I'm about to do something really stupid (what's new right?). I'm about to offer up some opinion and advice to our local politico's and public figures....for free. Why? Because it has occurred to me over the past couple of months just how ignorant our region's esteemed leaders are when it comes to handling "da blogs, da twitters, da Fakebooks, and da intertubes in general." It dawned on me that there seems to be a fundamental disconnect between their perception of "new media" and the reality of new media. Truth is, I kind of feel sorry for them and I think I may be able to help them avoid continually stepping in digital dog doo. If they feel the information is useful, they are more than welcome to make a donation to the blog....you can pay me whatever you're paying your incompetent PR people :)
Here are 5 tips I humbly offer to add to your playbook:
1. Fire your Media/PR consulting firm - Let's start there. Case in point, Steve Theriot's recent botched salvo against Slabbed and the TP. If your consultants stood by and let you proceed with a plan to use JP's taxpayer's dollars to sue the "John Doe" of the internet without begging you not to....you need new consultants. If your consultants are sitting on their hands while you trample all over citizen's constitutional rights and set your parish up for a catastrophic lawsuit....you need new consultants. If your consultants allow you to go into a debate and complain that people are videotaping you and that people who use the internet are dangerous.....you need new consultants.
Take a close look at your PR people/firm....is there anyone under 40 on the team? Under 30? Do they have an inherent understanding of the digital herd? Are they tracking the discussions taking place online about you or your office...do they even know how to do that or what applications/software/services to use to do that? Are they telling you the internet doesn't matter, just concentrate on TV and Print? Are they telling you to ignore blogs, no one reads them and they have no credibility? Are they telling you negative press doesn't matter unless it makes it on WWL or the TP? Are they charging you an arm and a leg for pathetic astroturfing attempts? If you recognize any of those points....you need new consultants.
2. Engage the conversation - If you're not staying ahead of the digital herd, you will most likely get gored or even stampeded. Ask yourself this question, "Why do blogs exist and why has their popularity increased over the past decade?" The answer is really simple....because people have an intrinsic desire to communicate and share information. Blogs, the internet, and mobile phones empowered communities with the ability to communicate in real time. The flow of information has increased exponentially in the past decade and unfortunately the flow of misinformation has increased exponentially as well. Like it or not, that is the reality and as a public figure you must be aware of that.
The one fatal mistake a public figure doesn't want to make in the digital world is to ignore it. If you hold a public office or are running for one, YOU WILL BE DISCUSSED. Whether it's a blog like this one, a forum on NOLA, or a simple tweet that pulls down 6000 views, the internet is like a digital version of proverbial water cooler gossip on a methamphetamine megaphone. You simply can't ignore it and expect it to go away....ain't gonna happen. The way to deal with this issue is to get ahead of the conversation....engage and inform.
I recently had an incredibly enlightening conversation with a former member of the Nagin administration. Listening to that person's side of the story was amazing and informative, it helped me understand a lot of what happened in City Hall and even allowed me to sympathize with the challenges the administration and particularly this person was facing. As I listened to the information, I asked the person, "Do you realize if you guys had just informed the public of this stuff you wouldn't have faced such a high level of scrutiny and discontent? Why didn't you just let us know what was going on instead of stonewalling the public and the media?" The answer was that it was an order from the top down to not communicate at all if possible. That....is so very stupid.
Social media and new media is here and here to stay. You can either engage it and use it to your advantage or you can ignore it or even hold it in contempt and face the consequences. A blessing or a curse, it's up to you. How do you engage it? I'm not going to tell you because that's what you're supposed to be paying your PR/Media consultants the big bucks for.
3. You are being watched - The exponential flow of information the internet provides also brings an exponential loss of privacy for public figures...especially when you are in public....especially when you are at a scheduled political appearance. If you are in a debate or in a public event, ALWAYS assume you are being recorded. So if you are saying one thing to one group of people and something different to another group of people you will most likely get busted.
As a matter of fact, in case you didn't know this little tidbit of information, Louisiana is very unique in that it is a "one party consent" state in regards to recordings. That means that someone can record your conversation without informing you and that conversation is officially on the record. In almost every other state you must inform the other party they are being recorded in order for the recording to be used, legally.
So when King Georges' paranoia kicked in, we got to watch him freak out on video...further exacerbating his previous insane display at the OPDEC forum. Dangerous people indeed....nearly everyone around you has a camera in their pocket now and unlike the multimillion dollar cameras hanging on our telephone poles around the city...these cameras actually work.
4. Never fight a gutterpunk - Even if you successfully land a punch on a gutterpunk all he will do is bleed on you and infect you.
If you are resorting to lawsuits to try and silence your online critics, you're going to look pathetic and desperate....and more importantly....guilty. For those of you public figures who have never studied journalism law or read NYT v. Sullivan, let me break it down for you really quick.
First, you are a pubic figure. You have "thrust yourself into the vortex of public opinion". With that classification you have opened yourself up to a much higher level of scrutiny under the 1st amendment than a private figure. Therefore, even if what is being written about you is emphatically false, it will be very difficult for you to land a successful libel suit against your accuser. It's why publications like the National Enquirer and the Weekly World News even exist.
Second, you better hope you have nothing to hide if you do file suit. If the case actually proceeds you will go into discovery and your life will be on display. Even if you didn't commit the transgression you were accused of, there may be a witness brought to the stand who will spill the beans on another transgression.
Third, you must prove the accuser was publishing with malice. If the accuser was merely asking questions as to whether or not you did or did not commit the transgression, you are going to have a hard time proving malice. Once again you are a public figure and you are held to a much higher standard and level of exposure because you chose that life.
Bottom line....never sue.
If the accusation is false, engage it. Publish the facts on an alternative site or even engage the source to set the record straight.
If the accusation is true, definitely don't sue. I would actually recommend doing the same thing if the accusations are false...publish alternative explanations on another site or engage the source yourself. Of course you will need to lie like hell and hope for the best.
5. Pay attention to the tide - I've never really liked the term "new media" but I use it anyway because it seems to provide a useful semantic construct for people to wrap their brains around. But I think it's really a misnomer to describe IP driven media.
The television was the last true step in the creation of a "new form" of media. We digest media through 3 senses, sight, sound, and touch if you can read braille. The internet is not a new form of media, it's just a new way of packaging and delivering the electrons and photons...and most importantly it's interactive. If you think about it, what online media has really become is an amalgamation of TV, Radio, and Print rolled into one experience...with interactivity to boot. Sights (video/pix), Sounds (radio), and Words (print), the game hasn't really changed it's just the delivery is now faster, the experience is enhanced, and the public is now part of the conversation. Until we invent scratch and sniff websites or an app that allows you to lick your iPhone and taste a food product...the basics of media creation and consumption is going to be the same as it ever was.
I pose that rant because I want to allay people's fears who may think terms like social media, new media, multimedia, etc. are too complicated for them to understand. Don't worry about the evolution of the technology used to deliver internet media, just worry about the messages it's delivering in regards to your world. You know how to watch a TV and operate a remote control, but you probably don't understand the mechanics or physics which are required to make TV a reality....same thing with the internet. You don't need to know how it works, just where it's headed.
So don't fret the technology...that's the good news. The bad news? You have to pay attention and understand what the trends, turns and twists are for online media if you are going to navigate the waters successfully. Or you need to hire someone to understand it for you.
For example, do you know what demographic constitutes over 60% of Facebook users? Teenagers? Not....try housewives. Facebook has rapidly supplanted the soap opera as the focal point of attention for housewives nationwide. I also read a report that Facebook was cited in one out of every 3 divorce cases in a predominant Florida county.
What importance does that have to a politician? Well if I was running a political campaign and I knew the swing vote was housewives, like say a certain U.S. Senate race in our own state, I would damn sure want to leverage Facebook to reach that demographic.
Media waters are much deeper now and the risk and opportunity is much greater, but the basics of seamanship are still the same. You have to pay attention to the tide and actively navigate your ship or you may end up being boarded by pirates or crashing into a reef.
There ya go. If you choose to just continue to ignore the body internet or attempt to sue people in to silence...so be it. Hope it works out for you. At least my conscience is now clear, I've shared my views that there are better and more constructive ways to handle things. Now back to the sloop to hoist the Jolly Roger.