Blows Up Traditional Public Relations and Crisis Communications
The internet has contributed another word to the lexicon. Selfie, a photograph one has taken of oneself, was unanimously selected by the publishers of The Oxford English Dictionary as the word of the year.
How ironic that a medium that has given rise to what some are calling a tsunami of self-expression — via camera-phone self-portraits, the rise of self-publishing, and sites almost totally dedicated to navel-gazing (like Facebook) — has served to undermine some older forms of selfies.
Traditional public relations may be the ultimate form of commercial selfie. Advertisements and branding have always given companies ways to present a picture of themselves to the public. While not always strictly flattering, such images are used for marketing, to guide public perception, to advance agendas, and protect market share.
More to the point, the subject of the old-school business selfie was almost totally in control of both the look and distribution of the picture.
Social media has disrupted that model, as it has so many others. Yes, a company can still take a happy snap that presents their chosen features, but once it is released into the wild there is no telling what may happen.
More than just commercial parodies, which can be damaging if they go viral — common folks can set up websites with the sole purpose of undermining a corporate public image, they can organize effective boycott campaigns, and easily disseminate a narrative that runs counter to the PR-managed one.
Beyond even that, social media provides avenues through which a few folks can poison word-of-mouth or, at the very least, cast doubt on the integrity of a firm or it’s products. There are any number of social sentiment vectors, like Yelp or Amazon reviews, through which anyone can drop an opinion grenade on businesses both small and large.
Sometimes even a simple conversation can morph into a potential disaster in just a matter of minutes. Online discussions that begin with the best of intentions can spiral out of control in ways that come back to haunt the parent firms, such as Fox News’ recently revealed penchant for having staffers use fake accounts to post positive blog comments about the parent company; or the flame war that erupted between an Arizona restauranteur and the internet public. The latter was still burning more than six months after it erupted.
Sure self-portraits are so common in this internet age that they warrant their own word, but managing that picture — especially in the face of a crisis — is far more complicated than in the past. Such management begins with the realization that even a selfie isn’t just about you. Public image is now, more than ever, a collaborative process in which the public can play a very active role.