Monday, October 26, 2009

Book Review: We the Media

Dan Gillmore’s We the Media provides an account of the transition of influence from big, traditional media to the blogs and social media tools of the citizen journalist. We the Media covers a number of topics, from the history of publishing, to laws and Internet regulations, to use of the Internet for activism. Since this blog is focused on reporting on news and information that is of interest to non-profit communicators and other types of advocates, I’m going to focus on three areas of tension that I picked up on from Gillmore’s book that may be helpful to highlight for these groups.

1. The tension of truth and fiction. On page 49, Gillmore provides an example of a Microsoft ad that was designed to counter Mac’s “switch from PC to us” argument. The ad pictured an attractive freelance writer who supposedly switched from a Mac to PC, with a caption, “Mac to PC: Mission Accomplished, Convert Thrilled.” The ad showed up on a watchdog website, noting that the image of the freelance writer came from Getty Images, and highlighting that depiction of a real woman who made the switch, was nothing more than a fabricated marketing ad.

The Internet allowed an interested party to look up the image and find that the ad
claimed to be something that it was not, which was authentic. While the Internet can seem like a playground for uncontrolled falsehood, since so much can be written in anonymity, it can also be an arena for watchdogs who seek out truth and authenticity. Authenticity is key to any marketing or communications campaign online or offline. Though it may seem easy to

2. The tension of control vs. freedom. In the chapter, “The Gate Comes Down”, Gillmore quotes a journalist who describes how a community of passionate individuals can become advocates for a product or service:
“…with the Internet, an effective campaign creates a community that will on its own begin to market your product for you. Properly done, you won’t be able – or want – to control it.”
Gillmore provides an example of the company EchoStar, a maker of home satellite TV systems that maintains a presence online. The company has communications officers that participate in online discussion boards to help correct false statements about their product. They don’t seek to control the information, just bring truth into conversations that go astray. I’ve heard this concept referred to as “gardening”. The Howard Dean campaign of 2004 was credited with maintaining a good balance of control and freedom in their Internet strategy.

As a marketer or communicator, how would you equip people to talk about your campaign or issue, but also develop infrastructure to maintain truth and the credibility of your organization?

3. The tension of trust vs. risk. Chapter 9 points out the ways in which the Internet can become a place of abuse, lies, and manipulation. For example, Hollywood studios took heat for building false websites designed to create buzz for their movies in 2001. Often, authors and other public figures are misquoted through haphazard cutting and pasting practices and bloggers and citizen journalists are not held to the same fact-checking standards as those who make a living in traditional media. This can cause the spread of false information and lead to incorrect and unfair criticism. So how do we balance the need to build trust with the risk that comes from creating and distributing information through viral, online tools?

Marketers and advocates must maintain high standards for truth and authenticity. Setting up false blogs and creating fictitious ads will do much to discredit a public reputation. Meanwhile, journalists engaged in online media should attempt to main their core principles of truth and fairness in their reporting. When citizens and consumers can believe in the values and integrity of a company, consumer-producer relationships will thrive.

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