The social media tide is coming in and many traditional media companies find that their financial tide is going out. As this tidal power struggle plays out, people who are called upon to act as  spokesperson for their organisation are caught in the middle.  Once, there were just news  journalists. They were easy to identify, easy to find and comparatively easy to get along with. However, these days, more and more social media players are appearing on the landscape. At first, they might seem like some reporters or commentators. They write things about current events and issues and publish them online, like some journalists or commentators. They offer analysis and draw out conclusions, like some journalists or commentators. Some of them develop large audiences (followers and fans) like some journalists and commentators.  But if it walks like a journalist and quacks like a journalist, it is not always, despite first impressions, a journalist.

Social media content providers who present themselves and their content in a journalist-like manner are a comparatively new phenomenon and many professional communicators are still trying to figure out how to handle them.  In social media, there is less scrutiny of the facts, few consequences for getting facts wrong, greater leeway for gratuitous, agenda-based opinions and above all, little or no accountability. To make matters worse, there is the mind-numbing ambiguity of legal jurisdiction and recourse that leaves many a lawyer feeling impotent.  This is confusing and more than a little intimidating for people who are new to the role of spokesperson.  

Enter the bigger, established social networks. Some such as Tumblr and LinkedIn are now hiring editorial teams and becoming publishers of the future by creating and, perhaps more pertinently, “curating” news content. As traffickers of other people’s content, they are becoming an online warehouse for people seeking information and opinion. It is these more mature and well-organised social networks that present the more credible challenge to conventional media. The social media network, LinkedIn, caters to an older and generally more corporate audience, yet its platform has a very broad reach in the online news market. The company is best known for connecting professionals, but with the launch of its Influencer Program, which allows users to read updates and valuable information from noteworthy figures, LinkedIn has added a new and potentially lucrative dimension to its brand. The program is intended to mirror a guest contributor program that a media company might operate, except the writer is not limited to single-platform publishing. LinkedIn has taken out the middle man. Journalists used to interview sources. Now, the sources can write content themselves and it does not have to live just on LinkedIn.  

But it is journalism? Arguably, yes, in that it still shares opinion and information about things that are going on in the world. Arguably, no, because the content has not been collected, assessed and reported by a notionally independent third party. Perhaps it matters little which position one takes on this question. The fact remains that millions of LinkedIn users are accessing their news this way and the number continues to grow.   So, what is the role for traditional media in all this? What happens to an industry that is used to being the only significant conduit for news and information when it has to confront a future where its own relevance and possibly its very existence is in question?  It applies to news-makers too, such as political parties. During the US presidential election of 2012, it was common for political journalists to watch debates with two or even three screens open, including a mobile device ready for push notifications and, of course, a social dashboard scrolling in the background. It was a trend established by the first Obama campaign in 2007 and was immediately replicated in political campaigns in Australia, which saw Kevin Rudd elected as Prime Minister, and soon after in  democracies worldwide. Britain faced it again with the Brexit referendum.  Australia's 2016 federal election was fought online.  And the US Presidential election of 2016 is another online battlefield.  Reporters tweeted, shared, GIF-ed and memed throughout the election, but were they helping or harming themselves? 

Because of the speed and constant feed of information, social networks like Twitter have forced journalists to become more witty, critical and generally more interesting in their writing, to compensate for readers who had already consumed that information via social media. Twitter has raised the bar, not only for coverage, but for all journalists and all news outlets. There is a new mantra used in US journalism now: “Be faster than anyone better than you, and better than anyone faster than you.” No doubt, this sentiment will resonate with many reporters in their twenties and thirties, but for some older journalists, the maxim may evoke a disappointing sense of nostalgia for the more thorough and more careful, “good old days”.  

Australian consumer rights campaigner Elise Davidson believes that traditional media interviews still present a big opportunity to inform consumers about their rights and encourage them to use them. “Consumers will often go online for information but these days, most of the people I talk to are still more persuaded by what they read, see and hear through conventional media. Despite the millions of consumer blogs and self-styled experts, only a handful have earned any genuine credibility among consumers. 

“At the same time, there is growing cynicism among people who I deal with about what they get from conventional media. Younger people in particular, are often prompted by what a friend or contemporary is saying about an issue or an event on their Facebook pages or Tweet or re- Tweets than what a TV news reporter or radio commentator might be saying about it. So it is a dynamic situation. People might take their initial cue from social media but seek to find out more and deepen their opinions using more traditional news media channels”.  

And voters? How do they react to all this? Veteran Australian political campaigner Grahame Morris believes that mainstream media is still the dominant opinion former in Australia, even now, despite the approaching online tsunami.  “Social media makes it easier to express an opinion, except that there are millions and millions of additional opinions out there—most of which are uninformed. Nobody would accuse the “Twitteratti” of having any knowledge of much of the issues they tweet about. They have instant opinions based on bugger all.  

“But they have an equal chance now for a whole bunch of people to listen to their views. So these days if you are a habit online consumer, you could be bombarded with a dozen or more opinions before you finish breakfast, whereas in the old days there was just TV, press and radio.”  

According to studies by leading global public relations firm, Edelman (2013 Edelman Trust Barometer), the experience of social and political campaigners indicate that conventional media is still the dominant force in shaping attitudes among the majority—at this stage of social media’s evolution. But the new media is far from a static environment. It is fascinating to observe the dynamic relationship between conventional and social media as the latter increasingly finds its voice in social commentary by granting a share of voice to the individual. It is like the advent of talk-back radio all over again, magnified a million-fold.  

Many would have reasonably expected social media to ape the behaviour of its establishment predecessor but, perversely, the reverse appears to be the case. Increasingly, we notice that reporters are encouraged to be much more opinionated, full, three-dimensional people on Twitter, while minding the Ps and Qs more in conventional media channels.  

What skills will the spokesperson of the future need to call upon to express their own case successfully? That will change as the tides comes in.   And that’s another story.

When we look out across the media horizon, we can already see the physical evidence of a coming change in the tide. More and more people are turning away from traditional media towards the shiny new world of social media.  

Newspaper publishers and commercial broadcasters are watching the financial tide going out very quickly as advertisers seek new marketing channels that deliver more measurable results in what might be a more cost-effective way of promoting goods and services. Standing on the beach looking out to sea, a newspaper publisher may sense that something ominous is approaching. Invisible and still seemingly far away, something big and very fast-moving is coming this way. It is the online tsunami and it is already making its presence felt.

The Online Tsunami

By Steve Cropper