One of my proudest moments in recent memory happened when I tracked down a little-known government meeting and sent live updates to my Twitter followers on what turned out to be a $1 million cash subsidy to a major company.
While the government agency did not alert journalists about the 8 a.m. meeting until late afternoon the day before, the tweets made the contents of the meeting common knowledge throughout an otherwise boring Friday news dump.
While I ended up posting a breaking news story with the scoop, the coverage on social media contributed to public knowledge and therefore backlash against government officials. Other news outlets ran front-page stories about it, and a man even ran for governor on the issue.
All of this was made possible because of social media. If used right, social media platforms can shine light on issues that corporations and government officials don’t want shared. Here are some ideas.
Remember the power of live tweeting
Although certainly not new, it’s still worth reiterating the usefulness of it. Live tweeting is the act of tweeting out events as they’re happening. We often see these types of tweets when your old friend you haven’t seen since college starts tweeting about eating a sandwich, then about how part of that sandwich dropped onto his shirt, and that he finished the sandwich.
In journalism, we can use Twitter to give a play-by-play of events when we are sitting in meetings or hearings. We can quote officials when they make inappropriate comments, and we can expose secret meetings when they are doing things that, for one reason or another, people in power don’t want anyone to hear. As an added bonus, you can use the quotes you write down on Twitter as backup notes.
Repurpose the Friday news dump
While public relations professionals often bury stories by issuing press releases on Friday afternoons, social media experts say that users are more engaged on Facebook on Thursday and Friday afternoons. Analytics studies of social media engagement suggest that Monday through Wednesday actually have the lowest engagement rates on Facebook, while Facebook engagement increases by up to 10 percent on Fridays.
This means journalists should go ahead and report the breaking stories that public relations professionals may try to bury on Fridays and use Facebook to get the headline out. Your audience may not be seeking out your website or your newspaper on Saturdays, but they will still share your Facebook links, and that means the “news dump” just might go viral.
Spread your story automatically
Once you have started live-tweeting events and posting potential news dumps at all the right times, you can use automated technology to move that information further and faster. If you don’t have a web developer to help you out, you can do this through a simple iPhone app called If This Then That, or IFTTT.
The app allows you to automatically post from Instagram to Facebook or Twitter, from Facebook to Twitter, or even from Twitter to Reddit. The possibilities are virtually endless. And because each social media platform tends to reach a different demographic, the automation quickly expands the population of people who know about your reporting.
Social media can often be used (ad nauseam) as a marketing tool, but watchdog journalists can also strategically use social media to get once-secret information out to the public quickly. At its best, this can lead to greater public understanding of complex issues and shine light on issues that would otherwise be left in the dark.
Erin Mansfield covers health care, business and state government for VTDigger.org in Montpelier, Vermont. She previously covered Selectboards and a major utility project for local newspapers in Vermont. Interact on Twitter: @erin_vt