Five Things PR Pros Can Learn From #BlackTwitter

If you hadn’t heard, the Los Angeles Times recently added a reporter to cover #BlackTwitter.

What is #BlackTwitter?… I’m glad you asked.

Over the past few years, Twitter has become a platform for breaking news, public discussion, trending topics and cultural concerns. On occasion, a hashtag will emerge among the chatter. The hashtag #BlackTwitter has grown as one of the most popular colloquialisms associated with African-Americans who use Twitter, many of whom are tastemakers, public figures and intellectuals collectively setting the tone for daily dialogue related to real-world issues that would have been seen as rather taboo or sensitive for mainstream media.

Conversations around the murder of Michael Brown or scenes from ABC’s hit TV show “Scandal” are examples of how the hashtag reflects the variety in which African-Americans are passionately tweeting among themselves to raise awareness, celebrate interests and disrupt the narratives of mainstream media. Searching the hashtag means you will find discussions about everything from the calling out of a celebrity for making a cultural offense to running jokes about stereotypes shared among African-Americans.

PR pros are increasingly seeking ways to drill closer to the lifestyles, behaviors and sentiments of ethnic communities with social media as the source. Though hashtags have risen in popularity, use for audience research can be selectively evaluated and subjectively filtered. This is a critical place to pause and caution PR pros to think deeply about strategies designed to tap into a diverse ethnic community through social media.

Black Twitter Aerial EllisHere are five things PR pros can learn from #BlackTwitter:

African-Americans use Twitter frequently…

There’s a hint of consumer insight to be gained from #BlackTwitter. African Americans use social media more than any other ethnic group and access Twitter by roughly 22 percent as compared with 16 percent of whites, according to a study from the Pew Research Center. The study also revealed that 73 percent of all African-Americans using the Internet are on Twitter. Brands and organizations can build and benefit from access to this population and the dynamics of engagement that await discovery.

But this isn’t a solely “black thing” – it’s simply the nature of online communities…

The great thing about social media is that it provides a space for conversations that have been long had offline to find a home online. The essence of conversations within an ethnic group that derived mostly from their unique experiences is now open to observation for all. As in any online community, members are more likely to bond around a core commonality, follow each other, develop their own terminology, and create consensus around commentary. The knowledge of values and complexity is unlimited with #BlackTwitter because conversations can change overnight. However, this dynamic allows diverse groups to dominate conversations with an authentic voice.

Because their influence motivates movements…

The presence of African-Americans on Twitter established a history for the #BlackTwitter hashtag and the subcultures it birthed. When African-Americans felt mainstream media overlooked or ignored issues that impacted their community, they took to Twitter. For instance, the hashtag #BoycottSororitySisters was created by VH1 viewers to express their disappointment and embarrassment with a new reality show that chronicled the lives of African-American sorority sisters focusing on stereotypes among the women instead of the sisterhood and service these organizations are known for. After the backlash, brands such Hallmark, Honda, Domino’s and State Farm used Twitter to announce that their advertisements would be pulled from show and VH1 later confirmed the show’s cancellation.

That’s why newsrooms are watching…

Whether for profit or production, media has shown an increased interest in ethnic communities. Although there remains a deficiency among people of color working in newsrooms, outlets are getting smarter about how the history of diverse groups is researched and how the issues of race, gender, and identity within a community are reported. Content creators have to be responsible enough not to surveillance tweets for subject matter or copy and paste screenshots but instead work with users to tell broader stories through interviews and leverage access to the relationships of users to build diverse connections. Content creators should also be keen on the differences between a trending topic and a story of substance.

And remember, anyone can use a hashtag.

Careful not to use #BlackTwitter as a window into this consumer base from the comfort of your laptop without a true historical context of the audience and the issues they tweet about. Ethnic groups are not monolithic. Trends among people of color especially can be hard to assess. One member’s voice cannot cover the complete sentiments of the whole. Acknowledge the patterns but recognize that perspectives, interests and needs of a group cannot be teased out of a hashtag.

It’s enlightening to see the cultural phenomenon of #BlackTwitter proving the power of people-centered platforms but it’s more important that PR pros explore the intersectional issues discussed by people of color via social media through the advancement of inclusive conversations.

It’s Complicated: Explaining The Role of Race in Police Brutality

 

I’ve opened the past two semesters talking about police brutality on the first day of class in my Cross-Cultural Communication course at Lipscomb University. This is a required course for communication and journalism majors to grasp the challenges of communicating in today’s complex society so we go there and get pretty deep. Building communication strategies to address obstacles and opportunities within a client’s organizational culture is something I know very well but grappling with the thorny issues of our times with a room full of college students means I must dig deep and go all the way. There are a wealth of topics I could start the semester with instead but it just so happens the biggest story in the news at the time concerned violence, race and injustice – in fall we dealt with cases of Michael Brown and Tamir Rice, and in spring, the cases of Eric Garner and Freddie Gray. It looks as if perhaps this coming fall in August I will unfortunately and again have new content on the same topic – now with the incident in Mckinney, Texas and who knows what else between now and then.

For all of these tragic instances, a firestorm of commentary and disagreement ensued across news media and social media, and protests arose all over the world. Some students wonder how this could happen in the United States. For others, unfortunately, police brutality and discrimination are all too familiar. Yet for a large majority of my students at our private, Christian, predominately white University, police brutality and the racial disparities that accompany the topic are foreign concepts. They are often confused but curious and compassionate in their attempt to make sense of tough issues that even us mature adults struggle to comprehend. Naturally, they are faced with anger, frustration, sadness, disbelief and lots of questions.

“The victim had to be doing something wrong, right Professor Ellis? Wouldn’t the news media tell us if something was done unfairly?”

“Professor Ellis, wasn’t this an issue during segregation? Why are we seeing so much about it today?”

“But Professor Ellis, does this mean most cops are racist or that we should fear them?”

“So Professor Ellis, how do we fix stuff like this?”

My answer to them: “Well, it’s complicated.”

I could share with you how I lecture on the basis of these questions but that’s a 2000-word essay, not a blog post. I tell my students we have many things to consider…

  • We’d need to consider how racism has always played a key role in our country and how it became embedded in our criminal justice system. We also need to talk about juries, how difficult it can be to find the truth and how media coverage and social media conversations impact the perceptions of what we believe is true. We’d need to consider the origins of racism and the repetitive narratives of injustice, violence and poverty in communities of color to examine the correlations.
  • We’d need to look at the public’s general perception about the problem of police brutality and its history in America from the civil rights movement of the 1960’s to the transition from community policing to military policing in the 1980’s. We’d need to examine data that shows if you are black you are far more likely to die at the hands of a police officer than you would if you are white, and how that knowledge has perpetuated a relationship of conflict between police officers and the black community. We’d need to talk about how the outrage makes people feel hopeless and inspired to react in protesting or even rioting.
  • We’d need to examine the disturbing trend in the news media where a person is often criminalized when they have been killed by a police officer rather than insisting they deserved to a chance to be charged, brought to trial and have remained among the living. We’d need to research at the trend of citizen journalism becoming a powerful catalyst for the narrative of injustice as a tool for breaking news. We’d need ask if we can discern by only looking at the mobile phone footage of a bystander how an unarmed citizen is to blame for the overcorrection, extra force or lack of control displayed by police officers.
  • We’d need to assess how police administrators are training officers and addressing criticism since police brutality has gotten so much national attention recently. We’d need to consider that what a police officer could despise more than anything is when their authority is challenged, regardless of your color, and that could get you thrown in jail or met with excessive force. We should acknowledge that there are officers and administrators who understand how this crisis is impacting public trust and are trying to handle the issue with care and concern because their profession requires that they put their lives on the line everyday.
  • We’d need to consider our role in calling out injustice as a social and moral responsibility when the dynamic of the unknown convicts us to acknowledge stereotypes and reveal blind spots. We’d need to be honest about the relative silence over unfair treatment when it doesn’t impact us directly. We should admit we are imperfect people who have a tendency to limit our perspective, opinions, beliefs and comfort zones to be in agreement with those who relate to us most. We need to remember that what affects one affects us all, or at least it should.

I told you. It’s complicated.

I have the next generation of FOX news anchors, CNN producers, national radio hosts, online news editors, public information officers, non-profit leaders and crisis PR practitioners in my classroom. They will shape public opinion and determine how we consume messages through media. These students are studying to go into newsrooms to write stories and headlines about issues they’ve never witnessed personally, go into communities that may not look like the places they grew up in with cameras to capture the conflict of people who don’t look like them, go into companies to help generate awareness among a target audience whose lifestyles they can’t relate to, or go into organizations to help senior leaders to communicate about issues that might make them uncomfortable.

If I don’t get real with them, who will?

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune)

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Now, I could be the kind of professor that ignores the cultural sensitivities that surface from answering these questions or I could be the kind that challenges students and myself to explore our self-identities and look at how fit they into the world. This is where we must consider our younger generations who are confused but curious about their role in improving our society in ways that enlighten and empower them. Violence, race and injustice – the anchors of the cultural discourse around police brutality – aren’t the easiest concepts to grasp and are no longer the kinds of one-time shallow conversations we can sweep under the rug. Ignoring the facts dehumanizes us. They have to be talked about on an ongoing basis every time a story comes out.

I challenge you, whether a professional, professor or parent, to start having open discussion about cultural issues with the young students in your communities. Address your personal biases internally, dig for more than what is reported through media, be okay with the discomfort of disagreement when a different opinion is expressed, search for a historical context connected to these issues we’ve increasingly seen in the news, seek meaningful conversations with people who’ve experienced the cultural struggles that you haven’t, and empower a young student to intelligently assess their role in doing something about the issues.

I’d like to hear from you.

How has your perspective of race and police brutality been impacted by recent events?

How has media coverage of the current events heightened your cultural sensitivity to racial issues and police discrimination?

How do you intend to help the next generation of leaders understand and address difficult issues like race, violence and injustice?

Where Innovation and Funding Meet – Buzz from the 2015 Black Enterprise Entrepreneurs Summit

The Black Enterprise Entrepreneurs Summit is always a great place for networking and an important moment to invigorate as an entrepreneur. This year’s event held in Atlanta was buzzing with topics, tips and tools for small business owners new and seasoned.

Here are a few highlights on my Storify story. http://sfy.co/f0bvK

Screen Shot 2015-05-20 at 3.35.28 PM Screen Shot 2015-05-20 at 3.35.15 PM

#BizChats: Excel as an Entrepreneur

I had fun participating in #Bizchats hosted by Mashable Business on yesterday. In observation of National Small Business Week, Mashable and several experts participated in a Twitter chat to discuss what it takes to become a successful entrepreneur. As an entrepreneur, I can tell you there’s no one path to success so I certainly enjoyed contributing to the chat and seeing what wisdom other entrepreneurs shared about their experiences.

Click below to hear the full discussion via Storify. I’m sure you’ll see my two cents in the mix!

Screen Shot 2015-05-06 at 11.10.01 AM
Screen Shot 2015-05-06 at 11.11.54 AM

What Women in PR Need: Money, Power & Respect

Perri duGard Owens Aerial Ellis at Women In PR SummittThat’s right, we said it!  Perri and I presented a workshop at the 3rd annual WOMEN IN PR Summit, a conference designed to empower, educate and encourage women in the public relations industry  September 26-29, 2013, in Houston, TX at the Doubletree Galleria Hotel.

 

Our presentation, “Money, Power & Respect: What Women in PR Want” covered:

*Expanding Your Client Base for Greater Revenue (Money)
*Handling the Bravado: How to Maintain Gender Dynamics with Clients (Power)  
*How Partnerships Help Women in PR Overcoming Barriers Together (Respect)
There were nearly 100 women in attendance over the weekend. We were so pleased to share our knowledge with young women who are aspiring or making entry into the PR industry.

All Work and No Tweets

You can tweet at work if you like but you might get fired. The Marines, NFL and now ESPN have announced new policies on Twitter usage.

twitter-bird-2 ESPN doesn’t want employees using Twitter for anything but ESPN-related content. No personal quirks or sports opinions. Tweet ESPN’s approved content or face suspension or dismissal. The NFL is dishing out fines to players and staff who tweet while on the field. Several teams have also prohibited members of the media from tweeting during game time. Meanwhile, fans can still tweet the play-by-play while in the stands. The U.S. Marine Corps enforced a year-long ban of Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and other social media sites from its networks. It’s no fun but it does create a reasonable case of leaving a window open for security issues.

As a PR practitioner, I get it. Companies want to be smart about how they use social media but they want the best of both worlds. Maintaining a social media presence serves their audiences while enforcing guidelines on usage offers protection.

Many companies, including media outlets, are still trying to figure out how social media fits in their business models and how to create policies for interaction. Will these tweet policies change companies’ perspectives on policing their social media efforts?

The best part about social media is the dialogue. No one wants to lose their job or face a penalty, but all work and no tweets will cause a twitter presence to suffer and, sooner or later, your tweets will get ignored. Until they figure this Twitter thing out, that’s the way it’s going to be.