Citizen journalism affects nonprofits

Profound changes in the way that advocacy groups interact with mainstream media outlets is on the horizon, yet most organizations have not restructured to take advantage of this new frontier.

Profound changes in the way that advocacy groups interact with mainstream media outlets is on the horizon, yet most organizations have not restructured to take advantage of this new frontier.

As a long-time media strategist on the nation's most controversial social issues - such as abortion, sex education, and affirmative action - I have often helped organizations wade through the muddy waters of dealing with inflammatory claims.

Recent investments by CNN and other mainstream outlets call for a radical reassessment of the way that many nonprofits approach the media. Any organization with a vocal base - either in opposition or in favor - ought to rethink its media strategies.

In the old model, advocacy organizations influenced the media by sending press releases, holding press events, submitting letters to the editor, and publishing newsworthy information. That model worked because an editor or columnist determined what was "newsworthy."

In theory, there was a professional lens that sifted through the massive number of claims and accusations. Organizations with a good reputation could generally count on professional journalists to dismiss accusations that did not have a solid foundation.

In the new world of media advocacy, the editor's role shrinks while the role of the "citizen journalist" grows. Leading news sites, such as cnn.com and nytimes.com, will invite the public to submit their own stories and, through a combination of popularity and relevance, the public will drive which stories make it through the firewall onto the evening news. It's not simply that more Op-Eds will make it onto the editorial pages - these citizen journalists will drive which stories grab the attention of the news reporters as well.

This is the fusion of social networking and news. That's unfortunate for the large number of nonprofit senior managers who have not directly engaged in social networking. Most people might still get their news the traditional way - in the morning paper or on the evening news - but what they will miss is a fundamental understanding of what engine drove the content of the news.

For example, CNN recently launched ireport.com. Anybody can be a citizen journalist on this site, and almost any content can be posted. The site bans offensive content that is violent or racist, but doesn't require the content to be accurate. Good content will be picked up and used on CNN's regular channels.

Editors at the network will look to promote content on ireport.com, so they'll pay attention to content trends (i.e., what are many people interested in?) as well as gems that might not get to CNN through traditional means.

The danger is that ideological opponents can flood ireport.com with spurious content about your organization. The upside is that a nonprofit will be able to take full advantage of its local supporters. In the past, these organizations urged their supporters to submit letters to the editor in response to a news story, but today's proactive entities will prompt supporters to submit content to create the news.

Organizations attempting to come to terms with this emerging media must plan strategically to adjust to the new power of citizen journalism by paying attention to public interest; watching the popularity of stories on blogs and social networking sites; and listening to internal feedback.

Elizabeth Toledo, previously VP of communications at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, is the president of Camino Public Relations.

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