The Apple and the Worm: Stories in an online age

Stories today are shapeless, slippery fellows who slip through the fingers of all those who try to grasp them.

To demonstrate this let’s look at the made-up story of the Apple and the Worm.

1986

Charles bought an apple from the Acme Fruit & Veg stall.

Apples by Michael Dorausch, Creative Commons, Flickr

When he got it home he took a bite and found that there was a worm inside.

Angered by this unexpected visitor, he called The Morning Post and told them about it.

A journalist from The Morning Post went to the Acme Fruit & Veg stall to find out more.

Acme Fruit & Veg were very surprised and showed the journalist all their other apples which were fine.

Satisfied the journalist wrote a small article about the man and the apple which was published on page 13 of their Monday edition. There was no photo and only a few members of the public read the story.

The End.

2017

Charles bought an apple from the Acme Foods superstore.

When he got it home. He took a bite and found that there was a worm inside.

Angered by this unexpected visitor, he took a photo and tweeted about it. A journalist replied and asked him to direct message them. Other people on Twitter and Facebook claimed that they had also found worms in their apples. Thousands of users saw the story.

The journalist contacted Acme Foods and asked for a comment. However, Acme Foods didn’t know about Charles and refused to comment.

Meanwhile the hashtag #BoycottAcmeFoods had started trending.

The journalist published an online article. It contained lots of accounts from people who claimed they had found various animals in their fruit. One man had found a spider in his banana. The article was shared widely online.

Acme Foods finally issued a statement online but it was lost in all the negative coverage.

This was not The End. The story continued to rumble on.

An alternative 2017

Charles bought an apple from the Acme Foods superstore.

When he got it home. He took a bite and found that there was a worm inside.

Angered by this unexpected visitor, he took a photo and tweeted about it.

Apple and Worm by Adam Langager, Creative Commons, Flickr

Jane, an employee at Acme Foods who was monitoring all online mentions of @AcmeFoods as well as associated keywords (“Acme” AND “apple”) saw this tweet and alerted her boss. Her boss asked Jane to contact Charles to find out more.

A journalist also contacted Charles and asked him to direct message them. Other people on Twitter and Facebook claimed that they had also found worms in their apples.

Jane alerted her boss that the situation had worsened. They prepared a statement which they tweeted from their account.

They spoke to Charles on the phone and offered him their sincerest apologies and a shopping voucher. They also posted a message on a Food Safety forum where #BoycottAcmeFoods had started trending.

Charles tweeted that he was happy with Acme Foods’ speedy response.

Other people, however, demanded compensation. Acme Foods sent a tweet reassuring customers of the freshness and safety of their produce and asked that all enquiries be directed to their hotline.

Acme Foods issued a short subtitled video from their Head of Quality Control. They also put a statement on their website and paid some money so that their statement would appear at the top of searches.

An online media article was published containing both sides. It was shared on social media channels but several major food companies and bloggers spoke up in support of Acme Foods’ response. The social media noise quietened down.

This was still not The End. Jane continued to monitor social media channels for any future references to apples and worms.

The rise of online media has fundamentally altered how stories are made. Previously organisations played a pivotal role in shaping the narrative of a story, now they are an afterthought.

However, it is not all bad news. As our third story shows, there is still a small window of opportunity for organisations to influence a story by:

  • Monitoring smaller channels such as Facebook groups and online forums
  • Monitoring associated keywords as well as mentions of your organisation.
  • Building online relationships with stakeholders who can support you in a crisis.
  • Finding trusted voices within your organisation to be spokespeople during a crisis.
  • Ensuring that you have the right processes (e.g. permissions/budget) in place to reply quickly and efficiently.

Online stories will carry on with or without you. By implementing some of these tips you can ensure that you are helping to create the stories rather than just reading them.

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