Why Owning Your Media is Critical in an Age of Uncertainty

Fuzzy man walking on hanging bridge vanishing in fog.

There is a generation of communicators that has only known the unchallenged dominance of Meta and Twitter for social media supremacy.

But there are those of us who remember a time before the timelessness of a social media giant. A time when they came and went.

LiveJournal. Geocities. Friendster. Myspace. Google Plus. (Ok, no one really used that one…)

Twitter's Dominance

The past several months have exposed old battle scars for the aged PR pros in their late 30s and beyond who saw powerful internet forces come and go. Twitter has been a constant since its launch in 2006. Few functionality changes. Hundreds of millions of users. Live-tweeted revolutions. Breaking news by the boatload. Hashtags galore.

Then Mr. Musk came calling. And with his takeover, a series of quirky, often controversial and usually bombastic maneuverings by Twitter’s new owner have sent small shockwaves through the establishment, forcing many to ponder an uncertain future without the clicks and viral buzz generated by Twitter.

Most recently, Twitter upped the ante with perhaps its most controversial (yet quietest) moves since under Musk: Stripping access to its API from developers and researchers.

On April 4, Automattic, the company behind the WordPress content management system, announced that Twitter had suddenly blocked the WordPress plugin Jetpack from accessing its API.

Jetpack is used by millions of websites across the world. Among its most popular features is the Jetpack Social module, which allows users of Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Tumblr to configure websites to automatically post links to all of their website content to social media as soon as a user hits “publish," without having to log into each service each time.

Time- and Life-Saving Applications

Our practice has used the service for 10 years for hundreds of police, fire, government, nonprofit and public school websites—the types of agencies that often do not have large communications staffs, where the time saved by Jetpack Social has been vital.

In one practical application alone, many police dispatchers are trained to use their police department WordPress website to push out news regarding a fallen tree or damaged electrical wires, urging people to avoid the area. That WordPress post will then automatically hit their agency’s Twitter and Facebook pages, and another module—Jetpack Subscribe—will email a notification to everyone who has opted in.

In two minutes, a busy dispatcher can hit all channels with potentially lifesaving information.

Facebook has historically been glitchier than Twitter, with Facebook connections dropping from Jetpack Social every once in a while. Not Twitter. Until API access was stripped, many police websites had been posting to Twitter via Jetpack Social, since 2014, without a gap in service.

On April 4 that streak suddenly ended.

The Twitter API restriction is, for many communicators, most consequential. The platform, for many years a vital source of breaking news and urgent information, has become suddenly and worryingly unreliable as a tool of businesses, nonprofits, journalists and public safety professionals seeking to send urgent citizen notifications.

The ripple effects travel far and wide when a force as powerful as Twitter restricts itself.

WordPress, which is available for free and powers, by many estimates, nearly half of all websites on the internet, has an army of dedicated developers behind it, but faces the same revenue challenges that all open source developers face. Jetpack is free as well, but recently Automattic has begun more aggressively pushing users to a paid tier to access most features or to lift limits on the number of social media posts per month that a user could make.

Without access to Twitter, it is highly unlikely that many users will continue to pay Automattic for the Social product. You can bet the house that the folks at Automattic are scrambling today to figure out how to get their access restored—or possibly scrambling to find a person at Twitter with whom to communicate their concerns.

The API move speaks to the over-reliance of communicators, especially government and public safety public relations professionals (PIOs) on single, privately-owned sources of communication.

The Importance of Owning Your Media

We preach “website first” for our clients, meaning that social media, email marketing and earned media are all vitally important but should never be taken for granted. First, the virtual disappearance of the American weekly community newspaper at the hands of Gannett called earned media into question for smaller government and public safety agencies. Today’s move serves as a reminder that You. Don’t. Own. Your. Social. Media. They do—or Musk does, to put it more specifically.

Some of the biggest pushback I receive in some of the public relations training classes I host—and sales calls I go on with prospective clients—is from police public information officers who are particularly good at Twitter or Facebook. Some of them scoff at updating their agency website (or even having a website “in this day and age”) because of the engagement they get on social media.

I’m here to tell you, it can be gone tomorrow.

John Guilfoil is principal at John Guilfoil Public Relations.