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September 2009

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UST MBC Director’s Memo – 9.09

I recently read an article in Public Relations Strategist about the Domino’s Pizza “crisis” last spring caused by a YouTube video. Some employees (in their 30s) pretended to do gross things to pizza in a real shop and then posted the video online. This fiction became a perceived reality within hours. Regardless of company efforts, and the exposing and firing of the hoaxers, some people will never believe in the safety of this brand again.
In a culture that has adopted the Internet as a central exchange of information, lack of online filters becomes a blessing and a curse. Many argue that the “wisdom of crowds” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wisdom_of_Crowds )/Wikipedia “consensus” model of content management ultimately provides reasonably reliable information online. However, the videos and accusations that jump from the Web to mainstream media haven’t been around long enough for that process to work. So we hear and see pop stars, CEOs and politicians regularly refuting Internet claims, or otherwise exercising damage control. At least that means someone in the brick and mortar media is trying to verify online reports… in theory.
Certainly mainstream news agencies remain imperfectly objective, but at least over time one can see the cloth that veils the biases of an outlet or a reporter. The Internet moves so quickly, that finding the original source, as Domino’s did, is the exception. But following the character of the shadowy posters of questionable information? Impossible.
My greater concern, however, stems from the possibility that some professional communicators may have a hand in injecting the original viral content or guiding the “buzz” around items that are clearly speculative or even inflammatory. I question the ethics of any person or organization that strategically leverages unsubstantiated claims to advance an agenda – regardless of how noble or well intentioned. The temptation comes because these strategies work… that’s why it’s long been illegal to yell “FIRE!” in a crowded room without a flame. The vastness of the Web begs the questions: What is a room? What constitutes fire?
It’s completely possible that I’m just a skeptical conspiracy theorist looking for corporeal button pushers in the complex ethereal soup of online communication. Or there may truly be some fanatical and brilliant people who justify any means to their ends.
Ghost or pundit be forewarned… if I catch someone at it, you will soon hear a whistle regardless of the cause.