Freshly squeezed takeaways from the Edelman new media academic summit in DC…

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Leaving aside a fastidious reiteration of usual buzzwords such as twitter and facebook, closely followed by obama and engagement, and the conceptual thinness of some of the cases which were presented, more focussed on numbers in relative context, rather than on the why..s of selected operational tools, this event (may I call it a space, also picking up from Richard’s presentation?) was truly an intensive, delightful, warm and fire cracking learning experience.

Frankly more so -and I honestly mean this as a tribute to the organizers- for issues which were only hinted at, rather than for those which were effectively argued.

I certainly appreciate that a two day summit on social media for educators could not have realistically come to grips with all or even one of these issues (however inspired by that summit), but I would appreciate it if organizers, presenters and participants : all highly influential clusters in our global professional community, would care to share their views, opinions and recommendations.

Only a couple of days before the Summit the Global Alliance elected in Vancouver a new and inspired leadership and opened an ongoing discussion on a new strategic plan.
This is the best possible time to tune in, express yourselves and make a difference.

In this post, I will only address two of the hinted issues because they are more directly related to the feeble role of our professional and academic organizations and leaderships.

The first has to do with the increasingly rising practice of social media in employee engagement, and the second with the disconnect between corporate attempts to frame relevant issues by (also) using the global reach of social media, and the proven inability by nation states and professional associations to agree and implement globally valid regulatory/behavioural frameworks to harmonise the responsible use of social media by vested interests.

1.
Traditionally, an organization engages employees to ensure they have access and may gain full comprehension of its mission, vision, aims, strategies and specific objectives in an effort to accelerate operational effectiveness and efficiency.
Human resource departments were once responsible for this activity.

More recently, this responsibility has in many cases shifted to public relations, also in recognition of the increasing organizational porosity and the consequent progressive blurring of borders between internal and external relations.

Yet, while good public relations has always strived to harmonise internal and external communication, well knowing that satisfied and aware employees are a significant asset of reputation, many pr departments seem now to have exploited this organizational shift to focus on persuading (?) employees in becoming spokespersons for the organization in the external environment.
In short, the positive external effects of a satisfied employee has now become a major public relations challenge which absorbs huge resources (time and money).

There are at least three collateral consequences of this new phase which we should, at the very least, be well aware of:

a-
Is it ethical and/or socially responsible for an organization –well aware that its employees today are more credible and reliable by external stakeholders than other official internal sources- to incentivate, train, enable these to become full blown ambassadors of the organization’s vision, mission, strategy, values and operational objectives?
What’s wrong with this, you might ask?
Well, when and if this becomes a pr dept’s major effort, it strikes me as amounting to an inversion of factors: rather than enabling an employee to better understand and interact with the organization, we enable employees to become public relators and focus on using (exploiting?) them to deliver pur contents more effectively.
This has a sour taste of spin, front organization and/or astroturfing.
Have we developed responsible policies related to this practice?
Are these policies known to communicators, employees, other managers and organizational publics?

b-
Middle management is becoming increasingly nervous about this practice and is beginning to think that their employees should be more engaged in being more effective and productive in the role they were recruited for, rather than an extended arm of public relations efforts.

c-
By overemphasising this public relations role, there are risks of an employee backlash as well as that of employee discrimination. Some employees do not necessarily appreciate this new role and those which would prefer to pass…might well fear being discriminated upon…

Of course I am not suggesting that this activity is wrong, nor that it should be abandoned, but I would much prefer that public relations executives as well as other organizational managers carefully define specific policies and make them public.

2.
Societal and public interest concerns about organizational storytelling reaching out directly to stakeholders and end users unfiltered by critical mainstream journalists, have been dealt with historically by regulators and/or by self regulatory professional bodies.

In the first instance, not harmonised regulations increasingly constrain specific public relations practices country by country, creating significant problems for organizations (only six countries have full regulation of public relations profession, while most others regulate specific practices such as financial, health, consumer, safety, public affairs…).

In the second case professional organizations who only represent a meager and optimistic 10% of practitioners, have not only failed to proactively influence those regulations but, with minor exceptions, have also failed to ensure that their own self regulatory provisions to protect the public interest (and not the interests of association members) bear any significant impact on day to day practice.

Today, social media not only greatly expands corporate storytelling but, by definition, defies national regulatory bodies, be they institutional or self regulatory.
The global financial meltdown was primarily driven by this factor and the growing importance of social media tools in health, safety, consumer and public policy decisions is rapidly going in the same direction.

A beautiful and scary ‘free for all’ where vested interests may distribute their own stories, readily accessible with no control by anyone anywhere, and adopt public relations techniques to attract publics attention and, as some even said, engage them to better persuade(?) them.

Some sectors are clearly more regulated than others, and some professional bodies are more active than others.
This again leaves the social media spaces open, as both norms and self regulation policies are different country to country.
An example: health communication in Italy is more regulated than in the USA, while lobbying activities follow a reverse trend.

It is therefore not difficult only to imagine (won’t name names…for now) that some organisations will want to take full advantage of these disparities related to social media access and that an organised underground public relations activity is beginning to flourish (performed by off shore based agencies?? remember when large multinationals employed local pr agencies to do their dirty work for them?).

This factor not only calls for nation states to agree on normative and harmonised global frameworks, but also for a coalition of organizations and professional associations, purporting to be global institutions, to engage with regulators and advocate self policing norms ensuring equal access and non discrimination.

By the way, another of the more frequent summit buzzwords was democratization and it was somewhat disturbing that, at the Georgetown University Summit, while early adopters hesitated to use this term in referring to the Internet without careful qualifications, more recent social media fans, including many educators professors, used this term generically, with all the implied risks of misguiding students who already seem more concerned of the more geeky aspects of social media rather than their social ones.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Toni,
    Can you flesh out a bit more what is meant by “democratization?” It seems a bit odd to describe an activity that depends on internet access, which is by no means universal or democratic in many parts of the world.
    Especially in Africa, where according to Neilsen Online statistics, only 5.6 percent of the population are internet users, yet that’s where boys as young as eight stand in toxic muddy water all day to mine the cobalt used in cell phones.

  2. Bill,
    I interpret the term democratization, applied to social media, as the unprecedented opportunity for each individual to be a medium with unlimited access by anyone’s contents from anywhere.

    There are of course the limitations you refer to, both due to the digital divide (but mobile access is rapidly circumventing such limitation) and to nation state censure (but also here, this usually takes the time that protests are mounted and then are withdrawn).

    What worries me specifically is that savvy internet users have now learned that a vast part (a majority?) of online contents are anything but ‘democratic’ as we would define them, and from this perspective social media has only accellerated the process of communication between the champions of negativity.
    This however should not discourage us to consider, as with all tools, the enourmous opportunities for global dialogue which social media allow.

    Yet educators should be careful to explain that the Internet, as well as social media, are only tools.. and that between the big bang and the advent of the digital network there are at least 2000 years of human history (including more than 100 years of professional public relations failures and successes).

    A bothering issue which always emerges from social media or nerd driven arguments and debates is that the neophytes, educators, professionals and, of course, students tend to express themselves as if the big bang and the Internet were contemporary events….

  3. Toni,
    Thanks for the amplication. The last comment is a very perceptive one, and I have noticed the same tendency to want to forget about everything that preceded the Internet and digital media. Of course, human communication works much the same as it did thousands of years ago, so the itch to ditch everything not invented since the end of the 20th century is troubling.

  4. In the spirit of Toni’s and Bill’s insightful remarks we should stop using the term social media to refer exclusively to online digital communication. The implication of the term is that old media were and remain anti-social; but the fourth estate was never that. The reality right now is that old and new media are becoming indistinguishable.

    For example, the success in the UK of The Daily Telegraph’s integrated multi-media newsroom demonstrates that old media can adapt well to the new challenges. Moreover, the newspaper’s recent paid-for ‘scoop’ exposing the scandal over MPs’ expenses shows how effective the social impact of good old-fashioned content professionally presented can be on- or off-line.

    There are some very useful remarks on this topic on Colin Byrne’s site (link below):

    http://byrnebabybyrne.com/?p=370

  5. Another point well worth making, Paul. Not all social media is digital, although you would think it never existed before the BlackBerry came along.

  6. Good point made by Paul. Could it be that the difference is between “mass media” and “social network media”? The first represents the one-step flow of information, one to many, centralized model of social communication. The second indicates the one-to-one, few-to-few, many-to-many (or any other possible combination of these dimensions) and the de-centralized model.

    But getting to Toni’s point, one of the oldest teachings I remember in my PR education was the importance of considering employees as ambassadors for the organization. At that time I didn’t perceive any connotations with “manipulation of the workforce” or “deviation from efficiency” or “PR overusing the workforce”. Today I have to partially agree with Toni’s interpretation, but ask myself why is this so?

    One of the possible interpretations is that employees have changed and have become empowered from a communication point of view. The capability of diffusion and direct connection with many others is certainly a key difference from the past and bring a different connotation to the problem.

    Another interpretation is that “peers” have become much more credible and trusted as information source and thus employee’s potential to affect the reputation of their organizations has grown.

    Yet another interpretation (previously discussed on this blog) is that employees are indeed called to take part in too many activities apart from their “standard” job. Training, internal change management processes, external representation, voluntary activities, etc. In this context, any additional type of required engagement might be “a little too much”.

    But I also want to reflect on the knowledge dimension. Today organizations (also through PR effort) use social network media to allow the emergence of hidden knowledge and competences inside the organizations. This is a new frontier with HR departments and maybe one of the areas requiring, as Toni sharply suggests, specific regulation. The capability of expressing talents and creating common databases of explicit knowledge inside the organizations is quickly becoming one of the most interesting features of internal PR programs.

    This is maybe an area where PR professional associations can work on to define ethical guidelines and best practices. It can be a good leverage for the institutionalization of PR in the context of the so called enterprise 2.0.

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