Dissemination: Then and Now
Most of us either lived through or have at some point heard of the infamous Johnson & Johnson and Tylenol cyanide poisoning case of the 1980s. It was the first national case of sabotage. The event involved several tragic deaths in the Chicago area that were later found to be linked to the use of Extra Strength Tylenol contaminated with cyanide. Not only did this create a scare among the general public, it also created a major crisis for the company that needed to be dealt with fast and effectively.
While there were no prodomes, or warning signs at the time, Johnson & Johnson’s PR team was successful in coping with the crisis largely because of their good relationships with the media. Their open communication with news outlets allowed them to keep in touch with the public in a way that reflected the company in a good light and helped maintain their public’s trust. Johnson & Johnson was one of few organizations with this kind of power. At that point in time, not all large organizations had such luxurious connections with the media, much less the control over how the media portrayed the organization and what kind of opinions the public formed as a result.
But the world has changed considerably since then. In Six Competencies of the Next Generation News Organization, the Media Management Center at Northwestern University specifically defines democratization as one of the current technology trends. They note that the easy to use, affordable tools open a world of opportunities to amateurs and professionals while destroying the main media monopoly. In today’s interactive, 2-way world of communication, the news media simply can’t hold the control it once use to, and consumers are becoming producers of news at exponentially increasing speeds. For PR professionals in particular, this means the power to control when their organization releases messages, through what channels, and in what tone and voice. It’s a PR professional’s dream.
Rex Harlow, founder of PRSA, defines public relations as a “distinctive management function which helps establish and maintain mutual lines of communication, understanding, acceptance, and cooperation between an organization and its publics.” Now more than ever, PR professionals can create and shape this 2-way, open dialogue between their organization and its publics much more effectively through “new new media” platforms like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. These social media tools allow organizations to take the middleman, the news media, out of the equation. Sure, this idea sounds amazing for any PR manager, but as with any great innovation, there are also downsides. These new tools can certainly provide benefits to the company, but in many ways they can also drastically damage the company’s brand if not managed with care.
YouTube: the New Mouth of Public Relations
To better illustrate the benefits and dangers of “new new media” for PR professionals, as well as ways to make the best use of these interactive tools, let’s consider just one of those platforms: YouTube. Since it’s creation in February of 2005, YouTube has not only become an instant means for the general public to “broadcast themselves,” as the company’s trademark states, by providing the means to upload and share self-produced content with friends and the world. YouTube has also held an increasing role in large companies.
For bigger organizations, YouTube provides an easy to use, free and effective means to reach targeted publics in no time. For the field of public relations, this means there is no longer a dependence on news media for disseminating relevant information to its publics. But as stated earlier, YouTube is in many ways a double edge sword. The fact that anyone can use it makes it simultaneously threatening and extraordinary. It gives everyone an equal chance to voice their opinion, but it also lets those with malicious intent populate the tube with negative effects.
As Levinson notes when discussing YouTube in New New Media, a viral video can range from being destructive to beneficial and unfortunately, it can remain out there for everyone to see, virtually forever. From a PR standpoint, this means the opportunity to upload whatever message they wish to foster trust with their public, but it also means the risk of others adding content that reflect the company in a bad light without the chance or means to remove that content.
YouTube is a tricky beast. It’s a relatively new tool for PR practitioners and demands different competencies from them. Even so, those engaging with this beautiful lion can avoid many problems and crises and really make it a successful endeavor by keeping a few simple points in mind:
- Don’t get Confused: You’re in PR, not Marketing or Advertising. Because of the output-centered nature of YouTube, it’s can be easy to forget that using it with a PR focus means maintaining a 2-way relationship. A PR expert is supposed to create an environment in which the company and its public can thrive, not sell products and services to their audience. In the world of YouTube, this means not only uploading content that speaks to specific and targeted audiences. It also means being able to keep up with comments and replying to those comments, whether it is through additional text posts or with a supplemental video. A PR professional must also remember that the goal is to build a relationship and generate goodwill and avoid becoming concerned with selling goods. The more pitchy and infomercial-like the content, the less effective the organization is in terms of creating positive public relations. Go against the intuitive one-way nature of YouTube and create an honest balance between how much content you put out there and how much you interact with your public directly through this platform.
- Tell the Truth: It’s a PR Golden Rule. Much of the content on YouTube is for pure entertainment. A simple Google search of “most watched YouTube videos” can reveal how popularity and entertainment are strongly correlated. Don’t be a sheep and follow the crowd. As a PR practitioner, you must always remember to deal with fact, not fiction. Perhaps, if your company relied on comedic or entertaining branding techniques, this might work… in very specific situations…maybe. But more likely than not, doing so will quickly backfire and put you and your organization in a very undesirable situation. After all, a video that shows the mistakes or foolishness of your actions is more likely to go viral (and critically damage your reputation) than a video that keeps it true and honest. Always maintaining your organization’s goals and ethical standards front and center.
- Build Targeted YouTube Communities. Six Competencies of the Next Generation News Organization,mentioned earlier, lists building a community as one of the six competencies. This quality is needed in PR just as much as in news organizations. When using YouTube, it’s important to not only release relevant, honest information, but to also make sure to drive collaboration by directing it to small, defined publics. YouTube is like a “TV meets Facebook” platform that provides the opportunity to form unique relationships between your organization and your publics. You can do this successfully by tailoring different content to different publics rather than creating a single video that you hope will reach all kinds of people. Understand that you have different publics (customers, employees, stockholders, etc) with different interests and needs. Using YouTube to tailor content to those various groups will get their attention and make them feel valued.
- Make Yourself Known: Search Optimization. Keep in mind that unless your audience knows the right keywords to search for your YouTube content, you won’t be found. Pay attention to the keywords you use when tagging your content because that has great influence on the amount of viewers you receive. Most importantly, let your different publics know when you have new content out by emails, Twitter, Facebook, and other similar social media tools. Invite your publics and create contact with them in a way that shows you have an appreciation for them.
Becoming an expert PR practitioner in the world of “new new media” like YouTube doesn’t take miracles, but it does take plenty of careful planning and consideration of the kinds of relationships you are forming with your publics through the use of these tools. Gone are the Johnson & Johnson days where an organization’s reputation depended largely on the news media. The “new new media’” of today gives you full control of your messages, so take these opportunities and use them to the best of your PR abilities. In the end, it’s not a large beast that needs to be tamed, but a simple little mouse trap that can be easily avoided.