As with just about every other field of human activity, the Internet, through its potential to connect everyone on a scale not previously seen, is going to change the way that public relations is done.
As the channels available to us all increase in number, so the control becomes more difficult and less absolute. The connectivity, now possible down to thousands of individuals, skyrockets. And the potential for hugely successful groundswells of positive opinion, and of course the inverse dark side of negative sentiment, also increases dramatically.
This is not a debate about which social media company or service is the correct one. Should any given service disappear, another will replace it.
Instead, this is about the reality of the connected future, not its mechanics; not a discussion about exciting new channels and how to make them work, but about the very essence of what we do.
Conversations, not shouting
What the Internet, and all the social media constructs that now plug into it, are about are conversations. This is a very different mindset from briefing conventional media and relying on them to convey a message, or briefing audiences through other conventional channels.
It is of course a huge new opportunity to talk directly with audiences in new directions and in new ways. As with every conversation worth having, we now have to be prepared to argue our case in very direct and very clear ways. And we will have to seek and receive permission from audiences in ways that we never have before.
Cutting the strings
The stereotype of the invisible PR person pulling the strings of the spokesman is going to dissolve before our eyes.
This is a good thing, for a number of reasons. Our collective feet will be held more firmly to the fire if each of us is the person whose face is on show (and in the future it will likely be our faces).
We will actually have to know what we are talking about, so that we can have these conversations ourselves, relying less on setting up interviews with experts. Our ability to interpret our clients’ or our employers’ messages will have to become much more honed.
Why? Because the scale of these conversations will explode: scaling public relations operations to manage the multitude of conversations that will now take place means that we public relations professionals will need to do much more of the talking.
So we will become more accountable in a much more direct way, both with our colleagues and with our audiences. The immediacy and the connected nature of these new channels mean that, right or wrong, the world now knows about everything very, very quickly. We will have to be absolutely certain that the moment is right, and that our arguments, that we now present personally, pass muster.
This in turn will increase the relevance or public relations professionals and that of our clients or employers with our audiences.
At the same time, and over time, a resurgence will occur in the value assigned by clients and employers to the counsel provided to them by public relations professionals. The consequences (and fear) of ‘getting things wrong’ in this newly amplified way, and for many organizations the uncertainty of this new world, mean that public relations professionals will be turned to much more.
Then and now: what might change?
As long ago as 1923, Edward Bernays drew the distinction between what he called a public relations counsel and a press agent. He defined the public relations counsel as someone adding value by being able to provide counsel in both directions, between the client or employer, and the channel and audience.
This comparison remains truer today in the connected world. Originally, we might have created an event, a dialogue between people that inevitably took place in just one room, with one newspaper at a time, in just a single language, in just a single country. Now the message is outside the venue almost before we’ve finished, available across national borders, translated in seconds.
And a single statement can change everything.
I’m sure that most PR professionals reading this will agree that being an expensive distributor of material to traditional media is simply neither no longer enough nor sustainable as something defining public relations value.
More and more services will automate part of what previously passed for PR value.
So consultancies and in-house teams will now re-cast their services to provide more consulting value.
The Internet is what drives this, not because it’s another communications channel, or set of channels, but because it changes fundamentally the way we connect and communicate.
What about the media?
From where I’m sitting, I’m not sure the media are coping. The ability to continue to provide value that is unique to any given magazine (certainly in print format) is under threat, with the consequence that journalists are leaving, which in turn leads to less editorial, less value, and less reason to purchase news. In that we can now get most of what we need for free, the value needs to be rebuilt in new ways, and not simply be a paid-for subscription to something called ‘premium news’.
Once again, this presents new opportunities for public relations professionals. Once again, this is not about finding outlets that can provide bulk coverage. It is about finding the right outlets that connect you to like-minded individuals.
As journalist Brian Bailey put it, “… I want companies to feed me with information – relevant technical information that I can use in a number of ways. I want current information that I can use in my books or other articles, I want to be able to ensure that when I do give advice to companies, that it is based on the best information I can obtain. I want to be able to provide advice to companies on development directions. I want to be able to report on directions that I see important for the future so that I can help guide the industry. Some of these may make money for me, many of them I do as a service to the industry – especially to small start-up companies…Stop sending the press releases, stop making me sign NDAs for useless marketing dribble, start sending me announcements about significant technical advances and the contact people that I can talk to for more information if and when I need it. Then I may blog about you, or include the information in some of my more substantial writing ventures or ensure that systems companies that seek my advice get the information they need and know who to talk to if they are interested.”
Once, we created messages which we interpreted and presented to a managed audience, through fairly direct and relatively easily managed channels dominated by the media.
Our interactions were with individuals in person, and we could look them in the eye (often literally) and get the feedback from their body language. Although our intentions were to spread the word, we picked individuals and groups off one by one.
Now, the interactions and conversations have become more numerous and less under any given set of controls.
The Internet allows groups and individuals to communicate all at once, without any reference to us, and often without us realizing what’s happening. Everything gets noisier.
In the context of public relations, the planned bit is now a lot looser, the messages can be bent out of shape more easily, and the audiences may never be known to us.
The power is in the connected conversations, and with the genuine advocacy built on enthusiasm and credibility established with the audiences, with those whose influence really does count.
In fact, if we are successful in our work, this debate will be large in volume, supportive in tone, and potentially significant in its effect.
But even if we are not active, the debate can now still take place, and still have similar effects, almost completely beyond our control, and almost certainly not on our terms.
The structure of public relations consultancies and in-house teams
I see mistakes being made in the way in-house teams and, especially, PR consultancies structure their groups or organizations.
What I’m seeing is the grafting on of discrete groups, to create the New Media Team or the Social Media Group. By creating such distinct groups, the implication is drawn that this is a discrete set of tasks and skills, to be deployed perhaps at a premium cost or fee.
What’s wrong with this approach is that, as Seth Godin would say, it’s grafting the meatball onto the sundae. We should not be ‘old school’ or ‘conventional media’. We must be ‘relevant media’, or better still, ‘relevant channel’ experts.
It is not an appendix to what we do. It is what we do.
Our skills and expertise need to change so that we can assess the balance that needs to be struck on behalf of clients or employers. We have to know how our audiences get their information. Who do they turn to? How do they define ‘value’? What are the feedback mechanisms? How will we know what’s being said, and where? How quickly can we respond?
Where to from here?
We will engage more and more directly with peers and influencers thought the Internet, often people we don’t know, who will help us tell our story for us.
We will need to be relevant, credible and clear, be comfortable enough to allow these people to call us out on our mistakes, and earn their trust by having something of interest to say, in their language.
So the fundamental questions for all of us in public relations boil down to these: if everyone can communicate with everyone, who needs public relations professionals?
If media change out of all proportion, or even disappear, what might public relations professionals do? If every piece of formal communication can be critiqued in seconds by people we don’t know, how can public relations professionals manage the communication process?
If broadcasting and communication are now meshing and blurring to produce something quite new and distinct, how do public relations professionals change to remain relevant and valuable?
And at the end of all this, we will need more people who are trained, able, capable and willing to have these conversations. We need more people engaged in creating positive relationships with their public.