It is said that old habits die hard. I may put ‘ex’ in front of the BBC these days but when it comes to the basis of a news story, old habits do, most definitely, die hard.
Drummed into me from day one at the old place, was double-sourcing. This is the process by which a journalist confirms the facts of a story by checking it with a second, independent witness, organisation or source. Only when a story has been checked out in this way is it ready to even be considered for publication. Or that is the theory anyway.
Sound practice for newsrooms maybe but these days every one of us is a publisher every time we tweet, like or share on social media. So the tittle–tattle that was once spread at the school gates, or across the bar of the local pub, can now be flashed around the world in a matter of minutes. And when we talk to our friends, fans and connections online, double-sourcing doesn’t get a look in.
To the reputation of a brand, an organisation or an individual, what’s being said is the threat, whether it is true or it’s false. Almost every week a rumour of some sort or another can be seen trending across social media. These often attract thousands, if not millions, of comments and views. By the time anyone has checked out whether it’s true or not, the damage has been done and a reputation can be left in tatters.
Back in the day, the time it took for a story to be checked out and published on broadcast, or in the press, was faster than the speed that gossip spread any meaningful distance. The popularity of social media and the advancement of the technology that we all carry around with us (our phones, tablets and laptops) have changed all of that forever. Now a reputation can be tarnished as fast as it takes to text or to tweet. Shares and likes transport the story around the world and few really care if, days later, the story is found not to be true after all.
In this digital world the truth of the story is inversely proportionate to the speed that it spreads.
No blame here at the door of the journalist. It is only right that reporters should check things out before publishing, in fact it’s essential. A ‘not wrong for long’ policy is no policy at all for a trusted news
operation. But in our world of non-stop communication, that’s cold comfort for the victim who is on the end of a barrage of social media gossip.
The implications of this for a brand can be huge. An organisation that isn’t tuned into conversations on Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere, risks being caught unaware. Instead of damping down the first sparks of the rumour, they find themselves battling against a raging blaze of publicity.
Relying on the mainstream media to check things out and right the wrongs is just no longer fit for purpose. It’s simply not fast enough.
The solution has to be to listen to and to monitor all on and off line conversations that matter. Find out who the influential people are on an important issue. When you know who they are, engage with them and listen to what they are saying.
The systems and tools to do this are readily available and although they might not stop the rumours from starting in the first place, you’ll know about them as soon as they start to grow, giving you valuable time to react, to take control and to turn the graph of truth v speed upside down.
Keith Beech is director of Core Management – Crisis, Organisation and Reputation which is part of the Nexus Communications Group