Crimes against Twitter: how mainstream media and marketers are messing up

The bewildered who aren’t yet tweeting may well be puzzled by the plethora of articles they’re suddenly reading in publications as far flung as the Vancouver Sun, the Globe and Mail,  the New York Times, The Guardian, The Spectator, Business Week…. Certainly the English-speaking world is suddenly all atwitter about Twitter (or at least the portion of it who still read either real or virtual newspapers and magazines).

Naturally, as a PR person, I’ve taken advantage of the opportunity to follow as many media outlets as I can. A huge portion of any public relations practitioner’s daily task is to monitor and review media, constantly taking its pulse, identifying trends, and, frankly, analyzing bias. That bias, incidentally, is endemic to the human condition, and can include not only the way in which an event or an announcement is covered locally, regionally, nationally, and globally, but also whether it is covered or not, when and where coverage appears (front page, section front page, above the fold, below the fold, left side, right side – all these factor into whether an article is going to be read or not, and by whom).

PR folk don’t just monitor their clients’ media coverage – they monitor their clients’ industries and socio-economic trends in general. That and the fact that they tend to be smart people with heightened literacy skills is how they can advise you that 2009 is probably not the best time to try to launch your luxury sedan and perhaps step up production of your serviceable, stalwart vehicles.

Conversely, of course, in the depths of a recession/depression, the need for escape from the brutal realities of foreclosures, repossessions and personal bankruptcies means that entertainment trends will often follow a very different course. Think Dynasty, which launched in 1981 and ran till 1989. Think about the fact that shoulder pads have recently made a comeback in women’s fashions, and that the term ‘bling’ was coined at time when property values in North America rose to ridiculous and unsustainably high levels before an inevitable crash. Who wore more bling than Alexis and Crystal Carrington? (I should mention I don’t consider myself any kind of economic expert at all – but when you’ve lived through two or more recessions in your lifetime, you start to figure out that what goes up usually comes down sooner or later.)

In 1981,  at the peak of an inflationary cycle that had lasted throughout the 1970s, some Canadian companies not renowned for either their generosity or their high profit margins were handing out standard annual increases of as much as 12 per cent to retain staff and – well – because they had to, because the price of everything rose and rose and rose. And then that bubble burst, and the 1981-1982 recession in this country was considered the deepest and longest recession of the Canadian economy since the Second World War. 

In precisely the same way traditional advertising media buyers look long and hard at readership demographics, PR practitioners need to focus their efforts to reach their clients’ stakeholders. Reaching those stakeholders through traditional media is still one of the ways to do this, although it’s not now – nor has it ever been – the only way to do so. Social media provides a cost-effective way to potentially reach a lot of those stakeholders as well. Unfortunately, it’s not a particularly time-effective way.

And that, I think, is where the problem arises and the crimes against Twitter begin to be committed by many mainstream media outlets (and some individual journalists) who’ve hopped onto the Twitter bandwagon.

The Nieman Journalism Lab and Kirk LaPointe of the Vancouver Sun are doing a fine job of monitoring the demise of traditional media (print in particular) and of suggesting and evaluating  potential new business models that might help newspapers survive. Not all of them are going to make it though: the last month has seen a 10% shrinkage of North American print publications. CanWest Global is trying to unload two British Columbia television states and has ceased its morning and mid-day news broadcasts. The Christian Science Monitor announced it’s going to cease publishing a print edition before the middle of 2009, and the New York Times is mulling printing papers three to four times a week rather than seven days a week. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer is up for sale, and has been for a while.

But in the meantime, every traditional media outlet and its second cousin twice removed has hopped onto Twitter (the latest local entrant is talk radio station CKNW in early February 2009). And what are they doing? With some notable exceptions (and I’ll get to them in a minute), they’re treating Twitter like a broadcast medium. They’ve got their automated tweets all set up and they’re blasting out four to six news items at the same time every day. Whoosh – CBC’s tweets go out. Whoosh – the Georgia Straight sends out a blast. Whoosh – The Guardian does the same thing.  Then BBC News starts up – and BBC SciTech – and then BBC Health. And suddenly you’re scrambling to read 40 articles at once and have so many windows open you can’t count ’em (or see them). And then they subside for another six to 24 hours and it all starts up again. It’s the virtual equivalent of copious projectile vomiting.

Here’s the odd thing though: most of the journalists on Twitter are writing how-to articles about it – not so much how to get more followers or Twitter etiquette (although some of them presume to do precisely that), but ‘benefits of Twitter’ articles. My question is, how could they possibly know what the benefits are, when most of them have completely and utterly missed the point of social media? Which is that it’s about exchanging information, not about blasting out broadcasting messages. The lethargy that may have been inferred from only one person in 1000 actually writing and mailing a letter to the editor doesn’t mean the other 999 don’t have opinions – and social media has enabled the expression of those opinions to an unprecedented degree. Except – newsflash – when you make it difficult for people to talk to you, they’re going to talk about you. And more often they’ll do so in unflattering terms than in flattering ones. Because if you knew anything about my field, public relations, and two of its specialties, community/stakeholder consultations and issues management,  you’d know how very important it is to empower people by giving them the opportunity to be heard. Often that’s all people really want. They don’t expect their opinions to influence large corporations’ strategies or government policy, but they do want to be validated by being listened to in a way that doesn’t smack of tokenism. As far as broadcast media is concerned: do you have any idea how many people shout at their radio and television stations? And then either turn them off or switch to another station when they hear broadcasters spouting idiocies?

Here’s another controversial thing I’m going to say: marketers who don’t really understand the range of public relations activities can just STFU about public relations people trying to ‘control the message’ and that era being over. Because I’m tired of hearing that nonsense from the very same folks who created lifestyle advertising and who know SFA about the range of public relations activities (email if you don’t know what those acronyms stand for). It wasn’t a PR person who invented the slogans, ‘Coke. It’s the Real Thing’ (what, the real killer combo of caffeine and sugar?) or ‘At Ford, Quality is Job One.’  Those were advertising/marketing folks. In the meantime, it was PR people, listening intently as always, who would have alerted GM to the fact that, um, people in the auto repair industry and in body shops across North America were sniggering that GM stood for ‘got money’ not General Motors as they watched an endless procession of GM cars come in time and time again for expensive repairs and body work.

It’s also not the marketers, the advertisers, or journalists who do crisis communications, and have to deal with the very real trauma of people struggling to do the right thing when disaster strikes, whether it’s a train derailment, a product recall, or an avalanche. If people didn’t need help in time of crisis, we wouldn’t have firefighters, ambulances, police cars equipped with sirens, Search and Rescue volunteers or standing armies, would we? In the feeding frenzy that ensues when media descend in a crisis, it’s the PR people who direct the dissemination of information to everyone who needs to know – and believe me, it’s not usually the general public who need to know first. It’s staff and their families and those trying to find out what’s happened to their loved ones. And they deserve to hear the news in a caring, individualized, and compassionate way that is targeted at them, not as part of the 6 o’clock news aimed at a broad demographic and designed to increase readership/viewership. If you’d like to get a flavour of the depth and breadth of public relations activities that are not marketing communications-focused (i.e. not about supporting marketing efforts or, I’ll confess, what those of us who aren’t really into marcomms describe a little snottily as ‘pushing product’), follow my former boss on Twitter, @boydneil, or start reading his blog, especially posts like this one, in which he tackles the issue of corporate reputation management and demolishes the idiotic utterances of people who know nothing about the subject but continue to prattle. Some people are even more articulate when they’re ‘exercised.’

Marcel Lebrun has a lovely post here about what actually constitutes listening, and he makes the point I was initially trying to make much more succinctly than I’ve done. Part of listening is responding. And if you’re a media outlet or a journalist crowing about how many followers you have while you’re following less than a tenth of those people, you’re talking at people, not conversing with them. You’re like the playground bully shouting everyone else down.

So – paragraphs ago I promised to talk about the good, not just the bad and the ugly. Here’s a list of mainstream media folk who are doing it right on Twitter – and doing right by the Twitterverse:


Mathew Ingram, former tech writer for the Globe and Mail, now the Globe’s new communities editor.

What he’s doing right: everything. He listens. He engages. He follows lots of people. He checks his @ messages and responds when appropriate. He passes on useful/helpful/interesting information he’s received from others (retweets, or RT in Twitspeak).  Could you please speak to the rest of the Globe and Mail folks and help turn the projectile vomiting into barely audible burps though? Thanks. @mathewingram

Alexis Madrigal, Wired Science writer and author of an amazing forthcoming book on the history of green technology.

What he’s doing right: everything. He listens. He responds. He says thank you. He’s actually quite extravagant in his praise. (That Tweet you sent about me made my year, Alex). @alexismadrigal

CKNW AM 980, local Vancouver talk radio station.

What CKNW’s doing right: They got onto Twitter and searched for folk to follow. There was some nonsense being tweeted about their unfollowing people and following them again and unfollowing them and following them to build their number of followers. I saw no evidence of this – nor did it make sense to me. They started to follow me, I followed ‘em back – we haven’t fallen out of love yet, despite a tweet or two I’ve sent out about my disdain for talk radio.

The fact that I’m a public broadcasting, Globe and Mail, Jane Austen-adoring intellectual snob who’s never made it through to the end of a single talk radio show doesn’t matter. Some of my clients need to reach CKNW’s audience (some of their shows have had the highest audience reach in the entire province of British Columbia), and I don’t allow my personal taste to adversely affect my work on behalf of clients. (And I do listen to the segments when my clients are on talk radio. And to as much of it as I can bear.)

Within days of establishing a Twitter presence, CKNW did a Twitpoll asking people how they wanted to be communicated with. You can’t kiss a radio station, can you. Pity. And then they took the advice of the folks who responded. ‘You have spoken – 74% of you want a Tweet of our show lineup with brief description & link to show page. Done!’ 

Right now, CKNW is following 2000 people – and being followed by only about 1161. Way to go, CKNW. Not only that, but when I sent them an @CKNW message today in response to an item they’d tweeted, they replied and we – gasp – had a conversation! Also doing some really neat things regarding breaking news, namely alerting folks to breaking stories and asking for information/updates/photos to be tweeted to them. Like this one:  ‘Vandals have targeted the 2010 Olympic countdown clock in Downtown Vancouver. If you are in the area Tweet @cknw and send photos.’ One teeny tiny suggestion for improvement: let us know who’s doing the actual tweeting, who the humans behind the typing fingers are. @cknw

Granville Magazine Online, ‘Sustainable city living magazine and website. Tweets by digital editor Hilary Henegar.’

What Granville Magazine Online’s doing right: everything. I joked with Hilary the other day that I was so delighted with the way she was managing Granville’s social media strategy that I was going to create an award just for her. Here’s your Roofie, Hilary. You’re genuine, you’re attentive, you’re a very real person, and you’re someone I look forward to meeting and to working with on behalf of clients. Hilary does all the right things: doesn’t just blast out links to Granville articles, she tweets and retweets items of interest, pays attention to her followers, asks questions, even responds to blog post comments via Twitter (as well as on the posts themselves). I warn you though Hilary that I’m a bad influence and will try to persuade you that this giving up coffee thing is just plain silly. @granvillemagazine

CBC3, the online arm of the radio network.

What CBC 3 is doing right:  They’re not very active on Twitter, but they’re paying attention. When I had trouble listening to a podcast, they were very responsive, suggested what the problem might be, and have earned my gratitude for so doing. I’d like to give the rest of the CBC the same review, but I’m afraid that despite seminars on social media CBC’s conducted for its staff both in Vancouver and Toronto, for the most part they’re not getting it. One of the main motivations for this post was the Tweet sent out by Nora @SparkCBC (you know, the show that’s about ‘technology, trends, and fresh ideas’) towards the end of today’s Twitter demo for Toronto CBC-ers: “Wondering if Twitter is just full of marketing people and PR people.” Well gee, I guess you’d have the answer to that question if your follower:following ratio was a little better than 1232:151. Or if you ever read or responded to your @ messages. Would you like me to introduce you to the science community on Twitter? Help yourself to some of the folks I follow/am followed by.

Oh and by the way, I’m totally shocked to discover that CBC’s online web presence has outsourced its comment monitoring and moderation – it does explain a lot though. While I faithfully read my CBC news emails twice a day, I can’t often bear to read the comments. Usually when nasty and stupid comments are posted other commenters will do a pile-on, but that isn’t exactly what should be happening – and I’ve seen a lot of truly insensitive remarks on a variety of issues, not just the one linked to above. I won’t be the first to point out that you are Canada’s publicly funded news source – well – the lawyers will sort that one out and something will be learned from the exercise. @CBCRadio3

And finally, Darren Waters, the BBC Technology News web site editor, deserves a special mention. His follower:following ratio isn’t all that great, 2208:470, but that’s his business. He checks his @ messages and responds to them, he consults his followers (Question: how would you like BBC News to engage with Twitter? Answers in a Tweet please?) – the man even says thank you (Thankyou everyone for all your comments about using Twitter at BBC News. I’ve pulled together some thoughts for the bosses.). Oh and his birthday is February 3. And he’s not fussed – cake or cookies. But he’s mad keen about rugby and his support for Wales verges on the pleasantly rabid. His presence on Twitter is refreshing. I particularly liked it when he accused another British (non BBC of course) journalist of breaking an embargo. And to his everlasting credit, I have never once seen him tweet about the number of followers he has (yes I’m talking about you, @rory147). Perhaps it’s because Darren knows that editing, like public relations, is one of the helping professions. 😉 @darrenwaters

Note: Twitter follower/following numbers accurate as of 9PM PST Thursday, February 12. Posted tweets were cut and pasted from Twitter streams. I’m not even going to get into the fight between the PR person and the former National Post reporter that ensued this week. This is, for the most part, a PG-rated web site.


About ruthseeley

Ottawa born, Toronto educated, lived in the Lower Mainland and southern AB for more than a decade. Passionate about community, democracy, and good books. Fond of the Oxford comma.
This entry was posted in community and stakeholder consultations, corporate reputation management, crisis communications, marketing, media relations, public relations, Social media, Twitter and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Crimes against Twitter: how mainstream media and marketers are messing up

  1. Thanks for the shoutout, Ruth. I will do my best to fulfill your request 🙂

  2. ruthseeley says:

    You’re welcome – and thanks.

  3. interesting points on the use of twitter, got some good pointers here. cheers.

  4. ruthseeley says:

    Glad you liked it, Diarmuid. Of course I now regret the rather sensational headline, but not the post itself.

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