Thursday, June 9, 2011

Crowdsourcing and PR Implications

“Crowdsourcing” is yet another one of those terms that results from taking a timeless practice and combining it with new technological capabilities, establishing the practice as a seemingly credible discipline.

In the most simplistic terms, here’s how crowdsourcing works. You have an idea that has not been fully fleshed out, or you have a problem you have not solved. You want the input of others before you arrive at a solution or next step, so you throw it to a group for discussion, debate and brainstorming. The group takes your initial idea or situation and arrives at a collective conclusion and solution, though given you are dealing with a group, you could end up with several next steps that are diametrically opposed.

Crowdsourcing purists might say that ideally, the crowdsourcing process should lead to a more definitive conclusion and direction.

What gives crowdsourcing its legs as a discipline is the emergence of social media, where collaboration among many disparate individuals from around the world can be tapped in ways that may have never before been possible. The theory is that if two heads are better than one, imagine what 3,000 heads from Texas to Japan might be when it comes to “ideation.”

To be sure, the people who came up with crowdsourcing might be on to something, but the practice also presents some obvious challenges. Once you turn your problem or idea over to a group in such an open-ended and public way, you are often likely to end up with committee-think. We’ve all heard this one: “What do you call a race horse designed by a committee?” Answer: “A camel.”

But beyond the practicality or perceived value of crowdsourcing as a practice, there are also some very real public relations implications. The first being whether or not the subject for discussion is or should be proprietary. The last thing you want is to start a discussion on a topic that could lead to damage control for your public relations team.

Tied to this, you have to know that once you initiate a crowdsourcing project, it will take on a life of its own and could go in a direction you can’t imagine. I recently read a story from a major daily which started a crowdsourcing thread that invited its hundreds of thousands of readers to share their comments on a specific topic. The editors promised participants that their comments would not only be quoted, but that they would essentially drive coverage of the particular topic, assigning the reader the roles of writer, editor and in the end, the subject of the story. I’m not sure if crowdsourcing has yet amounted to a trend, but it is certainly a fad in some news rooms.

This is the journalistic equivalent of that carnival mirror that shows you a reflection of a reflection of you ad infinitum. I don’t know about you, but after a few seconds, I find it’s time to walk away from the mirror and move on.

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