“Maybe I’m amazed.”
– Paul McCartney

Not quite this, but close

Not quite this, but close

Today, I experienced a revelation.

Perhaps not on par with a parting of the clouds or the “speaking in tongues” thing, but a revelation nevertheless.  In short, I witnessed in real time the ferocious power of social media to disseminate news.  Trite as it may sound, this was a paradigm shift of monumental proportion for a public relations professional.

During an internal meeting, I had my TweetDeck open and was monitoring the posts of a couple of colleagues and Twitter gurus I follow.  At 3:48 p.m., @scobleizer posted “Tons of people are reporting a USAir plane crash in NYC.  Follow http://search.twitter.com for more.”  One minute later, also from @scobleizer:  “More info on Plane Crash is FLOWING in from people who saw the crash at:  http://www.search.twitter.com/search?q=plane.

I clicked immediately to CNN.com to confirm the story.  Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  Clicked to MSNBC.com.  A home page banner about the crash, but nothing else.  I went back to TweetDeck and watched astonished as update after update appeared on my screen every few seconds.  Within a few minutes, links to photos of the plane in the Hudson River were posted by a number of Twitterers.  I visited Twitter’s search page and watched in amazement as an avalanche of tweets with reports, comments, updates and links to photos about the event scrolled across the screen.  At one point, updates were coming in at a rate of nearly 100 every 15 seconds.  Quite literally, my jaw dropped and I sat back trying to assimilate what was happening and what it meant for the public relations profession (and journalism, for that matter).  As I clicked to my Facebook page and saw prayers for the passengers’ safety posted in the status boxes of several friends, the future became much clearer.

While the impact of citizen journalism on the traditional news media is nothing new, the power of Facebook and Twitter – which allows near-instantaneous updates from virtually any mobile device – to share information within private networks more quickly and effectively than mainstream media is no longer just “emerging.”  And the need for public relations professionals to learn, adapt and master these new communication channels and languages to serve all of a client’s needs, from launching a new product to managing a crisis, is now.

You know, in retrospect, maybe this is on par with speaking in tongues.

UPDATE 1.16.09 — Eric Zeman of Information Week wrote about precisely what I was trying to get across in this post.  Read Zeman’s comments here.