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Recently, media giant Gannett, which owns America's largest newspaper chain and 23 major market TV stations, announced a radical change in how it gathers news—with big implications for business. Gannett's newspaper journalists, TV reporters, and syndicated columnists are green-lighted to use "citizen journalists" and look to blogs, online discussion boards, and chat rooms for story ideas and news sources. Given Gannett's size and influence, others are sure to follow.

This move accelerates the shift from traditional news media to "social media" as a primary driver in how information is shared by an entire generation. Bloggers already hold strong peer influence, but now they are certified sources and reporters—effectively integrating the blogosphere with the mainstream press.

This is a brilliant move by Gannett, but it has scary implications for business. Now, anyone with a keyboard can be credentialed and handed a megaphone, regardless of his or her biases or motives. Consider the opportunities disgruntled employees, activists, and competitors have to turn their opinions or rumors into bona fide "news." In the new world order, bloggers' lack of varnish is why readers believe they are being told the unfiltered truth.



These are pretty sophisticated readers, too. Take TVNewser, profiled recently by The New York Times as "required reading for high-powered Brian Williams and CNN executive Jonathan Klein.

Some believe this is the web at its best, sharing news and noise and fact mingled with fiction. However, this also is the very reason law firms across the country are advising companies about dealing with off-the-clock employees blogging about rather unflattering ins and outs of company life.

The content can be insightful and awfully funny, but it also can be rude and deceitful. The problem is that there's little that can be done to discern which it really is. The implication is that the audience will perceive what they read on the web, no matter the source, to be fact. And when they share what they've read with their own distribution lists, the deed is compounded exponentially.

Let's face it. The web is where people in the know go for a first peek at your company and what's being said about it.

Apart from putting up obligatory websites and trying to sell some stuff, corporate America's view of the reputation impact of the web response has been largely ambivalent, justified by relatively low stats on users. While teens and young adults are more frequent users than the general adult population, Jupiter Research reported that only 7% of American adults write blogs and 22% read them, while just 8% listen to podcasts.

Yet according to Technorati, which tracks and monitors the blogosphere, there are now 73 million blogs, and the blogosphere is growing at a rate of 175,000 new blogs and 1.6 million new postings a day.

As newspapers, TV crews, and radio shows turn to bloggers for story ideas and resources, fact and fantasy have greater potential to mingle than ever before. Often, college students routinely blog, brag, and post other personal information with little thought about the consequences. Then, when applying for a job, these rants bite back.

Make no mistake—this is a tipping point in how corporations, small businesses, and even not-for-profits must actively manage their reputations. For publicly traded companies, the stakes are even higher—malicious rumors spread on the web can knock down a stock's valuation faster than you can boot up Windows Vista. Businesses can no longer afford to ignore social media, be naive about how damaging MySpace or Facebook videos can tinker with the bottom line, or treat the Internet as a curiosity.

Some have stumbled along the way. Scandals have tagged companies hiding their identities in blogs and chats. The Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) took a positive step when it unveiled the Ethics Adoption Toolkit to guide word-of-mouth campaigns. It urges complete transparency when communicating online and "extreme care" when communicating with bloggers who may be minors.

What can you do? Here are three steps:
  • Assign responsibility to actively monitor your online presence and that of your industry. Often industry associations will help with related issues.

  • Create a plan for dealing with negative attention driven from inside or outside of the company. Today, the web is the primary tool for activists or detractors to organize, communicate, and challenge. It is all there for you (and everyone else) to see.

  • Jump in. Inaccurate information left uncorrected or unchallenged in a timely way will stand forever as fact. But take care—follow established protocols for transparency.
If you've put it off until now, Gannett has issued a wake-up call. It's finally time to understand the role of bloggers and other social media, to know what they're saying, and to weigh in.

See you online.

About the Author

Rick brings 25 years of experience in marketing, corporate communications and positioning, and crisis management to Northlich, having created and managed programs for some of the nation's leading organizations, including Ashland, Apple, Levi's, Chevron, Clorox, Bank of America, Procter & Gamble, Miller Brewing and others. Before joining Northlich, Rick was an executive with Burson-Marsteller, first in Chicago and later in San Francisco, where he served as senior vice president/general manager with additional responsibilities as leader of the California region marketing practice.
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