I am currently re-reading Stuart Ewen’s excellent book "PR! A social history of spin" which provides an incredibly interesting insight into the emergence of modern Public Relations through the twentieth century.
One of the things that strikes me about the incredible transition that took place over that period was the intellectual rigour that was invested in changing how companies (and PR "agents") approached communications, delivering improved, if not always ethical results.
I can’t help but contrast that rigour with the lack of intellectual investment in much of what’s written about the changes taking place in communications today.
In an era when there is arguably a greater transformation underway, many commentators seem to be focused on the latest gadget rather than the impact of how people are now finding and sharing information and connecting with others online. And maybe even more importantly how those changes will be integrated with traditional tools and methods.
The emperor’s new clothes
If you’re a semi-regular reader of blogs you’ll know that the thesis that social media spells the death of traditional media, not to mention the death of range of professions from PR to marketing.
So what is this thesis based on?
Is it based on some insightful statistical analysis? Is it based on a comprehensive set of focus groups or is it even based on experience?
It seems that the complete extent of this thesis is based on (often ill informed) opinion presented as fact.
The irony of conversation and the echo chamber
Many of these soothsayers lecture us on change.
Conversation is now king. Tools such as the press release are gasping for air. But it appears to me that when they talk about "conversation" what they actually mean is "conversation with people like me who visit the same sites as me (and probably have the same views as me)" rather than conversation in a real sense with the real world.
While its hard to realise this when you’re sitting in a high ivory tower, the world outside the blogsphere isn’t as simple as many assume.
People still like TV, radio and reading newspapers and magazines.
If we are really serious about understanding the fundamental changes taking place, then we need to talk to people in the mainstream, not the digerati.
When you step away from your keyboard and talk with business people in small, medium or large companies, you may be surprised to discover that Twitter, blogs and social media aren’t at the top of their agenda. Instead they are focused on their job, their family, dealing with information overload, and important issue such as the deteriorating economy.
There’s too much discussion in the echo chamber, where’s the real discussion, the discussion about how these online tools intersect with the real world?
From a Public Relations perspective that’s what’s interesting, that’s what’s relevant, that’s what matters.
The politicisation of "thought leadership"
I’ve noticed that many new "social media" books are moving away from a factual analysis of what’s actually happening in the real world and instead focus on taking small, isolated, though interesting incidents and presenting them as evidence that the world has changed forever.
Thanks for insulting our intelligence – and charging us for the pleasure, now that’s an innovative business model.
Of course social media commentators often follow the same model. I read one recently make the argument that higher oil prices was the final death knell for traditional media.
Thanks for the value add.
The benefits of online bladder control
Another thing that I don’t think builds the credibility of those involved in the online debate is the constant flow (‘scuse the pun) of "influential commentators" who lose the control of their bodily functions at every new widget, web page, download or button.
If these people are "experts" then surely they should be providing a context, an insightful overview of the new new thing, rather than declaring that something with no track record is going to destroy not only traditional (and established) tools and channels, but whatever was hot last week.
C’mon on folks provide some intellectual value will you?
Public Relations can be broadly defined as the process of helping people, communities and organisations to communicate effectively with their target audience(s) to inform and educate. It’s about more than media relations, though of course media relations is important, it’s about more than press releases, it’s about more than blogs, or wikis or Twitter. It’s about great communication.
That communication will take place (or should take place) where you can most effectively reach your audience, whether that’s a blog post, a town hall meeting, a piece of direct mail or a bulletin board.
Life isn’t binary. There are more than two options. That’s why the rubbish we see written online again and again about the death of PR is irrelevant.
Of course the Internet is bringing new tools and channels to communications. Of course there is a need for PR people to understand that "broadcasting" messages is no longer an effective way to reach and inform everyone.
Instead we do have to think about conversations as well as the traditional tools. But then we always have. The key here, gentle reader, is the integration of traditional and online, not the use of one at the exclusion of the other.
Bad can be good
There’s a rise in the "outing" of poor PR pitches. That’s probably not a bad thing. This blog doesn’t even make the Z-list, but I still get mindless pitches all the time. I can only imagine the number and quality of pitches more popular sites receive.
Successful PR people will understand the changes taking place quickly. But there’s always laggards and poor practitioners. These folks are the ones who are probably today pitching sports stories to a newspaper’s crime correspondent and will in the future be spamming parenting blogs with new agricultural products.
That’s life. It creates a poor image of PR, but there’s nothing you can do about it. What you can do is make sure that you are thoughtful in how you engage online.
Focus on your practice.
It’s not all bleak, there are a growing number of PR bloggers providing thoughtful commentary on how PR is changing – and how it will change in the future.
These people base their commentary on examples of what’s happening today. They focus on how new technologies impact how we communicate and how those same technologies can help us be more effective in the future.
But these people are also usually realistic in understanding that effective PR is PR that is built on an understanding of how to reach and communicate with your audience. They understand that effective communication demands a blend of offline and online communication.
If PR is to prosper in the future, and I believe it will, then we need leadership, we need people to lead by being realistic, by reflecting the challenges we face such as how we can build a better understanding of our audiences and the tools we’ll use to reach them.
This is not about shiny objects, hyperbole or widgets. It’s about world class communication, based on insight into your audience and pragmatic investments in the channels that work.
It’s time we took a stand.