When Twitter asks the difficult questions

The following article appeared in the LikeMinds magazine:

When Drew Ellis asked me to write an article for the LikeMinds magazine, I hesitated. As anyone who knows me will realise, I’m no writer. Whether it’s by trying to work out how mobile technology can help journalists report or encouraging them to use social media to help them to build an audience around those reports, my aim is to make journalists look good. So, instead of writing an article, I thought I’d tell you a story.

Bloggers put the sword to Cameron
It all began with a trip to Lloyd’sTuttle Club” gathering back in 2008. Most new ideas in those days started with a trip to Tuttle, huddled upstairs at the Coach and Horses pub in Soho. It seems like such a long time ago, a lot has happened since then, and if that’s a long time in internet years, it’s even longer in social media.

I sat in a suit drinking coffee, all too well aware that the suit gave me away as someone who was not from these parts. I turned to the guy sitting next to me. “Hi, I’m Sizemore” he said. Maybe it was my paranoia, maybe he actually thought it, but “we’ve been invaded by suits” was written all over his face.

Now as luck would have it I am quite charming when I need to be and we had an incredibly interesting conversation about his “social-media” interviews with Harrison Ford and the stars of the then new Indiana Jones film. He explained that all he was doing was “trying to remove some of the barriers and allow people sitting at home to join in a conversation that would have otherwise been behind closed doors.

Meanwhile back at Reuters, we were in the midst of organising one of our “Reuters NewsMaker” events. These events have been going for many years now. We invite top speakers to present and answer questions in front of an invited audience made up of journalists and financial experts.

But what if we were to apply some of those same principles and “remove some of the barriers” at these events? What if the speaker could engage with the public, not just the invited audience? What would happen? What difference would it make to the event? Would anyone watch, or listen? Would anyone interact? Mark Jones, Chris Parker and I set about trying to convince anyone who wanted to listen, that this was a good idea. We had an idea but didn’t really know what it meant. But through Tuttle I knew a man who did.

Then came the news that the next invited speaker was to be Gordon Brown. The Prime Minister. We all hesitated, but not for long. If we can’t get people interested in “speaking” to the Prime Minister, then this whole thing wasn’t going to work.

I rang Sizemore, otherwise known as Mike Atherton, and asked him if he was interested in helping us “socialise” an event for Reuters. I wasn’t allowed to tell him who the interviewee was, just that it was “someone important”. His initial reaction was “yea, sure, why not. We are however gonna need a couple of people to help. I’ll call Documentally.

Over the next two weeks we plotted and planned. We diligently reported back and got everything signed off by those responsible for the event, both at Reuters and the PR and management teams at No. 10. It was a huge leap of faith and was by no means a small feat. “You want to let members of the public ask the prime minister questions?” was one of the more positive reactions.

What We Do (Sizemore.co.uk)

Gordon Brown at the Reuters NewsMaker (ourmaninside.com)

http://qik.com/video/400442

Nick Clegg at the Reuters NewsMaker (ourmaninside.com)

We were determined to prove that it worked, to prove that the public is interested in politics, that they can and will ask serious questions, and that social media techniques and tools have a place in the gathering and distribution of news and will help us engage with “The People formerly known as the Audience” as Jay Rosen likes to describe them.

The day before the event, Mike, Christian and I were allowed in the auditorium alongside the Reuters TV crews who were setting up the live broadcast to BBC News24 and Sky News. To the amusement of the TV crew Christian tested his video recording equipment, a Nokia N95 8Gb (straight out of the Reuters Mobile Journalism toolkit no less!). We tried to build some buzz about the event without letting on who it was we were “interviewing”.

A tweet on the morning of Monday 13th October meant there was no turning back: “Today, we are off to Reuters HQ to interview the Prime Minister”.

Mark Jones and I took our seats in the front row, monitoring Twitter and taking photos. Christian was next to us filming on his phone and Mike and Chris were in the green room, watching a video feed of the interview, recording behind-the-scenes videos and listening to clips without disturbing the proceedings next door.

CF4_8331

Photo via Flickr: Clive Flint

This was also the first time we used the “#ask” hash tag to solicit questions from a largely twitter-based audience. In the past we had solicited questions for the speaker via a blog post before the event but this time we wanted to do it live. We subsequently used the tag for all of our Newsmaker events #askGB #askDC #askClegg among others, and the real proof that it took hold was when the parties themselves started to use the tag in events to solicit questions that were nothing to do with the Reuters NewsMakers. Perhaps I should have trademarked those early hashtags!

The event went without a hitch. Christian’s film from his phone was broadcast live on the web using http://qik.com (which was a good 10-15 seconds faster than terrestrial TV) and we got instant feedback and questions from viewers from all over the world. Many people said that they preferred the mobile phone footage to the professional TV coverage because it felt more “authentic”.

With the immature research tools available at the time we put together some analytics that showed a substantial increase in the number of times Gordon Brown’s name was mentioned in the twittersphere and we tried to calculate the extended reach of the audience due to this social media activity. All very rudimentary by today’s standards but it gave us the impetus to do this again.

But we felt that there was still something missing. Yes we used tools that anyone could get hold of – Twitter, mobile phones, free web video services – but all we had really done was to broadcast the interview onto a new platform.

We received feedback from people listening to the broadcast, and we didn’t use it. It felt like a job half done. Brown’s itinerary had been cut short and the time allocated for questions solicited from Twitter was cut as a result. While the audience had conversations with each other around the content, we wanted to involve the guest speaker in that conversation.

Next up was David Cameron. Once again Mark, Chris and I set about convincing everyone involved that using social media tools and techniques to amplify the event into a new space and to garner feedback and questions was a good idea. Again we enlisted the help of Mike and Christian and added some additional technical expertise by way of Nic Butler and Phil Campbell. We wanted to be able to cover the event in as many mediums as possible – video, pictures, audio, blog, micro-blog – and we worked with some new software to enable us to monitor all of the various channels of content on a single screen. Toby Moores also joined the gang, and with him he brought big picture ideas and made our ramblings comprehensible. And this time we got a guarantee that we would be able to ask a question or two from external viewers.

Cameron seemed transfixed by the streams of comments scrolling before his very eyes in TweetDeck before he took to the stage as we introduced him to Mark to ensure he knew who to look out for, and again the video from Christian’s phone was broadcast without issue. We took a huge number of photos and received many questions from Twitter and via the various blog posts that streamed the video. Cameron answered a few questions live and then, to our surprise, addressed more after the event via his YouTube channel, and it was immediately obvious that people felt much more engaged when they were taking part in the event itself. Give audiences the chance to ask questions and they take it, and what’s more, most don’t belittle the opportunity but use it to ask meaningful insightful questions. Before the David Cameron NewsMaker, all parties were nervous about the kinds of questions we would get, though having these filtered by a Reuters journalist obviously helped.

It wasn’t just the audience who relished this kind of interview. David Cameron smiled after the second “Twitter” question and remarked, “it seems all the difficult questions are coming from Twitter”. Again we analysed the reach and level of engagement and the results were remarkable. People continued to talk about the content, about Cameron, about Reuters long after the event itself.

Over the next few months we integrated our methods with the core NewsMaker team and tried to cover every scenario we could think of, coming up with ways that we could fail gracefully if anything went wrong. Mark and Chris took many of the skills we’d learnt doing NewsMakers to Davos, stimulating conversation around the sessions at the World Economic Forum.

Back in London, the financial crisis was well underway and Hector Sants, Chief Executive of the Financial Services Authority and Bob Zoellik of the World Bank were our next interviewees. In addition to the NewsMaker, we ran a social media interview with Bob Zoellik in the green room after the main event.

We started wondering whether we could run a social media NewsMaker. Rather than bolt social media onto a press conference, could we run the whole press conference virtually? What if the online participants stopped being the social media audience and were simply the audience?

Happily Nick Clegg’s team were up for the challenge. We arranged to have him picked up from Westminster in a Reuters-branded London Cab and brought to our offices in Canary Wharf. Christian and the Telegraph’s Kate Day were waiting for Nick in the cab armed with all kinds of gadgets with which record a warm-up interview with Clegg during the journey to Reuters HQ.

Clive Flint took photos at every opportunity and published them as quickly as possible to flickr.com. We set up a mini studio back at the office, using Logitech web cameras and Blue microphones so that we could stream the interview live.

A round table discussion hosted by Steve Lawson at the Nesta offices with help from Toby Moores and the Sleepydog team across town would also be broadcast live. In the days leading up to the interview, we asked Nick Clegg to record some questions that he wanted the public to answer and seeded those clips around the web to get the conversation started.

The main interview was carried out by Mark with help from Keith Weir, Jamillah Knowles from the BBC, and Laura Oliver from journalism.co.uk. One of the most difficult challenges was finding ways to enable the interviewers to find questions and feed in follow-up comments from the web while holding a conversation with the interviewee. Don’t underestimate how difficult it is to be a part of lots of different conversations at once!

It wasn’t just the interviewers who needed a little help to keep up with the various streams of content. We developed ways to aggregate the hugely diverse streams of pictures, video, text, tweets, audioboos and reactions that we were generating. Clegg answered as many of the questions as the time slot allowed and at the end of the interview we switched cameras to the gathering at Nesta for their thoughts. This conversation directly after the event helped us to assess what had worked and what didn’t. Instead of hiding our mistakes we tried to make the whole process as open as possible. After all, people were reacting to our interviews, both the content of the interview and the process, and we wanted to be right in the middle of these subsequent conversations.

Documentally interviewing Nick Clegg

Photo via Flickr: Kate day

and this is the QIK video, shot from the other side of the lens (by Documentally)

http://qik.com/video/2179607

Clegg, like Cameron, went on to answer many more of questions via his own channels on YouTube and his party’s site. He regained control of his @nick_clegg twitter account and started using it in earnest throughout the election campaign. I’d like to think that our experiments with NewsMaker events played a small part in provoking politicians of all parties to reconsider the role the web can have in connecting them to voters.

So what happens next? How does the media open up further so that we can hear not only the first and second voices in the room, those of the speaker and assembled journalists, but also a third voice, that of the people whose lives are directly affected by the issues being discussed? Far from being “ordinary people”, this audience is often very well-informed and has an uncanny ability to ask fascinating questions that are often missed by the professionals.

First Published in LikeMinds magazine Oct 2010 & on ilicco.com March 2011

4 thoughts on “When Twitter asks the difficult questions”

  1. Interesting times for sure. I think we are now living through a transitional period in which the tools and technologies championed by the early adopters are starting to mature and seep into the mainstream (along with associated attendant problems such as commercialism and search weighting as the data becomes more important and sizeable).

    Services like Storify are opening up the news-gathering and reporting process on the web to professional and layman alike, and although there will no substitute for great writing, source checking, objectivity and context, the barrier of entry has been lowered and the playing field expanded massively.

    Storytelling and reporting remain as core skills for any practitioner who wants to emerge from the noise as an independent and trustworthy voice. The wealth of tech and services spiralling out of the social web are merely the support act.

  2. Absolutely, I think this year may well be a “catchup and consolidate” year, where all the tools and services are laid out and we try to work out how they are all used together for the benefit of the story.

  3. For someone who supposedly can’t write, this is an excellent write-up. I miss those pioneering social media interview days.

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