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Competing for attention internationally on the social Web

Dr. Vilma Luoma-aho

Dr. Vilma Luoma-aho

In its search for new insights, the social media punditocracy doesn’t turn often enough toward academic research. It should be no surprise that scholars have taken notice of the paradigm shift that is transforming the media industry and the nature of communication online, and they are publishing some fascinating studies about it.

Vilma Luoma-aho is a visiting scholar at Stanford University‘s Vinnova-Stanford Research Center of Innovation Journalism. She has published a study in the new June issue of the journal Public Relations Review entitled Monitoring the Complexities: Nuclear power and public opinion. Dr. Luoma-aho took nuclear energy, a hot-button issue in her home country of Finland, and studied how all the interested parties, from power companies and government regulators to nongovernmental organizations, were competing for mindshare on the social Web. One thing she noticed, which communications professionals should take note of, is that cultural differences mean that the nature of dealing with sensitive issues in the public realm is different in every country, even online.

She wasn’t surprised to find that the power companies and government institutions involved have thus far “managed to handle this discussion in arenas they can control.” That means on their own Web sites, through press releases and other traditional communications channels, rather than on blogs and social networks, which is where NGOs are found stating concerns about nuclear safety. Dr. Luoma-aho thinks Finns are somewhat less likely than Americans to start a movement online about an issue such as nuclear energy in which they have no technical expertise, and says that’s related to differences in national psychology. “You [Americans] have a big market with a lot of voices. Finland is a tiny country surrounded by big, powerful neighbors,” she says. “It’s part of the Finnish culture that thinking out loud is not really allowed.”

If you are engaging on the Web with significantly widespread audiences, understanding these conventions is crucial. Does that mean you should always attempt to mimic the tone you find? No, but you should take it into account when setting your expectations for reaction. A few months ago we addressed this issue with Piaras Kelly at Edelman Dublin. What unique issues have you encountered in international outreach?


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