New York Times trumped by Twitter

MIKE O'DONNELL
Last updated 17:59 04/08/2014
new york times
A section of a New York Times article, as annotated by a Walmart executive.

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OPINION: About six weeks ago, The New York Times published a blistering opinion piece attacking America's biggest retailer Walmart for everything from business practices to its contribution to income disparities. It suggested Walmart was a drain on taxpayers and forced its staff to resort to food stamps and welfare as a result of humiliating wages.

While the piece wasn't surprising given the paper's reputation for point-scoring against big retailers, what was unexpected was how the historically conservative retail company chose to respond. Rather than writing to the editor, seeking to obfuscate or pulling advertising, Walmart struck back directly via social media.

Assuming the persona of a journalism tutor correcting a cub reporter's draft, Walmart vice-president of communications Dave Colvart literally got out the red pen and performed a "fact check" on the NYT piece, pulling the esteemed publication up on a variety of errors and providing hyperlinks to validate facts.

It published this "Fact Check" on the Walmart blog then threw its own social-media resources at distributing it. And, when you have 545,000 Twitter followers and 36 million Facebook "likers", that's one heck of a social network.

The masterstroke was a little comment penned at the top of the marked-up manuscript: "Thanks for sharing your first draft - below are a few thoughts to ensure that something inaccurate doesn't get published". The sweet irony of this wasn't lost on The New York Times, which struggled for a smart response or the right voice to respond in.

The New York Times has weekday print circulation of around 600,000. Together with the accumulated readers on its various digital assets, that makes its total weekday circulation around 2.1 million — significantly less than the shadow thrown by Walmart's social-media machine. And while the contents of the Walmart blog itself came up for criticism, there's no doubt that it got the full attention of the biggies in the news business as they realised that their distribution network was again under threat.

Closer to home, the turning of tables on traditional media players by big business is perhaps best personified by Rod Drury, the chief executive of Xero. More than any other, he effortlessly integrates social media (and specifically Twitter) into his working day and harnesses it for both marketing leverage and thought leadership.

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Three years ago at NetHui, he reduced his entire presentation to series of sub 140-character tweets, published on Twitter at the sametime as they were PowerPointed to the 500 attendees. The contents including giving The National Business Review a pretty good drubbing for allowing non- identified people to comment on stories. Drury saw this as not just allowing - but effectively encouraging - trolls.

Nothing to do with bridge- dwelling goat-eaters nor anglers towing a lure behind a boat, trolls are effectively provocateurs who seek to start arguments or upset people by posting provocative or corrosive remarks online.

Drury not only attacked this on stage and via his tweets, but also called out the journalist concerned by name at NetHui to justify the policy. For many in the room, it was the first experience they'd had of a captain of industry directly challenging part of the Fourth Estate. On the one hand, it was compulsive viewing; on the other, you didn't know where to look.

Last week, Drury used the same technique at the Xero annual meeting to challenge a Fairfax journalist present who had written a story questioning Xero's growth aspirations in the United States. Drury was concerned that the source quoted in the story, certified public accountant Michelle Long, wasn't clearly enough identified as having contracted for his key American competitor Intuit.

The story did note "Xero's US rival Intuit had asked her to conduct a lot of training on its Quickbooks cloud-based software over the past year".

Rather than wait for the AGM to address his concerns, Drury took to Twitter soon after publishing, posting about what he called the "interview adviser on competitor payroll trick" and also to call out Long whom he tweeted: "you're a nice person, we certainly like you. When commenting on us you should declare you are on the Intuit payroll".

Regardless of the rights and wrongs, the development is significant as it's another way social media has fundamentally disrupted journalism. Initially it was just a way of promoting a story to more readers for free. It quickly spread to being a news source, a tip-off mechanism, a source of photographs and a research tool to get expert (self- professed and actual) comment.

However it's now also a way for the subject of a story to publish their own perspective of events and, in the case of Drury, distribute it to tens of thousands. In the yeasty cut and thrust of social media, it's also likely that such people, who have full executive authority and board backing, may be able outmanoeuvre the journalist in online forums. Particularly as journalists understandably prefer to report the story, rather than be the story.

Expat Kiwi Greg Foran has just taken the top job at Walmart. If he's looking for a spot of social- media coaching, he could do worse than ask Drury for a few pointers.

Mike "MOD" O'Donnell is an ecommerce manager and professional director. His Twitter handle is modsta and he has been known to gently troll Rod Drury.


- Stuff

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