Monday, 29 April 2013

News Management At Twitterspeed

Emerging Media - Twitter Bird
(Photo credit: mkhmarketing)
"Every minute that passes the poison is spreading into the system to all sorts of roots and you need to find a way to cauterize that very, very quickly."

That rather glorious quote comes from a chap at number 10 Downing Street, talking about news management and Twitter. It's carried in this piece in the Guardian. The piece looks at how the relationship between compliant journalists and dissembling politicians has moved to the Twitter age, in particular No. 10's intention to hand out 'Twitter exclusives' to journalists.

The quote is one of the scariest things I've seen in some time. While it recognises the viral nature of information movement in this connected age, it's the characterisation of information as 'poison' by political communications people I find unsettling. We're all enjoying new levels of transparency and demanding, in fact, better transparency from the people and organisations we support. Information as poison is counter-intuitive to that.

Of course the great challenge facing journalism is the direct nature of networked communications. I am in contact with my audience and don't need a journalist to filter or agree to carry what I have to say. Likewise, my audience has pretty much, by following me, decided it wants to hear what I have to say from the horse's mouth. This direct communication avoids the pitfalls of editorialism, whereby a third party decides whether what I have to say is important or relevant to the majority of an averaged audience. The development of that process to a high degree of refinement gives us mainstream banality such as CNN or Fox. But now people with special interests or a particularly strong interest in a given area or topic can go straight to the source, create their own feeds of information and even their own magazines.

We have many ways of presenting and consuming news - one of which is journalists who are now fighting to match information that's flowing at breakneck speeds. Along with that comes a loss in quality of information, with mainstream media dropping their standards to meet the exigencies of time and therefore adding immeasurably to the spread of that terrible poison.

Easy, then - give journalists you can trust to toe the line privileged access to information that allows them to do a better job of analysing and presenting it. That way, you get your side of the story out to some important multipliers and the journalist gets the head start they need to compete with Twitter-speed. You also have a neat control mechanism, because the second a journalist gets into that sort of cosy relationship, they've signed a Faustian pact. Go off message and you're out in the cold.

David Cameron was once negative about Twitter, but his new media strategies have been evolving since 2011 and now conservative MPs are encouraged to "tweet as a muscular force". That's another interesting set of multipliers, because No. 10 can depend on several hundred loyal MPs to RT what the PM had for breakfast. As long as that breakfast is 'on message'.

So what's changed? A compliant Westminster press carrying the government's message, the government media machine leveraging the voices of hundreds of MPs to get a critical mass of 'on message' communications out there at a local level and planned bursts of communication that pre-brief media under embargo to ensure that the 'right message' gets out there.

It's the poison. Like the magic in Terry Pratchett's books, the problem with that poison is it has a nasty habit of escaping. A wonderful example cited in the Guardian piece is chancellor George Osborne's 'Great Train Snobbery', the recent incident where an accompanying journalist live tweeted the chancellor's crass attempt to travel first class on an economy ticket because of who he was. The whole row blew up with blinding force and speed - such speed that there was a press pack awaiting the unprepared and clearly embarrassed chancellor as the train pulled up in London.

The poison had clearly spread...

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