The fall of PR and the rise of Community-Centric Communications
In his controversial new book “The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR,” marketing legend Al Ries argues that traditional advertising is taking a back seat to public relations in terms of effectively delivering customers. As a matter of fact, Ries’ own assessment is handicapped by an assumption that public relations remains the most effective form of communicating third party validation to customers. Traditional public relations practices are being eclipsed as consumers develop their own news channels of communication, which don’t rely on the monolithic media empires that have ruled the information roost for close to 100 years. New technologies have created a category we’re calling Community Centric Communications, which may render the traditional practice of public relations as dated as a war correspondent typing a battlefield report on a portable typewriter.
The intersection of the media and community
Do the news outlets themselves, the currency with which PR trades, still hold the power to sway millions? At the turn of the century daily newspapers influenced our nations. Radio added immediacy to the equation and television, with its world roaming cameras, brought Technicolor wars into our living rooms. Communities could be found in groups connected by meetings and newsletters (a shocking fact to anyone born after 1985).
It was during the Vietnam War protests of the 1960’s that the concept of media and community truly intersected. Government propaganda specialists manipulated information being distributed to the media, which itself was torn between reporting the truth and reporting government controlled news. The protest movement grew out of a reaction to word of mouth reports brought back by soldiers and actual televised footage of the war. Influencers communicated anti-war messages during live rallies that were assembled largely through buzz, college radio stations, leafleting and discrete group support. The community acted on information from the media, which in turn influenced large groups of peers. This was a golden period for public relations, which reached its apex during the 1990’s tech bubble.
Today’s wired community
The Internet began as a peer-to-peer mechanism and has evolved into the ultimate Mecca for the online community movement. Despite the best efforts of traditional print and broadcast media, the sites of CNN, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and virtually every other magazine and publication have not dominated the online world. Just take a look at the ongoing debate over metrics of measurement and the plummeting cost of online advertising. New influencers—born on the Internet—are taking advantage of the inherent strengths of this channel and they have market power. Craig’s List, the Drudge Report and F**ked Company are just a few of the sites that illustrate the power of online community interactions.
By now every reporter in the country has “discovered” weblogs, a phenomenon that has been growing within the community since the first one launched in 1992. An effective, influential weblog succeeds where most commercially developed portal sites fail, they become well-frequented sources of information for a peer-to-peer community. Notable commercial portals include Yahoo! and Ebay, which specifically cater to communities and carry content developed by community members. Just spend a few minutes in a Yahoo! Finance chat room if you want to get a sense of a modern ticker tape conversation, and compare this with the news delivered at day’s end by the mainstream press.
Seminal technology seer Howard Rheingold identified another aspect of community interaction when he released “Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution” (Perseus, October, 2002). Rheingold traveled the globe observing “wired” behavior and found that clusters of strangers acted in concert as they received information via cell phones, iMode phones, pagers, and WiFi Internet networks. In essence, on-hand observers of events are reporting it directly to a peer group, completely circumventing the traditional media, which may later pick up on the story. If anything, the current T Mobile camera phone commercials featuring Catherine Zeta-Jones are capitalizing on and fueling this movement. This is evidence that the advertising world is aware of what’s happening out there (of course the use of Catherine also indicates that advertisers haven’t forgotten the old “sex sells” approach). Where do these new channels of information create opportunities for public relations?
The waning role of PR firms
Any practitioner who argues that PR is not a relationship business is either new to the field or hasn’t found the local newshound’s watering hole. PR firms provide a company with a fast conduit to news outlets. Traditional PR pros can assess a story, massage it and work on placing it with the right media outlet for an audience that is important to the company. The end result is a placement in a traditional broadcast, print or online publication. If that placement occurs in the Wall Street Journal, a well-read trade magazine, or on the nightly news, many potential customers receive the information at once. The actual impact of the information will occur when the community starts talking about it.
But what happens when the community doesn’t get its information from news sources— which in turn may be receiving information from these selfsame public relations firms? What happens is an immediate disconnect between the company and the customer, who is part of a community. Public relations is taken out of the equation. In this scenario PR professionals are operating with two cans connected by a string, while the community is using satellite phones. The telephone lines haven’t just been broken, they’ve been permanently mothballed.
Let’s take a look at a local example of a company that has attempted to control its community perception through traditional public relations means, and repeatedly failed. Chicago’s own divine (DVIN) has been the subject of community based chat rooms, weblogs and online publications that have carried dialogues and news completely removed from mainstream media outlets. And how has divine attempted to deal with these conversations? The public relations efforts have ignored the community, and the company’s slow, painful fall is a public testament to the ineffectiveness of traditional media in the face of peer-to-peer communications. Nobody bought the divine spin! It’s ironic that the company that rode the wave of the “getting it” mantra, that produces collaborative business software, that was supposed to represent the “future” of business has had their PR fire hose pointed at the wrong burning building.
What does all this mean for the practice of public relations? It means change or become irrelevant.
Community Centric Communications
Old habits die-hard. Why should any successful public relations shop change the way it operates? As long as clients continue to pay for the standard “say it and spray it” form of sending out press releases and working reporters, there’s no impetus to change. A few framed national clippings in the company’s waiting room make everybody happy and the alphabet soup PR firm can keep that five figure monthly retainer intact. Ignorance is bliss, and as long as companies rely on PR firms for the proper guidance the blind will continue to lead the blind. However, in the valley of the blind the one eyed man is king.
Change will begin to occur when the money starts to follow the trend. Boutique viral marketing firms that have sprung up around the country, but no major PR firm has made a name by identifying methods of influencing community centric communications. And this may be part of the problem. How does public relations infiltrate a community that is based on trust and open sharing of information? The very nature of public relations work involves an agenda driven shaping of opinion, which constitutes the antithesis of trust. There may actually be no room for public relations professionals to operate in this community, unless they recognize it as a viable news outlet, which will in turn dilute the power of the mainstream media. Egads! Does this mean that reporters may one day treat PR “flacks” with respect as they compete with the community for access to company news? Don’t hold your breath, the world will never change that much!
The change must begin with a reevaluation of the practice of “controlling” the news. For public relations to have a role in this new communications environment, practitioners must become part of the community and learn how to truthfully engage in the dialogue. This will require a new skill set, and tomorrow’s practitioners are probably still in grammar school. This phenomena is still in its nascent stages and isn’t pervasive enough for the old school PR giants to take note and make changes. But the day is coming. The first quarter of the 21st century may literally add new meaning to the old war cry of “power to the people!” Until then public relations counselors should spend a little time listening to what the community is talking about, for these are the sounds of the future.