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Wednesday
Apr282010

Change the world. It's free.

One student's Facebook page motivated thousands of New Jersey high school students to simultaneously walk out of class yesterday and protest proposed education cuts. Organized truancy? Maybe. A profound example of the reach, immediacy and economy of social networks? Absolutely.

Michelle Ryan Lauto, an 18-year old student at Pace University and a former Jersey high schooler, set up a Facebook page to organize the walkout and draw attention to Governor Christie's proposal to close the state's budget gap partially through an $820 million cut in education funding. More than 15,000 people signed up to participate, and media reports from the Garden State put crowd sizes in "the thousands."

This well-written piece by Mashable's Brenna Erlich includes all the basic info, plus several good links.

Organizations should pay very close attention to what Ms. Lauto accomplished. With zero funding and a few hours of spare time, she motivated thousands of people to take action -- action that very easily could have meant real consequences for those participating.

Given several months and a hefty budget to prepare, Ms. Lauto might have accomplished the same outcome through media relations, organizing events, posters and a speakers bureau. She needed none of these.

The profession of public relations (both corporate and agency) is built on the paradigm of a straw: Messages are crafted, formatted and lubricated in order to squeeze them through the straw, which represents the traditional news media. It's a small-diameter pipe of news, because there's a fixed number of journalists and a fixed amount of space (and time) available for content distribution. We professionals are left hoping that when our precious messages emerge on the other end of the straw and are consumed by our audiences, those messages will be useful to the objective at hand.

The socialization of media (plentiful content outlets, nearly unlimited ability and access to share and comment) has made the straw less important than it used to be. Or, it may have eliminated the straw altogether, replacing it with a torrent of content.

Successful communications strategies must acknowledge this paradigm shift. Organizations must take greater responsibility for content creation, speaking in the most authentic, believable and transparent voices available to them -- those of their employees and champions. Responsible public relations professionals have a duty to help organizations prepare for and engage with this new reality. We're not in the business of writing press releases any more. 

Now, I don't want to give too much weight to Ms. Lauto's flash mob with a conscience. Peer pressure and groupthink may have had as much to do with the outcome as did the event striking a raw nerve over education funding. Still, it did work. And it would never have worked without social media.

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