Predilection for Predictions – Themes for PR 2007

“My doctor has advised me to cut back on predictions.”

Conor Cruise O’Brien (1917 - )


It’s that time of the year again when we start to see reviews of the year just passing and predictions for the year to come.  I’ve made predictions in the past, but I’m no better qualified than anyone reading this post or able to operate a web browser to predict the future.

So instead of predictions I thought I’d share some thoughts I’ve been mulling over about PR in general and Online PR specifically over a couple of posts. 

The emergence of the Accidental Audience

In PR we think about communication in a linear model.  We communicate with an audience either directly or indirectly (hopefully) via an intermediary such as a media outlet.  That’s communication.  But what if online communication extends beyond that model?

One of the most common questions I hear from PR people is when do blogs, wikis, RSS etc, hit critical mass? When does blogging become mainstream outside the technology and political spheres?

It’s a good question.  But for the sake of argument, what if we’re asking the wrong question?

The theme of death is a common one among the digerati.  This new blah is going to kill that old blah.  PR is dead, the press release is dead, mainstream media is dead etc. etc.  Most of these predictions – which have no basis in fact – work on the assumption that the “new new thing” will replace what went before.  This is human nature. 

I’ve always argued that these new technologies, services etc. are in fact an adjunct to our traditional world not a replacement.  I think that makes more sense when you look at the lessons of history. But what if the “critical mass” question is wrong, because while we are thinking of critical mass in traditional terms – i.e. the number of regular readers or subscribers to a blog equals its importance – a different user model emerges.  A model that doesn’t meet those same criteria.

While listening to the ever excellent For Immediate Release (#197), Shel Holtz recounted a recent get together with some senior communications practitioners from the IABC, and how they have no awareness or interest in blogs, wikis, RSS etc.   I’m confident this is mirrored across the senior ranks of most professions.  However, then you see that a large proportion of the  visitors to YouTube are in the 36-64 age bracket, the same group that doesn’t know or care about blogs and wikis. What does that tell us? Maybe we should stop thinking about blogs as a “medium” or an “online newspaper” and instead just think about content and syndication.  Does it matter that a visitor just finds your blog through Internet search? 

Does it matter that they think your blog is a website? What if your audience will come not through loyalty and RSS subscriptions, but by random Internet searches for specific information? Surely these visits remain valuable even though they’re not in the realm of traditional newspaper measurement.

This challenges how PR typically operates.  Where we are used to planning a campaign, executing it and trying to measure it, what if much of our online activity is aimed at a longer term goal?

We could be moving to an online era where a small number of blogs will enjoy loyal readership but the majority will be visited accidentally through web searches, aggregation, RSS etc.  Of course there’s nothing to say that once found, your audience won’t stay.

But how would that model change how you think about online communication and engagement? PR isn’t currently capable of selling the value of Long Tail communication.  Maybe it’s something we should be thinking about.

The era of the accidental audience could be upon us.

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