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What Every Lawyer Can Learn from the Red & Black Controversy

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I have no affiliation with the University of Georgia. But I have been glued to the controversy over its independent newspaper for the past week and a half. And if you are a lawyer who is interested in social media, you should learn this story and use it as a parable. It has much to teach about the importance of social media and its potential power as a tool of engagement. I don’t take sides here about who was right or wrong. But I want to look at how social media was a part of the story and how a group of college students used it to achieve their goals with the paper’s Board of Directors, most of whom appear to be seasoned journalists and successful businessmen.

Watching this story helped me to “get” social media a little bit better.

An Overview of the Controversy

The Red & Black is the college newspaper for the University of Georgia. It operates as a non-profit corporation in Athens and is governed by a Board of Directors. And the students have traditionally been in charge of the paper’s day-to-day operations. It has been in operation for over a century and is highly regarded. Many Georgia journalist worked on the paper when they were students. A week and a half ago, it editorial staff walked off the job in protest of what they claimed to be attempts from the “adult supervision,” professionals hired to guide the paper, to seize control of the paper’s editorial decisions. In particular, the controversy centered around a memo written by Board Member Ed Stamper (the exact meaning of this memo and its intended use remains still an issue).

From the student editor’s perspective, the memo was meant as a directive to guide prior review of stories. From Mr. Stamper’s perspective, the memo was a rough set of talking points to be used to “guide” the paper.

When this memo went public, the focus was on the memo’s emphasis on achieving “[a] balance of good and bad” stories. A “good” story was defined as “[c]ontent that is ABOUT our audience doing something unique, new, dramatic, ie scholarships for freshman” a “bad” story was defined as “[c]ontent that catches people or organizations doing bad things. ‘I guess this is journalism’ I think we are alighned on crime and ‘who started off the year with a police record.’ And that the freshman class lacks some minority demographics.”

The memo concluded with “If in question, have more GOOD than BAD.”

The students read the memo one way. Mr. Stamper believed he meant something else. Unfortunately for Mr. Stamper, his point of view did not come to light fully until Katheryn Hayes Tucker ran a story in today’s Fulton Daily Report..

By contrast, the students immediately started a WordPress blog, titled Red & Dead, a Facebook profile, and a presence on Twitter..

They interspersed journalism — you’ll find some stories there — with their message. They had a theme, and they stayed on it.

The story was eventually picked up nationally, including coverage by the New York Times..

Eventually, Mr. Stamper resigned along with another Board member, and the students got their jobs back.

How did these kids manage to run circles around the very professionals whom the board put in place and tasked with making the paper relevant and the content engaging? Could it be that the kids know more about that subject than the pros?

The Big Irony

There’s an irony in the middle of the whole thing. One of the memo’s aims was to engage the readers through social media. From the memo: “More of: Content that is FROM our audience, which automatically makes it of interest to our audience, ie comments, letters, comments, poll results, chatter from social media, reviews.”

According to Lindsey Cook, the students’s social media general, “[t]he reason I left Red & Black turned into The Red and Dead’s strength. It was cowboys versus indians; we had guns; they had bows and arrows. Within an hour, our brand was on Twitter, Facebook and WordPress. … We would win. I was sure.” And “By the time most of the world woke up, we had begun a rival news organization.”

Did you hear that? The students went back to their apartments and started an organization to rival an institution with a $4,000,000.00 endowment. And they did it with some iPads, phones, laptops and a wifi signal.

The Board relented, not because the students were more on message, not because they needed the students back. But had the students stuck it out, they’d have started a fiercely competitive rival newspaper.

I wonder if the students ever realized that the paper needs them more than they need the paper?

And for Ms. Cook, who had been waiting for permission from the grown ups to truly engage with the Red & Black’s readers, this was her opportunity to show the paper what it had been missing.

The irony is that the whole point of Mr. Stamper’s infamous memo was to achieve engagement with the reader. Turns out that the adults just didn’t understand the tools well enough use them. And, when the students were freed from the institution, they showed their true expertise.

They Still Don’t Get It

The Board had some good points and that Charles Russell, one of the members who resigned, stated some good reasons for his resignation. Indeed, the best pure journalism I’ve seen on this story is the Daily Report’s article.

Mr. Russell believed that the decision to walk out on the paper at deadline time was a firing offense. It’s a valid point. And it’s a point that was never made until now. After that, though, Mr. Russell doesn’t do so well.

From the Daily Report:

Russell said students “have no idea how deep” the threat to the newspaper industry goes, but he acknowledged the students’ skill in teaching their elders a lesson this week. Said Russell, “We don’t know how to manage getting lynched on social media.”

Lynched? Was this a high tech lynching of uppity Board members? The claim of victimhood pales more here than it did in the Thomas confirmation hearings.

Threat to the industry? In less than a week, the students started an organization from scratch and had more pageviews than the Red & Black. The Board might count itself lucky to have those students back and let them keep doing what they’re doing.

The same tools employed by the students were available to the Board members. In fact, they are free. And the fact that the students were better able to use them does not make them parties to a lynching. But it may help explain the dire financial straits in which the paper now finds itself. The Board appears hopelessly out of touch with the very social media engagement that the students used to beat them.

The Parable for Lawyers

I see this struggle as a fight between folks who get it and folks who don’t. The Board clearly didn’t. The students did. There is a similar divide among lawyers when it comes to social media.

There are a bunch of snake oil salemen out there who are trying to profit from lawyers who want to get into social media. But there is no shortcut to engagement. It’s as simple as diving in and learning from the people who are good at it. And to be humble enough that the people who are best at it may be way younger than you.

To quote Mr. Stamper’s memo, the students should “Beg them to engage with us.” How many telemarketing calls and emails have lawyer received promising that, if you hire the person on the other end, that you’ll be able to get more clients through social media. The strategy is essentially an invitation to “beg” engagement. You cant beg people to engage with you any more than you can beg someone to be your friend or beg a girlfriend to not break up with you.

The trick is simply to dive in and engage. Engage your audience. Engage your current clients. Engage them when they call and write. The trick is not pandering but true engagement.

When the students came back on the job, they said that they were now empowered to engage. So, I tested them out. I tweeted this questions to them “What lesson do you think other traditional media outlets can learn from your story from last week.”

Within hours came this answer, “The power of social media mainly; what works and what doesn’t. Too often news orgs forget social media is social, a conversation.”

Substitute the word lawyer of law firm for “news orgs.” and you will have your social media marketing stategy for the next five years.