Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A Journalist's View of PR & Social Media: Tannette Johnson-Elie

Newspapers are dead. PR is dead. So many people are ready to give last rites to the news gathering and reporting business that you'd think news itself was on its deathbed.

Of course, there has never been more demand for information and knowledge than there is today. Technology may threaten the revenue models and delivery methods of news, but it also is presenting new ways for journalists to promote themselves, connect to audiences, build networks, and gather information.

I had the opportunity to learn how Social Media is challenging and assisting journalists when I met with Tannette Johnson-Elie, a business columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Johnson-Elie, who has been with the Journal Sentinel for almost 20 years, is an active Twitter user. I was curious why she chose Twitter, the value she's finding in microblogging, and how Twitter and other Social Media tools are affecting the world of journalism.

As an observer of business, Johnson-Elie has been aware of Social Media for a couple years, but she didn't jump into Twitter until after writing a story about Social Media site, LinkedIn. The article became the most read story on JSOnline.com that day, and she realized, "We've tapped into an audience of people who are hungry to connect better." This led the journalist in her to begin to seek out more information about Social Media and to experience Twitter for herself. Since then, she has written popular articles about Facebook and Twitter.

As she ventured into Twitter, she thought, like many entrepreneurs, that the site may provide a great way to promote her column and JSOnline.com. And, like many of us, Johnson-Elie came to find that the greatest value of participating on Twitter is in gaining a network of peers and getting to know new people. As a journalist, Johnson-Elie is finding that she is relying less on her traditional network of contacts and more on Twitter--it's easier to send a Tweet to her 292 followers in order to gather information or find a new source than it is to pick up the phone and start working her call list.

Twitter is providing other unexpected benefits for Johnson-Elie. She is finding that Twitter is allowing her to explore interests beyond her day job. For example, she following a couple of beatboxers and music professionals on Twitter because her son has an interest in the music industry. Likewise, through her use of Twitter, she believes other are getting a "glimpse of who (she is) beyond her role as a journalist."

One thing that disappointed Johnson-Elie was an inability to track the clicks from the links she posted to Twitter. Like many others, she'd been using TinyURL.com to shorten and redirect links from Twitter. If you share this challenge with her, you may be interested in BudURL.com, a site that works in the same way as TinyUrl and Is.Gd, but also provides a means to track the number and source of clicks.

As of yet, Johnson-Elie is not finding that she's receiving a great deal of PR spam, which I found (pleasantly) surprising. She's being discriminating about who she follows, and so far has only blocked one person.

Johnson-Elie says she finds it acceptable when Twitter followers share interesting and relevant news about their company and products, but she's "not interested in companies promoting themselves and trying to sell products all the time." Johnson-Elie furnishes an example of one such Twitterer who crossed the line. This individual represented a restaurant chain, and every time Johnson-Elie shared anything on Twitter having to do with food or hunger, she received a response with a suggestion to try a different menu item; any time Johnson-Elie mentioned she was hungry or going to lunch, her Twitter follower responded with another spammy menu suggestion. This quickly turned annoying and hurt rather than helped her impression of the restaurant chain.

Johnson-Elie offers advice for Public Relations professionals looking to network with her and other journalists on Twitter: Connect with her first, demonstrate your interests and knowledge through your Tweets, build rapport, and she will then be more open to receiving news and information about your company or products. Johnson-Elie suggests that PR professionals watch for her tweets that ask for assistance, and if you have knowledge or information that may help, this is the best way to connect.

Johnson-Elie believes other journalists may find as much value as she has on Twitter. She's observed slow but steady adoption by her peers of Twitter and quite a bit of usage of other Social Media tools such as LinkedIn and Facebook. On Twitter, she is following a few journalists with other news organizations, including Rick Sanchez at CNN and Lynn Sweet with the Sun Times, but Johnson-Elie has thus far seen few reporters leveraging Twitter as much as she.

I wondered if she, as an employee of a major metropolitan newspaper, might foresee or predict a place for the printed news in the long term, but like many others Johnson-Elie recognizes the days of the physical newspaper are numbered. She sees Social Media not as a threat but as a means to help newspapers with the transition: "It is vital to capture and engage the audience; one way to do that is through Social Media, which can help us build our brand."

Like all of us, she believes it is unavoidable that journalists and news organizations continue to embrace social media, but she cautions we are venturing into unknown territory. "There are no rules," Johnson-Elie notes. We spoke about a recent well-publicized incident where a reporter live Twittered from the funeral of a three-year-old accident victim. Johnson-Elie notes that, as always, "you have to use your judgment. Do you really need to let the world know at that moment?"

I provided Johnson-Elie an opportunity to share her thoughts on blogs and "citizen journalists." I wasn't sure if a professional journalist would respect the efforts of amateur reporters, but just like the rest of us, she finds value in them--to a point. While Johnson-Elie "respect(s) people who blog" and "welcome(s) people being enterprising," she notes there's "a lot to be said for what trained professional journalists bring to the table." She points out that journalists offer strong research capabilities, large networks of sources, access to important sources, and knowledge of the beats to which they are assigned.

Johnson-Elie is concerned about the misinformation that can be disseminated from blogs and the impact this can have. She cited a recent incident with her husband, who is a banker. In the midst of the recent banking crisis, he read some concerning information about his employer on a blog. She suggested he seek out legitimate sources of information to confirm the report, and he came to learn the information was false. We all know this, of course, but Johnson-Elie reminds us, "Just because it's been posted doesn't make it fact."

In the end, it seemed that Johnson-Elie's experiences and insights as a journalist were quite similar to my own as a marketing professional--we both are finding the same sorts of value, challenges, and surprises as we engage in Social Media. Johnson-Elie also shares the same advice that I have often offered to newbies as they venture into Twitter and other Social Media: "Keep an open mind."

How have your experiences using Twitter or other Social Media sites different from your expectations? Your comments and insights would be appreciated.


Jeff Larche said...

How have I benefited from using Twitter? Well, for one, I found this post. :-)

Augie, thanks for using this conversation as a way to talk about this form of "micro-blogging." I have done a complete 180 degree turn over the last two years about Twitter. I now see its value for keeping in touch with friends and business associates, as well as getting a bit of a jump-start on breaking local, national and world news.

Example: I didn't watch the last presidential debate because of work. Instead, I dipped into my Twitter feed every so often to hear what my far-flung group of amateur, self-appointed correspondents had to say.

It was more entertainment than education (a little like eavesdropping on a prize fight), but it WAS interesting to note how closely these "tweets" reflected what the pundits were saying in the media the next day.

I am interested in watching where all of this is going. Thanks for contributing to the discussion.

Augie Ray said...

Thanks Jeff. Appreciate the interesting observations!

I watched the last debate but still had Twitter active. It was like getting instantaneous analysis from people I trust! For example, I hadn't thought much of McCain's "that one" comment--seemed like a missed attempt at humor or being chummy--but boy, did Twitter light up!

Andy Meadows said...

Many thanks for your reference to BudURL.com. We believe that it is critical to have as much information around detailed analytics as possible. If you can't measure it, then you shouldn't be doing it. :-)

All the Best,


AquinasWI said...

I definitely have seen a growing value in Twitter. Admittedly, when a friend first mentioned it to me , it was with some reluctance that I joined (exactly one year ago). I posted a comment or two, but didn't see immediate value. I'm sure I even asked, "Okay, what's the point?"

It took some time to hone my followers list. I had at first followed a bunch of the "big guns" in the web industry. Sure, at times it was interesting to see what they had to say about all manner of things, but it was very impersonal. I had no rapport with them, I don't think any of them followed me, and it seemed pointless given most of them have RSS feeds or blogs that deal with headier Web-related subjects.

It was when I came to realize the potential of Milwaukee and local based networking that the value of Twitter shone to me. Finding people in this neck of the woods, who share an interest in various aspects of this crazy business, really set off a light bulb as to the power of social networking, microblog-style.

All of that culminated in attending TwappyHour last week. It was great to meet people in the industry, talk a little shop but mostly just shoot the breeze. That too is the fun part of Twitter -- most of us may have some common ground career-wise, but the tweet topics are all over the map. Sometimes it's sports. Sometimes it's politics. Sometimes it's entertainment.

Regardless, I've been a regular user of Twitter and look forward to interacting more and more with the people I follow. It's downright addicting.

Gail Sideman said...

Tannette Johnson Elie makes great points about Twitter's potential for reporters.

As a publicist, I'm thrilled she uses it the way she does. If I'm on her side of the isle, however, I understand that other reporters may hesitate to put queries out on the TwitterWire; we all know less-than-professional PR types who ooze from the woodwork when they see anything remotely related to one of their clients.

Those responses should be kept to a minimum, however, if we get to know reporters in a way that Tannette has allowed her followers to get to know her.

Thanks to Augie Ray for showing us that "new" and traditional media can live happily together!

Augie Ray said...

Thanks AquinasWI and Gail! Appreciate the comments. It's interesting to see how much alike (and a few of the unique differences) we all have in our use of Twitter!

Laurent said...


I haven't made the step toward twitter yet (oh I do have an account but...don't use it..no time). However, in the area of social media, I follow ~800 blogs on social media marketing and, after a few weeks, I was surprised I gained an accurate understanding of the macro issues in this space (PR spam, personal vs corpo branding, measure...). To me it's the benefit you gain when listening to targeted a large number of social media outlet and listen to them regularly. I call it the wisdom of the crowd.
I advise marketers I meet to just do it, and have that become part of their DNA.
In 1900, a scientist who wanted to demonstrate the value of statistics, asked ~1000 people at a cow fair to weight a cow on display. Individual responses were all other the place but the average who very very close to reality.

Geeber said...

GREAT article, Augie. It's great to hear that social media should be seen as an opportunity and not a threat to traditional media. I also follow CNN's Rick Sanchez and Don Lemon and found them to be truly engaging with their thousands of followers. Not only seeking ideas or views for news stories but also wanting to know, for example, how downturn economy affects their lives.
Conversation is key and it seems they both know how to use this important characteristic of social media in a very effective way.

Augie Ray said...

Thanks, Gee! Appreciate the comments. I really enjoyed meeting and talking to Tannette and we both thought it was time well spent.

Hope all is well for you and your students!

Gary B said...

Hi Augie,

Twitter has been an interesting new addiction for me. Mostly trying to figure out if it is a useful tool or another distraction. I'm leveling out now and finding great value personally. I learn valuable things and I'm meeting lots of smart people (if only virtually).

A big step in my Twitter maturation has been knowing when to stop following people who really aren't saying anything, but saying it a lot.

Even as I neophyte twitterer, I am becoming a be a bit of an evangelist. I see great value in establishing this real-time conversation (depending on your use) with people you know or haven't really met.

I'm very surprised I haven't seen a lot more local businesses using Twitter to communicate with their customers. Especially bars and restaurants where there is a huge social aspect to their business. I have even taken to providing some unsolicited Twitter mentorship to a local wine shop (I haven't even visited yet - but read their blog) just so I could see how this might drive visits. I'm not even in marketing, just an MBA student with a vision for the value of this media.

Thanks for your analysis and the conversation. Tannette has been a great source for me as I analyze this stuff. Have a great birthday! My kingdom for those 10 years to be 32 again.

Gary Branger (@gbranger)