Archive for April, 2013


image from Online Reputation Management

Newspapers as we’ve known them are dying.  Datawatch recently posted results from a global study that found, “printed newspaper readership is now declining in almost all major economies.” The exception that they reported on was the New York Times (the NYT).  According to Datawatch,  the NYT was the only major American newspaper that saw an increase in readership.  While no one knows for sure why there has been an overall decline, most experts believe that it’s the result of “increased access to the internet and the spread of smartphones.” (Datawatch) Given that reasoning, it also stands to reason that if the NYT has increased it’s readership, that it’s  because they’ve figured out the importance of the internet – social media.

So then wouldn’t you expect that this same organization who seems to have mastered the ins and outs of the  social web would  recognize the critical importance of having a social media crisis response plan? And if they have one, or even if they don’t, wouldn’t you think that their editors, writers and other staff would be trained to put into action best practices for dealing with a social media crisis? I would think so.

But that doesn’t seem to generally be the case – at least if you judge the handling of a social media crisis by the NYT over this past week.   It all began with an obit published last weekend for acclaimed rocket scientist, Yvonne Brill. When you click HERE what you’re taken to is a revised version of what the NYT originally published.  It’s the original version that mainly caused the outrage that’s been vented on Twitter (#yvonnebrill), BLOGS and in the mainstream media on both sides of the Atlantic with the tagline: SEXIST.  The reason why? The original lede for the obit  was this:

She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. ‘The world’s best mom,’ her son Matthew said.

Almost a week later, and the negative attention hasn’t died down.  One of the reasons is that the NYT’s has failed to respond effectively to the criticisms launched at them – not just by their critics and competition – but by loyal readers.  Many of their loyal readership have publicly questioned whether they should remain loyal. That’s a crisis, since as one expert writes”…one of the greatest risks for any news outlet is the risk of losing loyal readers.


Drawing upon lessons learned from the hundreds of examples of what to do (or not to do) in a social media crisis, here’s three suggestions of what the NYT could have done – should have done:

#1. Be Seen to Act Quickly.  First things first – in order to act quickly, you need to have been listening – to know what’s happening – when it’s happening – and where it’s happening.  You need to be monitoring all the major social media platforms, especially Twitter where bad news travels at the speed of – well, at the speed of Twitter! There is evidence that the NYT was listening, since they did respond with changing the lede – but it’s not enough that they acted by changing the first line of the obit.  They needed to act quickly where the fire was raging.  In this case (as with many social media crises) the public opinion fire that they needed to contain was on Twitter. and that’s where they needed to act quickly – along with changing the lede.  Unfortunately, they acted as if by doing one (changing the lede in the story), that the outpouring of outrage on Twitter would take care of itself and die down. Not so. You need to act quickly at the site of the outrage.

In the midst of getting wrong, there has been however a shining example among NYT staff.  An example of what should be done in cases of a social media crisis. That example is Public Editor Margaret Sullivan did exactly what should have been done.  Tweeting immediately in response to the criticisms.Unfortunately, her Twitter voice was the only voice that was heard immediately, and the voice of the obit editor and journalist are still not on Twitter.

#2. Put Some Thought Into What You’re Responding With.  How many times do people in positions of authority (equals responsibility) have to be told that they must be willing to apologize publicly? And if not apologize, at least acknowledge with humility people’s anger. The obit journalist – and his editor – may not have intended that the obit to be read as “sexist” – but it was read that way by many of their loyal readers – and critics.  Unfortunately, not only did the editor and the journalist  NOT apologize, they continue to try to defend what they’ve done.  All this despite the “what you should do” example provided to them by (again) their colleauge Margaret Sullivan who when she immediately responded on Twitter did so by acknowledging the outrage of those readers who were by now active online.  She wrote: “To the many who’ve tweeted at me about the Yvonne Brill obituary, I sure agree” – and she included a link to a Columbia Journalism Review article from just days earlier, which addressed the very issue of “gratuitous gender profiles of female scientists”.  Well played.  In under 140 characters she respectfully acknowledged the outrage and engaged her loyal followers.

Two days later, she provided another example of what to do, when she VERY HONESTLY blogged about the controversy, giving her colleagues another opportunity to publicly make things right.  Unfortunately, they again did not follow her lead – and instead (as stated above) took the position of defending what they’d done and saying they wouldn’t do anything differently.  This in turn refueled the outrage of their loyal reader – and the critics – so that almost a week later the criticisms continue to mount. These two men seem unable to set aside their egos and acknowledge the importance of their readership – or the power of their critics.

#3. Build a Community of Loyal Followers Ahead of Time. If you have built a loyal fan base they can help you through times of crisis by assisting with silencing the critics. Just don’t ignore them ever – especially during a crisis. It’s evident that Margaret Sullivan understands this point, and did exactly these things.  In her immediate tweet she writes, “To the many who’ve tweeted at me…”  It’s evident that Margaret has built up a loyal follower base that she nurtures, that she respects, that she listens to, and that she has two-way communication with. When the obit was published – even though she wasn’t the author of the piece or the editor, her loyal followers tweeted her with their concerns.  And, she responded in kind. Again, contrast this with the obit editor and obit journalist who are no where to be found on Twitter, whose only appearance online subsequent to the event has been in Margaret Sullivan’s blogpost.  They need to listen to and they need to engage with their loyal readers directly. It’s those people – those organization’s – that demonstrate they’re listening that maintain a successful online reputation that will take them through any crisis and out the other side. …maybe even adding a few more loyal followers along the way.


 So there you have it, in a single example of a social media crisis you have one individual whose doing so much right – and at the same time, you’ve got others in the same organization who couldn’t get it more wrong.  For the sake of the NYT and it’s survival, let’s hope that they learn to take Margaret Sullivan’s lead.