A panel discussion on how social media and technology are influencing and changing news coverage was the topic of Thursday’s meeting of the St. Louis Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America. Bonita Cornute (@), a consumer reporter for Fox 2 News (KTVI), Joe Dwyer (@), managing editor of the St. Louis Business Journal, and David Sheets (@), media and communications manager at Perficient, an information technology management and consulting firm, were on the panel. (Sheets previously was an editor with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and worked in newspapers for 30 years.)
The three panelists reminisced on what their newsrooms and working conditions were like when they entered the profession decades ago. Dwyer said there were two or three computers at the Business Journal and they were connected to typesetting equipment. Cornute said a newscast once produced by 10 to 15 people today is executed by only four or five. Stories can be covered with smartphones instead of two-person camera crews lugging around heavy equipment. Sheets said the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s six-story building—once housing its presses and a newsroom packed with reporters and editors—is obsolete. (The building’s currently for sale.)
“Every single thing in that six-story building fits in this thing,” Sheets said as he held up his smartphone. “And that has happened in only a decade. That’s enough to make you want to drink a lot.”
(It’s a challenge to find a drink around the Post-Dispatch as the Missouri Bar & Grill, a frequent late-night spot for the Post’s writers, recently closed.)
New Contact Method
Dwyer’s method of reading and reviewing media releases and other information is continually changing. The flow of content is increasing, making it more important for messages to be clear and succinct.
“We are bombarded with hundreds if not thousands of messages a day with people wanting to get in front of our audience,” he said. “The more concise and brief your messages are, the better. I feel like e-mail is the new voice mail. Twitter direct messages is the new email.”
Dwyer also mentioned LinkedIn as a platform being used to keep track of companies and sectors.
Sheets said reviewing the evolution of mass communications during the last 30 years reveals disruptive change, commonly called the democratization of the Internet.
“We had very narrow channels of communication for news—we watched television, read the newspaper or listened to the radio and that was it,” Sheets said. “Only certain people could present the information on those channels. Now, everybody here is a channel and everybody you know is a channel.”
Sheets told the group most people are unsure how to effectively use social media. However, communication fundamentals still apply.
“Don’t feel like you are unique if you don’t understand social media,” he said. “There are a lot of people in media who know how to Tweet, but they don’t know how to write.”
Social media will continue to evolve and might cause anxiety. But communicators practicing traditional reporting fundamentals will continue to succeed.
Even though the discussion was mostly on social media, Cornute reminded communication professionals to live by the longstanding fundamental principle of crisis communications—be present.
“If your business or the organization you represent is in the middle of a crisis, don’t shut us down and say no comment,” Cornute said. “Don’t turn off your phone and refuse to answer e-mails. Face the crisis head on. The worst thing in the world is to think like this isn’t a problem, we’re not going to talk now and go away. Well, reporters don’t go away. We’re trained not to go away.”
Cornute spoke highly of the crisis communications practices of Jeff Arnett, who led the communications department of the Rockwood School District in the 1990s. (Arnett is now Chief Communications Officer of the Barrington (Ill.) School District.)
“If they had a problem, he would talk to us,” Cornute said. “If it was truly a negative story, he still talked to us. If the Rockwood School district was at fault for something, he owned up to it and spoke to the media about it.
“Be prepared to answer questions, the hard questions, the questions that might make your company or organization look bad, but it will be better when you own up to it.”