Opinion: 'Citizen journalism' may hone your skills

Last week, two of the UK's biggest-selling news­papers published four-page pullouts encouraging readers to become 'citizen journalists'.

They offered cash for mobile phone snaps and information or gossip about anyone likely to arouse the interest of Sun and News of the World readers.

Hotline phone and text numbers were provided, and the newspapers recruited eight million potential ‘journalists'. Instantly, every celebrity, politician, businessperson, sports star and cleric became a target for an unprecedented deluge of faux journalism and intrusion.

So-called citizen journalism, which also takes the form of user-generated online content, presents a dramatic challenge to those involved in reputation management.

It could mean that PR briefs will need to include a contingency plan should clients become the victim of prying tabloid readers looking to make a fast buck. There is, of course, no guarantee that information sold to newspapers will be accurate or that smudgy mobile phone snaps will represent what they suggest. Who can tell how often malice will join with Mammon to motivate the citizen journalist?

For PROs, this cross-media phenomenon could mean being available 24/7 to provide rebuttals, ­management or comment. It could also mean forging closer links with editors, because only through these relationships can trust be built, enabling the word of the reputation-managing PRO to kill a potentially damaging story.

In the spirit of the new CIPR Code of Conduct, clients must understand that while the skilled media manager will utilise these relationships, this cannot stretch to lying. If one denies a story which is later proven to be true, the PR professional risks losing treasured relationships and reputation.

Inevitably, the UK's new army of citizen journalists will strengthen the bonds between PRO and lawyer - any serious reputation and crisis management firm must have a legal partnership.  That said, there will be limited value in suing a newspaper once a libellous farrago has been published and the damage to reputation done.

Far better to pre-empt the damage either through the PRO's understanding of media handling or by mixing PR skills with those of lawyers who understand the intricate workings of the UK's still unfolding privacy legislation.

For newspapers, citizen journalism offers cost-effective story-gathering as profit margins dwindle; for PROs, it offers an opportunity to boost margins by rising to the challenge and developing new skills.

Ian Monk is founder of Ian Monk Associates and was formerly a senior newspaper executive at the Daily Mail and The Sun.

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