There is a recent tendency to divide public relations practitioners around their engagement with social media or digital communications – creating different tribes. I think this is fallacious – here are my reasons why.
When I wrote my answers to the PR Conversations Proust Questionnaire five years ago this very week, I mentioned Orwell’s 1984 as a work of fiction that had influenced me. I stand by that decision, and most of my other responses, apart from my identification with an academic tribe. I said that in my PhD work I am a critical realist, but over the past half a decade, I’ve come to identify myself as a social constructionist. Although maybe I’m a realist social constructionist!
As a PR practitioner, I’d never describe myself as Orwellian if we take that to mean in favour of oppressive communications – but as Sam Jordison states, people tend to use Orwell to reflect their own beliefs. This was evident when Marshall McLuhan wrote about George Orwell stating:
The Canadian, McLuhan, may seem contemporary to us owing to interpretations of his work as prescient about media trends. Yet he was born in 1911, just eight years after Orwell was born in British India. McLuhan lived until 1980, dying in his sleep having never recovered fully from suffering a stroke a year earlier, where Orwell succumbed in 1950, from the effects of contracting tuberculosis three years before.
McLuhan spent some time working in advertising later in his life. Orwell worked in the Censorship Department of the British Ministry of Information during the second world war. Different tribes of communicators, while, in terms of birth dates, they were of the same generation.
But this is not an undergraduate or school essay offering a “compare and contrast” of these two men as writers, thinkers and communicators.
Instead I am considering modern public relations tribes, in relation to McLuhan’s concept of the global village – as discussed in this video from 1960:
McLuhan argues that the word ‘tribal’ is vitally important because the concept of an individual was less relevant than being part of the group, and being able to act “with it” (as used to be trendy to say back then).
In his contention of the influence of “the media” (photographs, movies, television), in changing how we see the world, McLuhan states the teenager replaced the adolescent, who had become obsolescent. The ad man, Howard Gossage, interpreted McLuhan’s theory as the teenager being the “first generation of the electronic age“.
This tribe existed some forty years before the Digital Natives were conceptualised by Marc Prensky. The Natives tribe now label the Digital Immigrants as duffers. But as Prensky articulates, his two tribes should not be divided by a presumption of their knowledge or competence with technology – rather his point is that the younger tribe “know only the digital culture”, where those who were once McLuhan’s teenagers had clearly “lived in two cultures: the pre-digital and the digital”.
In contrast to this dichotomy, Philip Young has argued for a more inclusive term, Digital Naturals, to recognise more of a continuum towards those:
individuals who are comfortable in an online environment, being equipped through experience and exposure to both its cultural norms and the technological competencies required to operate effectively.
Yet in our modern world when even those who were adolescents (not teenagers) in their younger days have some level of technological competence in our “digital age”, I spy some tribal behaviour among public relations practitioners in the global village.
I’m going to apply a bit of unscientific, netnography, based on online reporting of last week’s FutureComms15 event. Here, Dan Slee concluded there was “a mass punch-up between people who give a stuff”. So the tribe in the room cared about PR, but were divided by whether they felt it was dead or alive, or could be categorised around some other line of contention (age, involvement in CIPR, for example).
As an outsider to the event, the netnographer in my own blog post, what I see are various mini-tribes, each making an argument that PR has changed – must change – based on the same argument as McLuhan’s identification of the teenager. That the arrival of new technology makes the adolescent PR obsolescent.
In my view, they are mistaken. Yes, there are differences between adolescents, teenagers, digital natives and the older post-millennials – but there are also many similarities. Both in terms of how they were/are as young people, but as a cross-generational society.
The world is not simply defined along a progressive continuum. Some things do improve and get better. Other aspects of life get worse and some stay much the same. Sometimes things that start out looking like great advances, turn out to not be all that great. There are things that are just different, just new, or just pointless. There are upsides and downsides of digital technology, and its impact on public relations practitioners.
We should also not dismiss the past as there is much to be learned there (as our 1948 book chapter serialisation has already shown).
The shiny ‘new’ acronyms of SEO, PESO, alongside ‘new terms’ such as content and storytelling, still reflect essentially what we communicate and how we do so, ideally within an environment that is mindful of the benefits of hearing what others have to say as well.
So let’s not forget that people have always talked with each other, and with other people who are employed in organisations, and they still do so, in person as well as using the rather old fashioned print medium, such as letters, and last century’s technologies such as telephone or email.
Our work involves thinking, ‘real world’ sensory experiences and just doing stuff, as individuals, in groups and in wider society. As a tribe of human beings, public relations practitioners still do much of their work, and most probably always will do (unless or until we are replaced by robots), without the aid of technology, even when communications may additionally be informed, crafted, transmitted, recorded, reported and amplified throughout the global village.