Citizen journalism acceptance impacts PR

This time last year, YouTube was just breaking out of its beta period to quietly launch what has since become a cultural phenomenon - not to mention a strategic and expensive acquisition for Google.

This time last year, YouTube was just breaking out of its beta period to quietly launch what has since become a cultural phenomenon - not to mention a strategic and expensive acquisition for Google.

User-generated content has enjoyed its time in the limelight over the past few years, as blogs have become almost mainstream. But it's safe to say that user-generated visual content, both pictures and video, has really only enjoyed that same popularity in the past year.

And just as Google's acquisition of YouTube has made it perhaps a more accepted choice for marketers, it seems as if that corporate sanctioning of user-generated media content has eased traditional media's fears, as well.

Last week, Reuters and Yahoo introduced an effort designed to encourage ordinary citizens to submit photos and video to be shown on their Web sites. Users can visit the section of Yahoo News, dubbed You Witness News, to upload pictures and video that will then be uploaded to Flickr and related video sites. Yahoo and Reuters' editors will then go through the material to determine if any of the content can accompany news articles.

In addition, Reuters told The New York Times that it would also distribute some of the submissions next year to the thousands of print, online, and broadcast media outlets that subscribe to its news service. Eventually, the global news organization hopes to develop a separate service dedicated to user-generated and submitted photos and video.

There are several ways to look at this development. On one hand, it shows that traditional (yes, in this scenario, Yahoo is traditional) media is taking another step to fully accept citizen journalism. But it may not have a choice. Even the most global news organization cannot be in every single place that news breaks. One only has to look at Michael Richards' recent racial outburst, which was filmed by an audience member's cell phone and broadcast on YouTube, to know how an ordinary person can break worldwide news with shocking images. And for organizations that are not as big as Reuters and are facing budget cuts and staff reduction, incorporating citizen journalists could be a key for survival.

But the practice leaves some questions to be answered. Editors at Reuters and Yahoo will reportedly vet the material to the best of their ability to weed out any fraudulent or retouched images, but even the most careful eyes cannot catch everything.

And then there are the implications for the PR community. It is one thing to have a blogger with even a modest readership post a video or photo that portrays your client in an unflattering light. But to have a global news organization with a reach of millions do so could present a real challenge.

"If you're a newsmaker, you must understand that your life is on the record now," says Peter Himler, principal of Flatiron Communications. "It used to be that [you had to] watch what you said in public or at a media conference. Now, you need to be diligent about what you say and how you act wherever you go. You're 24/7 on the record."

But that lack of control is something that PR professionals have grown accustomed to. So, as has been said countless times before, it is the marketing discipline in the best position to take advantage of citizen journalism, even that which is given a more traditional home.

"I think that increasingly clients are likely to worry about and even feel a certain loss of control because media now are so vast and so far-reaching and because any utterance is just multiplied into infinity," says Bob Brody, SVP and media relations specialist at Ogilvy PR. "That concern represents a tremendous opportunity for public relations to try to influence the editorial process, exert some measure of control, and ease those fears for clients."

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