When a flower shop breaks the news to you that Nelson Mandela has died, it’s time for journalism to have a think

I found out of Nelson Mandela’s death not from Sky News, not from BBC News, not a national newspaper’s Twitter feed … but from an online flower shop.

I’ve written about Prestige Flowers before, because they struggle to actually deliver flowers on time and their appalling customer service, both rather basic requirement for an online flower company.

However, where they fail on the flower delivery front, they certainly succeed on the news delivery front:

Nelson Mandela as he appeared on the Prestige Flowers Facebook page
Nelson Mandela as he appeared on the Prestige Flowers Facebook page

It’s not the first time this year I’ve heard of a big news break from an unlikely source. When Margaret Thatcher died, this is how I found out:

Stan Collymore breaks the news that Margaret Thatcher has died to his followers
Stan Collymore breaks the news that Margaret Thatcher has died to his followers

This isn’t a blog post lamenting the irrelevance of journalism in a social media age – far from it. But these two instances – maybe the two biggest news stories of the year? – are worth further examination by journalists.

Several things jump out at me.

1. Timings

The first is the timings of when the stories broke. News of Mandela’s death broke after 9pm, round about the time when the most people are online on Facebook in the UK – or at least, those who actively follow news brands are. Here’s a graph from one of the regional brands I work with, and the pattern is pretty similar everywhere:

Fans of news brands are most likely to be online at 9pm
Fans of news brands are most likely to be online at 9pm

I am one of those people. Facebook is on the second screen while we’re watching TV, planning what to do at the weekend, sharing photos, making sarcastic comments and so on. So it should be no surprise that I saw the news on Facebook first.

In the case of Margaret Thatcher’s death, I was at work. I was on a conference call as it happens, and had Twitter open on a screen. Collymore’s Tweet was the first I saw. There’s evidence to suggest people are more likely to log on to Twitter during the day than Facebook.

I know many journalists who see Facebook for personal use and Twitter for work, and when The Journal was compiling its study of the most influential people on social media in the North East, it soon became clear that as far as work was concerned, social = Twitter, and therefore it was more popular during the day.

It’s with that in mind that we have to make sure we’re active on all social, all the time, engaging with people so they turn to us when they hear from someone else.

For journalists, these two example should show the importance of getting out on social as quickly as possible when a big story breaks. We’re not just competing with other journalists any more. 

2. People talk 

pearlharborHere’s a picture from a brilliant Twitter account, @RealTimeWWII. It shows White House reporters rushing to file after details of the attack on Pearl Harbor were revealed.

If that happened today, we wouldn’t be waiting for the White House to release details, we’d have Tweets, Facebook updates and Instagram photos from the scene within minutes. The role of the journalist is less to break the news in these circumstances, but more to be the turn to place to find out more.

When I saw the Facebook post from Prestige Flowers, I didn’t visit their website for more information, I turned to a national news website. When Margaret Thatcher’s death announcement reached me via Collymore, I turned to the Mirror website – and got the confirmation I needed, plus the instant background coverage which was guaranteed not to be the sort of fawning coverage you’d get elsewhere.

And this also applies on a day-to-day basis with stories we think are ours but often aren’t. Just because we were the only organisation with a reporter in court doesn’t mean the story will keep until we choose to release it. Likewise at a council meeting – it’s just as likely a councillor will start Tweeting or an action group in the public gallery will update their profile with the latest news.

The lesson here, for us as journalists, is to park, once and for all, the idea that we can control when news is released. Our job now is to verify and get it out the door as quickly as possible, to the highest standard possible, so that people think to come to us in the future when they hear something going on.

I was with a gaggle of reporters this week who debated whether or not their newspaper was right to sit on a story until the paper came out later in the week, given the fact the story subsequently emerged elsewhere first, and therefore their website was late to a story they had first. Their view was that you ‘win some, lose some’ but it’s worth a punt to protect the paper. Wrong.

3. Stand out

With everyone from a flower shop to a footballer talking about a big news story, the challenge has to be to stand out.

There are two ways to do this. First, break as much as you can as possible. Regional journalists in particular are often the only people covering a story.

Secondly, if you can’t break a story, make sure you stand out. Not in a ‘shock jock’ sort of way, but in a way which makes you memorable for the quality of your content.

For a few years, it was the done thing online to cover a story with the basic few paragraphs, and then guide people to the paper for the full story and background, or to hold the other stuff offline until the paper came out.

That simply doesn’t work now. The best example I can give of this is the conclusion of the trial of the killer of April Jones. WalesOnline – the website of the Western Mail, South Wales Echo and Wales On Sunday – published all of its background content there and then. They knew the odds are the lines wouldn’t hold, and it also ensured the website stood its own against all the other websites which just dipped in for the trial.

If everyone’s breaking news online, our job is to stand out.

4. Make it social

Why did almost 250 people share an image announcing the death of Nelson Mandela from a flower company? Simple – because it made a statement.

Many news organisations are fast to Facebook with stories, but do so at the expense of compelling images. Facebook posts with images tend to get more traction than those without, and those which images which make a statement do so even more.

The Birmingham Mail Facebook page was quick to share the news of Mandela’s death, but it was a post which followed shortly after, which travelled further through Facebook, gained more shares and more likes:


The message here is simple: To be social, make a statement which others want to be associated with.

5. The alternative view is now very visible

One of the reasons we introduced Facebook commenting on Trinity Mirror websites was to make it harder for trolls who’d merrily sign up under false names and spend all day writing abusive statements under our stories.

It doesn’t stop offensive comments appearing, of course, and on Facebook itself I’m surprised at the number of people who are happy to put their face next to comments many would consider racist.

If you look through the Facebook updates relating to Mandela’s death on Thursday, it doesn’t take long to find people who, very articulately, demand to know why the media is ignoring the fact he was, in their words, a ‘terrorist.’

These comments weren’t few and far between either, and often drew a sharp response from people with opposing views. The media running order tends to be that the critical review of someone who has died follows several days after the initial celebration of their life. Does social change that? Probably not – but it does once again challenge our assumptions.

This last point has nothing to do with a flower company or a footballer, but is another example of how social has changed how people deal with a breaking news story.

The two stories prove to me that social is a huge opportunity …. but only if a done right.


3 thoughts on “When a flower shop breaks the news to you that Nelson Mandela has died, it’s time for journalism to have a think

    1. I would imagine from a news bulletin, which prompted them to respond quickly, which in turn enabled them to tell many more people.

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