Friday, February 24

Winning Or Spinning: The Fifth Estate

Author Geoff Livingston recently mentioned how average citizens are using social media to activate themselves online and demand change. He defines the phenomenon as the Fifth Estate, which is an extension of the media being considered the Fourth Estate.

Among his examples are the Syrian revolution and the Planned Parenthood/Susan B. Komen buzz up. Both are events that are being shaped and were shaped, in part, by online activists, citizen journalists, and social media. And then he ends by asking: What do you think about citizen journalists and the Fifth Estate?

I think public relations professionals ought to be afraid. 

Take any issue under social media and run with it. As Livingston pointed out, you will find a healthy dose of successes and failures. Popular opinion isn't always the right opinion and the masses make mistakes just as much as individuals. And sometimes, the mistakes they make are fraught with peril.

Take The Pink Back. There is no question that Susan B. Komen did everything wrong in terms of its initial executive decision and all public relations after the fact, but there is always that one largely unasked question looming in the background. Why was a private nonprofit organization with a $400 million operating budget compelled to donate to a government-subsidized nonprofit with a $1 billion operating budget? And why was there that much controversy over $680,000 as a result?

As much as the outcry seemed like a groundswell, much of it was coordinated through the lobby arm of the larger organization. And for Susan B. Komen, the penalty could forever pin it to one of the most controversial and emotionally charged issues in the country. Ironically, before Komen reversed its decision, both organizations received an uptick in donations that far exceeded the grant.

Chink In The Armor. Anthony Federico, an ESPN editor, was fired after his unfortunate use of the phrase "chink in the armor" that created an avalanche of social media fervor claiming ESPN has racist intent. The expression, which means a weakness or narrow opening in something otherwise strong, has been used in sports for as long as anyone can remember. But people took exception when the term was used as a mobile headline over a player who happened to be Taiwanese.

Unlike the other case study, the outrage was clearly caused by groundswell. And it seemed to make no difference to anyone that Jeremy Lin accepted the apology of Federico, who didn't vet his own choice of words. Federico has said he only had the primary definition in mind and it was an honest mistake. Rather than give him the benefit of the doubt, ESPN fired him, which may prove to be the wrong executive "crisis communication by the numbers" decision yet. Now the phrase is being deemed unusable in any context.

LEGO. LEGO recently launched a new set of toys called "LEGO: Friends" which features pastels and pinks as well as figures that look a little more "Barbie" than construction characters. The critics of the new toys are claiming that the LEGO: Friends set is sexist, and little girls don't need to have a special set to be interested in building.

LEGO has invested $40 million to launch its LEGO: Friends campaign. In addition to being upset by the colors, critics are upset because the new toy includes leisure, homemaking, baking, and caring for animals. LEGO has responded to the criticism by reminding parents they can purchase whatever set their children are interested in. However, the group that has been using Change.org to get its message out has also won a meeting with the organization fueling the outrage to discuss their concerns. If they pull the line, it could be one of the worst decisions the company will ever make.

The Fifth Estate is a mess and the Fourth isn't much better. 

It doesn't matter where you stand on any of these issues. The issues are not the point. The point is that social media empowers the improbable for right or wrong, even if the ability to tell what is groundswell and what is motivated by social agenda is becoming impossibly blurred.

All of this was an inevitable outcome as the Fourth Estate began to shift away from objective journalism and toward affirmation media, which embraces and elevates public opinion. While some see that shift is as a positive trend, the reality is that public opinion changes like the wind and sometimes too late to rectify any wrongs that come to light with the benefit of hindsight. Don't be a lemming to it.

In the interim, the only remedy public relations professionals can apply is a temporal communication model not only after an organization makes a decision, but also before it makes decisions. It's not foolproof, especially because you can always find two differing opinions fanning the flames of their mutual disconnect, but you might sleep a little easier as even the most absurd "invented" crisis gets attention.
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