By Thomas J. Roach
During the French Revolution there was a tree in Paris where people posted notes. For a time is was a significant vehicle of political public opinion. It was also a wonderful research tool for the authorities who read it and tried to discover who was saying what.
Unlike the hundreds of political pamphlets that were being circulated, the tree provided a spontaneous interaction of ideas. Anyone who took the time to read the messages came away with a sense of what people were talking about and could possibly follow shifts in public opinion on an almost day by day basis.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every topic of public opinion had a tree? All a public relations researcher would have to do is go to the appropriate tree and instantly find out what people are saying about a particular stock sale or a layoff or a proposed zoning change. Want to know public opinion on health care? Forget about focus groups; go to the health care tree.
Of course there are no magical public opinion trees, but there is something more practical. It is called Twitter. Twitter is the relatively new social media phenomenon that allows people to have spontaneous interaction with one another, and more importantly, allows for key word searches. If I type in the name of Chicago Bears defensive lineman “Julius Pepper,” I can instantly find out that someone thinks he left the Carolina Panthers “for the money,” someone thinks he looks like Laurence Fishburn, someone is calling him Judas Pepper, someone thinks his name sounds like a pizza parlor and several others, after seeing how well he played for the Bears this year, think he was dogging it the last two years when he was with Carolina.
The only drawback to using Twitter for quick public opinion research is that it is a sample of people who use Twitter, not a sample of the entire population. However, Twitter went from three million to 160 million users in the last two years, so the Twitter sample is looking more representative every day. Right now the demographic is mostly in the 18 to 49 year old range. A random survey sample size usually needs to exceed 400. A public relations practitioner I spoke with said she prefers a sample size of 1,000 on Twitter.
Type it in
Type in asbestos and you might tap into comments about pending legislation that equates serpentine with asbestos. You will also see how the word asbestos shows up in conversations about vinyl tile, personal health problems and medical discussions about mesothelioma. And you will see warnings about the dangers of asbestos, someone asking if a room smells like asbestos, and learn about an asbestos related lawsuit by Hall of Fame football player Merlin Olsen.
In the future, if a quarry gets into a public battle over zoning in its community, it will be possible to search the word “quarry” in “Tweets near you,” and get a sense of how much attention the issue is getting in your community.
Another interesting option that will be available next year is targeted advertising.
It goes against the unfettered Twitter atmosphere, but local businesses will be able to buy Twitter ads and have them delivered on the basis of location. If a company is embroiled in a hot issue being debated locally, it may be possible to buy targeted twitter ads that would post the company message every time a Twitter user inputs a predetermined trigger word like quarry.
However, the best use of Twitter is free just like the tree in Paris. It is a way to find out what people are saying. Communication professionals are least effective when they propagandize to adjust the public to the company and most effective when they collect information to adjust the company to the public.
Communication professionals are least effective when they propagandize to adjust the public to the company and most effective when they collect information to adjust the company to the public.