GONE VIRAL: A PR NIGHTMARE

You really cannot control them. They are as common as dandelions in the spring. Viral videos have become a game changer in the world of public relations, message management and crisis response.

But just because there’s a video, purportedly displaying undeniable evidence, that doesn’t mean you have the full story. We’ve all had clients whose response to a bad quote is, “It was taken of context.” Now, that same charge is being leveled by folks featured in clips taken by citizen journalists.

Viral video pays tribute to the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words. It’s hard to deny cellphone footage of rough treatment of a teenager at a pool party. While we are getting only a glimpse of what happened, the short cinematic segment is very, very powerful and convincing. After all, a large adult male sitting on a bikini-clad teenager doesn’t look good. Well, it actually looks terrible.

In the recent pool party pandemonium, it’s clear that pulling a pistol on scantily covered teenagers may be a bit of an overreaction. In fact, the officer involved has resigned, stating it was a rough day because he’d been at two suicide scenes earlier in his shift. The video, in this case, made all the difference.

Citizen journalists are not trained professionals. They see what they see and that is reflected in a digital recording. In the end, that’s what’s going to be on the nightly news. But there’s no balance to a viral video. It’s one perspective. No research. No interviews. No editing. It’s raw footage, and sometimes that gives someone a raw deal.

In Indianapolis, we have Wal-Mart-gate. It’s made the national scene. A fight breaks out in Aisle 5. Cellphones up and recording. Muffled language; blurred, shaky images; poor staging. Well, it’s good enough to get gasps from viewers and responses from politicians never-ending.

Now, people are tweeting about the quality of the Wal-Mart store, the history of problems there and what the company should do to prevent this type of incident in the future. A colleague of mine got a call from a Texas survey company a few nights ago. It appears it may be working for Wal-Mart and had data on how badly the incident is hurting its local reputation. All of this because someone from the public was in the right place at the right time.

However, for those of us in reputation and crisis management, it may very well be the right place at the wrong time. We cannot control what happens in many instances, and it’s likely that someone will be there to capture, for all to see, something that should remain somewhat private.

It’s hard to argue for the privacy of two women who decide to turn an aisle laden with pre-packaged goods into a scene right out of “Rocky.” But is Wal-Mart to blame for the behavior of two of its customers? That’s a conversation for another time and place.

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