Media giant Gannett, which owns America's largest newspaper chain and 23 major-market TV stations, has made a radical change in how it gathers news - with big implications for business.
Gannett's newspaper journalists, TV reporters, and syndicated columnists have been green-lighted to use "citizen journalists" and look to blogs, online discussion boards, and chat rooms for story ideas and sources.
This move accelerates the shift from traditional news media to social media as a primary driver in how information is shared. This is a brilliant move by Gannett, but has scary implications for business. Now, anyone with a keyboard can be credentialed and handed a megaphone, regardless of biases, motives, or expertise.
Take TVNewser.com, profiled by The New York Times as "required reading for high-powered television executives who want inside scoop on [the TV] industry." Written by Towson University student Brian Stelter, whose previous experience was editing his college newspaper, this blog is read by high-profile devotees like NBC News' Brian Williams.
Some believe this is the Web at its best, sharing news and noise, fact mingled with fiction. However, this also is why law firms across the country are advising companies on dealing with off-the-clock employees blogging about unflattering ins and outs of company life.
Corporate America's view of the Web has been largely ambivalent, justified by relatively low user stats. While teens and young adults are frequent users, Jupiter Research reported that only 7% of American adults blog, and 22% read them, while 8% listen to podcasts.
Yet according to Technorati, there are now 73 million blogs, growing at a rate of 175,000 blogs and 1.6 million postings daily.
Make no mistake - this is a tipping point in how corporations, small businesses, and even nonprofits must actively manage their reputations. For public companies, the stakes are higher - malicious Internet rumors can knock down a stock's valuation. Businesses can't 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 plagued companies hiding their identities in blogs and chats. The Word of Mouth Marketing Association took a positive step when it unveiled ethics guidelines for word-of-mouth campaigns, urging complete transparency when communicating online and using extreme care when communicating with bloggers who may be minors.
What can you do? Three courses of action come to mind:
Assign responsibility to monitor your company's and industry's online presence.
Create a plan for dealing with negative attention. 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 will stand forever as fact.
If you've put it off until now, Gannett has issued a wake-up call. It's time to understand the role of bloggers and other social media, to know what they're saying, and to weigh in. See you online.
Rick Miller is president of PR at Northlich.