The Social Media Debate: Fake My Ride

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Has social media helped put the public back into public relations? Have two way conversations and content sharing replaced one-way publicity driven communications and media manipulation?

Content sharing, Facebook comments and Twitter conversations can be seen as the very incarnation of Grunig’s idea of symmetry in PR.

On the other hand, organisations and governments are not always interested in starting a debate with their audiences and sometimes even manipulate the content, the conversations and the free flow of information online.

In this brief reflection on the topic, I will share my thoughts on the problem of faking comments or numbers on social media. Click here for my take on Wikipedia editing and conflict of interest.

I was reminded of the practice of posting fake comments on social media by my Chinese classmates during a debate in contemporary PR theory and issues. They spoke about the many examples of government or corporate employees and state media allegedly faking comments or followers numbers on Weibo. Their goal? To support the party line or generate publicity.

It resonated painfully with my own experience of reading inflammatory comments under articles in Bulgaria’s leading news sites (such as vesti.bg and dnevnik.bg), which are so mindbogglingly outrageous, they can only be written by chronic maniacs or paid provocateurs.

In the western world, there have been recent revelations about fake reviews of products and services by The Guardian and NY Times. Even more frighteningly, it would appear that as much as 70% of President Obama’s own Twitter followers are comprised of fake accounts. In fact, the fake Twitter followers phenomenon has become a business in its own right.

So what does that mean for PR professionals? I would argue that, theoretically speaking, this is simply a case of supporting organisational goals, which is in turn, the main function of communication. After all, who do you think gave the idea to Sina to fake their Weibo fans numbers, or to Mitt Romney to boost his Twitter followers in the midst of an election campaign? Much like the story of the altered BP Wikipedia page, PR practitioners were merely doing their job.

Is it ethical? Of course not. Should it be done? Not a smart idea.

However, for the sake of the argument, it must be said that these cases only reinforce the notion of media manipulation and dysfunctional, asymmetric communication practice. While the bright side of social media has provided us with unseen levels of genuine publicity, the press will jump at any chance to expose the maliciousness of PR as long as it exists.

And something tells me it will always do.

The Social Media Debate: Wikipedia

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Social media has the whole world excited and that is especially the case with Communication professionals. The endless possibilities of web 2.0 applications puts the boundaries on communication where one’s own creativity ends.

But what are the implications for PR in particular? Has social media helped put the public back into public relations? Have two way conversations and content sharing replaced one-way publicity driven communications and media manipulation?

That was the subject of an early Spring debate during one of my last visits to Westminster’s Harrow campus as part of the university’s postgraduate course in PR. Optimism did not, however, spring from everybody in the classroom.

Content sharing, Facebook comments and Twitter conversations – one side argued, is the very incarnation of Grunig’s idea of symmetry in PR.

On the other hand, organisations and governments are not always interested in starting a debate with their audiences and sometimes even manipulate the content, the conversations and the free flow of information online – the others claimed.

And while I tend to agree that social media is the best thing that happened to Communication since man walked out of the cave, I must admit that I was swayed into backing the more cynical of my classmates.

They reminded me of two very good examples of Internet manipulation – Wikipedia and fake comments.

Wikipedia is free to edit by anyone. This means that any intern can fire up his Chrome, log into their Wikipedia account and omit embarrassing information in the article discussing his or her host organisation. More often than not, this will be done by someone with more responsibilities than making coffee and printing daily agendas, but the principle remains the same.

Of course, Wikipedia is not a social media network, but does that mean that we should close our eyes for the obvious and ignore the ugly just for the sake of the argument? Wikipedia is as much an icon of the Internet revolution, as is Facebook and Twitter, and if content there could be so easily manipulated, does that mean that it should be tolerated just because it’s anonymous, and doesn’t lead to arrests?

The premise that the Internet is the ultimate source for freely available, freely circulating information, does not counteract the fact that said information can be untruthful or manipulated. And when PR professionals do it, it jeopardises the entire industry’s integrity, not to mention that it drives the argument for two-way communication into a brick wall and only reinforces the notion of media manipulation, because if Wikipedia is not social media, it most definitely is media.

Read an interesting blog post by Philip Morgan from CIPR on the subject of Wikipedia conflict of interest editing here.

The PR App Part II – When PR meets Mobile

As I mentioned in my previous post, I used Conduit Mobile to create an app that employs PR techniques to tackle the issue of teen smoking. What follows is part of my pitch  for an assignment to design a viral video or a mobile app to serve as a central tactic for a social media campaign, all part of the New Media module at Westminster.

Research shows that smoking in the UK is on the decline. However, in the wake of a very graphic anti-smoking campaign run by the NHS, I thought that there is a need for a more targeted campaign to address the problem of teen smoking. The specifics of a teenage audience require a different approach than the one utilised by NHS. And so I thought “Why not replace vividness with the concept of togetherness and social inclusion in order to develop a campaign centered on the use of a crowdsourced mobile app.”

Due to the rebellious character of teens and their denouncement of authority, as well as their technology usage habits, we could give teens the tools to make sure that they organise themselves around the idea of not smoking, much like they would around the idea of smoking.

The hook is to first get them interested in the app by visualising famous sportsmen, actors, singers, showmen and even politicians in their struggle with smoking, what their opinion on smoking is, how they cope and how they eventually quit.

And here is where PR comes in, in the form of good old celebrity endorsement:

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I thought it’s important to make this page very content rich, since the whole app relied on its appeal, so I added various categories that are likely to be of interest to teenagers, like football or celebrities, but also Team GB to draw on some national pride and insert some key messages:

Team GB

Finally, I also added a moment of discovery with a category marked by a big red question mark. Inside, a user could learn about people’s struggle with smoking they’d least expect to read about – like President Obama.

Of course this is all designed to get teens interested in the app, but after it’s served its initial purpose, it would actually serve as added motivation, because if you’re a 16 year old girl madly in love with Andy Murray, there’s no better motivation than him telling you to quit from the screen of your iPhone 5. Right?

Wrong.

There is better. What if your mate Sarah told you that? You know, Sarah that lives just 2 blocks away. Again, we reach for PR’s Holy Grail – third party endorsement – but this time, handed to us by the teens’ own peers:

Katie

This is where we introduce crowdsourcing and take advantage of teens tech usage habits. We encourage them to share their thoughts on smoking and coping with quitting, and organise their testimonies into regions. This is done through a form in the next tab:

As time goes by, content increases exponentially, users fuel each other’s motivation and your only concern is creating content for the previous tab. In essence, you’ve created a contained social network, aimed at a very specific target audience, supported by tailored content and simple functionality, all based on classic third party endorsement, and wrapped in mobile easy of access.

And that is how PR meets Mobile.

The PR App Part I – Conduit Mobile Review

How does one go about creating a “PR app”?

Well first of all, creating an app actually takes a software engineer who knows what they’re doing. A former classmate of mine from high school spent 5 years and many thousands of Euros in prestigious French universities before he got to making apps for a living. But for the purposes of demonstrating a concept that, given the proper shell and content, can actually be put to practice, there is Conduit Mobile.

I used Conduit Mobile to create an app, or rather a semi-functioning app that has all the right imagery and text to demonstrate my concept – with all the normal functionalities that you can expect from a mobile app – like swiping away through menus, scrolling up and down by sliding your thumb vertically along the screen, hyperlinks that take you to your default Internet browser, etc. Now, I say semi because I did have to improvise… a lot. This “app maker” has many limitations in its own functionality. It gives the user the option to choose from preset pages such as News, Events and Albums, but it often forces you into linking them to existing content on Facebook, Gmail or Flickr, not to mention that the choices are not plenty in the first place. There are 21 different page presets which often do the same or serve a similar purpose. For instance, of those 21 pages, 5 are Contact Us, About Us, Email Us, Call Us and Map. I understand that connectivity is important, but given that another 3 are virtually social media plug-ins for Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and the core 8 or so force you to link content from all kinds of predetermined sites, there is in fact very little that you can “design” yourself. I ended up relying on a page called “Collection” for most of my app’s content and I’m pretty sure that it was not intended to be used the way I did. Alas, it was one of the few that allowed me to put some actual pictorial and textual content of my own.

In the end, however, it is what it is – and like I said in the beginning of my post – Conduit Mobile is more about giving an idea of what you want to do with your app, rather than paying a $199 fee to upload your glorified linkage platform to Google Play (with an annual upkeep cost of $25) or the App Store (annual upkeep of $99).

And before you accuse me of being too harsh, I will say that you must definitely try it for yourself – if you’re feeling techy and creative enough, maybe you can even find application for your business – Conduit Mobile provides excellent tools for e-Commerce and showing off your goods.

For anything more ambitious than that, hire a software engineer!

In my next post, I will tell you how I used Conduit Mobile to create an app that addresses the issue of teen smoking with a PR twist.

Why Social Media Monitoring Is Invaluable

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NASA gets to send robots to Mars and monitor a lot of cool things in the universe. But what if someone gets to monitor NASA?

That’s what I did… for a few weeks.  No, I didn’t wiretap their phones or pay double agents to steal their technology. I  monitored their social media activity – and let me tell you this:

It. Is. Tedious.

You have to keep tabs on every post, tweet, video, picture, link and stat. It is unimaginably time-consuming and it can be mindbogglingly boring if you’re not the kind of person that gets excited about statistics.

Wait, what?

Thank God, I love statistics. Gathering all the data can take a lot of time and seem pointless and anti-creative while you’re doing it, but when you finally get to analysing said data, some pretty cool things tend to happen.

Oh I forgot to mention, you also got to love Excel.

And if even that doesn’t make you close this page in despair, then let me proceed to the cool stuff.

Gathering all that data on users and their interaction with the organisation’s activity on social media can lead to a very clear picture about the organisation’s performance on the web in terms of content reach, engagement and resonation, along with userbase growth rates and content type appeal. You can even find out what particular subjects are of more interest to your audience, how those topics resonate with them and ultimately how much of an influence your organisation has on its e-followers. Needless to say, that information can be pure gold for communication professionals. You can tailor your messages better, provide the type of content that keeps your audience begging for more and improve upon all of that by keeping track of your performance. It’s brilliant. All a comms person needs is there – and it’s only a graph away:

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For instance, the graph above indicates which periods were stronger and which were weaker in terms of engagement, but also that the Shares count is consistently higher than the Comments numbers, which means that the content enjoys strong resonation with your audience.

And if you are struggling to get a grip on your growth rates and whether your content draws in more users, you can do something like this:

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Finally, for a truly advanced exercise you can take the kind of stats from the first set of graphs and juxtapose it with the second set to find out the really precise connections between, say Shares of your existing userbase on Facebook, and the resulting gain in users. That way you can find out whether your content is engaging enough so that friends of your subscribers reading your content in their feed leads to said friends becoming your own subscribers. Or you could compare whether growth rates on your YouTube channel are related to Retweets of your posts advertising a new video about Zero-G Ping-Pong so that you can create more Zero-G Ping-Pong content and gain even more followers.

The possibilities are endless – as NASA would say – much like the universe.