We’ve had two national breaking news stories in the Austin area in recent months: the Fort Hood shootings and the plane that was intentionally crashed into a building that houses IRS offices. In both cases, I led the Statesman’s social media efforts during the news events, mainly by utilizing Twitter. In both events, media watchers and members of the community praised the Statesman for using social media effectively.
People who interviewed me afterward for blogs and articles wanted to know how I did it. The answer is pretty simple: I just did what I typically do every day, but I step it up to keep pace with the news. Social media is much more than just the physical tools such as Twitter, Facebook or Google Buzz: It is the community of people who trust you and are interested in what you have to say. News organizations can’t ignore this community (which exists whether you are there or not) and then parachute into a breaking news event and expect good results.
When I’m interacting with the public on a typical day, this is what I try to do (regardless of what tool I’m using to communicate):
- I respond to people who ask me questions. A lot of times, people are asking me questions that are not within my expertise. I find the expert in the building and get an answer, whether the person is wondering why they’re not getting their print paper delivered or why there is smoke on the horizon. I see being responsive as part customer service and part journalism. Social media can be a great customer service tool, and if I can help out there to make my news organization better for the public, I do it. As for the journalism part, all you have to do is ask the assistant city editors how often I bug them with tips I hear from social media. We get a lot of tips that turn out to be blog posts or stories.
- I thank people who give me a tip. The other day, someone pointed out to me on Twitter that Perez Hilton blogged about Austin homeless celebrity Leslie Cochran (yes, Austin has a celebrity homeless person). I turned that tip into a short blog post on our own site, and our Web production desk built a fascinating photo gallery of Leslie. I then made sure to publicly thank the person who gave me the tip.
- I talk in a conversational tone, and even have a little fun. I have the corporate “S” as a Twitter and Facebook avatar, but people in the community know me (or feel like they do) because I’m not just spitting out headlines. At its heart, social media is a sharing machine. People don’t share news with their friends by saying, “Sources say Karen to have a boy.” Instead, they say, “Did you hear Karen is having a boy?” Media organizations that are intruding in people’s circle of friends and family on social networks should have some personality.
- I am not afraid to ask for the public’s help. If I see someone mention that there is smoke bellowing up on the horizon, and the metro desk hasn’t heard yet what it is, I have no problem with tweeting something like, “Hearing some reports of a fire in North Austin. Anyone see what’s going on?”
These are the things I do on a daily basis, even when there’s not much going on in Central Texas. When big news does happen, though, all that work building a relationship with the community pays off. Here are the same bullet points during a big news event.
- Because I’m seen as responsive, people are not afraid to give us information. They know that someone is seeing what they’re offering up. During the plane crash, people volunteered content in droves. We received dozens of pictures from witnesses, witness reports and even a tip that the pilot’s manifesto was online. Thanks to that tip, I believe we were the first media organization to post the manifesto on its Web site.
- People know I’m appreciative of what we get, and they genuinely care about our organization and several of our staff members who they “know” through social media. Reporters and photographers no longer have to be faceless bylines.
- Since I am conversational, it’s not awkward when I break into Twitter with this post that I sent early in the plane crash story: “Anyone up in the 183 area who has seen anything? If you have a twitpic, let me know.”
- Since I often ask for the public’s help in reporting the news in our community, I hardly even have to ask for help during breaking news – people just offer it up. I like to think of it this way: for decades, the TV and radio stations had a corner on getting people to call in with tips during breaking news. If a tornado touches down, people used to think right away to call the TV station with their report, photo or video. The Internet has leveled this playing field for newspapers. Now a storm-chaser’s photo can lead the newspaper’s Web site within minutes. TV and radio stations are good at getting on the air and asking for that content. I see what I do on social media as the equivalent.
There’s no magic to using social media tools well. It just takes a commitment to it, and a willingness to work with the community every day, even when the news is slow.
Robert Quigley is the social media editor at the Austin American-Statesman and is a blogger forhttp://oldmedianewtricks.com.