Wednesday, June 1

Reading Livingston: Welcome To The Fifth Estate

Welcome To The Fifth EstateIf you conduct a rudimentary search for social media on Amazon, you'll pull up more than 150,000 titles. And so many of them, quite frankly, aren't much more than anecdotal paperweights or maybe fire starters.

Yes, even those that drip with praise from their fellow colleagues. The way I see it, if I'm ever to be accused of doing any favors for any colleagues in social media, let it be said the favor is not reviewing their books. I read them and sigh. It's the same reason I've passed on two invitations to write one.

There are some exceptions. Social Media ROI by Olivier Blanchard is probably one of them. I've only put off reading it because I know Blanchard and he and I see so closely on the subject it feels like volunteering to be the choir. And then there's Welcome To The Fifth Estate by Geoff Livingston.

A Review (of sorts) of Welcome To The Fifth Estate by Geoff Livingston.

One of the reasons I've been looking forward to Livingston's book beyond our longtime friendship, is the subject he chose to tackle. The premise seemed one off from social media. Pulling from history, Livingston notes that if the media might be considered the Fourth Estate then social media has helped give rise to the Fifth Estate (the masses), individuals who use technology to provide their own news, or more than likely, vet the news that is coming at them.

I've had an interest in this subject, citizen journalism, for years. I'm often torn between the those who see it is as good and those who see it as bad — watching firsthand some valiant or obscure individuals attempt to restore objectivity to the news even while so many lazier journalists long for reinstating yellow journalism.

But that isn't really what Welcome To The Fifth State is about. It's really an organizational primer that would help public relations and marketing professionals demonstrate the difference between an organization's traditional marketing efforts and communicating with the various social structures of online communities and social networks.

It’s an important lesson for any organization, even more so when you consider the online medium isn’t mass media as much as it is a media by the masses.

Livingston does a fine job with this, opening up with a warning to companies that advocacy consumers with journalism-like followings are on alert and waiting for them. And, in doing so, he helps recast how organizations might view this environment — especially using a significant number of case studies and references that sort our halo stories or horns — before they dive right in.

Welcome To The Fifth EstateThe best of the book is the call for companies to move away from silos to hives. I might call such a move integrated communication, but the analogy is strong. Designating different non-communicative budget-competative departments (silos) is no longer functional. All of the various communication-related roles need to work together. (Ergo, it doesn't make sense to have a Twitter account offering to assist with customer service problems if they have no direct tie to customer service solutions.)

I'm also happy to give props to Livingston for always being smart in helping organizations move away from thinking of everything in terms of tools and tactical counters. Instead, he rightly tees up considering the organizational strategy as opposed to the piles of tactics they have become.

However, he then drifts into providing tips on developing a social media strategy, which will help organizations refine their programs, but ruffles me up a bit because it's not really strategic communication. It's broader conceptual tactical thinking, which is a step up from what most companies do but still a rung down from strategic communication.

Why Welcome To The Fifth Estates Works As A Primer.

I don't mean to dismiss his central theme. (It might even be a case of semantics.) Contrary, what Livingston is attempting to drive home is that you cannot interrupt a conversation about a baseball with a message to sell someone a baseball bat. Doing so is asking for trouble and dilutes or destroys the brand.

Instead, he advocates for participating with the community on their terms. And that's smart. In other words, by talking about the game with the people talking about it, you might just sell a few bats too. Really, it's not unlike the difference between people you chat with at a professional luncheon and those who are too busy pumping their business cards in your hand.

All in all, Livingston does deliver a book several steps above the books littering online shelves. It seems to me the people it would best serve fall into three categories: People who are taking an interest in social media (or being thrust into it), executives who won't be doing it but want their team to start doing it, and a whole lot of "tool strategists" that count how many followers they have.

At the same time, you also expect Livingston to simplify some complex organizational concepts in an increasingly conversational way that anyone can relate to. It's a super fast read and presents several case studies that aren't talked about as often. You can finish it in a weekend afternoon and feel smarter for it on Monday. (And that doesn't even mention the introduction by Adam Ostrow, which I'll save for another day.)

That is not to say there aren't some "devil in the details" issues to watch out for. There are typos, too many. And on occasion, you might want to recheck some references because the stories don't mesh well with how events played out. (The one that stands out the most is JetBlue, but only because I covered it. Their blog only went silent as Neeleman was pushed aside.)

Who Might Be Best Served By A Visit To The Fifth Estate.

Welcome to the Fifth Estate is even stronger for Livingston than Now Is Gone. And it will open up more speaking opportunities for him as a professional who adds more quality to the field than people who "seem" to be more popular.

I can easily recommend it for executives who have less interest in social media but know their company needs to adopt it. There is no doubt it will help them avoid being sold snake oil. I also think it's a very worthwhile read for anyone who isn't up to speed on strategic communication but operating in social media. Livingston will take you half to three-quarters of the way there. And lastly, I appreciate the opportunity to have read an advanced electronic version because it provides a great snapshot of where we are on the path to wherever we might end up.
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