January 20, 2011

Harold Burson's Blog

Credibility and the Internet

Posted By Harold Burson

Marshall McLuhan got it mostly right when he said the medium is the message; certainly, how and where a message is received accounts for much of its credibility, impact and ability to persuade. While articulated decades before the advent of the internet, its application is no less to this new medium than to now so-called “traditional” media – mainly newspapers, magazines, radio, broadcast television, direct mail and the spoken word.

Although embraced by billions of users, the public’s evaluation of internet communications is still a work in progress. The new year -2011 – could be decisive in where the public positions the internet overall on the credibility scale. Of course it’s not entirely a zero-sum game: certain websites are sure to be regarded as highly credible while others not so. Such a result, of course, is no different from traditional media where public confidence differs somewhat in newspaper, television and radio content.

Already the internet is impacting policy and behavior on public disclosure of both corporate goals and actions. In effect, social web sites are expanding traditional “word of mouth” commentary on the myriad activities that abound within the walls of corporate headquarters. Public expectations for corporate comment and participation in activities affecting their employees, customers and communities are growing. Increasingly, buying decisions are affected by a company’s reputation as a good employer or responsible corporate citizen. Customers have demonstrated they will pay a few cents more for products manufactured and marketed by companies with good reputations.

Such attitudes are nowadays gained or reinforced by carefully-crafted information dissemination programs on social network sites. Corporate stakeholders are presently more akin to voters in expecting high level commentary when unusual events occur – layoffs, for example. But there’s a great deal of irony in the fact that the internet can simultaneously tell the positive corporate story while mercilessly destroying the same corporation’s reputation with questionable allegations and downright untruths.

The good news is that the equation includes an inherent corrective mechanism, which akin to print media corrections, usually fail to correct a faulty first impression from a spurious blog or news report. The corrective mechanism is the large number of readers who can spot errors and easily call them to the attention of other readers and viewers. This mechanism works in two directions: it should make the corporation take greater care in disseminating factual information and it should serve as a rein on the irresponsible blogger or self-appointed critic bent upon delivering a hostile wrong message.

At stake for the internet is its credibility as a news and information dissemination vehicle. For a presently rapid growing advertising medium not even close to reaching its financial potential, credibility is of great value to the internet as a medium and to its many web sites dependent on advertising support. Establishing air tight credibility works to the advantage of all concerned parties. Failure to do so will compromise the promise of history’s most powerful information dissemination vehicle.

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Harold Burson

January 13, 2011