In 2001, a British installation artist, Michael Landy, won a commission for his work, Break Down, that involved the destruction of all his possessions as a reaction to the consumerist society.
Fifteen years later, as Davis has noted, promotional practice has become ubiquitous. It’s become the default activity of public communications reflecting a consumerist mindset even around serious issues. Consider three examples:
- The best quotes from Davos 2016 (the 46th meeting of the World Economic Forum) were reduced to a series of 36 image macros. These short statements intended for promotion through social media, would hardly qualify as aphorisms, let alone stand the test of time and become memorable quotes. That’s the output of over 2,500 leaders from business, government, international organizations, civil society, academia, media and the arts. But then, this year’s theme: “Mastering the Fourth Industrial Revolution” associated the world’s elite with power and masculinity; He-Man and The Masters of the Universe seeking to control the impact of a revolution caused by new forms of technology.
- Bono promoted an FT article reporting a decade of the cause related marketing initiative, Red – an example of “creative capitalism” (a term Bill Gates likes to use where “market incentives” are used to drive change) – with a celebratory Tweet: “You have political power in your spending power”. This ethos of “ethical consumerism” is that money, rather than morality, is the modern motivator. (Although that’s also an observation Thomas Jefferson made about the English in 1810)
- And let’s not think about ethics – or social justice – or worry about feminism, when clearly all women are bothered about is bread. Well enough to make Oprah Winfrey millions in increased value of her Weight Watchers’ shares off the back of a promotional Tweet.
Today’s world seems increasingly reduced to a consumerist society way beyond the ownership – or destruction – of our possessions.
Indeed, barely a week seems to go by before someone is reported to have sold everything they own to travel the world, recording their adventures via vlogging, vining, instagramming, etc – with an eye on securing corporate sponsorship and online celebrity fame.
Take the “jilted bride” – a former PR executive – who “quit her job, sold her house…” and has a blog, is writing a novel, is shortlisted in the Top 10 Best Travel Blogs! #Cosmoblogawards.
But you don’t need to have any PR experience to be part of this hyper-consumerist, online, promotional world. Social media enables anyone to realise their value as an digital entrepreneur and self-publicist. Go-it-alone temporary/flexible personally-branded employment is but a few clicks away for those finding themselves out of work, needing additional income, or wanting to build a career outside the normal organisational routes. Unless you are the wrong side of the digital divide of course.
Where does public relations sit right now in this pay-to-play Fourth Industrial Revolution?
Public relations is not so much a professional occupation from this perspective, as it is a skill possessed by the average six year old. Or indeed, those robots busy scraping, connecting, auto-typing and adding their automated words and images to the ever busy online 24:7 global communications environment.
So perhaps it is not surprising that many within the public relations field have championed the PESO model. Finding the Shared media space increasingly cluttered by the creativity of activist campaigns, personal pronouncements and Stickman memes, it is hard to cut-through and show any value to clients for spending their money trying to generate likes through an ever expanding plethora of social media platforms and attribute these to website hits.
Online Owned media becomes the easy to control option – although who really seeks out a digital magazine or corporate video? The return on investment becomes questionable as organisations are faced within sky-high pay-to-play bills via Facebook, YouTube, apps, SEO and so forth.
Earned media – the ‘promotional’ strength of PR within a marketing mix – is struggling itself to gain traction, even with (or perhaps because of) the effect of “churnalism“.
Hence the rise in claims by PR consultants that their inherent skills are essential in delivering the Paid in PESO, that’s native advertising, social advertising or amplification, brand journalism, sponsored content, advertorials – pick your preferred approach.
Money can’t buy respect
Apparently Paid media is a New Age Model of PR (warning that’s a link to an agency’s promotional post!). It’s advocated as something that all PR practitioners must have in their toolkit, essential for influencer marketing and utilising our storytelling competencies.
I can’t help but feel that if in-house PR shifts its focus onto paid media, practitioners will miss out on the value of earning respect for our employers if those we communicate with are focused on securing our money. This route is unlikely to secure a reputation for the quality of our professional intellect either.
From an agency perspective, paid media delivers income through content production at a tactical level. Previously journalists have moved into PR, but now they can be recruited alongside videographers, photographers, copy writers, creatives, media buyers and digital designers into the big-budget marketing communications fold. Or perhaps there’s a jack-of-all-trades cheaper PR-led option on offer. Isn’t the temptation going to be always to ‘sell’ the story for money when you are making more this way than the pot-luck of earning coverage?
It also seems to me that if you have to pay for something, you’re missing out on the generosity of others, and in being generous yourself. When all we think about is WIIFM (what’s in it for me?), we forget to consider how we can be of assistance.
If we’re too busy promoting and being noisy, we fail to listen, learn and enjoy quiet space.
So what do I expect you to do?
If you’ve reached this far, you’ll know I’m feeling snarky about the state of PR affairs at the start of 2016. Let’s scrape off all the BS lying as crud on the surface of promotional communications. And that other lying as practised by brand representatives, politicians and too many organisations who appropriate social justice and social responsibility for marketing purposes.
Caring, sharing and genuinely looking to build relationships around things that concern us as human beings is too important to be simply packaged up for superficial or paid promotion.
You know, I don’t care if only three people read this blog, whether they choose to share it or not with their various social networks, or if they want to comment or move on to the next kitty-cat video. But I hope you leave with a thought or two – whether something you agree or disagree with – after spending a few moments in our advertising free online space.
For me, it’s a place where we can talk about ‘real’ public relations that is beyond, or beneath, the fluffy stuff, that can make a genuine difference in helping organisations achieve their goals whilst being respectful of the world in which we all need to live – alongside the robots of course.