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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  • Arthur,

    Great post to remind public relations professionals to be careful whose opinion they’re interpreting as fact, and to keep social media’s impact on public communication in perspective/relevance.

    Thank you for sharing.

  • Arthur –

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments about my tweet (“In future, live show producers should have contingency plans to make on-the-fly changes when social media chatter shows trainwrecks. #oscars”).

    I do have a few thoughts to respond to your post….

    – I’m not clear why you devoted the latter half of your post to attacking social media gurus? I’ve never claimed to be a guru, nor was I saying that the “social media chatter” about the Oscars was coming from experts. (There’s a great line that “Anyone who claims to be a social media expert isn’t.”) Rather, I see the online chatter to be straight feedback from regular people (myself included) who thought the show was not entertaining. For me, this type of instant feedback from a large number of people is fascinating.

    – You write that only 8% of online Americans are using Twitter. To be clear, my comment, though posted on Twitter, wasn’t directed specifically at Twitter. It was addressing any public social media that can be used to get instant feedback (especially as ABC was encouraging viewers to participate in the “online water cooler” conversation). I strongly recommend reading Brian Stelter’s article “TV Industry Taps Social Media to Keep Viewers’ Attention” ( As Brian wrote, “A recent study by Deloitte of 2,000 American consumers ages 14 to 75 found that 42 percent sometimes surfed the Web while watching TV”. Further, even if only 8% of online Americans are on Twitter and even if only a small percentage of them were watching / tweeting about the Oscars, it’s still a huge sample size.

    – I agree that the 92nd St. Y erred greatly. However, I don’t think it’s an accurate comparison. The Steve Martin talk was billed as “Steve Martin with Deborah Solomon”, not as an evening of comedy or music. The Academy Awards on the other hand is designed to be an entertaining show for a large number of Americans. The fact that viewership was down 9% from 2010 to 2011 indicates that it fell short.

    – As for “what could have been done”, I’m DEFINITELY not an expert in TV production. However, I wasn’t suggesting unplanned “spur of the moment changes” as you wrote. I was suggesting that the producers plan options in advance to make the show more entertaining (and shorter?) if it was clear that it wasn’t working. This could include adding / removing jokes, cutting segments, etc. In the same way that a stand-up comic in a club can use audience feedback and adjust his/her show accordingly, show producers now have that option. The question is whether they’ll embrace it and plan accordingly.

    – Ultimately, my point is that social media provides instant, potentially actionable feedback. I stand by my prediction that future productions will incorporate this feedback to ensure they’re producing a product that’s working.

    I could note that Billy Crystal WAS offstage….


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