by Dean S. Goldman, president, Goldman & Associates Public Relations
It used to be pretty straightforward. Executives could tell when reporters were in the room simply by what they were holding – a notepad and pen for print journalists to take notes, a camera for a newspaper or magazine photojournalists to snap pictures, and video cameras and microphones for the broadcast media to capture images and sound bites. In one glance, executives would know they were “on camera” and that they needed to measure their comments accordingly. How things have changed. The most compelling footage, photo, and sound from major news events doesn’t come from reporters covering events the traditional way. They come from citizens using cell phones to capture the news as it happened.
The increasing role of “citizen journalists” can be seen everywhere, with television stations actively asking the public to send in cell phone photos and video of events they think might make good news stories. Often, the decision about what is news or not is based in large part about how interesting (meaning dramatic, humorous, or emotional) those images are. What does this mean for you as an executive?
You now are always “on camera,” because no matter where you are, there very well could be at least one citizen journalist capturing your comments and actions on a cell phone, very likely without you realizing it. One too many drinks at a local bar, and a few too many inhibitions relaxed as a result, could be a career-ender. What’s more, everyone in your company is also on camera at all times, for that very reason. All it takes is one person at any level in your organization to do something inappropriate that’s caught as a video or photo, and you have a true public relations problem on your hands. Service industries are at particular risk, because they generally employ large numbers of people who interact with the public almost non-stop. Those people are often at the lowest level of the organization, but they’re also the most visible – dealing with customers as cashiers, phone operators, receptionists, servers, tour guides, and much more. We all know the pressures these employees face each day as they encounter people who may be angry, have unreasonable expectations, speak rudely, or test your employees’ patience in some other way.
Think about it – could it happen that somewhere in your organization, someone may lose his or her temper, even once? Is it possible that at least one person with a cell phone might be around when that happens? Could the video from this outburst be interesting enough to make the evening news? For most companies, the answer is “yes.” So, what do you do? Our recommendation: Start thinking of your workforce as not only being in the service business, but in the public relations business, as well. Most service organizations put their on-the-ground employees through customer service training of some kind, to inculcate new hires with procedures on how to greet the public, take orders, run the cash register, and more. The time has come to start including a public relations component into that training. What we mean by this is that companies must begin instructing employees at all levels on how to think like public relations people and how to manage stressful situations, no matter how mundane they may seem.
In addition, given the rapid pace at which video and photos captured by this “new media” are disseminated, companies also must review their internal response procedures to make sure that they can move fast enough if they’re catapulted in the news this way. You no longer have hours to respond – you have minutes. By the way, have you seen a commercial that’s now running on television? It’s for a camera cell phone, and it shows a new employee using it to shoot photos of his boss in an indiscreet office situation. The new hire displays the photos to the next level of manager, gets promoted, and then repeats the same trick at that level. He ascends the corporate ladder very quickly this way. The commercial ends with this early-twenties employee becoming the right-hand man of the CEO as both whisked away on the corporate jet. It makes you laugh, doesn’t it? It should also make you think.