April 29, 2011

What should the Times do?

I’m taking a class on branding and social media at Stanford this quarter. It’s called BEST (modest, eh?) and it’s all about how companies can manage and promote themselves in the social media sphere. The examples that the professors, Jennifer Aaker and Chris Flink have used have been mostly uncontroversial. BP has been mentioned once or twice, and we looked a case study in which Harley Davidson failed to give T shirts to participants in a company-sponsored bike ride, but for the most part, the class has been about promotion, rather than damage control.

This seems like an omission to me. Social networks are much more likely to light up over a corporation’s failure, rather than over its efforts to promote something: “If it bleeds, it leads” isn’t just a mantra for tabloid news, it’s also the guiding principle of social chat.

To be fair to the BEST profs: they delivered the message early on that companies need to be ready for this, and need to plan for the worst-case scenario. But I don’t see the class taking that in. So I posted a challenge on the BEST website today. I’d like to know what these students think a real-life company’s reaction should be to a social media spat that could threaten the company’s brand.

The company? The New York Times. The spat? A debate that started between two prominent journalists about how news organizations treat their local workers in conflict zones. This debate between Mike Kamber and Teru Kuwayama has quickly gone viral, and not just in the journalism community, and I predict it will be fodder for blog posts, and possibly even mainstream journalism reports down the line.

For years there’s been rumbling discontent among journalists about the way media organizations take pains to look after their staffers when they’re caught in the line of fire, but often fail to provide support to the locals who make it possible for those staffers to get the story.

The support those locals give is considerable and invaluable. Anyone who has ever reported overseas knows this. Most reporters who arrive in a conflict zones are like newborn babies. They can’t speak the language, they don’t know what to eat, how to find shelter, or how to get around. They are utterly vulnerable. If they’re lucky, and news people have been in-country before, they’ll have a network of support on the ground: so-called fixers, whose job, on the face of it, is to arrange interviews and get the reporter to the story.

But fixers do a lot more than that. They translate, they find safe accommodations, they know where to find gear. And batteries to power that gear. They find the least dangerous routes to drive, and then they often drive those routes. They know who can help and how to get them to provide that help. They are, in short, architects of an entire network of support for the reporter.

And providing that support is dangerous. Not just because they’re often in the line of fire with the reporter, but because they have to live in the country when the reporter’s job is over. That makes them uniquely vulnerable: if the story the reporter files is unpopular, the local will go after the fixer. If the country the reporter comes from is unpopular, the fixer is regarded as giving help to the enemy.

Fixers are vital to the creation of a good story, and therefore essential to a news organization’s coverage. Shouldn’t the news company therefore treat fixers and their ilk with the same care and attention that they provide the company’ support staff at home? That’s the argument that’s going play out in blogs and stories over the next few months. My question is, as the debate plays out in public, what should news companies do about it?

What should the New York Times do?

My fellow Fellow Mike Marcotte pointed out that it would be unwise for the Times to respond in the Facebook thread. I agree: my question is, what is the wise thing to do? Should the Times try to get in front of the story? Should it just wait for things to blow over? The message I’ve received from the profs in the BEST class is that waiting for things to go away is the worst thing to do. Where there’s a real risk of damage - and I believe there is in this case - a company should be proactive, not reactive. 

It’s not just the Times that should be thinking of how to deal with this. An in-depth investigation of the way news companies treat “casual” staff will point fingers at all sorts of media organizations. How should they react? Should they react? Should they use social media to react?

These are the kinds of real-life questions that media companies are struggling with today. I’m not expecting BEST to have all the answers, but I took the class to gain insight into how companies can respond to these kinds of issues using social media. The BEST students will be grappling with this kind of stuff when they graduate, so I’m hoping for some imaginative suggestions.