Wrapping-up PR and Disruption: Bringing theory and practice closer together?

Just getting around to reflecting on the great conference, PR and Disruption: Embracing and Surviving Change  we held last week at LCC.

Overall we had some great feedback (Storify here), but below are a couple of my key take-aways from the day:

  • Putting academics and practitioners into the same room is a great way to start bridging the divide between theory and practice (mainly abut the way in which we talk about the same things in different terms but also, more importantly, about the changing ways in which some of the key themes of the industry are understood)
  • Practical skills training, such as film-making, infographics, app development, are in demand among practitioners (handy for us as a university with graphic design, publishing and TV/film departments!)
  • Given the popualarity of the ‘face-off’ debate stream and discussions on Twitter there seems to be a real appetite among the industry (practitioners and academics alike) to discussion what’s happening in the industry and how to best deal with it. But where are these debates being held? Who’s facilitating them? Who’s listening? And what are they doing about it? We have our own ideas which we will be working on…

But, don’t just take my word for it. We have a couple of great post-event reflections from participants, including key note speaker, Oyvind Ihlen’s hand-grenade casually chucked into the room: “PR shouldn’t be measured”; Paul Seaman’s argument that PR should be leading economic change and renewal; Arun Sudhaman’s great insight on how changes in the media business should be changing the way brands communicate and Heather Yaxley’s post offering a great summary of the day’s main themes.

Hopefully it’s clear that there was a lot to take in from the day – and we’ll hopefully be getting more reflections and reviewsin the days to come. In the meantime, we’ll be continuing to plan how we can bring the industry and theory closer together. Leave a comment or drop me an email if you have any ideas – I’d love to hear them!

Programmers and Switchers: Shaping power in networks

As mentioned in a previous post, I'm presenting a paper on online monitoring and UK political parties at a forthcoming event.

This post is sort of a work-in-progress/thinking out loud series of notes leading up to that paper. It draws on recent work by Manuel Castell's and seeks to clarify how power functions in networks. Alternatively, you could substitute the term 'influence' for 'power' – but fundamentally we're taking about power however it's dressed up.

If you're interested in politics or digital communications and networks then read on.

Based on earlier work by Geoff Mulgan, Castells argues that
the state has the capacity to exercise power “through the articulation of three
sources of power: violence, money and trust.”

Mulgan states:

“Of the three sources of power the most
important for sovereignty is the power over the thoughts that give rise to
trust. Violence can only be used negatively, money can only be used in two
dimensions, giving and taking away. But knowledge and thoughts can transform
things, move mountains and make ephemeral power appear permanent.”

Castells argues that the third power, trust, is critical to
the network society. He believes that while Mulgan’s perspective on state power
is broadly accurate it is traditional (i.e. industrial). In the networked
society the ability of individual actors to control communication and knowledge,
which leads to trust, is being changed.

According to Castells, the most crucial forms of power in
the networked society follow the logic of “network-making power” – that is, the
most important power within networks is the ability to establish and control
the particular network.

The ability to do this is based on two basic mechanisms:

the ability to constitute network(s), and to program/reprogram the network(s)
in terms of goals assigned to the network

(2) the ability to connect and
ensure cooperation of different networks by sharing common goals and combining
resources, while fending off competition from other networks by setting up
strategic cooperation”

Castells calls actors in the first mechanism ‘programmers’
and those in the second mechanism, ‘switchers’.

If we apply this to the example of political blogging
networks in the UK then the logic runs as follows:

Those that ‘program’ the network typically establish who
links to whom and what people blog about. The UK’s primary political blogging
network has arguably emerged from the early, influential bloggers, e.g. Guido
Fawkes, Iain Dale, Political Betting, etc. These bloggers have constituted the
network and thus are the programmers.

If you are a political party then this network is likely to
operate outside of your control. Coercion (i.e. legal or technical take-down) won’t
work as power is distributed among the network.

There are two options then that political parties could
explore to change the network-making power:

Establish their own network of political
bloggers in an attempt to reprogram the political blogging network. This has
been attempted by some political parties, e.g. LabourHome; Lib Dem Voice, but these
have seemingly not accrued enough influence/power in the network to re-program
it as of yet.

They could attempt to establish strategic
partnerships with key networks and attempt to ‘switch’ the flow of power.
Examples of this include providing bloggers with exclusive information or news
and inviting them party conferences etc.

With some luck I’ll be presenting some more conclusive
findings relating this theory to actual practice within UK political parties later this

Feedback welcome.

Tags: Manuel Castells, Networks, Power

The Longtail: reports of its demise are greatly exagerated – a clarification

As an update to my excitable post below announcing the demise of the Longtail, it’s worth directing people to Chris Anderson’s post which responds robustly to MCPR-PRS’s claims.

Rather than being "thoroughly debunked" it seems that a real interpretation of the The Longtail’s validity depends on the type and scope of data used, and presumably the methodological approach taken by the researchers.

Now I should have checked my enthusiasm at debunking, especially as I am only too aware of the different results thrown up by different approaches to research. In fact I suggested as much in response to Jed Hallam’s comment below!

Sorry to Chris Anderson for being to hasty to snack on an internet scandal 🙂

Technorati tags: Longtail, Research, debunking

The Longtail is thoroughly debunked by empirical research

I posted back in July reminding those of us who take current Internet theories such as The Wisdom of Crowds at face value that many of these ideas are primarily marketing tools, rather than tested, research-based approaches.

As a fascinating follow-up to this, Alan Patrick from Broadsight has posted a fascinating analysis of Internet uber-theory, The Longtail, titled: The end of The Longtail?

Alan posts about a recent presentation given by an MCPS-PRS Alliance economist, Will Page, which argued that The Longtail is "fairly completely incorrect".

Page apparently helped Chris Anderson write The Longtail thesis, but has since carried out empirical research on a huge volume of global online music sales. The research found:

"while there was a long tail, it was extremely poverty stricken and much of it is moribund […] even Free doesn’t work – when Radiohead gave away their music for free, there were still 400,000 illegal downloads in the UK. Not only that, they have found that illegal services focus on the “hit head” even more than the average."

Hypothesising further, Alan reckons that most demand curves are Log Normal rather than Pareto Power Law Curves, an opinion strongly supported by one of the researchers.

A full and thorough debunking of The Longtail based on the research can also be found by Andrew Orlowski over at The Register.

As a footnote to this, it is maybe worth adding that the researchers work for an organization that enforces commercial copyright on behalf of composers, songwriters and music publishers.

Technorati tags: The Longtail, Internet Theories, Power Law, Log Normal

Phatic Communciations and other interesting ideas from Grant McCracken

I came across an interesting interview with the advertising anthropologist, Grant McCracken, the other day.

I recommend taking a read, but here are a couple of stand out points for me:

Firstly, Grant (prompted by the interviewer) talks about ‘phatic communications’:

"those little murmurs, exclamations, grunts and sighs with which we communicate our emotional condition."

I like this idea. It is essentially how social tools like Twitter and Facebook capture and share meaning without using explicit information.

Secondly, Grant also points out that:

Consumers are no longer one set of tastes and preferences. They are bundles of tastes and preferences.”

This means that dividing people into one market or demographic doesn’t work; we need to recognize

an individual’s “multiple selves” and appeal to them accordingly.

Grant doesn’t discuss this phenomenon directly in relation to the Internet, but for me the power for people to explore different desires, needs and wants that are all traditionally tied up in conventional marketing terms such as ABC1, 22-34 has been awoken and opened up by the Internet.

I believe this isn’t just the ‘alter-ego’ scenario displayed by tools like Second Life or WoW, but is in fact more basic and everyday. We are all complex characters; the Internet simply allows us to realise this more adequately than the physical environment.

I tried to explore this idea in more depth with a post last year invoking Jean Baurillard and online identity.

Technorati tags:

Grant McCracken, phatic communications, online identity

Bausola, Benkler and understanding the new digital economy

My Edel-colleague, Jason Mical, recently caught up with creative technologist (and former Head of Insight (Strategy) for Digital Communications at Imagination, David Baesola Bausola. It sounded like a great meet and I was pretty gutted I couldn’t attend.

But reading David’s biog really got me thinking again about some ideas from within the digital economy that I’ve been mulling over in recent months.

David argues (from a specifically creative industries perspective) that:

Data and User-Centric design define the poles between technology and communication. Whereas Data Centric models lean towards ‘Manufacturing’ architectures, User-Centric will lean towards ‘Network’ aesthetics. […] Data is possession driven; collectivity occurs within communities with degrees of ‘openness’."

This sparks off some thoughts linked to what Yochai Benkler has to say about the radically new economic models – specifically nonmarket models – being shaped by the Internet.

In The Wealth of Networks, Benkler discusses rival and nonrival goods:

When economists speak of information, they usually say that it is “nonrival.” We consider a good to be nonrival when its consumption by one person does not make it any less available for consumption by another. Once such a good is produced, no more social resources need be invested in creating more of it to satisfy the next consumer.

Benkler’s perspective is important because it maps nicely to David’s idea of a manufacturing focussed ‘data centric’ model and a network focused ‘user centric’ one.

Rival goods are predominently manufactured commodities that rely on scarcity and – in accordance with David’s observation – possession to drive commercial value. Nonrival goods (in Benkler’s example, information) rely on sharing via open networks as a commercial model.

I suppose what I am doing here is little more than articulating my own understanding of Benkler’s hard economic theory through the prism of David’s perspectives on the emerging business and economic model of the creative industries, and trying to catalyse thoughts about the spaces where we can bring traditionallt data centric industries mroe towards networked production and equally how we can help encourage user centric industries to look to the digitally connected networks arpiund their organisation, its brand and products to improve their offering in contemporary nd future society.

Perhaps, these thoughts and ideas illuminate the (perhaps obvious?) notion that there is no one-size fits all model to help busiensses adapt to a digital market (or nonmarket) place. It definitely helps us begin to chart the routes down which we – as digital strategists – can help take our clients.

For what it’s worth, these ideas – the changes taking place in the contemporary business and organizational landscape and how we deal with them – seem to be occupying more and more time in my thoughts at the moment.

I suppose it makes sense. The logical next step from understanding how organizations communicate in a digitally empowered environment is seeking to understand how businesses need to think and what they need to do in a digital world.

Technorati tags: David Bausola; Yochai Benkler, digital strategy; creative industries; manufacturing

Why MPs Will Be Redundant in 10 Years Time – A Mini-Essay

This blog post is intended to provocative; I hope it will succeed.

It is prompted by last week’s decision by UK politicians to keep their second home allowance of £24,000. It is on a theme about which I have been ruminating for several months – and will no doubt continue to refine in the future.

That theme is: the increasing redundancy of Parliament, parliamentary process and MPs. Consider this post a first articulation of my argument for a – perhaps naïve – return to participatory democracy and towards an Internet-enabled anarchism.

So to return to my starting point: I heard one MP on BBC Radio 4 explaining his decision to support taxpayer-funded second home allowances tell the interviewer: “Without the allowance I wouldn’t be able to afford to be an MP.”

I choose this as my starting point for two important reasons that have relevance to the argument against Parliament.

Firstly, it is a great example of how wrong MPs are getting the reputational relationship between Parliament and the electorate. As Weber Shandwick’s UK CEO, Colin Byrne, rightly points out: this kind of excuse won’t wash with the electorate and will only draw attention to the fact they appear to be feathering their nest at a time when the rest of the country is battening down its hatches in the face of economy turmoil.

Secondly, the MP’s comment highlights that fact that he sees being an MP as akin to employment. That is, it is something you choose to do that has to earn you a living. This nicely forgets that the true role of an MP is to act as a democratically elected representative to act on the behalf of their constituents. While I totally accept that as part of this process there has to be a financial incentive to encourage people to become MPs, it can be argued that this relationship between democracy and financeial reward has passed into a purely transactional relationship that has rather forgotten the roots of the role.

Both of these points underline the growing – and widely accepted – distrust in Parliament and MPs. If anything this trend continues to grow and grow.

At the same time the internet use continues to increase and with this increase comes a growing empowerment of individuals to think and act for themselves.

The significance of this shift in power from organisations and institutions cannot be under-estimated. Harvard academic, Yochai Benkler, in his book Wealth of Networks argues that the Internet has transferred information production away from centrally organised bodies (commercial or otherwise) and put it in the hands of individuals.

Specifically, Benkler argues that “The declining price of computation, communication and storage have, as a practical matter, placed the material means of information and cultural production in the hands of a significant fraction of the world’s population.” As a result, “The networked information economy improves the practical capacities of individuals along three dimensions.” Two of which are particularly relevant to the argument here:

  1. [the networked information economy] improves their capacity to do more for and by themselves
  2. it enhances their capacity to do more in loose commonality with others, without being constrained to organise …in traditional hierarchical models of social or economic organisation

To draw specifically political conclusions from Benkler’s arguments, the Internet gives people the opportunity to make more (and better) informed political choices, find others that share their political views and co-ordinate political action that previously would have been the responsibility of political organisations or parties.

In short, the Internet encourages and empowers people to participate in politics and by extension, the democratic process.

All of this is great, of course. But what implications does this growing political self-determination have for democratic engagement and Parliamentary process?

To answer this question, let’s switch to a bit political philosophy. At a very crude level, two kinds of democracy exist: participatory democracy – whereby the public actively take part in the selection and agreement of legislation – and representative democracy – where the electorate select individuals to represent their interests. This is currently in place in the UK and most Western, liberal democracies.

From a hypothetical perspective, participating in the democratic process is the most desirable option. As Jonathan Wolff writes in his Introduction to Political Philosophy:

“Theorists of participatory politics claim that only active, democratic involvement in all matters of concern can achieve freedom and equality for all. Only when we are involved in making decisions which structure our lives in all spheres are we really free”

So why then, do we elect MPs to represent our political interests? This is a particularly pertinent question given MPs tendency to represent a minority of the their direct electorate at any given point in time, to have their representation determined purely by ultimately) arbitrary geographical boundaries and to seem to demand, even expect, unreasonable financial compensation in return for their duty.

The reason is representative democracy has been the best compromise available to those concerned with establishing democratic processes. Truly participatory democracy has simply been too impractical to be considered an option – until now at least. 

If we now return to Benkler’s argument and replace “cultural production” with “political prodcutioin” we can recognise that “The declining price of computation, communication and storage have, as a practical matter, placed the material means of information and political production in the hands of a significant fraction of the world’s population.

With the participatory web comes the ability of citizens to be empowered, enact political will for themselves and participate in the democratic process. As Internet penetration grows it becomes much more likely for people disenfranchised with the existing political and democratic process – calcified by process-creep and stagnant from institutional corruption – to take political and democratic decisions away from the bureaucratic official channels of parliament and into their own hands.

As this activity gathers pace and shifts from low level, local examples it will begin to challenge the entrenched and inefficient processes of parliament which are already fighting to catch-up with contemporary society.

Smart politicians, civil servants and technocrats will realise this before it is too late and understand that to regain public trust in politics and the UK’s political and democratic processes political parties and the state must adapt to empower the public to make and shape their own democracy. However, this is unlikely given the atrophied environment in which modern British politics and democracy operates.

What is likely instead is a ceding of control from traditionally organised institutions to the public over time without anyone acknolweding this gradual shift and the political status quo being maintained in the short term and historians picking over *exactly* what happened to British political democracy during the early 21st century in the longer term.

What may possibly happen is that the political classes may become scared by the inevitable loss of control over political and democratic power and attempt to regulate the use of the Internet, social web tools and participatory websites. If this happens then expect to see another 5th November – this time powered by the Internet.

Technorati tags: politics, Internet, Anarchism

Finding ‘natural communicators’ – the real role for PR consultants in a social media world?

May has been a crazy month and hopefully normal blogging service will resume shortly.

But in the meantime I was thinking about some work we have been doing with one of our clients over the past month – seeking out views on how social media (and the wider social web) affects business and more specifically corporate communication.

One of the key questions that saw significant debate was whether organisations are in a position to trust their employees – both communications/PR staff and non-communications/PR staff – to become online advocates and de facto communicators for the business.

The discussion was varied and swung between those who argued that employees are effectively communicating about their employer all the time anyway so why not support that; and those that adhered to the traditional notion of channelling all the company’s news and communications through professional communicators.

The interesting thing for me is that the opposing views didn’t follow a divide between comms and non-comms staff. It seems that the main differentiator between those that ‘get it’ and those that don’t is dependent on a much wider mindset; perhaps between those that recognise the importance of authenticity in business and those that like a more traditional controlled approach.

This got me thinking: some of the best ‘communicators’ or ‘communications advisers’ in a socially connected online world are not corporate communicators, but those that can be considered more ‘natural communicators’.

And maybe that is where we are going wrong with social media strategy and programmes – we try to teach corporate communicators how to communicate naturally – that is authentically – which doesn’t necessarily come easy. An analogy might be trying to teach a senior civil servant to write poetry.

Instead of focussing our effort on converting people in roles that are traditionally siloed, should we – as PR consultants – instead be tasked with identifying an organisation’s natural communicators and empowering them (or helping their employer empower them) to speak authentically on their employer’s behalf.

Review of Charlie Beckett’s Supermedia

So it’s been weeks since I’ve ahd a chnce to put some thoughts down into a blog post, but an email from Charlie Beckett, director of the new media think-tank at the LSE and London School of Communications, about his new book called Supermedia [full title] has finally spurred me into action.

Supermedia is an optimist and positive book outlining how the media can enhance its forces-for-good using the internet. its essential argument is that:

  1. journalism plays a vital role sustaining healthy liberal societies;
  2. journalism (like most industrial economic complexes) is being re-shaped by the internet;
  3. that we are a media cross-roads where we have the chance to shape the future of journalism for the better;
  4. that when we talk about contemporary journalism we mean, in effect, digital journalism.

Charlie terms this type of contemporary digital journalism: Networked Journalism. Networked Journalism includes what we term ‘citizen journalism’ bit it is also a type of journalism that “is a reflection of emerging realities” as well as an opportunity to transform the ethics as well as efficacy of journalism.”

Now I haven’t read the full book, just the introduction (available with other chapter excerpts over at Harvard University’s Berkman Center). But it seems to me that in creating the concept of Networked Journalism Charlie is seeking to explore how journalism – and by extension – the news media can function in an internet-enabled or to use Yochai Benkler’s term, networked information economy.

This gets my thumbs up. There is a lot of general talk about how the social web and its various tools is changing media production for the worse – eg. the dumbing down argument (in fact, Private Eye magazine, the original challengers of establishment views are one of the worse purveyors of this which really annoys me – but that’s for another post).

The only issue I would raise about this line of argument is that in a networked world where everyone can publish their news, Charlie takes a specifically journalism-centric approach to the question of who actually owns contemporary media production.

Nowhere (at least in the book’s intro) is this made more clear than the following sentence: “Networked journalism offers the news media to enhance its social role.”

In my notes I wrote: “Or offers society to enhance its news media role.”

The point I’m making here is that the internet rejects the traditionally formalised structures and boundaries we artificially created around things like “the media” and “business” and “politics”. To borrow David Weinberger’s idea, the internet makes all of these traditionally siloed areas of life miscellaneous.

To push that idea a bit further, the interent removes these areas of life of their identity until we chose to invoke those identities in what ever form suits us best – not media publishers, not politicians, not business leaders, us.

So with this logic, the news media is no more. Or at least is no more different than citizen journalism, blog content, Flickr content etc. Charlie discusses the importance of these new social media tools, but still privileges ‘real’ journalism as a separate part of this new media ecology. In my mind the internet rejects any and all hierarchy and distinctions between citizen journalism and professional journalism.

Anyway, I’m getting abstract and I don’t think this represents any faults with Charlie’s arguments. Charlie himself tells us early in the intro that “I do not pretend to be objective … So I’m afraid that it is back to the journalist this time to understand what is happening to our news media.

Supermedia is a book about what is happening to contemporary journalism, written by a journalist, from a journalist’s perspective. That’s not a problem – that’s the framework through which Charlie is interpreting the miscellaneous landscape of the internet.

One final thought on this is where PR or the professional communications industry sits in this view. I bet that for every 10 citizen journalists or bloggers there is a PR person trying to work out how to influence what that blogger blogs about.

This clearly presents challenges and opportunities to the growing ethics and efficacy of the news media. Maybe this issue is covered off later in the book but I’d love Charlie’s take on the subject.

Technorati tags: Charlie Beckett, Supermedia, Polis, London School of Economics

What anarchism can teach us about organisations in the internet age


I’m reading one of those great Very Short Introductions to… from Oxford University Press at the moment about Anarchism. I cannot recommend it highly enough as a thought-provoking bridge between political theory and changes the internet is creating for business and society.

For example, it’s fascinating to learn that at the core of anarchist thinking about healthcare, education, business etc is the notion of small, self-organising communities with little or no central control. Compare this to how the internet operates and a number of parallels become clear.

Tellingly, the author – noted British anarchist Colin Ward – writes:

anarchist concepts will be continually reinvented or rediscovered, in fields never envisaged by the propagandists of the past, as people in so many areas of human activity search for alternatives to the crudities and injustices of both free-market capitalism and bureaucratic managerial socialism.

Building on this drive for an alternative perspective for organisational theory, Ward outlines what he believes would be the four defining pillers for an anarchist theory of organizations:

  1. Voluntary
  2. Functional
  3. Temporary
  4. Small

I find this mind blowing. Every single one of these fits almost perfectly the different types of organising taking place on the internet.

  1. Voluntary – read Benkler’s Wealth of Networks: the idea of people giving their time and expertise for free or on a voluntary basis is revolutionisng production – both of knowledge and physical goods.
  2. Functional – slightly more vague, but suffice to say that while design is important to an extent, good functionality and usability are key to the success of internet tools. Take for example the basic simplicity of sites like of Wikipedia and del.icio.us – they might not be pretty but they do the job successfully.
  3. Temporary – While this may seem an odd choice of criteria at first fi you clarify what Ward means then it makes perfect sense. Rather than meaning short-lived, Ward uses the term to indicate a willingness to change; to be shaped by the ends of the user or community. This is a key proponent of web 2.0 tools. All ‘social’ websites by their definition are open to the requirements of the community.
  4. Small – again this criteria needs further clarification. As Ward suggests in the quotation about, the ideas of anarchists are perpetually being re-shaped to meet current social, political and economical conditions. Ward specifies small as a key criteria as he talks only of the offline world where anarchist initaitves need to remain small in order to be sustainable. The internet reduces all barriers to scalability and supports many small-scale communities or one large one.

So what does this all mean for us as digital strategists…? I haven’t yet worked that out (and would welcome any suggestions) but ultimately I think this starts to offer us ways of applying established political (anarchist) theories to the online world.

Perhaps we can even use this information to guide our clients more successfully through the social and  business changes they are experiencing. Maybe not mention that it is based on anarchist theory, eh?

Technorati tags: anarchism, political theory, internet, organisational change