated by journalists in ways they do not like. Nikki Alvey, independent public relations consultant, argues that social networks aren’t just a way of bypassing journalists however, as they help to build relationships with them too. She says, “In addition to the usual PR tactics such as pitching by-lines, checking forward features lists for relevant opportunities, I can take a more proactive approach and actively seek out and track journalists – what they’re writing about, recently published works and to check out what’s going on in their lives. It enables me to get much closer to them and deliver what they need which I think results in a more positive relationship all round.”
For celebrities, the evolution of social networks has been a godsend. Ross Furlong, founder of digital PR agency Furlong PR, says that in for those in the spotlight, Twitter has become the super-fast way for some to communicate with their fan base. Furlong says that this is good news for them as they have regained control of their public image. He adds: “Rather than listen to idle speculation, you hear it from the horse’s mouth. Some personalities are particularly well suited to it. Andy Murray, dour on TV and rightly suspicious of TV interviewers, comes across far better on Twitter and on his blog.”