I’ve just spent a very pleasant half an hour messing around with Johnny Depp. To be precise, I’ve been playing with the mash-up on the Sweeney Todd site which allows me to cut my own trailer for the film. If I got bored, I could trawl the blog, throw a Facebook party or – had I been in time – join one of the many Sweeney communities clustered around the ‘mother site’.
As an example of embedded social media at work, the site’s a peach and demonstrates neatly just how far the tools have come in the last few years. Given that Euroblog will be running in a few weeks, it got me thinking about Toni’s post in which he posed the questions: “Has the relationship between social media and PR delivered on its promises’ and ‘Five years ahead: What will the future look like?’
As far as I am aware, there were no promises made concerning public relations and social media, although the tools have always held great promise and considerable potential for our organisations, clients and communities. Since the web (not the Internet) was born, the value and potential for engaging with communities online has been understood by many practitioners. Even during the static web stage, newsgroups and forums got people talking and when applications such as LiveJournal came on stream, many practitioners were just as quick to see the value of the blogging, RSS etc..
Many found their own ‘voice’ and have exploited the new tools to full advantage, building their own profiles and reputations online. Many of these practitioners are highly knowledgeable and share useful experience, comment and thinking – but sadly, others are caught in something of a time-warp, either locked into mainstream media relations or old marketing paradigms.
You may remember that in 2006, Time magazine voted ‘You’ as Person of the Year. ‘You’ because of the explosion of activity undertaken on the web, via blogs, YouTube, podcasts and every other web interaction from Twitter to del.icio.us
In 2008, I suspect the savvy could just as easily nominate ‘Us’ as Person of the Year (can ‘Us’ be singular?) because the collaboration and connection between us are the things that will increasingly form the bonds of societal change.
Public relations is concerned with building relationships, so as an industry the benefits of using the new channels as and when they emerged were obvious. It must be ten years now since we first applied what would be early versions of now dubbed ‘social media’ applications for clients and on-going training in the use and potential abuse of the tools was something we viewed as a must even then. A key question isn’t necessarily what the future holds – as nobody can really answer that question with any certainty – rather, what do our future practitioners need to know about the wide variety of communication channels and how should they utilise them in their work.
Conversation about social media tools became a little over-excited in the last year or two, with lots of circular conversations and a fair amount of navel-gazing in all parts of the world. Then early adopters and engine drivers fell into a digestive phase last year as the short wait began for the next stage of the cycle, a useful pause that gave the general collective consciousness a chance to catch up as channels converged. The interesting thing about channel convergence is that any single point of convergence is still, and will remain for some time, a moving target. The current reality is that as tools are developed and become available, convergence is continual, but the cycle depends on fragmentation – a bit like a lava lamp, where the wax heats, merges in the light, gets too big, separates out and then starts again to form a completely new shape.
But fun, clever and snappy as the tools are, they are, or should be, ordinary elements of our work. The tools we use, rather than the job itself (sorry Markus!). Our primary task remains the same. Mainstream media has a different agenda because the new tools have changed the way they relate to their audiences. Which poses an interesting juxtaposition. In times gone by, there was a preference for people to have journalistic skills when they moved into public relations. Now journalists need to build relationships, will they be required to have public relations skills?
Our goal of facilitating and building relationships hasn’t changed. The new tools have simply speeded up the process and allow us to interact directly with our communities. Some practitioners, who until recent times concentrated on media relations alone, have experienced a bit of a ‘Eureka’ moment as they found themselves able to bypass mainstream media altogether (as niche community stories shared virtually don’t necessarily need the input or comment of mainstream. We can just get on with the job.
Applications introduced in the last few years allow us to listen, consult and engage more effectively with as wide or narrow reach as is appropriate. So I can connect with an activist community of four or set up a collaborative wiki that allows a 5000 strong community of employees to share knowledge and information about their organisation. I can launch a campaign on Facebook or myspace – or bypass that new ‘mainstream’ by setting up my own social network, creating a new community conversation that generates the understanding necessary to build the best relationship for all concerned.
You only have to glance at the World Bank, the UN, the UK’s diplomatic service, some of the large corporates or small, blossoming businesses like the New Zealand niche beer producer who Twitters away, joining the dots of his company identity, far outside the channels that would have previously been considered the ‘norm’ for such activity. Just thinking about Johnny Depp again for a moment, take a look at how the tools were used to launch ‘Pirates of the Caribbean 2 – Dead Man’s Chest’ and then for ‘Pirates of the Caribbean 3 – At World’s End’. In 2006, the trailers were intercut with ‘newsdoco-style’ footage for video podcasts, available on iTunes, while in 2007, a wikipedia page did the job, allowing fans to embed the latest trailer onto their own blog. In 2008, I can nip onto the Sweeney site and make my own trailer. Who knows – in 2009, I may have even contributed to plot development, created a background clip or added something to the film’s musical score. More likely, my avatar will have been selected in a pre-production contest designed to prompt a sense of involvement and ownership – brand loyalty being created at inception rather than at project’s end. Or maybe my hologram will win a prize to watch part of the filming. We become part of the story, rather than just an instructed observer.
Fine for the entertainment industry but (as Brian might say), what about the real world? Well it doesn’t begin and end with entertainment (although entertaining content is a significant consideration). The NZ Police wiki launched last year connected and led to contributions from thousands more people than the organisation had previously reached using traditional consultation methods. Living history projects abound, people telling their stories by video, text or wiki entry in order to create live histories of communities and neighbourhoods. This knowledge management of neighbourhoods allows people to track change and identify where change is required. And in terms of facilitating change, the Big Green Rig project is an excellent example of technology being used to actually do something, rather than just talking about the technology.
So what does it all mean for practitioners? For our future?
Currently, there is a knowledge gap and that knowledge gap needs closing for those who have or who are about to fall through the cracks of this period of change. People who, for whatever reason, have not had access to the technology, or the inclination to use it. Additionally, improved knowledge and understanding of public relations itself is required – inside and outside the profession/industry. As Judy reiterated in her recent post, in most places, anyone can pop up and call themselves a public relations practitioner and with a tiny bit of technical know-how present their view of PR to the world, which of course they are entitled to do, but they may well do a whole heap of damage to the profession along the way.
The fresh faces at our universities in 2010 will have grown up with the tools we have been talking about and experimenting with over the last few years. They won’t need to be taught what the tools are, but they will have to be taught how to apply them ethically and appropriately in their future spheres of operation. They will need to be able to build relationships online and offline; in person in the board room and in the relevant virtual meeting spot, because it is easy to forget that there are other tools out there which haven’t yet gained the visibility or take-up that we have seen with networks like Bebo or YouTube – which remember, only launched in February 2005, had grown to a few hundred thousand users by February 2006 and which when it was bought by Google for a neat US$1.65 bn was averaging 100m video views per day.
The Facebook/Google backlash is already underway. ‘Us’ is a very powerful collective and if the last few years have taught ‘Us’ anything, it is that we won’t be ‘talked at’ but we will ‘talk with’. ‘Us’ will listen only when consent is given to speak and my goodness, the content had better be good. And if content providers start slipping into ‘old ways’ and exploit information and goodwill, we can walk away and go somewhere else where they don’t do that sort of thing, or make something new of our own.
Facebook got it horribly wrong in recent months by using ‘marketing at’ behaviour within a collaborative platform, so it will eventually fragment and dissipate like the wax in my lava lamp, but it will be a slow transition simply because of the high numbers using the platform.
Yes, these are disruptive technologies but they are now the stuff of ordinary life in many places. The World Wide Web Consortium, which aims to support or at least back up and develop the whole show, talks these days of the ‘ubiquitous web’. The web will not be device specific for too much longer and practitioners need to understand how to adapt their communications and conversations accordingly.
So we need to teach people how to create good content that is not device specific, content that is meaningful, useful, entertaining. Content that has evident values reflected and agreed by its communities. Our practitioners of 2010 will need to know how to devise and share this content with the right community at the right time in the right place using the right tools in order to build the appropriate relationships and they’ll need to listen -and listen well. I won’t go on again about the practitioner as the ‘organisational listener’, but this role becomes even more pivotal as time goes on. Practitioners will be both activists and advocates, choosing and using technologies as they develop – because the ones they will use in 2010 probably haven’t yet hit the deck.
A long time ago, in what now seems like a galaxy far, far away, I was a young cub reporter in the English provinces. Within two weeks of starting my new job I had to go out on strike. We were striking over ‘new technology’. You may remember this advancement – it turned printing newspapers from a hot metal process to computer typesetting? Dire predictions were made, the gates of Wapping stormed and Britain plunged into its ‘Winter of Discontent’. I had no money for my first Christmas as a full time member of the workforce, instead spending long hours warming my hands round a brazier on an ill-tempered picket line.
We were told it was to be the demise of print, the beginning of the end, and assault on the Freedom of the Press. Journalists would be out of a job next, too much would be expected of them and so on and so forth. Now I loved the whole hot metal process. To this day, if I shut my eyes, I can still smell the ink and see the press run (and if anyone finds that a bit sad, I apologise, but I still think it is a sight right up there with rolling waves crashing on a West Coast beach). But it wasn’t the end, it was just change. It needed a change of mindset, a change of approach and an understanding that things move on. Clever people think up new things all the time and we apply them as necessary because the need to communicate remains the same.
Anyone reading this has most probably grown up in a text-based culture. Recent technologies are actually more attuned to oral cultures and I believe we will see a rise in orality in the years ahead. A preserved orality at that, as we now have the means to record and preserve. That is to be encouraged, because it will allow more people to have a voice. But how will it be encouraged in education systems that favour text-based engagement to orality? Why are children being taught how to use Microsoft software in schools instead of being shown how to create their own open source applications? Hmmm. Maybe we need to go back a few steps in the system.
And, thinking about the future, maybe we also need to think about the sustainability of all this. The mountain of dead computers and devices. The extra electricity required to keep everyone switched on, conversing, consuming and creating (mea culpa…). Someone once said that the Internet begins and ends with coal – we need electricity to power it up and cables to connect it all together. Here in NZ, we have the Southern Cross cable – and we need another one. In 2006, Kenya began a journey I recall to achieve its own cable and the battle to get the dark fibre down – as well as owning the content and maintaining control (look at Google’s rumoured Unity project) will determine much of what happens in the years ahead.
The push for more cable all over the globe reminds me of the start of the railroads in previous centuries – and I wonder what transparency, honesty and openness we will see in the dark fibre companies of the future as this new ‘gold rush’ begins in earnest. And if, when all the cables are in, a country or two decides to snip off their end – what then? At the very least, I hope the collective surge towards improved practice, applied ethics, responsibility and transparency carry on into any disconnected future.
But I’d better stop there. This has turned into a much longer post than I intended and I really should do some work! But it’s a big topic and I’ll be very interested to hear what you think.
So until the electricity goes off and while the fibre is affordable, connected and reasonably uncontrolled, we should be making sure that practitioners know how to listen, how to tell a story to create understanding, how to chose the best channel for the job and how to help their communities understand and contribute to the world around them. If the cable layers and engineers are the drivers, then as practitioners and communicators, we should be the navigators. By thinking more flexibly and using the proliferation of communications tools at their disposal, our future practitioners will have a greater opportunity than ever to make a difference and make the most of whatever the future might bring – cyber pirates permitting of course!