FIRST of all, let’s agree that WhatsApp is a social media platform and that it is just as influential as Twitter and Facebook. They have different demographics and other statistics, but are playing in the same league – especially in Uganda.
For instance, in general, they all have vast numbers of users even though Twitter and Instagram numbers are much lower.
Facebook now has 1.86 billion monthly active users, which is a 17 percent increase from last year.
Instagram had about 500million active monthly users while Twitter (which has been around much longer than Instagram but appeals to an older demographic) had about 317million users.
These numbers are generally from statista.com.
WhatsApp is more than ever a social media platform rather than just a peer-to-peer messaging tool because that’s the use we tend to make of it. And that’s why communication(s) professionals should be concerned about it.
Before WhatsApp groups I probably wouldn’t be thinking about the threat that this particular social media platform presents to the work of communications (which includes public relations – PR) professionals.
I sympathize with PR people even more than the rest of the Communications trade because they are normally left out of this conversation. It’s usually a debate about whether social media is killing traditional media and whatnot.
But consider instead that social media is killing the art and science of professional communications management.
Even as I type this I am on standby for someone to send me the list of sureties that jailed Member of Parliament Akbar Godi presented to get bail in his murder case.
After the highly emotive and emotional outburst in court by Parliamentarians Odonga Otto and Beatrice Anywar, many of us laughed at the drama and hypocrisy the two exhibited. A claim was made, though, that Odonga Otto had stood surety for Godi.
By that evening it had gone so far and wide that even in the mainstream media otherwise serious people were citing this as fact. Is it? I am not sure.
See, the speed with which information flows around and from social media platforms, especially WhatsApp, is so blinding that you can’t stop for a fact-checking breath – and that is only problem number one.
I am picking on WhatsApp because of all the social media platforms out there, WhatsApp has done the world the biggest disservice when one considers professional communication(s) – in Uganda, at least.
I can’t say exactly when it began but at some point even officials (government, corporate and what-have-you) realized that “everyone” is on WhatsApp and that if you just dropped any word there then it would be forwarded to the ends of the world.
Maybe it was during the 2015-16 Presidential campaigns, or just before then, but it intensified after that to a point where some otherwise-serious people in positions of responsibility have now taken WhatsApp on as an official media channel.
That is a problem because we now have almost no record of communication as we used to back in the day when there was an “official paper of record” and newspapers were proud to be ‘Registered as a publication at the G.P.O.’ because everyone knew what G.P.O. stood for.
Mind you, it would be generally acceptable if the dissemination of these documents were done professionally, ever since .pdfs and word documents were enabled for WhatsApp sharing; but most of the people who circulate documents via this channel still place it on the desk, stand up and take a photograph of it instead!
Those that do realize that it is not an official channel of record still know it’s reach and do what the professional communicators hope will secure them a special place in hell: they LEAK documents.
In some cases the leaks are so obvious that the tell-tale signs of who did the leaking are right in the photographs of the documents – ranging from labelled envelopes on the desk adjacent to the photograph, to reflections of the photographer off shiny items that get caught in the photograph.
For the PR people this is a nightmare of world war proportions, because every and any document out there could be leaked at any time by anyone. Where in the past they only had to make crisis communications plans for controversial issues, today each and every correspondence must be treated as a likely leak!
The other problem communications professionals have with WhatsApp is that the nature of the documents that make their way there is often so lousy that they wish they had been fake documents leaked there inadvertently.
In recent weeks we have seen the most atrociously composed statements doing the rounds with skeptical receptions and then getting confirmed as true. It’s like everyone wants to be Donald Trump!
The worst effect of WhatsApp on the work of a communications professional, IMHO, is how easily people believe and share anything they receive via WhatsApp. That’s why we keep getting simplistic forgeries, spam and scam messages forwarded left, right, centre.
On one hand, it creates more work for the communications guys, but on the other hand it really eats up a lot of their creative time because of how mind-numbing it is to deal with this barrage of misinformation.
Think about it this way: every damn mobile phone out there is a printing press, and every download of the WhatsApp app is a tabloid!
With that thought, sympathize with everyone you know who works in communications.