Renowned film critic Roger Ebert is adept (many would say downright savvy) when it comes to social media—and he’s also familiar with its pitfalls.
In January 2011, Ebert stumbled into his first social media controversy when he tweeted “I’d rather be called a n---er than a Slave” in response to the “n-word” being removed from a version of “Huckleberry Finn.” Ebert addressed that backlash in a post on his highly successful blog, “Roger Ebert’s Journal
In June, he caused a social media outcry when he tweeted
, “Friends don’t let jackasses drink and drive,” in the hours following “Jackass” star Ryan Dunn’s death.
The tweet incited vitriolic comments toward Ebert on Twitter and on his Facebook page. For a brief period, Facebook shuttered Ebert’s account but reinstated it with an accompanying apology. He wrote a lengthy blog post
about the Dunn incident, which garnered nearly 1,000 comments.
Ebert is a former colleague. During my years at the Chicago Sun-Times
we exchanged emails on occasion but never met face to face. He was usually in some state of recovery while I was there (his battle with thyroid cancer is well documented), but I witnessed one of the most inspiring moments of my career when he showed up to a Newspaper Guild meeting to cast his vote alongside the rest of us lowlifes to essentially save the Sun-Times
Perhaps because I asked nicely (or possibly because he’s just so damn generous with his time), Ebert agreed to answer a few of my questions about his experience with the public relations field and social media.
I emailed him my questions at 2:15 p.m. His response came at 2:31, reminding me that no one has more respect for journalists than … other journalists.
I’ll let Ebert take it from here:
How has your involvement with social media—Twitter, Facebook and your blog in particular—helped you connect with fans of yours (and movie fans in general) over the last few years?
It gave me a much better sense of audience. The comments on my blog, in particular, have been like an ongoing conversation, and despite my initial misgivings I have been astonished at their high quality. I vet every one, and am not forced to kill half a dozen in a month.
You've received some negative attention following some controversial tweets in the past. What have you learned from these experiences?
Be very, very careful with your wording. Nuance and irony are lost on many readers, especially the very ones who feel called upon to respond with vulgarity.
In your career I'm sure your interactions with public relations pros has probably run the gamut from positive to negative. As a film critic, how has your perception of PR evolved over the years?
Movie publicists, at least, tend to be expert, reliable, and trustworthy. In years of covering film festivals I've been impressed by their dedication—particularly those trying to win attention for indie and foreign films. I could name you a few films that essentially owe their success to publicists at Cannes, Sundance, Toronto, or SXSW.
Certain publicists don't take a film unless they personally believe in it, and journalists tend to discover who they are. There was one publicist in particular who would recommend films that weren't even her clients. The good PR people truly love movies.
What role have you seen social media start to play in movies? Obviously, “The Social Network” was a hit in 2010, but social networking has also become a common plot device (frequently in romantic comedies). Do you see this as just a reflection of the zeitgeist or a crutch for filmmakers?
Social media has not really taken over from the (cell) phone, because it's a nuisance to require audiences to read a lot of messages. A Facebook "relationship" status change may be mentioned, but plots don't dwell. Computer screens are not photogenic. It's more cinematic to show both ends of a phone conversation than two people at keyboards.