What a Kafuffle (old English word) Wikileaks has caused. Governments are moaning and getting quite aggressive, activists are up in arms and getting quite aggressive, the media are stoking it up and getting more excited than aggressive – all wonderful stuff. People are taking sides and the noise of opinion, dissent, anger and outrage is pumped up to maximum volume. But regardless of whether Wikileaks is a good thing or not, whether Julian Assange et al are the new media Messiahs or Cyber-Satans, the whole notion of what Wikileaks represents and the impact of this new ‘cost-effective political action’ is worthwhile pondering.
Is the phenomena anything new? The capability to issue confidential information to a global audience – leak – has been gathering pace since the internet became a mainstream interactive information platform, or Web 2.0. Wikileaks itself is in fifth year and had garnered over one million documents within its first year. And as a phenomenon, the are other organisations akin to Wikileaks such as the Chaos Computer Club, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism and more recently openleaks and tradeleaks. Being an information guerilla is suddenly all the rage. But that’s the thing – it’s not new, it’s just become fashionable and has gained prominence in the mind of the public, despite being a fundamental part of the developing networked world. To those in smeared or embarrassed governments who have been shocked and surprised by this phenomenon, the question must be asked, where have you been for the last few years? And where they, and many of us, have been, to paraphrase BBC’s Bill Thompson, is ‘calling forth the network age, whilst carrying on in our daily lives as if nothing has really changed’. Wikileaks and all it entails is a fundamental and immutable fact of life in the 21st century information environment – that’s just the way it is going to be, rightly or wrongly. And alongside that will come a general recognition that information, whilst always a powerful tool, has become a lot easier to wield to massive effect, not only by governments and corporate behemoths but by the common man, sometimes called the ‘Whistleblower’.
Alongside this potential information tsunami, is the issue of privacy. What the Wikileaks phenomenon is doing for secrecy and privacy of diplomatic information (and let’s not forget also of corporate information) may have repercussions on personal privacy and our view of it. Facebook, wifi networks, internet purchasing, personal databases, google streetview etc have come under scrutiny regarding the breaching of personal privacy. If mighty governments cannot protect really important classified stuff what hope for me and my bank details? Undoubtedly many computer security consultants are already licking the lips in preparation for cyber-fortresses to be built to protect information. Despite the fact that it is a human being, not a machine at the core of leaking, via the internet or otherwise, will general concern generate universal measures over time which will drive the information environment back to the 1980s? Remember when there was no wifi, no USB memory sticks, no internet in workplaces, you still bought stuff using real money not electronic transfer? Are we heading back that way?
Perhaps not completely, but there will be no doubt some sizeable shifts as the potent mix of wikileakmania and IT security bubbles up. And then there’s cyber-warfare. The Chinese are often accused of being a menace in cyber-space, or the Russians when they close down It infrastructures of tiny Baltic states. Yet the activist backlash against suppression of Wikileaks – attacking Paypal, Visa etc – has highlighted another potent threat, one spawned and aided by a positive internet-age outcome: collaborative networking. Through collaboration, focussed around a passionate cause, a mighty army of computer-literate operatives, from Delhi to Dallas, can present a cyber-threat that maybe even the Chinese may baulk at. This may be slightly far-fetched but does indicate that cyber-conflict is not the preserve of governments or the occasional lone-wolf hacker and powerful counterinsurgencies have the potential to cause huge effect not only in cyber-space but on our daily lives.
The stuff that is being released by Wikileaks is undoubtedly of interest and in some cases has strategic significance, but is not necessarily all that shocking. What may be more of a shock is where the consequences of the Wikileaks phenomenon takes us.
Over the last 18 months, events affecting Toyota and BP have dealt catastrophic blows to the reputations of these two mighty companies. Poor PR efforts and, more noticeably, disastrous media handling contributed significantly the severity of their respective crises.
But the trials and tribulations of these global conglomerates seem far away from the dreamy spires of Cambridge, the tranquil Fens or the placid waters of the Cam.
Yet, as the successful companies of this region ever expand their markets, providing vital products and services increasingly impinging on the lives of millions, be they pharmaceuticals through to computer chips, the likelihood and impact of intense media storms in similar circumstances increases.
Of course, not on the same scale – there are few Deepwater Horizons across the Fens – but potentially devastating nonetheless. The poor media handling of a recall of vital computer components embedded in a critical system or medicines due questionable research can sink a small business providing these products. This is the volatile and dangerous nature of the information environment in the 21st century. Referring the media to the marketing department just won’t cut it. Unfortunately, anecdotal research of Cambridgeshire-based companies has revealed that predominantly communication issues are referred to … the marketing department.
The demands of such crises require people – real people not just twitter handles or blog aliases – to stand up and explain, inform, justify, defend and educate, and to do it quickly. Not doing so merely adds fuel to the fire and doing it badly lobs a grenade in after that fuel.
The notion that ‘the spokesperson will deal with it’ or ‘that’s something for marketing’ is sheer folly, as has been shown time and time again. Management, at the very least, need to be fully engaged in the media process and prepared, if necessary, to engage directly with the media. Further, if in crisis, a media interview can be a brutal event, both personally and for the organization. By not preparing anyone for such, any HR department can be seen as neglecting its duty in training its staff for their duties and responsibilities.
But why bother? Is it really worthwhile getting worked up about this? Two counter arguments are often expressed by small and medium enterprises. One: surely it’s all about social, new, digital media nowadays, not the good old-fashioned spokesperson in front of a camera. Two: we’re not BP. The national and international media will never focus on us; we’re just too small and therefore off their radar.
This is flawed logic. Regarding social media – all that tweeting, blogging, websites and the like – the marketing departments are increasingly getting involved in that, and rightly so. But in crisis, it is about people, not so much technology. People want someone, not something, to reassure them. Besides, it is that very technology which is paradoxically enabling the personal interface. The traditional media interview, once destined for the six o’clock news and maybe the ten o’clock slot but then forgotten about, now readily enters the internet echo-chamber, to be viewed and, more importantly, critiqued and commented upon, over and over again online on YouTube or BBC iPlayer, across the world, with interest fuelled by a torrent of Tweets and blogposts. New social media has made the skills of the traditional spokesperson even more important.
On the second point, technology now allows the ‘harvesting’ of ever more low level news by the larger media outlets, making the tactical issue a strategic problem very quickly. That technology has also enabled the citizen journalist. Further, the coalition government is rightly forging ahead with ideas for digital Britain, including major policies in opening up local media and, not least, local television. Technology is ensuring that, when it comes to even a minor crisis, there will be no way of hiding it, the potential of exacerbating it and the possibility of rapidly widening coverage of it.
Just as successful companies will invest huge amounts of effort in market research, R&D, branding, advertising and marketing, the lean and mean, the aggressive winners in the marketplace do not skimp on crisis communications and media relations. This involves having key personnel, not just the spokespersons, prepared and able to handle the media. If it comes to a battle for reputation, it will most likely be fought in the glare of the camera, and the arsenal must be ready, otherwise getting into the ring with experienced journalists will be a painful and damaging experience. It also necessitates comprehensive crisis communications planning beforehand.
Of course, not all organizations will find themselves in the media spotlight (although the potential is always there) and may not consider media training a high priority – a reasonable judgement call. But many, many companies can quickly be under the microscope and media engagement can rapidly become very critical to the future fortunes of a company, especially during a crisis. The speed at which this can happen can be breathtaking and by this time it may be too late to consider training. Those caught in such a media storm can then reflect on the fact that hindsight is a wonderful thing.
So, the bottom line? While it may take years to build a good reputation, it can be shattered in hours through the media, and relying solely on the marketing department or, if you’re lucky, a spokesperson to save the day on their lonesome or wielding unprepared and untrained senior staff and subject matter experts in front of the camera, is plain asking for trouble. Just ask Tony Hayward.
Isn’t technology wonderful? In a world full of information and content is king, anyone with a video camera can film, record and download to their heart’s content. In the good old days, an organisation had to rely on expensive production companies to produce video material and then hand-deliver the tape to distribution centre. Now, it can be done by anyone, anywhere at any time and delivered to the wires almost immediately. And so began the rise of the Video News Release (VNR).
As part of any communication strategy in the digital age, producing one’s own video material is now widely accepted. Digital convergence has increased the demand for video, a demand driven by both print and broadcast media for web application as well as for traditional broadcast. If you’ve something to say or promote, why wait for the media to come to you (and deliver your message in their terms) when you can produce the content yourself (under your conditions and control) and provide it to them. Although there is always the issue of being seen as ‘propaganda or spin’, any quality content – balanced, open, well produced and edited, with relevant background information – has a good chance of gaining traction in the media – a bonus when advertising is going through patchy times. In fact the media are hungry for these VNRs.
But here’s where the problem lies – balanced, open, well produced and edited, with relevant background information (note: balanced and open – CB3 isn’t too keen on the ‘Fake TV news’ style VNR) Experience shows that much of the content provided through VNRs is of poor quality, even from top companies who have paid for production. Editors at Reuters, AP, AFP etc are constantly bombarded with VNRs which are indecipherable, poorly shot, almost unedited (or so they appear), with rambling commentary and little supporting data. One might as well pick at random something from Youtube and try and make something of it (and there’s some weird stuff out there!). Trying to make something useful from some of these VNRs is almost futile, disheartening and annoying – a waste of an editor’s time and the providing organisation’s effort.
The technical capability – a decent camera and basic software – to produce good VNRs is everywhere. The wise have embraced the idea of providing self-generated content to the media, even encouraged their people to do so (with some degree of control). That’s far from dumb – it’s very smart. But the knowledge to use that technical capability has been lacking, as many working in the newswires, those who will get the good content out across the globe, are attesting. They want, they need, the content but they need it to be good (not necessarily excellent – there’s room for a little grittiness). The more work they’ve got to do to make a mish-mash of poor quality material into something they’re happy to use, the less likely the can use it and, even if they do, that it’ll attract attention. (Same principle applies with press releases – make the journalist’s life easy). It’s not rocket science and not a new problem – the effective use of technological resources must be matched by the human capability to utilise them, which will involve a degree of training and experience. Unfortunately, as in many cases involving social media, organisations have failed to recognise this.
It’s not difficult – you don’t need cameramen, editors, soundmen etc – your people, be they in PR or on the front line, can do it. They just need to be given the knowledge (and we’re not talking about the camera manual here) and training to do it.
Good VNRs can be invaluable, be they internal interviews, product promotion, disaster reporting or simple news release. But if they remain dumbed down, due to the sheer lack of training and competence of those given cameras and told to ‘get on with it’, then they’ll be consigned to the Youtube hinterland (note: if they’re good Youtube will enhance their value anyway).
The purpose of this conference is to bring together academics from a broad range of disciplines with policy-makers and security practitioners that have knowledge and/or expertise that can facilitate advances in the study of Terrorism and New Media, particularly the Internet, in novel ways.
This is the first academic conference to subject the relationship between terrorism and new media, particularly the Internet, to truly multi-disciplinary scrutiny. The one-day conference (Wednesday, 8 September) will feature a series of panels and a number of plenary addresses. The conference will be followed on Thursday, 9 September by a workshop devoted to the robust debate and analysis of currently ‘hot’ topics in the realm of terrorism and the Internet, particularly the question of the role of the Internet in processes of radicalisation.
Call for Papers
We welcome papers or panels reporting on innovative research into any aspect of terrorism and new media. We particularly welcome papers or panels that report novel results or describe and employ innovative methodological approaches.
Papers or panels on the following topics will be of particular interest:
- Online radicalisation
- The Internet and recruitment
- Old terrorism and new media
- Methodologies for terrorism-related Internet research
- Terrorism informatics
- Network analysis and online terrorist activity
- New Internet tools/platforms and radicalisation/terrorism (for example, online gaming, video-sharing, photo-sharing, social networking, micro-blogging, online payment mechanisms, etc.)
- Violent Islamism and the Internet
- The content and functioning of jihadi Internet forums
- Jihadi video producers and content
- Children/youth, terrorism, and new media
- Women/gender, terrorism, and new media
- Case studies of particular groups’ use of new media (e.g. al-Qaeda, FARC, Hamas, Hizbollah, dissident Irish Republicans, etc.)
- Policy/legislative responses to terrorists’ online presence
- Critical responses to research on, reporting of, and governmental responses to the conjunction of terrorism and the Internet
- Ethical issues surrounding online terrorism-related research
Perspectives from any academic discipline are welcomed, particularly: communications, computer science, cultural studies, information science, international relations, internet studies, law, media studies, philosophy, political science, psychology, and sociology.
Authors of individual papers should submit a 300-word abstract at our proposal submission page on or before 17 May 2010.
A selection of accepted papers will be considered for publication in a special issue of the journal Media, War & Conflict.
Travel Funding for Graduate Students
The Center on Public Diplomacy at the Annenberg School, University of Southern California (USC) will provide US$700 in sponsorship for a graduate student to attend at *and blog* from the conference for the Center. Graduate students wishing to apply for this funding should indicate same when submitting their abstract.
The conference organisers are also in a position to provide a number of travel grants for graduate students. Support may be requested for transportation and accommodation. Students should provide a breakdown of the estimated cost of travel and accommodation upon submitting an application. Graduate students wishing to apply for funding can do so when submitting an abstract. Award decisions will be made by 14 June 2010.
- Abstract deadline: 300 words to be submitted HERE by 17 May 2010
- Registration: from 1 June 2010
- Decision on abstracts: 14 June 2010
- Decision on travel funding awards: 14 June 2010
- Early bird registration deadline: 8 July
- Hotel reservation deadline at conference rate: 19 July 2010
The recent change in social media policy by US DoD is a sign of the times and in fact may represent a real paradigm shift in management culture surrounding the relationship between military personnel and the outside world. Whilst CB3 welcomes this move, appreciating that it won’t come without its pitfalls and problems, the deeper societal, psychological, cultural, relational, management and organisational ramifications of this move are as yet unknown. This may be only the start of the shifting of institutionally inert techtonic plates – watch this space.
In the meantime, below see David Meerman Scott interview Roxie Merritt, Director of New Media Operations at Office of Assistant Secretary of Defence for Public Affairs, talking about this bold move.