I wrote last week over on the stamp London site about the troubles I perceive in the marketing industry in the context of social media and social networks. A couple of Social Media Week sessions later, and it strikes me that the challenges that social media poses to the world of PR are even more acute.
PR is a funny one – at Silicon Beach earlier in the month I saw Steve Earl from Zeno Group describe the difficulty in describing what he did in PR to his mother; “advertising that people don’t pay for” seemed to be the general gist of it. From my time at Microsoft, I also became aware of two very different types of public relations: the proactive, “getting your brand or people into the news” type stuff, and the reactive, “trying to get your people out of the news because of something they’ve done” type stuff.
And here’s the rub: social networks offer almost endless opportunity for individuals to generate so much of the latter sort of PR work that that’s where the traditional world of PR’s head seems to be at, whilst at the same time PR agencies are making all sorts of acquisitions into the social and digital space to enable their clients to do even more of the former.
This cultural divide was brought home to me over the course of two presentations at a global PR firm, one run by their digital director (short version: “Ooh. Look at the creative possibilities of social!”) and one led by one of their more traditional PR consultants, flanked by a lawyer (short version: “Shit! Hey – let’s just not do anything stupid, hey?”).
In the same way that I’ve argued that the DNA of the marketing industry needs to turn everything into a mass medium, the PR world needs to view everything in the context of controlled communications. Of course, in a world where we all have access, individually, to weapons of global exposure, those models of control are at best in the emergency room, and at worst dead as a parrot.
What does this mean in the longer term? Well, a core part of the way big brands need to change their world view is that I no longer believe it is possible for employers to regard their employees as unthinking spokespeople for their organisation. The nature of work and of organisations has changed and now a brand is made up of all of the voice that work for it, and not some homogenized alternative. You hire perspectives and points of view, not mouthpieces, in this increasingly connected world in which we live. In that world, the controlling nature of some traditional PR is going to have to loosen up and trust people more.