A 21st Century Game of “Telephone”

Remember the game telephone that you played when you were young? The class sat in a circle, and one person would whisper a message in the ear of the next person. That person whispers to the next person, and the message makes its way around the circle to last person, who recites the final message to the group.

Of course this final message is nothing like the original message, and a good time is had by all.

I was reminded of this game while reading one of the many news stories and blog posts regarding Jason Whitlock. For our friends and clients outside of Kansas City, Jason Whitlock was a longtime sports columnist at The Kansas City Star known for taking controversial stands on issues. He recently parted ways with the paper.

His departure has been the subject of more media reports, blog posts and water cooler discussions than I care to think about. There was even a three-hour special interview (dubbed “The Explanation”) simulcast on radio and TV in which he shared his side of the story. Plenty of accusations have been made about who’s at fault, and what the real story is.

I’ll let others handle that debate, but there is one part of this soap opera that folks in my business should notice.

Many reports claim that Whitlock is now working as an online columnist for Fox Sports with a contract worth approximately $2 million over three years. There’s no question about whether or not he’s writing for Fox. You can go online and read his columns for yourself. What is being debated is the size of the contract.

To many folks, that number seems awfully high for an online-only deal, and some reports say Whitlock himself has never confirmed it. Despite this uncertainty, the $2 million number has been repeated time and again. It even made its way into a New York Times article on the issue…The gray lady. Our national newspaper of record. All the news that’s fit to print.

Hearne Christopher, another former Star reporter and current blogger, wrote an interesting post yesterday about how this rumor evolved into fact and made its way into America’s finest newspaper.

Do I know how much Jason Whitlock is making at Fox Sports? No, I don’t. I have no idea, and I really don’t care…but that’s not the point.

The point is how quickly the truth can get lost in a social media world. Maybe that number is true. Maybe it’s not. I don’t know who to believe, and (as far as I know) nobody with direct knowledge is doing anything to address the confusion. In this situation, the fact in question is of little consequence to our daily lives, so the confusion just makes for one more wrinkle in an entertaining side show.

But when the issue is more substantial, confusion and ambiguity are often just as bad as (and sometimes worse than) misinformation. How would you feel if it was your brand, your company, or your reputation at stake? What if the number in question was your stock price? Or the amount you were going to raise your customers’ electric rates? Or the number of people your firm had to lay off?

A misplaced decimal point in one social media outlet could quickly spiral out of control if left unchecked.

Would you even notice if that happened? Are you listening to the conversation? Do you have a plan in place to quickly correct erroneous information?

I know that lots of businesses look at social media and say “that’s not the right strategy for us.” In almost all of these cases, I suspect social media engagement deserves a seat at the marketing strategy table, but I’m willing to set that argument aside for the sake of this discussion. Fair enough. Maybe social media isn’t the highest and best use of your resources, but you still need to be listening and have a plan for response. Most buildings will never burn down, but we don’t think twice about investing in sprinklers, fire alarms, smoke detectors and insurance. It would foolish not to.

Your organization’s reputation deserves the same level of protection.

A distorted message makes for a great game when you’re five. When you’re a grown up running an organization and the message gets distorted, a good time is rarely had by anyone…except your competitors.