When it comes to social media causing cataclysmic changes in the UK we have recently witnessed two significant events which in one case has led to change. However, as far as I have seen, these changes have largely passed unnoticed among professional communicators despite having relevance to public and media institutions.
While they’re not exactly cut and dried case studies I thought I’d use a blog post to take a look at what happened, why, and how the Internet has changed the way the organisations in question operate – or not.
The first example at first sight looks like a fairly standard whistle-blower business story. Last month the Guardian published a story based on leaked documents that shone a light on Barclays’ investment division. The story, the Guardian claimed, was another piece of journalism damning the financial industry at a time when public abhorrence and anger for the wealth being accumulated (or not) by bankers was at its peak.
The Guardian broke the story overnight via its website which included scans of the leaked documents. These meant anyone could delve into Barclays’ gory tax avoidance details themselves. However, by the following morning edition of the Guardian newspaper Barclays’ lawyers had secured an injunction requiring the documents to be removed from the Guardian’s website. Job done, they thought.
However, in the couple of hours that the documents had been online users had saved copies of the documents and distributed them across the web, on sites including the wonderful Wikileaks.
Unfortunately, the injunction meant the Guardian couldn’t disclose or signpost its readers to the documents but that didn’t matter as people were discussing the story and linking to copies of the documents anyway – entirely by-passing the MSM and thus rendering the legal injunction all but worthless.
This has clear resonances with the Diebold case in the US back in 2004. I won’t go into the specifics (it’s on Wikipedia and has been examined in detail Yochai Benkler’s Wealth of Networks) but suffice to say that a large company, in this case Diebold, discovered it couldn’t use legislation to control or censor unpalatable information once it had been launched into the social web.
The second case is more recent – and more tragic. During the G20 protests the innocent newspaper salesman Ian Tomlinson was assaulted by a police officer who had disguised his identity by covering his face with a balaclava and illegally removing his identification number. Furthermore, the officer responsible didn't come forward until the video footage had been played out across the world. As a result of this violence there is a very strong likelihood that the injuries Tomlinson's sustained during the assault led to his death.
This version of events – widely accepted by the public and media as the most accurate – has been established using images, videos and first-hand testimonies from citizen journalists. However, the response by the police forces involved and IPCC was to issue media statements that contradicted this version of events. How can that be?
Writing in Monday’s Media Guardian Nick Davies asks the important question: “Why did it take six days and citizen journalism to shed light on Ian Tomlinson’s death.”
Davies – whose book last year, Flat Earth News, criticised cash and resource strapped newsrooms for being overly-reliant on the PR industry and PROs – goes as far as to suggest that the reason may be that the Met, City of London Police and IPCC were deliberately issuing misinformation.
Far be it for me to comment on that point but it places the role of the Internet at the heart of the media coverage, rather than the periphery.
Aside from Tomlinson’s death, the nearby peaceful Climate Camp was targeted by violent police action which would seem to have coincided with when the MSM cameras were turned off. Without citizen reporters capturing the camp clearance on phones, digital video and still cameras there would be no real record of the events that unfolded.
Ditto the police officer who updated his Facebook status: "Can't wait to bash some long haired hippys up @ the G20." As a result he is being investigated. And who knows what happened (if anything) to this guy who’s Twitter update landed in my inbox a few days after the event.
With all this reputational fallout for the police and sharp drop in public trust it is perhaps no surprise to see the relatively rapid announcement in PR Week that the Met is now “stepping up its online comms" to deal with the Internet as a communications channel.
While it’s certainly a step in the right direction, tactical changes will only be successful if supported by a change in organisational strategy too. With the web making organisations’ actions near-impossible to control or manage, traditional institutions and their approach to communications – and in this case, UK law a well – are being undone by the Internet.
Things are changing, but it seems to be only one crisis at a time.