Connect with Facebook generation, expert urges Canadian companies

TLDNR. If you don’t know what it means then you also probably don’t have a clue why most people under 25 don’t read the Globe and Mail.

The acronym stands for “too long, did not read” – the keys Gen Y computer users tap to signify – via short message service (SMS) – that an article or message has taxed the limits of their attention span.

Attitudes to information have undergone a sea change, and businesses and government agencies have no option but to embrace social networking tools, says a crisis communications expert.

“The audiences are on YouTube and Facebook [so] you’ve got to get with the program,” says Jim Stanton, president of Stanton Associates, a media relations firm based in Vancouver.

Stanton is a former journalist who – at the request of the late Dr. Sheela Basrur, Ontario’s former Chief Medical Officer for Health – sat on the province’s SARS Experts Panel.

His experience as a crisis communications expert has shown him the inadequacy of traditional methods to get a message out.

These days, newspaper or TV ads and radio spots do not hit their target audience because the people’s eyes are glued to their computer screens, Stanton noted.

“Traditional methods don’t work and we can’t manage information like we used to,” said Stanton in presentation at the recently concluded World Conference on Disaster Management in Toronto.

Stanton’s talk was titled.  The Death of News: How the e-world is Killing Traditional News Gathering Methods.

He said the irony is instead of  harnessing social networking tools to reach out to the public, many private and government organizations are banning their use among employees.

Stanton cited instances of how new multi-media communication tools are undercutting conventional news media, such as newspapers, television and radio.

He recalled how, in July 2005, when explosions rocked the London underground public transit system killing 57 people, the first images of the carnage the public saw where still pictures taken by bystanders on cell phone cameras.

People from various walks-of-life with no professional journalism background snapped pictures of the tragedy with their cell phones and uploaded them into the Internet to friends and news agencies.

This happened within seconds of the incident before any news crews could arrive at the scene.

This, Stanton said, exemplifies “I-witness news” in action where “I” stands for the Internet.

For a government caught off-guard, those initial photos may have proved to be somewhat of an embarrassment.  Taken almost immediately after the blast, they didn’t show any police or medical emergency personnel attending the wounded.

This could be seen in the context of the immediacy of the coverage, or just as easily as a failure of government to respond to an emergency.

While I-witness accounts present unfiltered and immediate accounts of events, there could be a negative aspect to this immediacy, Stanton suggested.

This kind of coverage often lacks the responsibility and accountability demonstrated by traditional media.

For instance, he noted that some pictures of the London explosions also clearly showed the victims’ faces.

“The professional media would generally have avoided showing identifiable photos of victims until their next of kin could be informed. That’s part of journalistic ethics.”  

The London bombing I-witness coverage took place months before video phones arrived in the market.

Closer to home the eyewitness’s video recording of Robert Dziekanski dying after being stunned with a Taser by RCMP officers on Oct. 14 at Vancouver International Airport exemplifies the power of consumer generated media.

Paul Pritchard shot the video with his digital camera, through the glass walls that separate the international arrivals lounge from a secure area outside the Canada Customs exit.

The RCMP had claimed that its officers had shot Dziekanski with a Taser gun after trying to pacify him for 30 minutes, said Stanton. Video from a traveler’s cell phone, however, clearly showed that the police fired at the man within 30 seconds of arriving at the scene.

Shortly after its posting on YouTube, the video caused an uproar led to questions of a police cover-up.   

But social media can also be used to build an organization’s brand and reputation, Stanton suggested.

He urged government agencies and businesses to  develop their own social networking presence.

In Ontario this is happening in a very tangible way.

The province which had once barred the use of Facebook in government offices, is now gradually exploring ways to incorporate Web 2.0 technology into its communication strategy.

“I think there’s an acceptance that if we don’t move in that direction, the public will take us there anyway,” said Karl Cunningham, head of Ontario’s e-Government Branch.

Premier Dalton McGuinty has a regular blog and the provinces Ministry of Agricultural Food and Rural Affairs hosts a podcast that is very popular with Ontario’s farming community.

Of course all these probably pale in comparison to the Buckingham Palace’s Royal 2.0 initiative that has resulted in the Queen’s own YouTube channel.

“Governments and businesses can use emerging technologies to create various mash-ups of services that stand a better chance than papers or TV at attracting and engaging Gen Y consumers,” according to Michelle Warren, technology analyst for Info-Tech Research Group in London, Ont.

Stanton said consumers are clamouring for an open media where they and not only consumers of the news “but authors of it as well.”

TV news stations from CityTV in Toronto to CNN in the U.S. are encouraging viewers to take their own news videos and upload them on the network.

And in many newsrooms, city and assignment editors now monitor YouTube along with the usual wire services to keep tabs on what is happening around the world.

In the case of calamities, for example, organizations can log on to sites such as YouTube, to obtain immediate situation reports gathered and posted by “citizen reporters” before professional journalists or government personnel arrive at the scene.

This information can be vital in sending out emergency crews and relief workers.

Companies embroiled in corporate scandals can also monitor general social networking sites of those specific to their industry to gauge public opinion on the issue and craft a PR strategy that can minimize further brand damage.

“In cases of tragedy, officials must first express sincere empathy for those affected, promise that an investigation will be underway and assure the public that they will be provided more details as information becomes available,” Stanton adds.

Whether it’s a front page piece, a blog, SMS message or YouTube post, Stanton said communicators must still provide eight answers the eight basic questions that public has:

  1. What is really happening?
  2. How will it affect me?
  3. What are you doing about the situation?
  4. What do I need to do?
  5. Can you give me specific details and instructions?
  6. When will things get back to normal?
  7. What reassurances can you give me?
  8. Who is the available “voice of authority” that can speak about the issue?

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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