Tuesday, June 24, 2008

NBC, Tim Russert, and Control in Age of Social Media

"If everything seems under control, you're just not going fast enough."
- Mario Andretti
Mario Andretti probably has no idea what social media is, but he may have provided us with the best quote ever on the topic. Control is an illusion, and I don't mean that in some zen-like philosophical way; I mean that the speed of the Internet combined with the power of personal networks is making control an unachievable and useless goal.

In the brief history of social media, we've already seen many high-profile missteps caused by the mistaken belief that the flow of communications can be controlled. In the past six months:
These examples demonstrate one of the more troubling aspects of Social Media to large organizations: the actions and decisions of a single employee or small group of workers can result in the kind of PR that can damage reputations, harm brands, suppress sales, increase costs, and potentially impact stock prices. Burger King, Target, and Johnson and Johnson aren't clueless and in fact have all made smart use of social media. The lesson of these PR disasters isn't to strive for more control (since we already know this is the problem and not the answer), but to concentrate on educating the workforce on appropriate and ethical behavior and communications.

NBC became the latest organization to learn difficult lessons about control in the era of Social Media. The news organization tried to control the timing of the news of Tim Russert's passing so that they could inform the family before the news hit the wires.

We can all appreciate NBC's intentions, but this is 2008 and their plan didn't work. An employee of a partner organization updated Russert's Wikipedia entry with news of his death 40 minutes before NBC announced the news. NBC, upon learning of the Wikipedia update, changed Russert's entry back, erasing the accurate information that had been posted. NBC is now embarrassed by the incident, and the person who leaked the news has reportedly lost his job.

The blogosphere isn't being kind to NBC. High-profile blogs and Internet media outlets are broadcasting comments such as:
  • MediaPost: "It seems that NBC, much like The Associated Press and other old-media businesses, hasn’t yet grasped that news is no longer published in a top-down manner."

  • Silicon Alley Insider: "It's one thing for a news organization to decide to delay reporting news of a staffer's death out of deference to his or her family (this makes sense). It's another for the organization to expect other organizations to follow the same policy. And it is yet another thing for someone to deliberately strike accurate facts from a collective record...which is what (they) apparently did."

  • CrunchGear: "NBC, of all organizations, should know what to do with news. They have been a trusted source for decades. For them to fumble in this way - to not be able to pick up the phone to call the family immediately, to fail to keep in contact with folks who could tell them it’s OK to run the story, to have to get the news out of an reporter’s death and to presumably get the exclusive - is an egregious chain of failure that led to what can only be described as a debacle."
Interestingly, old-school media outlet US News & World Report provided the most insightful observations about the NBC situation: "Employers can no longer assume that employees have their policies, privacy, and best interests at heart. Employers today need to offer clear direction on what employees can and cannot communicate, along with a frank explanation of the consequences of violating the policy."

The implications of Social Media cannot be ignored, nor can they be controlled. The quicker organizations define and educate their employees on expected standards of behavior and communication policies, the sooner they can minimize the likelihood of a Social Media embarrassment. As Mario Andretti knows, the faster you move, the more likely you are to win the race.

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