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Meagan Wheeler
Intern, Hill & Knowlton New York

The 2009 Iranian elections raised and answered questions about the evolving media landscape. In the upheavals that ensued, relatively new communications platforms demonstrated their power to connect ordinary citizens to a captive audience. Tools like Twitter and YouTube transformed students, activists and by-standers into inexhaustible journalists. They defied the threat of guns and batons and circumvented traditional media to protest against the election result and rally the cause. The mainstream media’s focus on the reach and influence of social media further emphasized the glaring challenge of adapting and effectively utilizing digital communication in the public relations industry.

Spreading the word
The statistics of social media use in spreading news about the Iranian election crisis are staggering. At its peak, there were more than 200,000 tweets in one hour mentioning “Iran”. To put this volume into perspective, Twitter conversations about Iran exceeded those about the global iPhone launch during the same time period.

However, the conversation wasn’t just confined to Twitter. More than 193,000 videos relating to Iran have been uploaded onto YouTube since events started unfolding, with more than 3,000 videos uploaded in just one day. Some of those videos have been viewed more than 500,000 times. In addition, more than 21 million blog posts relating to the situation were listed on Google BlogSearch in the days following the election, and a staggering 12 percent of total posts in the first week after the election related to Iran.

Power to the people
The Iranian election crisis further demonstrates just how invaluable social media and other informal communications platforms are for allowing ordinary citizens to create their own content, share that content with the world and remain virtually anonymous while doing so. In this case, circumventing traditional news sources also meant circumventing state sponsored media and foreign media restrictions. But more widely, especially in societies with access to a free press, it can mean circumventing editorial gatekeepers. This is especially useful as print media shrinks and editorial space becomes even smaller and more difficult to navigate.

Ease of production and unfiltered content makes sharing information both instant and seamless. These characteristics not only make news more relevant but also make connecting on the ground easier when traditional communication channels are disrupted.

Traditional media and the new business model
The Iranian crisis not only demonstrates the power of social media but also reveals how traditional media has been affected by this technology. Traditional media is faced with a new business model that requires collaboration, emphasizes accountability and tests the balance between timeliness and accuracy.

“The social media response to the Iranian election amounts to the biggest embrace yet of a collaborative new style of news gathering—one that combines the contributions of ordinary citizens with the reports and analysis of journalists.” said the New York Times. The news agenda is no longer dictated by editorial staff and is increasingly defined by the public.

A Twitter backlash over CNN’s sparse coverage of what was happening in Iran in the days after the election was dubbed #CNNFail. This trending Twitter conversation demonstrates that social media harnesses increasing power to keep major news organizations accountable. Previous journalism models emphasized the power of the editor as the primary gatekeeper. Now, news organizations face an incredible, but necessary pressure, to align media coverage with public interest.

Speed and accuracy: striking a balance
Social media heightens the urgency of the continuous news cycle, which creates a challenge for trusted news sources to balance timely news coverage with accurate, trusted reporting and analysis. For both media and PR professionals the damage created by speedy but inaccurate information is far greater than the risk of delayed, accurate information.

At the very least, the social media storm following the Iranian elections demonstrated the strength of social media in crisis communications: speed, unfiltered content, community engagement and widespread information dissemination. The crisis further emphasized the relevance of social media and their many roles. These new platforms gave citizens a voice, the ability to create a movement, and the opportunity to connect to others around the world in real time, when traditional communications channels were silenced.

A communications strategy not merely a tactic
Public relations must evolve in a way that embraces the vitality of social media. Because PR’s roots are in relationship and community building, PR claims it is the segment of the marketing industry best equipped to tackle digital communications. However, PR pros must effectively leverage these assets as much – if not more – in proactive communications strategies as in reactive.

The relevance of social media makes it increasingly important that PR pros demonstrate digital proficiency. The Iranian election crisis reveals, in a way that only a crisis can, that social media is a communications strategy not merely a tactic.

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