Every day, I tweet a PR “Tip of the Day,” and one of last week’s postings was, “’Tweets’ are hearsay, don’t comment on them unless facts are independently verified.”
This was in the spirit of the long-standing, common sense PR position that we should never comment on hearsay, but rather only comment when we have verified the information at hand and its source is known. Increasingly, social media users and reporters alike will expect a brand, an organization or its PR representatives to comment on tweets and social media posts.
Ironically, last week’s PR Tip generated a response enthusiastic enough to warrant a little more attention. The issue at the center of all this was my contention is that far too much credibility is assigned to tweets on face value.
Before getting into the theory of it all, let’s break it down. Anyone can tweet. Twitter users are not required to reveal their true identities. That should undermine the social media channel’s credibility quite a bit, but often it does not.
Second, there are techniques that tech-savvy social media gurus can use to multiply the impact of tweets. One user can trigger thousands of tweets advancing a particular point of view, opinion, claim or allegation, deceptively giving the impression that the sentiments across all of these tweets is shared by thousands of individuals. That possibility is lost or overlooked by the public, and quite often by reporters who may base coverage on social media content. Often, an assumption is made that even a handful of tweets automatically reflect general public opinion.
In conventional media coverage of tweets, the burden is sometimes placed on PR professionals to respond to social media activity.
Traditionally, journalists have considered it their primary mission in reporting news to center on facts, not opinion or conjecture. That, we learned in J-school, was the domain of the opinion page editors and the commentators at our news operations.
But when social media came along, the temptation was simply too great for TV, radio and print/online execs to look for “synergies.” This term can mean many things, but in this context it represents a convergence where the interactive nature of social media is leveraged to create news content and more directly build audience at the same time.
By engaging the audience with content based on social media, and then using social media to solicit more feedback, the media organization can create a cycle where this dynamic process builds momentum and can potentially take on a life of its own, adding a viral element.
What has come out of this is that news organizations now sometimes report Twitter reaction to other events or their own stories, creating completely new stories unto themselves based on tweets. In the process, the facts of the stories can become secondary. Instead, Twitter “backlash” or “social media outrage” defines and shapes the story.
This marks a significant shift in focus. The “fact” that people are posting opinions and conjecture about the story becomes all the justification needed to run with a story. Thanks to social media, and oftentimes Twitter specifically, opinion, rumor, speculation and conjecture drive a given story.
The very demographics of social media are much more narrow than most believe. When traditional media tells us that thousands of Twitter users are offended by a new toy on store shelves for the holidays, or that there is Twitter controversy over a TV commercial, do we know who exactly is offended and how much of a cross-section of society feels the same way?
According to the Pew Research Center, about 23 percent of adult Internet users count themselves as Twitter users, at least occasionally. “Twitter is particularly popular among those under 50 and the college-educated,” observed Pew.
The largest percentage of adult Twitter users are between 18 and 20 years old at 37 percent; most have a college degree; and 41 percent earn $50,000 or less per year. Most Twitter users live in cities and suburbs, a combined total of 48 percent, while rural users total 17 percent. Ethnically, Pew reported that adult Twitter demographics are almost evenly distributed.
It would take a much more comprehensive data dive to more fully make sense of these numbers, but what we can conclude is that news stories centered Twitter activity:
- Do not provide a solid representation of adults aged 30 and over;
- Do not provide an accurate representation of people who live outside of cities and suburbs;
- Do not provide an adequate representation of individuals who earn $50,000 or more per year.
What Twitter does provide, it seems, is a representative depiction of attitudes among 20-somethings who live in urban areas and make less than $50,000 per year. That is only a sliver of demographics that comprise society and cannot be assumed to represent public sentiment in general.
If the narrow demographics of social media users are important to you, then social media trends should be. Still, it is safe to assume that these narrow demographics aren’t enough to accurately make conclusions on how the majority of people feel.
What this means to reporters and for those of us in the business of PR is that as long as verified facts are the basis of our own credibility, and as long as credibility matters, it’s in everyone’s best interest to put tweets and other social media posts into the proper context and perspective. Understand the context and know that Twitter users are a narrow group. Speak to the facts. Do not speculate and do not validate speculation or rumor presented on face value.