Early in my career, this was back in the late 90s, I worked in CNN's Public Information department in Atlanta. It wasn't prestigious by any means, but it was exciting in that we got to talk to all the crazies who called the newsroom, we sorted serious news leads from the rest, and we were smack in the middle of some pretty intense hard news stuff (I once put a hostage-taker on hold...seriously...but that's another story).
One day an Associated Press writer was updating an obituary piece on Bob Hope. As you may know, all the major news sources maintain current obit articles for famous people; that means that if YOU are famous, you're already dead to somebody. Anyway, this reporter accidentally saved it to the live AP website. He quickly caught his mistake and pulled the article, and that would have been the end of it if Dick Armey - then House Majority Leader - had not been surfing the AP site at that moment. Armey passed a printed copy of the story to Arizona's Bob Stump who - from the House floor - sadly informed his fellow representatives of the passing of Bob Hope, a true American hero...while he was live on C-SPAN.
Most news outlets jumped on it. The big guys, ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, and everyone but CNN started reporting that Bob Hope had died. The black and white footage, the golf clubs, and the non-multi-generational jokes flooded television and computer screens alike. Meanwhile, back at CNN Public Information, I was being pummeled by callers criticizing CNN for not honoring our great American icon.
Basically, everyone but CNN cited AP and C-SPAN as the two independent sources required for news to be considered news in the 24-hour news cycle of the time. So not surprisingly, CNN got the call when Bob Hope's daughter checked in to say that her father was quite alive and thoroughly enjoying his eggs and toast.
I'm not sure I need to explain the moral of this story, but from a content development perspective, the need to fill every minute of the 24-hour news cycle vividly illustrates the desperation that many content marketers feel today. "What is it? Who cares! Just get it out there!"
Although I didn't truly understand its significance at the time, today's professional content shops, communications professionals, social media experts, and small business content marketers can all learn something from that fiasco. One writer made a simple, honest mistake. The fact that his mistake became a printed article held in the hand of an elected official, broadcast live on a respected cable channel, picked up by seasoned news outlets, rebroadcast as fact, and posted online as breaking news brought that boo-boo full circle and made it an embarrassment to everyone who touched it.
Of course, this happened before Facebook, Twitter, smart phones (I don't think I even had a cell phone then), and before any of us called the things we say and write "content." But if this comparison seems like a stretch, keep in mind that these days anyone with an Internet connection and a Web-ready device can be, in effect, a reporter or commentator - a "source" with the same reach as many news institutions. And the mind-blowing speed at which vast quantities of content are being produced makes the rush to be first even more dangerous.
Instead of grabbing at anything we can talk about to fill the endless need for content, we should now be more careful than ever about what - if anything - we say. Quickly jumping to conclusions, judging a situation or weighing in without all the facts (or fact checking!) diminishes our message. It diminishes our clout. It stays out there! And it diminishes our morale and our focus when the next challenge arises.
Regardless of where we are in the content development and communication spectrum, with so much information unchecked and instantaneous, the biggest challenge is to not let our technology outsmart us.
Michael Peacock is Digital Media and Content Strategist at Lovell Communications.
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