Caveat Twittor

Earlier in his career, William Murray, my boss at PRSA, spent 20 years working under Jack Valenti as the COO of the Motion Picture Association of America. Along the way, he learned a little bit about what goes into the production of the Academy Awards, and he always has entertaining stories to share.

(Full disclosure: Keith Trivitt, a founding PRBC blogger, also works for PRSA.)

So Bill was a bit puzzled when I asked if he had seen the Tweet sent on Oscar night by Richard Robbins, AT&T’s director of social innovation. In it, Robbins suggested that the producers of live broadcasts put contingency plans in place for making mid-production changes when the social media buzz turns ugly, as it did in the case of this year’s Oscars.

“Say that again,” Bill asked. “He suggested what?”

That’s right, a plan to make changes on-the-fly. Now, short of having Billy Crystal in a steamer trunk offstage, I’m not sure what realistically could he have been done. And what if the Twitterati don’t like the set, or the music, or the Lifetime Achievement winner, or, God forbid, the statuette? I mean, would spur-of-the-moment changes even be possible? And, does it make sense to react to the Twittersphere’s attitudes and perceptions, given that only 8 percent of online Americans are even using Twitter?

Remember, after all, this strategy didn’t turn out so great when New York’s famed 92nd Street Y tried it.

In November of last year, as part of the Y’s vaunted “Lectures and Conversations” series, New York Times columnist Deborah Solomon was interviewing Steve Martin about his new book, “An Object of Beauty.” Around the discussion’s midpoint, a Y employee passed a note to Solomon, asking her to steer the conversation toward Martin’s acting career. It seems that the Y was being inundated with emails from closed-circuit viewers, who apparently wanted to see Martin playing banjo with a fake arrow through his head or singing King Tut.

Understandably miffed at the turn of events, Martin Tweeted the next day: “So the 92nd St. Y has determined that the course of its interviews should be dictated in real time by its audience’s emails. Artists beware.”

Martin wasn’t the only one who found the Y’s actions boorish; NPR had a particularly scathing view. It called the real-time redirect “stunning,” and compared it to “demanding your money back because Elton John didn’t play ‘Rocket Man.’” And that was only the tip of the criticism iceberg.

The reality of this brave new social media world in which we live, though, is that everyone with an opinion now has a forum to express it. And memes develop quickly as individuals RT anything they find provocative, with nearly one-third of them never having read the source material.

But beyond that, who or what qualifies all these opinions? Nearly 16,000 Twitter users are self-described “gurus” of one sort or another. And, I can’t even begin to guess how many bloggers view themselves in a similarly authoritative light.

I’m going to go out on a limb here, but my guess is that at least some of these Twitterers and bloggers need to get over themselves. Most aren’t the experts or gurus they would have you believe, but just regular folks with opinions, some intelligent and well-reasoned and some, frankly, just plain nuts.

But sometimes in the social media sphere, it’s hard to tell the diamond from the Diamonique. And herein lies my point (finally).

As public relations professionals, we’ve come to realize (sadly) that the speed, tenor and stridency of social media communications have come to count more than depth, balance, facts and expertise. In other words: You can’t always believe everything you read in the blogosphere. Or, for that matter, elsewhere.

And today, when it seems that everyone is an “expert,” that advice rings truer than ever before. So feel free to ignore everything I’ve just said …

Arthur Yann is the vice president of public relations for PRSA.

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