How ‘Real’ Media Misses the Point In Social Media

July 9, 2010
By Lisa Barone in Social Media

While I was getting my tan on in Key West, Dave Weigel, the snappy voice behind the Washington Post’s conservative Right Now blog, “resigned”. Dave had been brought in three months ago to mix news and opinion and offer the Post some edge. And from April through June, he did that remarkably well. Trouble came when messages were leaked from a private, supposedly off-the-record listserv that showed Dave once disparaging prominent members of the Conservative party, the same folks he was now tasked with covering. Dave immediately resigned and The Post accepted, citing that though his work was excellent, they couldn’t “have any tolerance for the perception that people are conflicted or bring a bias to their work”.’ A ‘bias’ that never revealed itself in the three months Dave blogged for the Post.

Yesterday, Octavia Nasr, CNN’s senior Middle East editor who had been with the company for twenty years, was fired after she tweeted in praise of Hezbollah leader Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah. Her controversial tweet read:

Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah.. One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot. #Lebanon”

Octavia later clarified that she didn’t support him as a terrorist, but for his views on women’s right. Despite her apology, CNN fired her citing they believed “her credibility in her position as senior editor for Middle Eastern affairs has been compromised going forward.”

In each case mainstream media had a choice: Stand by the person they hired or disassociate so the mess doesn’t get on the brand. The Washington Post and CNN both chose the latter. And their decisions showed once again that Big Media is stuck straddling two worlds.

  • They want the attention and excitement of a hired gun blogger…but not the backlash.
  • They want readers to connect with talent….but not get too personal.
  • They want to take advantage of social media… but turn on employees who fall off the edge.
  • They want to share opinion… but only corporate opinion.

But you can’t have it both ways, and that’s the disconnect mainstream media is continually forced to face. The opinion revolution is great, until the exact moment it turns on you.

One thing has been evident: Mainstream media is in a scramble to add voice to its content. They’re struggling to maintain (not even grow) audience and they know in order to compete in the new world of blogs, tweets and status updates, they need that added appeal. The result has been Big Media bringing in hired guns – people specifically added to the roster to foster attention and general excitement. David Weigers was a good example of that. But what we’re seeing is that mainstream media continually shoots itself in the foot when these hired guns are fired at the very first sign of trouble.

A few things have to happen here:

Mainstream Media Needs To Get Over Itself

If you want the attention, you have to be strong enough to ride the backlash. Because as any experienced on-the-edge blogger will tell you, the lows are just as extreme as the highs. As strongly as you are promoted up the ladder for being “different” and “edgy”, you will be kicked in the face down it when you share an opinion not universally accepted. You need to be able to handle both sides. You’re going to experience your Lindsay Lohan moment.

As an employer of a hired gun how do you deal with that?

You read Tim Ferriss’ post on practical tips for dealing with haters and get over it. The seven items Tim discusses become your new corporate culture.

  1. It doesn’t matter how many people don’t get it. What matter is how many people do.
  2. 10 percent of people will find a way to take anything personally. Expect it.
  3. “Trying to get everyone to like you is a sign of mediocrity” – Colin Powel
  4. “If you are really effective at what you do, 95 percent of the things said about you will be negative” – Scott Boras
  5. If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.
  6. “Living well is the best revenge” – George Herbert
  7. Keep calm and carry on

If you can’t incorporate this into your lifestyle, then you don’t get the right to share an opinion. You get to stay boring and watch your audience be stolen by those that can.

Dissent != Bias, Lack Of Credibility

Dave and Octavia were both fired (yes, even Dave) for sharing opinions their readers/employers didn’t agree with. This difference of opinion was then claimed to represent a “bias” or a “lack in credibility”. What really happened was that CNN and The Washington Post didn’t know how to embrace public criticism. And so when they were forced to, they performed a classic Big Brand play and disassociated themselves with the troublemakers. Smooth.
But you can’t have it both ways.

If you’re going to be a big boy and swim, and benefit from, these waters you have to be able to take it. The firings of Dave and Octavia proved that mainstream media isn’t yet able to take it. They’re still hiding behind their boring corporate shield and fired two extremely talented folks in hopes that some of their mess wouldn’t land on the brand. It’s well known that CNN’s ratings are dropping and its irrational fear of social media isn’t helping.

Get Comfortable Being Exposed

The risks to exposing yourself to your customers and community aren’t nearly as severe as you may think; and the rewards are huge. I’m often hired because of my ‘outspokenness’. Whether it’s in SEO or out of it, what separates my voice from other bloggers is that I’m willing to lay it all out and expose myself. That means sometimes I get kicked in the face for talking about things I’m passionate about, but it also means that people relate to me. That’s where my audience comes from and what makes me valuable. And it’s the same for any other blogger or media outlet. The more you expose yourself and your staff, the more you draw people into you, even if they don’t like what they’re reading. They’re still drawn in and engaging with the content.  It’s the “real” stuff that gives you texture.

The recent firings of two people skilled at their craft should be a wake up sign that mainstream media still has a long way to go. Big media won’t be ready for on-the-edge blogging until they get over their God complex, support dissent and get comfortable showing who they are. It’s okay to get called out in social media and to support the members of your team who routinely are. Putting that under a corporate umbrella doesn’t dilute the brand. In the end, it strengthens it.

One last question. Dave and Octavia will both go on to have strong careers using their voice for attention. The Washington Post and CNN have now scared current employees back into their quiet cages. Who really got the axe?


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