What PR Pros Need to Know About Facebook’s “Signal”

”Facebook wants to help journalists find the signal in the noise… And now it’s created a free newsgathering tool called Signal to help journos do just that.” – Julia Greenberg, Wired

“For journalists across the world, Twitter has been the preferred tool to track breaking news and share updates in real time. All that may soon change….” – Shubhomita Bose, Small Business Trends writing about Signal

A few weeks ago, Facebook introduced a media tool for journalists called “Signal.” It got some press coverage, but it would not be surprising if many communication professionals didn’t hear about it.

Here’s the thing: Signal is Facebook’s attempt to out-Twitter Twitter. Understanding what Signal is and what it does could help you to make better inroads with the journalists that use it.

What I want to do in this post is talk about the machinations of Signal for journalists, and to suggest some ways that communication professionals can leverage their understanding to be better at their job.

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Out-Twittering Twitter

Walk-Signal

One of the extraordinary features of Twitter are its crowd-sourced “trending topics.” Based upon user chatter, you can open up the Twitter app on your mobile device and can get a reasonably good sense of what is going on in the world. For journalists, this is a huge benefit of Twitter.

What Signal hopes to do is to present journalists with trending topics culled from Facebook and Instagram, and provide them with some very cool features to add or embed social content to their articles with little difficulty.

For example, a journalist might open up their dashboard (Signal is currently only available for desktops) and see this:

Facebook-Signal

They might find an interesting topic and click-through to find relevant Facebook posts about the topic like this:
signal_by_facebook_embed

Or they might click-through to find a relevant Instagram post around that topic, like this:
signal_by_facebook_curate_musicians2

While these options are not as succinct as an embedded tweet, the ease-of-use of the embed functions and the simple click-through to multiple pieces of relevant visual and social content are useful features of Signal that will likely make this an important tool for some journalists.

Facebook Signal also has mining tools, saved searches and curation tools that give it an advantage over trending topics or Twitter searches. It should be noted that Twitter has a similar product targeted towards journalists called Curator that appears to be slightly less robust.

Not only is Signal a resource for journalists to integrate social media into their reporting, but some of its features can be used as a lead, as it was with this story about Carly Fiorina’s increasing popularity in the Republican primary.

The final thing you should know about how Signal works is that Signal’s trends are not the trends that YOU see on Facebook (which sometimes are not as relevant as Twitter trends). Signal is informed by a three-headed beast of Facebook’s organic Media Solutions, social news agency Storyful and and trend-tracking agency Crowdtangle. The three agencies working in concert make Signal a pretty powerful tool (and Crowdtangle uses multiple social platforms to inform its trends, including Twitter).

So what?

Train-Signal

You may be thinking: “so what?” Signal seems a great resource for journalists, but what does it have to do with the communication profession?

A few writers have suggested that Signal should cause businesses to be especially strategic about the content that they publish. This is great advice for publishers whose content frequently trends on Twitter (ginormously BIG publishers), but for the rest of us Signal could be thought of as a tool to connect better with certain journalists.

There are three things that a PR professional has to do in order to leverage Signal for their benefit:

  • Determine which journalists are using Signal
  • Gain access to Signal, or at least understand what it does
  • Find ways to enhance the Signal tools to benefit a journalist

Let’s dig a little deeper into each of these.

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How do you track Signal?

Journalists that adopt Signal will probably have some tell-tale signs in their content:

Journalists using Signal will probably have an unusually high number of Facebook and Instagram embeds in their digital content (at least relative to other content on the site). Low-friction embedding is a key feature of Signal and one that you would expect journalists to use with some regularity.

They may also be using another Facebook tool, Mentions. Previously only available to celebrities, journalists with verified accounts can now live stream on Facebook and broadcast explicitly to followers (creating a distribution model similar to Twitter). Journalists that are using these features probably have a better familiarity with Facebook’s toolset, and judging from release dates Facebook appears to be trying to promote Mentions and Signal as complementary services.

Madolyn Smith of Data-Drive Journalism points out that a journalists using Signal may not be too familiar with coding as more technically proficient journalists may track trends and breaking stories elsewhere.

How do you get Signal?

Getting access to Signal is a pretty straightforward process. Journalists have to request access through the following link, are vetted and (ideally) receive access. A lot of content creators may be able to make a case for access, but it’s unclear precisely who will be allowed access to Signal.

If you can’t get access Signal, it’s not the end of the world. From a high-level perspective: important things are unlikely to trend exclusively on Facebook AND the Crowdtangle API uses many different social inputs to determine trends. So, if you can’t use Signal – the trends you find elsewhere (cough! Twitter cough!) will probably be similar to what a journalist finds on Signal (perhaps a bit delayed).

How do you harness Signal?Bike-Signal

So, here’s the part of the process that will be easiest for communication professionals. You know a journalist’s beat and how she works. You do your PR thing and become a resource for her. Offering exclusive insight or data to support a trending topic on Signal, or a relevant interview are a couple of examples.

The one thing to keep in mind about Signal is that its greatest benefit for journalists is speed. So, a communication professional must act fast and use tactics that support quick reaction to a story. A well-crafted press release probably isn’t going to be timely enough to inform stories that are generated from Signal.

Conclusion

Facebook is trying to leverage their size and partnerships to provide social news insight traditionally associated with Twitter. Time will tell if this is widely-adopted by journalists, but it is a well-resourced, user-friendly platform that has the potential to be very helpful.

Communication professionals need to understand what Signal is, what is does for journalists, and how to leverage its trend data and speed to find ways to be a resource to journalists who use it.

Embedding tweets is such an easy thing to do that some news stories consist of a few sentences of text and then a bunch of tweets from famous users or news-makers. Facebook is clearly hoping that its new tool will encourage more journalists to use its network in the same way, which in turn would boost engagement. – Mathew Ingram, writing for Fortune about Facebook’s “Signal.”

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Images: Maria ElenaFe IlyamrhayataJames Schwartz (Creative Commons)



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