Thanks to Chris for a nifty resource (I’ll be using for teaching my students!).
Thanks to Chris for a nifty resource (I’ll be using for teaching my students!).
So. Here’s a thought. My old boss and friend, Robin Grant, told PRWeek last year that PR had missed the boat on digital. The reality, of course, is much more nuanced than that but there is a definite truth to what he says based on my own experiences and discussions with a range of people from within the PR world.
[Image via FRANk Media]
The full range of reasons behind Robin’s comment is something for a much longer post (or book, perhaps) but a series of recent conversations with smart people helped me clarify at least one aspect of PR’s problem.
For instance, in a discussion with an ex-digital director at a global PR agency we both agreed that some forms of social media, particularly community management, is becoming commodified and how PR agencies, again, risk missing the boat on digital, by placing their ‘social media offering’ firmly in this camp. Think of it as sort of replacing client press release churn with churning Facebook posts and tweets.
We agreed that the biggest barriers to PR getting social media right are structural. That’s as far as the conversation went.
Then today I was having a discussion with someone else about the increasing specialisation of social media and it dawned on me that one of the reasons why the PR profession has dragged its heals in terms of adopting and making the most of social media is its structure as a generalist industry where account teams are responsible for the full range of communication tasks (albeit with varying degrees of emphasis depending on seniority).
For example, as social media becomes specialised needing expert teams of researchers and planners; content creators, community managers and analysts, etc, PR agencies operating with employees that are trained as generalists to fulfil most, if not all of those roles, simply cannot keep up to date with the necessary knowledge and skills to succeed.
Advertising and digital agencies, on the other hand, are predominantly already structured into specialist teams. They only need to ensure that enough investment is made in ensuring their incumbent researchers, creatives, content producers, analysts, etc stay abreast of emerging knowledge and skills.
And then there’s the profit margins of PR. With their way bigger budgets, advertising and (some) digital agencies have more financial leeway to investment in training, resources and development.
So while, on paper, PR – with its theoretical foundation in understanding and building interpersonal relationships – should be on home territory when it comes to social media strategy in the main it is simply not structured in a way to make the most of this increasingly specialist landscape.
What is to be done?
Serendipitously I stumbled across a couple of great articles about digital innovation in the advertising space recently which dovetail neatly with some of the thinking and writing I’ve been doing.
Following on from Adam’s comment about the diffusion and adoption of innovation within the PR sector (which warrants some analysis and a further blog post in its own right) it’s equally interesting to see how the same issues are being played out in the advertising space.
According to Digital Planning Director at BBDO/Proximity, Vincent Teo:
“This shift toward creative innovation and product development will be a continuous evolution in the agency space and one in which I believe will form the foundation of the digital agency of the future. There is a real synergy between product innovation and what agencies are currently doing and this looks like the next evolution in extending what agencies can offer to their clients.”
What this looks like in detail can found in Vincent’s great survey of the current ad/digital/innovation landscape, The Digital Agency of the Future. And following Vincent’s vision and line of questioning, a number of other posts and article’s further explore the same issues, including Rei Inamoto‘s Why Ad Agencies Should Act More Like Start-ups and .net magazine’s Inside the Labs of the World’s leading Digital Agencies.
Although there are some distinct differences between the ad and PR industries, both are rapidly converging around digital. Some level of comparative analysis will undoubtedly be useful to see where each industry is succeeding (and not succeeding) and looking for clearer paths to innovation, adoption and sharing/commercialisation. Hopefully more to come on this.
A number of smart PR agencies seem to be setting up new paid media divisions of late. First, Edelman announced its hire of Cassell Kroll as vice president, media strategy operating out of the firm’s digital arm. Shortly afterwards We Are Social revealed their new paid media offering, with ex-TBG Digital sales and client services director, David Gilbert, as Media Director. It is fascinating to see how the increasing convergence of owned, earned and paid media channels is rapidly driving organisational innovation in order to remain relevant and competitive. As We Are Social’s Global Managing Director, Robin Grant, puts it:
“Today’s social environment demands that media planning be integrated into brands’ social media strategies and for media buying to operate in real-time and in synergy with always-on social content creation and community management.”
Edelman also outlines its perspective on the contemporary converged media landscape that gives some rationale for their hire into a wider context and outlines nicely how the agency approaches digital in an increasingly integrated way:
The insights reflected in Edelman and We Are Social’s new business models and strategic offerings are part of wider trends I reiterate to my students when we discuss future directions for the PR industry. The reality is the PR industry they are learning about is arguably becoming less and less like industry they’re seeing represented in textbooks and also (perhaps worryingly) discussed by *some* senior industry speakers.
It’s also something that plays into my thoughts and speculation about the continued need to proactively innovate. The challenges and opportunities of social are ‘live’; that is to say they’re continual emerging meaning leading agencies or practitioners need to stay entrepreneurial in their approach to navigating this new media and communications landscape. This requires thinking freshly about what PR is now and where it’s going – or more specifically being taken by the flows of the social web.
Having worked with Edelman and We Are Social, this is a trait I can confidently say is present within the agencies’ senior leadership and embodied in employees. It must be there in others too undoubtedly, but how can we join up this thinking to ensure that ‘entrepreneurial’ agenda remains a priority – not just at the micro-level of individual agencies or organisations but more broadly at the macro, sector level.
I appreciate this is no small task requiring a focus on collaboration, rather than competition and again, potentially across sectors as well as organisations. Maybe it is already happening through industry events (but it’s not something I’ve come across recently). It’s an exciting time with a number of equally exciting opportunities for the PR industry; the question remains: how can we maximise these opportunities to ensure their strategic potential is realised? Hopefully more to come on this.
In her introduction to the survey of 1,273 of its members, CIPR CEO, Jane Wilson, reports that PR “is moving away from having a primary media relations focus to embracing the opportunity presented to us by social media to participate in two-way conversations with our publics.”
While ‘two-way communications’ is an often misused or misunderstood term its adoption here is potentially significant as it might indicate a shift from a traditionally media relations-focused tactical function to more strategic organisational as PR has to undertake greater research and planning to deal with the complexity of social media.
OK. So, this is pretty flimsy speculation but there’s another interesting insight in the report which adds some more – albeit speculative – weight to the hypothesis.
The increasing convergence and collaboration of siloed departments necessary to manage the increasingly social environment and support the move towards becoming a ‘social business’ is also affecting PR professionals. In the section titled ‘Converging areas of practice’ the report reveals that “[PR] [d]epartments working increasingly closely together has directly resulted in areas of work converging. Around half of PR professionals say that departments that now work more closely with each other share responsibility for social or digital media management (51%), branding (48%) or internal communications (48%).”
While it doesn’t indicate whether PR teams are taking the lead on driving forward a newly converged organisational strategy, these are interesting findings that may indicate that as organisations become increasing socialised and converged this may well be a catalyst for PR to recognise and capitalise on its long-absent organisational strategic prowess?
PR, it has long been argued, is best conceived as a strategic management function operating at board level to understand wider society and help shape the long-term vision and operation of organisations. In theory PR plays a central role identifying and connecting internal stakeholders with external ones, building long-term relationships with them, interpreting their changing needs and feeding this information up to the board to shape organisational strategy. The reality, alas, has seen PR all too often become relegated to marketing-led communications and reactive issue management.
But is social media forcing a change for the better? As building relationships with online communities and networks through two-way communications becomes increasingly central to an organisation’s success; and social media-empowered consumers and stakeholders are increasingly driving organisational convergence will PR’s ‘boundary-spanning’ role helping join up an organisation’s departments with its external environment help it operate at a higher, more strategic level?
I guess only time will tell. Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised as I believe PR has the potential to play a central role in helping organisations adapt to the complexity of social media at a business level – in theory, at least!
As a footnote it should also be noted that two other findings from the report may have a bearing on this. Firstly, the report argues that in terms of its current strategic presence “three in five [respondents] say that they directly brief board members or senior staff, whilst over a third of those in-house with a direct responsibility for PR sit on the board“. However, “fewer than half say that this extends to influencing wider business and organisational strategy.”
And secondly, “by some margin, the area of public relations that is seen as presenting the biggest challenge is social or digital media management. Two-thirds of PR professionals (66%) say that they think it will present a challenge to them as PR professionals, whilst half (53%) say that they think it will present a challenge to their organisation.”
So, there’s still a way to go before PR operates consistently at a strategic, management level, although social media may be well be the catalyst necessary to shift this reality. But, it’s a catalyst that’s also perceived as a major challenge – both to the profession and individual practitioners. Perhaps it’s digital’s disruptive potential will win out and help the PR industry come of age.
I’ve just picked up Geert Lovink‘s latest book-length contribution to the debate on social media and theory, Networks Without A Cause: A Critique of Social Media. It’s extremely prescient and chimes with a load of thoughts I’ve been having around a number of issues since earlier this year (and most recently this past weekend).
I think I’ll save a more detailed analysis when I’ve read more of the book – perhaps as a sort of review using Geert’s work as a jump off point for/exposition of my own thoughts.
In the meantime I really wanted to share the final (extensive) paragraph from the book’s introduction which resonates with a number of themes I’m trying to explore and unpick for my own research. Enjoy…
“Why, after two decades, does no (general) “internet theory” exist? Are we all to blame? We need a contemporary network theory that reflects rapid changes and takes the critical and cultural dimensions of technical media seriously. Network theory still emphasizes the science-focused “unified network theory,” to paraphrase the language of Albert-Laszlo Barabasi. But we cannot merely study potentiality and growth patterns as pseudo-natural phenomena. There is hope: we can revolt against the mathematical shapes of networks. Humanities should do more than describe the times we’re living in. We can match untimely aphorisms with future scenario planning, speculative thinking with data journalism, and computer programming with visual studies. The overall aim is to ignite speculative futurism and celebrate singular modes of expression rather than institutional power plays. Many want to know how networks can guarantee “trust” while remaining open, flat and democratic. How can rapidly emerging concentrations of power be counter-balanced? If networks are so distributed and decentralized in nature, then why don’t they oppose the economies of scale that produce the Googles and Facebooks?”
More at Networks Without A Cause.
I’m going to be facilitating a panel on anarchism and social technology at this year’s Anarchist Studies Network conference in Loughborough next week. You can read the abstracts below.
There are a couple of really interesting papers up for presentation that seek to account for the social changes we’re witnessing around the globe. Both papers draw on some really interesting and novel theoretical approaches to social media and technology that – in the true ethos of the internet – hack existing theories to account for contemporary radical projects or event. For example, Aaron Peters takes Paolo Virno‘s ‘Soviets of the Multitude‘ – an extremely far-sighted perspective that appropriates Marx’s notion of the ‘general intellect’ and uses it to account for the decentralised and autonomous techno-social productivity that we’re witnessing with the social web. Thomas Swann, meanwhile, draws on (the often maligned) cybernetic theory to account for the decentralised organising seen during last year’s riots.
Aside from facilitating, I want to use my time to give a short overview of what has been described as the “ambivalent relationship” between anarchism (and anarchists) (Gordon, 2008). This relationship appeared to be manifest when trying to generate interest in this conference panel. Despite the organisers citing the #Occupy and Arab Spring movements as powerful, contemporary anti-authoritarian forces rising from the grass-roots it has not been easy to identify researchers or practitioners to take part.
I plan to address this issue and hopefully put it into some context before attempting to briefly point a way out of the ambivalence!
Maybe see you there
I’ve been busy of late working on a few different projects (more of that soon) and wanted to share some information about a really interesting (and much needed, imho) conference.
The one-day event, Insight 2.0: The Future of Social Media Analysis, promises to offer knowledge sharing, discussion and networking around the increasingly important topic of social media analysis.
In my mind, what gives this event an additional edge is the confluence of industry and professional speakers with academics working in the field of social media analysis. It’s really reasonably priced too!
I’ll be speaking during the day – probably about one thing that’s become clear to me working within a social media consultancy: data driven insights are playing an increasingly central role in shaping communications and business strategy.
More importantly, as the volume, complexity and tools available for analysis become increasingly professional (remember when all we had to hand was Google blogsearch, Boardreader and Summize?) the research strategies, methodologies and technology selections adopted in commercial agencies is becoming increasingly academic in approach.
The timing for this event, then, is extremely prescient!
I should disclose that I know the organiser, Lawrence Ampofo, but I’ve not been involved in the creation of this event – apart from approaching a few personal contacts to invite them to participate.
Hope to see you there!
This post started out as a few immediate thoughts about the way the #ukriots played out across the media.
By the time I'd got around to tidying up what I'd written it'd been superceded by a wealth of good analysis – some focused on media, some not.
Having written something I felt it worthwhile adding my own initial reactions to the debate, particularly from a media perspective given the political role the media has within liberal democracies.
I end the post with some next step ideas about what this all means for democracy. Something I'll hopefully return to a later date.
As mentioned above, recommended wider reading would include: Zygmunt Bauman's article on the consumerist context for the riots; Critical Legal Thinking and Schnews' account of the broader neoliberal capitalist project as cause of the riots and the London Review of Book's historical perspective.
I wanted to capture some of my thoughts around the limitations (and failings) of the media during the worst of the rioting, which may be useful for my ongoing research.
The guiding theme for all the points I jotted down was how the liberal media has possibly reached its limits for effective and adequate reporting in the 21st century.
This is partly due to the emergence of networked media powered by the internet and increasingly networked mobile technology; however, it is also down the wider structural limitations of liberal democracy within which the media plays a central role (see Louw, for a good overview of how the emergence of liberal democracy has gone hand-in-hand with the media).
During the worst of the riots social media gave access to multiple sources of information enabling anyone with internet access to gather information and build their own real-time stream of news.
Fascinatingly, the BBC was urging people not to use social media (Twitter in particular) to interpret events.
They told us: Twitter was full of misinformation, conflicting accounts and unverifiable information. Stay tuned to the BBC for verified and authoritative coverage.
Importantly, this random, disparate and admittedly sometimes misleading information flow of Twitter was the reality of the situation.
Gathering real-time streams of information and content from social channels and augmenting it with mainstream media coverage or official sources allows individuals to build their own personal news feed using multiple, heterogenous sources.
The flaw in the BBC's argument is that live streams of social information are much more reflective of the reality of the situation and allow individuals to create a flexible, open-ended picture of what's happening.
The role of the BBC (and other traditional new providers) is to crystallise information into "news" whereas following events through social channels recognises the fact that "news" is never created as a fixed reality, rather it allows us to infer a complex and ever-changing picture of events.
It can be suggested that this problem arises from the industrial model of news production where the gathering of information has to result in a completed, finalised and sellable product.
The BBC's idea of Twitter being misleading and unreliable is also a flawed argument based on the fact that it fails to recognise any other mode of editorialising except their own, professional news-production.
For example there are a number of filtering, accrediting and editorialising information using peer networks as Yochai Benkler has examined – see chapters 6 & 7 in The Wealth of Networks for an exploration of the different models of peer-to-peer information gathering and filtration.
As an example, I relied mainly on my own Twitter and Facebook network for gathering information about events, turning only to the #riot and #londonriot hashtags to verify what the BBC and mainstream media was reporting.
And as James Cridland has pointed out in a great blog post, when it came to gathering useful or verifiable data on the riots, traditional media – including the BBC – was reporting inaccurate information on events.
So, the BBC's attempts to warn people against using social media was telling: if anything, it reveals the real power of social media.
That the nation's public service broadcaster needs to try to convince people it has better information than the people on the ground suggests the game may soon be up for traditional, top-down, authoritative media.
(an ironic foot-note to all this, most forward-thinking mainstream media are actually seeking to build on real-time, social reporting as articulated by by the emerginging concept of "ambient journalism" according to Alfred Hermida.)
Reinforcing the argument that social media is over-taking traditional editorialising was the quality of the BBC and Sky's rolling news coverage.
Throughout the night, as I skipped from the BBC News channel to Sky News all I saw were news anchors repeating a variation of the same information drawn predominently from official sources; largely inane commentary from the paid-up commentariat or politicians and police sources who simply maintained an entrenched position that arguably created the socio-economic situation that gave broth to the riots in the first place.
The real voices of people involved or pragmatic analysis by individuals perhaps better qualified to talk about what was happening – people on the streets, sociologists, political economomists and the rioters/looters themselves – went unreported.
In fact, the news coverage on Sky went further than not offering real voices by actively seeking out and then mis-preresenting real voices.
Reporting on being told by one looter that they were looting because they paid taxes and got nothing in return, the correspondent reported this saying: "But I wouldn't say that's a political response. This is all just opportunistic."
If these points are political and cultural reasons why mainstream media has become inadequate in reporting news then there are also arguably institutional reasons as well.
For example, once the sun went down or rioting become too intense, dangerous or moved to perceived unsafe locations, such as housing estates, both BBC and Sky resorted to reusing aerial footage of burning buildings or footage recorded earlier.
No doubt this is to protect the health and safety of reporters, but it further reveals the limits of the media's ability to tell the full story.
Just as the textual/spoken reporting was limited to a repetitive set of 'known' or 'verified' information so too was visual reporting limited to unhelpful long-range or out-dated scenes.
There was arguably some 'citizen reporting' via Sky and the BBC – but this itself brought about an interesting blurring of boundaries between social and institutional reporting.
With many of their own correspondents living within areas subject to rioting and looting, Sky and BBC brought their reporters into live broadcasts on the phone.
Similarly, many were reporting events in real-time via Twitter. These off-duty reporters were reporting on local events from a personal persepective: remember almost all of these individuals have a "tweeting in a personal capacity" disclaimer on the accounts, plus by reporting through Twitter their coverage isn't limited to Sky subscribers or license fee payers.
Their actions were arguably blurring the role between being a professional reporter and a personal or citizen reporter.
Limits of liberal democracy
The limits of the media can be extended, I'd argue, to an analysis of the increased decline in liberal democracy and its hold over people's lives and society as a whole.
Firstly, which is the demographic consuming least traditional media? Young people of course. And what was the core demographic of rioters? Young people – although, of course, with exception.
Young people as a whole crude homogenous lump don't consume mainstream media. On the one hand this is causing advertisers and media companies sleepless nights, but on the other it also means that the media's role in performing its rational, liberal public information or watch-dog role is being undermined.
Added to this situation is the established – and growing – disenfranchisement of young people by other structural elements of liberal democracy, such as government policy, political parties and the police.
For example, see my post on the March 26th demo and how so many of the young people I saw were serious about fighting back against police brutality meted out at the last year's student demos and a government which has made only too clear how public policy is dictated by the market by u-turning on student fees.
As a result, you have a liberal democratic mechanism of managing public opinion which is no longer effective among the emergent population (not to mention further exacerbated by the ongoing economic effects on quality of life and perceived life chances).
Then there is the content of the media and the role it plays in liberal democracy.
At a normative level the media is meant to help us rationally debate and discuss events in the public sphere and form reasoned, democratic responses upon which our political institutions will act.
However, the trend over the past decades has been an increasing sensationalism and populism among the broader, mainstream media.
The public – and in particular those who consider themselves liberals – who pay particular attention to the media to stay abreast of topical issues – are failing to recognise or discover the nuances and complexities of what is happening.
The public appears almost unanimous in adopting the sensational language used by politicians and media commentators and most importantly the predominently white, middle-class news readers who themselves are guilty of reinforcing this media "restyling" by adopting media stereotypes, e.g. referring to looters as animalistic, feral, etc.
There's no space in this type of traditional media coverage for critical debate. Suggestions that the government's strategy of destroying communities by cutting its funding and increasing levels of unemployment is parallel to destroying a community through the physical violence of trashing shops go unheard.
Arguably, the strategy is the same; the tactics differ. The government has the upper hand and can destroy communities through policy-decisions and structural means; young people adopt much cruder approach
And this allows us to glimpse a subtle and potentially crucial failing of the traditional media in what we might term 'end-stage liberal democracies'.
The government and the wider political institutions in a liberal democracy (of which the media is one) are used to controlling the media and shaping coverage.
Young people realise this. Many refused to become part of the media spectacle by attacking journalists or refusing to be interviewed – which further inflames the media's democratically privileged position and response.
Of course, social media's operational relation to this is not unproblematic. While social media can (but doesn't always) cut through the manipulation of media coverage by dominant interests, it can also incriminate people committing criminal acts.
As if to reinforce how important the traditional media's role is in supporting or facilitating liberal democracy – and social media's potential to disrupt and challenge established ways of working – as I write this endnote David Cameron is stood in the House announcing plans to censor social media during public disorder, effectively legislating for an enforced reliance and dominance of traditional media when liberal democracy is faced with 'legitimation crises'.
As none of the proposed knee-jerk respoens are likely to identify or attempt to fix the underlying causes of the #ukriots I expect we'll see more legitimation crises.
Last month, Malcolm Gladwell published a piece in The New Yorker arguing that social media was preventing real social change taking place by encouraging what he termed 'clicktivism' – a form of engagement and action based on weak social ties, rather than real-life activism based on strong ties.
Of course, Gladwell’s piece was mostly a straw-man argument concocted to earn him some column inches and boost his profile between book launches. And of course it generated a number of impassioned rebuttals from the social movement and NGO communities.
However, while Gladwell was wrong on most counts, the past week has started to reveal the faultlines within social media and activism.
Drawing on the fall-out from the student demonstrations in central London last week (for those wanting a back-story, see the LRB’s fantasic essay on why the government's cuts are driven by ideology rather than economic necessity) we can argubly see clear limitations to the power of social networking and social change.
First of all, there was zero mobile phone signal for many students during the march which meant people were unable to live-tweet, live-blog or upload images and video in real-time. I’m not sure if there was an explanation for the outage, but it had the same effect regardless: people were unable to live-report and co-ordinate actions online from the heart of the demonstration.
And I didn’t see the Home Office intervening and encouraging mobile networks to fix any problems to cope with increased demand as with the 'Iranian Twitter revolution'.
Secondly, the pitfalls of being a digital native became all to clear to students involved in potentially criminal activity whose actions were uplaoded to social networking sites and shared with the world – especially the media who had a field day harvesting and publishing photography and video of students engaged in direct action.The BBC reports in lurid – and somewhat pointless – detail about this while the Telegraph set up a distasteful 'shop-a-student' section [No link, sorry. Refuse to]. As this was the first action for a lot of students, many failed to ‘mask up’ or conceal their identity.
Thirdly, once the media witch-hunt began and the police started rounding up suspects support and solidarity networks sprang to life via blogs and Twitter offering advice for people involved in the demo as well as campaigning to raise funds for those facing charges.
However it would seem that the police are pretty good at spotting these websites – largely hosted on corporate blogging platforms or hosting providers – and pressuring the provider to pull the entire site. The most high profile example to date has been Fitwatch, a blog dedicated to reporting on the police Forward Intelligence Teams who take photos of people suspected of being linked to all manner of lawful protests and adding their profiles to a huge database.
Fitwatch (re)posted advice (widely available on the web) providing guidance on how to deal with the fall-out of the demo which resulted in the entire site being removed by its host, Just Host – purely on the say so of an acting detective inspector, Will Hodgeson, from the Met Police's CO11 section.
As of tonight Fitwatch is still offline, despite the Guardian taking up their case.
So, while Gladwell argued that the "revolution won't be tweeted", he sadly might be closer to the truth then he intended – and definitely more than social change campaigners hope he is.