The future of the book… and PR

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To those who have read the seminal book by Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin (“L’appartion du livre”), the history of the book may already be a fascinating subject. But what about the future of the book. There is a also great excitement in trying to foresee what the book will look like within a few years and I share with you a very promising experience in which PR is at the forefront.

Hypertext and non linear reading have been with us for a few years, so they will not likely be the next big innovation; neither can we expect that simple platforms to display text to generate major changes in what the book represents as an object of knowledge. Indeed, we may discuss if the main developments will be in the production of the books or in their consumption but, that’s for sure, the debate will certainly continue.

But I want to tell you about an innovative and promising experience which relates the future of the book and public relations. Last Thursday (April 3rd) I was at the House of Cinema in Villa Borghese (Rome) where I had the privilege to attend the first of six debates/ discussions led by Toni Muzi Falconi in cooperation with Fabio Ventoruzzo and which will provide the base for a video-book on “What are Public Relations”. Toni’s great presentation in the first session aimed to set the scenario of the profession and explore the argument that PR is a pervasive activity which quite often has been shaping the public opinion – often without the public’s awareness. But possibly the most interesting originality of this project came from the fact that several of the leading PR and non PR Italian specialists in the audience had the chance to comment, question, and sometimes challenge the views exposed by Toni. This will certainly give the video-book multiple possibilities of non-linear reading and generate further topics of discussion/thought. And if you have read PR manuals, you know that divergent thinking is not often found in the sense that texts most often try to build an argument rather than show a reality and then offer differing views. That is something this experience will certainly bring to the users of the final video-book: the possibility to listen, revisit or re-use dialogues on Public Relations.

When the Editor Luca Sosella presented the initiative, he quite intelligently chose an excerpt of Albert Camus’ “The Sisif’s Myth”. And indeed, the metaphor of Sisif’s silent jewel and his unconditional repetition of the same behaviour might well represent what can also happen to PR professionals who don’t cultivate a culture of questioning and debate.

12 COMMENTS

  1. I’m a touch confused.

    Yes, I agree that public relations shapes public opinion. Whether or not people in genral understand that PR is involved in shaping public opinion depends on just how stupid people are, and what particular aspects of public opinion we’re talking about.

    And whether we need to have someone carry a business card with “public relations” on it to be counted, when shaping public opinion. Maybe their card says lawyer or activist or marketing manager or even CEO.

    In regard to references to the “video-book.”

    I have no idea what this is, so can’t comment, other than to ask more questions.

    Is a video book the same thing as a television documentary? A story told in words and pictures? Or do video books lack soundtracks, so a video-book is like an old-time silent movie, minus the piano player in the theatre?

    When I feel like confusing myself, I try to decide what a book is. Is it the physical object, on paper, with ink, inside covers, perhaps wrapped in a bookjacket.

    Is it still a book when only the words exist, and that’s stretching the definition of words existing, when the words are on a hard drive or floppy disk or flash drive? Is the paper necessary for the words and ideas and concepts to be counted as a book?

    If I say that I’ve “written a book” does that mean the book must have been manufactured out of paper and glue and ink for me to be telling the truth?

    And in the previous sentence, I wrote manufactured instead of published, becaue, as I was typing, I got off an another tangent; just what is publishing?

    Are movies “published” as well as “produced?” In the North American book-making world, a publisher is certainly different from a production manager.

    And for that matter, as a photographer, I’ve had thousands of pictures “published” without the process of getting the pictures published having much to do with anyone holding the title of publisher at a newspaper or magazine.

    I’m now actually using the phrase “pictures that move” in sme of my dealing with clients. Pictures that move are not whole movies or even commercials, but they are more images than a single still photo, and they convey a point that it harder to illustrate with a single photo.

    My new movie camera is sitting right here beside me, waiting for me to learn how to use it.

    But now it is tilme to go to a small town “home show” and learn about house insultation. It will be interesting to see the sue of still photos, moving photos, movies, posters, brochures, longer-than-brochure printed items…

    BAK

  2. I think Brian is quite right. When is a book not a book? Having recently been told that the contents of a potential book (not mine, but new thinking provided by some very authoritative and knowledgeable people around the world) wouldn’t be of use to students because it wasn’t a prescribed text yet and so wasn’t really a book, I am particularly alert to this confusion.

    Self-edited multi-media platforms such as the one described by João have been around and used for a long, long time. The difference isn’t so much the medium as the authority assigned by society to the medium in use. A ‘book’ is historically the ‘authority of choice’ for many cultures and has been so since we moved from oral cultures to text-based societies. In such societies, knowledge has to be written down for it to be of value and in addition it has to have the stamp of a hierarchical organisation on the back, bottom or side to make it so. The biggest and brightest change that I have been talking about for a few years now is the opportunity social media and other rich media platforms provide to potentially break this stranglehold.

    We can return to a more oral culture (adding the best bits of the visual cultures of the 20th century) where ideas are explored and matured during live debate, rather than the rather stagnant methods of ‘theory review’ perpetuated in academic journals, where it can take a year or more for an idea to even see the light of day – especially if it happens to contradict another approach or way of thinking or seems ‘too new’!

    A book will always be a book. What will change (eventually) won’t be the contents between the covers. The change will come when media such as described by João, the ‘pictures that move’ described by Brian and the PhD that doesn’t have to be hard bound and presented in text ‘like a book, because that’s the way it’s done’, are given the same weight and authority as the book was afforded when it arrived on the scene.

    After all, at its beginning, the book was simply another disruptive technology.

  3. Ha! In a conversation about books, we move to a video book and an immediate request for its availability online to be viewed on a PC.

    We are of a book era. But what if we did return to a form of story telling and rote?

    The idea that the social animal with big brains, driven by context, values of the moment and interactive capabilities should be shackled to books is a bit old fashioned.

    YouTube, Facebook, SecondLife and MMOG virtual games now can emerge as an experiential mashup. They or their successors will become ever more immersive, XML and RSS driven experience. The communications devices (in themselves a mashup of the cell phone, PC, games machine, television, eBook and ePoster etc), are to be a choice and mix of the consumer. Then we will be dealing with issues of what is an avatar and what is a human in relationships?

    What then will be the role of these media but as part of this experience. What of the platform (device) and channels that can be supported and the range of experiences (software facilitations) that can be available.

    The progression from the PC to the cell phone, HTML to Flash, Usenet to Facebook, ticker tape to RSS is now accepted. It has happened.

    We still think in terms of the artefacts we know from history and not the emerging reality from that which surrounds us now.

    To stop at considering books is the voice of our education when the embryo of a new human reality that will face relationship specialists (perhaps even some in the business of ‘public’ relations) is before us.

    To be legitimate in educating a next generation don’t we have to examine what are the key drivers in relationships. Don’t we have to explore the neuro-psycholgy as well as the social psychology and then contextualise the drivers in many relationship contexts and communications environments?

    Perhaps its worth a thought.

    And then, perhaps, we can see Toni as an avatar in a sun soaked idyll where reality of both location, companions, and lecturer are removed from the actualitie where the words remain yet the context is not an ebook or even a PC screen and the hyperlinks are irrelevant in a semantic world.

    Is this a future beyond comprehension?

    And when will this amazing transformation take place?

    When did those amazing images of the Beijing Olympics not come at the same and different times from cell phone, TV, Laptop, newspaper, WII and radio? the day before yesterday.

    When did not the war in Ossetia mix and match at the same time? Yesterday.

    Was it all that time ago when you could not get moving pictures of the news on your PC – a couple of years ago? Or the same moving pictures on your cell phone – last year?

    But, today, Flixwaggon http://xrl.in/cdt gave any child the power of the BBC. A citizen capability to create and distribute moving pictures and sounds in real and time-shift time using many platforms across many channels.

    The multi sensation era is coming quite fast and perhaps in relationship management we need the research to let us understand what it means to (public) relationships and, for client relationships too.

    Already for some it is true that curling up with a good clay tablet to read on a sunny day in Babylon 5000 years ago is, like the printed book, an interesting footnote in history.

  4. bold and thorough thoughts, David.

    I wonder if you wouldn’t delight us and elaborate some more on
    quote
    Don’t we have to explore the neuro-psycholgy as well as the social psychology and then contextualise the drivers in many relationship contexts and communications environments
    unquote

    I wonder, for example, if there connections between what you write and the concept of listening as a three phase process (gathering data, understanding data, interpreting data) where the first two imply the listener remove her)him self of its existing knowledge as a psychoanalyst should/would do?

    And also, another example, if the reinvention of the traditional public relations event, as a space to be created (i.e. creatively…) by a reintermediated public relator, in both the virtual and physical world, as an attractive relationship environment where your stakeholders engage between themselves as well as with you, does not have significant connections with the same concept you ‘casually’ inundate us with…

    give us more….

  5. Toni you ask for a book in a blog.

    ‘Liars, Lovers, and Heroes: What the New Brain Science Reveals About How We Become Who We Are’ (2000) by Steven R. Quartz and Terrence J. Sejnowski take us through the amazing development of an animal that used its brain to both survive and thrive. They call on evidence in evolutionary terms, psychology and our understanding of how the brain works from experiments using brain scanning to bring us up to date.

    Our wonderful brain allows us to extend out capability beyond our own brain and beyond the brains of our fellows though the use of relationships . We are able to use the experience of past generations by word of mouth and, as if that was not enough, by using our brains to develop technologies that help this process. Until now the best of such technologies were books.

    Our big brains add to this through the development of capabilities to add to the power of our individual brains by tapping into the knowledge of people we can never meet and who live and lived beyond our own time and environs using complicated methods for communication like the internet to access Wikipedia.

    As social animals, we relish the devices and channels that allow us to access the society and insights of others as, for example in this blog. Our brains, so well developed for insights and information for the hunter gatherer, now delights in the use of the same capabilities online.

    We enrich this experience to satisfy the needs pressed on us by our evolution. The flashing screen and bright colours of a computer screen sparks reactions as much as a glimpse of a threatening sabre tooth tiger or delicious gazelle did for our ancestors. The smiling faces of our friends and acquaintances in a primitive village are those same faces we recognise in Facebook. The age old reassuring voices you hear in the background from co-workers collecting berries have an internet counterpart in Twitter.

    The engrossing experience of shaping a flint, with its challenges, many facets and tinge of risk, resonate with computer games as we play Wii tennis with an avatar or rise through the ranks of people all round the world playing World of Warcraft.

    Our big brains are, as they always have, developing technologies from which we can satisfy these old and new drivers that we have inherited through our genes. Our big brains have developed an external capability to be able to access the work of Aristotle and the IBM extranet. Satisfaction is swift with Google and the network of networks.

    There have been and will be many false starts but deep inside every human is the need to develop and evolve environments that satisfy our primitive selves, our evolutionary selves and our uniquely human selves. This species is genetically programmed to be curious, adventurous and happy to experiment.

    The internet is an expression of our evolution.

    The power of open source internet and technologies is also important because it allows our brain driven technological evolution to spread through the human population and explains why so many people spend so much time so freely to share ideas and technologies. Its what humans do.

    The deployment of such technologies that aid these needs are the very tools that people, who want to affect the human condition, have to understand and use.

    This includes PR people and if they are not to be left out they have to find time to be engaged. It is not that individual PR people will be left behind – they will still enjoy the fruits – it is just that they will be out of the loop in sustaining the evolutionary process which is now becoming the driver of relationships.

    This is not a simple deployment of an in-house wiki or ‘viral’ game. This is much bigger and affects everyone.

    The cyber attacks from within Russia on Georgia this week, as with Estonia last year, are examples of a nation that understands the might and power of technologies that can mediate the human condition. This evolution is not just for the good guys it is for power politicians as well (and is why Net Neutrality is a PR and political issue).

    Thus we can now clearly see where the internet will take us.

    People, those members of creation blessed with a big brain in order to survive and prosper, have a species specific need to develop environments. These environments have to satisfy the most primitive needs (why pornography, colour and flashing images so successful on the net?). They also have to satisfy the social nature of the human in Usenet, Chat and discussion. We need to be able to satisfy our innate curiosity from the wisdom of the past and present in Wikipedia and will deploy access provided by Google search. Out helpless need to give our brains a better chance to develop, means we need to experience new environments and especially those that extend the capability of the brain.

    The future mashups and evolutions of Wikipedia, Google, blogs, Facebook, Second Life, Twitter, World of Warcraft and all those internet driven advances are and will be the drivers of development of the internet and the drivers affecting our well being, economies and clients. Given that, because of the open source movement, Creative Commons and Net Neutrality (to name a few) millions of people will scratch their evolutionary itch, the internet will change faster. This too is our challenge.

    This is the environment for the successful practitioner. They have to square the circle between the ‘organisation’ and the demands of humanity’s big brains. So far we have only seen how people cluster round ideas to the challenge the 20th century concept of the ‘market segmenter’ by creating user defined market segments (people, not companies, form segments and are now empowered to do it themselves). We have only just begun to see the values that people place on corporate ‘brand values’ through the actual key words they use to find the values they seek with search engines. The top down marketer and brand managers seeking to impose their values are an occasionally interesting relevance to the real consumers. In their reality, these consumers’ values count and are mediated by much more than some clever guy isolated 20 floors up on Madison Avenue who is not allowed to use Skype.

    West End PRs look to see if corporate messages have resonance. Ordinary folk look for values in common which may only have an implicit relationship with the PR message and can, as easily, be ignored.

    But we have to look more deeply to see the other manifestations. People are now creating ‘events’. The traditional public relations event is now in the hands of everybody. It is they who bring interested people together in events manifest in YouTube channels, school football club wikis and the like. The PR person is everybody.

    These phenomenon are not because Marketing or PR is not doing its job. They are, and for yet a while will have a role. But when people can find their own knowledge and invent and try their own solution and interact with their own tribal contexts at a time and in a place and with an interactivity of their own choosing, it is a smart person who is in the right place with the right contexts at the right time – and very unlikely.

    It is not just a question of listening. It is a question of hearing. We, perhaps, are listening for the wrong sounds. It is not a question of events, but seeing the people in their ever changing assemblies. It is not a question of conversation but a question of evolution, society, context, knowledge and satisfying the whole human condition which has now been released onto the internet. The place for the practitioner is where evolution is most active.

    And the role of PR? Is it to seek the nexus of values that are coincidental to the values of the individuals that are the making of the organisation and its publics.

    And, a word of warning, woe betide the person who tries to stop this change…. They, as were those who undoubtedly resisted the use of hard baked and water tight clay pots or those who in written history resisted the change wrought by Gutenberg in preventing a human evolution. They fly in the face of evolution at their peril.

  6. David, thank you.

    This is a very powerful and con-vincing description of the ongoing disintermediation process of our function, paradoxically in parallel with its institutionalization process whithin organizations.

    How bizarre that (and this has always been the same, except for the time factor… which clearly is qualitative and not merely quantitative)everything and its contrary coexist….nothing is certain except the certainty of our endless curiosity to understand (the hearing that follows the listening…as you suggest) and to interpret the environment in which we operate…

  7. As a recent discoverer of this blog, it was noticable that the term “listening” cropped up a number of times. I think therein may lie a clue as to the nature of membership of a new view of the “public” in PR. Listening derives its root meaning from the word “list”, as in a ship listing to starboard. It really signifies an inclination rather than a set of attributes or a pattern of categorisation. You listen (lean over) because you choose to. The new trend is association rather than belonging/membership. It allows for freedom of choice far beyond the limitations of being a member of one or any number of “publics”.

    At the same time, despite the increased free spirit roaming afforded by cyberspace, the kite still have any number of lines (shackles?) tied to current and past realities. How to respond as practitioners? Wish I knew!

  8. I know this post is a bit old, but it’s related to a conversation I had recently with a few colleagues regarding the future of the printed book, so I just thought I’d share.

    For starters, I don’t think the future of the book is in all that much trouble. The e-book didn’t kill it, and neither will videos. Looking at stats from the American Booksellers Association, you’ll find that bookstore sales have actually habitually been on the increase, even after this post. I can’t say I’m surprised.

    While other technologies offer new ways to get information, you have to look at a few other things:

    1. New technologies also make it easier to publish print books, opening the publishing playing field to more authors (such as through POD publishing).

    2. Books still have a trust factor that new technologies can’t touch.

    3. These social media style tools, while making more information readily available, also contribute a huge amount of “noise.”

    It’s the third point that I think solidifies the book’s place in our culture for a while. Yes, information can be found through search engines or any number of means online. But much of that information can’t really be trusted, or it’s so buried by irrelevant information that finding it becomes a chore.

    When you’re looking for a quick bit of information, that’s fine. When you’re looking for something more comprehensive, well laid out, and from an authority source, books are often still the best tool available (obviously niches come into play – time-sensitive material certainly is better from “fresher” sources in many cases).

    What I found interesting is that this group of professionals weren’t as interested in “quick access” as they were with that authority. It was noted that it’s often even easier to pick up a book for solid and thorough information (not to mention that we don’t want to always be stuck behind a screen when we’re doing research or simply want to read up on something).

    New technologies or not, books aren’t going anywhere any time soon. They still fill a need that most of us have at some time or another, and they do so in a way that works. That’s precisely why people are still turning to books to learn about these new technologies and why we’re seeing things like blogs being adapted to print book formats. Will other technologies find their own audiences? Absolutely. And I have no doubt there will be plenty of overlap. But the facts are showing that social media isn’t “replacing” books, and that they’re as popular as ever.

  9. Gustav, welcome to PRC. Now that you have ‘discovered’ it, hopefully you will visit more often.
    Most of my co-bloggers will not know that Prof Gustav Puth is the ‘father’ of Communication Management in South Africa–a real visionary. He was the first to position PR/corporate communication in a School of Management Sciences at university level(1993–Univ of Pretoria). As a master’s student in his classes in 1996/7, I was breathless with excitement as the strategic role of communication unfolded. He has been my mentor and we co-authored a book together, titled ‘Corporate Communication Strategy’. The conversations that we used to have in his classes (Estelle de Beer was my fellow student then) have only been equalled once in all these years–here at PRC!!

  10. Giampaolo Azzoni, from the University of Pavia, sent me in Italian a very interesting comment which, with his permission, I have freely translated into english.
    Read here:
    quote

    I agree with David Phillips.
    However the question is that today’s reality may not be related to only one (even if highly articulated) phenomenon. Everything is much more complex.
    As you correctly stated, Toni, ‘everything and its contrary coexist’.
    I have no doubt that western elites and their problems, consumptions and times are significantly in line with David’s considerations.

    (by the way -this is tmf-, this issue of David’s comments being relevant only for western elites was also raised by another of our frequent readers in a private email…).

    quote
    Maybe self inflictingly (continues Giampaolo) I believe that in our areas of knowledge (society, ethics, communication, economy….) we are now reliving what happened in natural sciences: the quasi irrelevance of the past.
    What had been thought (produced, conceived..) before today’s discontinuity is scarcely pertinent nor even interesting.
    With the sole exception of history.
    However, in this context, one may ask what the role of history is.
    And here, maybe, lies another element of the crisis of the book.
    We do live in a fascinating time…. also because it needs to be entirely rethought.
    And we must realistically consider that it is not true that we are dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, but (sadly) quite the opposite.
    Coming now to our discussion on ‘spaces for relationships’ (see http://www.prconversations.com/?p=445 and http://www.prconversations.com/?p=414),
    we need to be careful in assimilating spaces to events, although of course competencies in the latter are very useful to the architects of spaces.
    An event is, by definition, something which finishes; while space develops in time.
    The event is predetermined; while space, even when defined, is open.
    The event is a content; while space is a form for relationships.

    and now back to tmf:

    Thank you, Giampaolo.
    Allow me add on…you question the role of history in this discontinuity. I interpret this in the sense that history becomes ever more so relevant, rather than the contrary.
    In fact you can only be aware of a discontinuity if you compare it to the past.
    More so, in a discontinuity the issue of identity is paramount and identity is created (also, and primarily)by history.
    I am not necessarily referring only to ethnic, religious, cultural, national, group identities which have in these years, more than in other periods, both accelerated and delayed the time of discontinuity.
    I also and mostly refer to the identity of private, public, and social organizations (please look at the most recent video interview with prof. Francesco Lurati of the University of Lugano on http://www.euprera2008.com) as well as of professional associations and, possibly even more relevant considering the media which we are now using to relate, of individuals!
    We all are because we are a product of history just as much as (ubuntu?) we are because others are….
    This growing importance of history makes it urgent for us (educators, professionals and researchers inn public relations)to investigate much more thoroughly our own history, definitely abandoning the still dominant idea that the history of public relations is usa-centered (Jacquie L’Etang was the star of the recent London Festival talking about this very issue).
    I know I don’t need to reinforce the concept fo getting away from ethnocentrism for the visitors of this blog.
    Sofar, however, I have not yet seen one post here that explicitely advocates this task, as if it did not concern us….. We needed a side hint in a stimulating comment from a jurist, pilosopher and ethicist from Pavia to remind us….(tmf)

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