Recently, I’ve been involved in a lot of debate and chatter about the implications of social media. As a consequence, Toni Muzi Falconi asked me whether I’d like to draw some lessons for PR Conversations. Thanks, Toni, and here goes:
It is often said that we are witnessing the birth of a media revolution which amounts to a social, economic and political transformation.
I don’t agree.
I’m almost sorry what follows isn’t a bold settled counter-revolutionary manifesto.
Instead, it’s a sketch of some arguments for a certain steadiness of view.
There is general agreement that social media is in its infancy. Tom Murphy expressed the generally held view on Neville Hobson’s blog that ”humans are so dynamic and unpredictable that it is anyone’s guess what they will make with this new tool of social media“.
Up to a point, I agree (I’ll get to that point in a while).
Meanwhile, Norman Lewis over at Futures-diagnosis has made a compelling case (here and here) in support of what social media could do–as opposed to is doing–if there was enough entrepreneurial spirit within enterprises.
I don’t disagree with his optimistic take. Though I might quibble with some of his sociological analysis.
I do concur with Lewis that David Nye’s Technology Matters insight that “latent in every tool are unforeseen transformations” is valid.
Take the recent experience of Telcos. At first they thought short messaging services (SMS) had no practical or profitable application. But the market had other ideas. (And there’re always the PCs and the Post-it examples.)
SMS transformed how we groom, flirt and maintain contact with each other on the move; that’s all cultural stuff. SMS went on to become a boom business that fueled the popularity of reality TV shows such as Big Brother and Pop Idol. So technology and culture clearly do combine to produce unpredictable outcomes.
The answer is that I argue that social media are very interesting, but that I doubt they have transformed the location of power. What’s more if they have, I think that’s probably a bad thing. You see, I am concerned with public opinion, reputations and trust in society, and the role that PR, advertising and marketing plays in these spheres.
The bottom line is that I am a conservative.
I do not think there is much wrong with the structure of power in Western societies. I am inclined to think that the fans of social media think that it is a sort of insurgent phenomenon and therefore good. I think that if social media were truly and only insurgent, they would be mostly bad.
As it is, I hope social media may turn out to be both negative and positive – neither strongly insurgent nor strongly conservative.
In this I imagine social media will be like printing presses or telephones or blogs.
Let me explain.
There is a tendency right now to think we are in the middle of a revolution.
For instance, the likes of Clay Shirky and Jeff Jarvis argue that now or soonish PR is history, dead tree press is dead, old-fashioned marketing is toast, here comes everybody with the end of formal structures and intermediaries.
They believe, based on exaggeration of the nature of modern cynicism and the impact of social media, that corporates, governments and other institutions have lost the trust of their publics.
They also say control has moved – or is moving – to the people via social media.
There has also been much talk about social media rewriting the rules of communication altogether. In short, it is as if we’re being asked to forget the genius of Freud, Maslow, Lippmann, Bernays, Ogilvy and our other heroes and start again.
Unfortunately, the PR trade has been reinforcing its opponents’ messages. For instance, the Edelman Trust survey has done much to frighten and undermine corporate confidence at Davos. However a more constructive analysis of the results might have produced less headlines but more reassurance to corporate leaders that things are not as bad (or as different) as they fear.
I’ve written up such an analysis here and here.
So what do we know about some of the inevitable limitations of social media that should be guiding our response to it? Well I think there are three main things:
a. Social media is more personal than so-called traditional media, which was known as mass media (again, Richard Edelman’s concession that the mass is dead has not been helpful, not least because the word public in public relations is all about mass).
b- All this communication won’t alter some fundamentals about, as it were, the centre of gravity, of origination, of power, no more than rock & roll or the internet did. Though Norman Lewis is right to point out: “For the first time, the enterprise is being infused by consumer-based technologies and behaviours; not the other way around.”
c. Corporations are more trusted than most commentators suppose and they always were, and social media does not hold the key (though it can be a prop) to restoring the trust and reputations damaged by recent events. (I am happy also to argue that there is more trust than is supposed in other “unpopular” locations, such as politicians and parliaments.)
1. Social media is personal even when shared
One of the problems with personal experience and expression is that it can’t by itself have perspective. That limitation won’t change whether we are dealing with individual anecdotage, or bulked-up (social media) anecdotage. Moreover, Walter Lippmann long ago explained how the mass media served the function of giving the public perspective. I see no reason to think that amateurs and micro-social media will alter that fact one jot–though it most definitely will alter how the media interacts with its readers, sources and distributes content.
Consider, for instance, the well-known phenomenon of personal accounts of public services. British patients often insist that their own doctor is good and their own experience of the National Health Service is positive.
But this personal experience does not dent the patients’ perception that everyone else is getting awful treatment.
Social media might be expected to help the more general experience gain traction in a good way (over the isolated misimpression the lonely patient has).
But it is more likely that the social media will become a club of those patients with a complaint because it acts to magnify personal experience.
You might say that social media would in the end gain perspective by corralling masses and masses of diverse opinion and experience.
But social media tends to corral spontaneously the dissatisfied persons’ feelings rather than develop content critically.
That does not mean that social media is useless, harmful or reactionary, but it does mean it is not inherently progressive either.
I think that SM is rightly characterised as being personal. It is peer-to-peer. It is populist, popular, viral, instinctual, expressive. Some of that is good and some bad. Social media has a natural drift toward the dissident. It will be at its liveliest often when it is a sort of resistance or even insurgence. I believe this will often be as sloppy and thoughtless as it will sometimes be compelling. I think candidate Obama’s use of social media was an interesting case of this tendency: it played to exhilarating but not very well explored tropes of the outsider, the visionary, the transformative.
I am strongly inclined to argue that it is quite dangerous (because dishonest and dissembling) for firms to dress up in these clothes, particularly in their corporate communication.
Of course, marketing and advertising has more licence for rebellion, experimentation and invention, but firms–unlike the brands they market–can’t be personal. And they should be very alert to the dangers of being all the other adjectives above.
You see, I think some traditions are worth preserving because they exist for good reason. They’ve stood the test of time and they embody the principles upon which reputations and trust were built (more under 3).
I also argue that old mass media will survive because it solves a problem that so-called social media does not address.
Mass media provides, as Theodore Levitt might say, a solution to the problem of forming, cohering, expressing and managing and informing public opinions in its varied, conflicting forms. Moreover, I maintain that Andrew Keen has made a good case against the cult of amateurism. His defence of professionalism is well made.
In essence, if the cost of producing and distributing content has fallen close to zero, the value of the human element in the production of content remains where it always was – its heart and soul.
When PRs explain that people are the value behind the business this means more in the media than virtually any other business.
2. Social media leave the fundamentals (profit and loss) unchanged
Social media companies such as Twitter and Facebook are not businesses. They might become businesses, but to do so they will have to become old-worldish, in the sense of earning their keep.
For an alternative view of the so-called new world go to Richard Stacey here where he says trust is shifting away from traditional institutions–not to new institutions, but to processes, which make most institutions redundant.
Jeff Jarvis also dreams that networks will replace companies, particularly when it comes to news production. “When you think of news instead as the province of an ecosystem that is distributed and owned at the edges by many players operating under many means, motives, and models, then the notion of contribution, ownership, and control changes. People own their own stakes but they benefit by joining together cooperatively. They create a tide upon which all their ships rise. That’s a network, not a company.”
As PR blogger Richard Bailey reports here, Jarvis cites Wikipedia and Craigslist’s as examples of future-type enterprises.
Yet Wikipedia is going into utopian-reverse and trusting less and less in the crowd. It is becoming more professional by introducing intermediaries, editorial control (of the crowd). And of course it creates very little. Its volunteers copy out other people’s work and add value only when they refer outward to real-world work by others who are paid for in the real world.
The point here is that the huge argument now raging about media is about how its old business model is to be replaced. Social media can sometimes produce news, but it can seldom do the most difficult work of a news organization, which is editing. It can seldom do the most expensive work of media, which is to put educated, thoughtful, steady (and often very brave) professionals in difficult places, with the right equipment.
Indeed, when we see the “old” media seek to cut costs and appear trendy by relaying social media material (scrolled across the TV screen, read out as leavening), don’t we rightly mostly feel that the journalism has slipped? This is not to decry the role of social media in helping people mobilise, or to get messages out to the conventional media. But it is to remind ourselves that social media does nothing to support paying for newsrooms and newspeople.
3. Social media trust, reputations and power
Trust in corporations, friends, politicians depends crucially on their being reliable in the real world. Do they do what they say they will do? In a crisis, do they prove stalwart and honest? Are they fair in their dealings? Do they speak the truth, or dissemble in ways we can understand and accept? This is not about their being amiable, popular, or populist. It is not about their having a hip sort of voice. It is very often the opposite. Oddly, it isn’t even about their being virtuous or on our side.
It is simply what it is: a matter of reliability. For that reliability to “reach” us as opposed to being unknown and unseen, it has to be frank. So if we had a single word for what we find reliable, we might come up with “robust”.
Now let’s examine power.
Has power slipped from corporations to The People (especially to the social media)?
If it has, that goes against the massively predominant trend in leftish thought which supposes corporations have been too powerful and are getting more so.
If you do believe firms are too powerful, then you are likely to be attracted to the image of The People gathered in social media at the virtual gate of the firm, fighting back, bearing witness and so on.
However, I don’t think firms are more powerful than they were, the evidence – in the recession – seems to point the other way, but not because of social media.
Norman Lewis at Futures-diagnosis makes the point that corporates now favour social media because they felt insecure with their position in the real world to begin with, which might explain why Apple is less of fan of SM than GM is.
There certainly needs to be more debate as to why and to what extent there is a lack of confidence at the top of corporations; but I maintain as does Lewis that social media is not the cause, though we probably disagree as to what the real cause is (I think it is more easily fixed than he does).
Firms never had much control over their markets, the public or even their brands (remember New Coke?).
Today, however, social media makes it more important than ever for firms to keep what control they have (a lesson Apple seems to have taken to heart with its rejection of social media in favour of command and control).
You might ask, what about Iran? The answer is that it looks like the same-old same-old to me. For all the mobilising power of the social media, there was the countervailing power of state control of its technology. Social media leaves a trail. It is a not a good tool when confronting the state because it leaves its users vulnerable to arrest, persecution, sometimes execution, because it is transparent and easily monitored, and or cut off.
Building trust by corporates, institutions and governments, meanwhile, is not so much about making connections or even about engagement and dialogue with stakeholders but about delivering on promises, developing products, services and solutions, staying true to values and acting with integrity.
It is about substance more than hype and even words.
The most important role of political and commercial expression is to speak faithfully–robustly–about realities.
I should add that whilst I do think most political and commercial communication is about getting robust messages out, I do not underestimate the value of listening.
But consultation isn’t valuable if it can only hear the loudest or most numerous consultees. Nor is it very valuable if its main purpose is to give consultees a sense of “voice”, though this may make life easier for all concerned.
Surely we can readily see that most effective consultation will not merely vent steam, but will actually help people who have to make decisions, make good ones.
Social media may contribute to such a conversation, but there is no guarantee that it will and some likelihood that it won’t.
I love Twitter and can tolerate Facebook. I don’t pretend to have all the answers. Things are moving apace on many other fronts.
There’s no doubt that social media accelerates existing trends–driven by the internet–and that organisations that adapt and see through the hype will triumph.
Clearly, more work needs to be done to analyze how the new trends fit in with the old ones. But right now I’m pointing out dangers and threats to the business of PR and developing some of the arguments and approaches to counter them.
Of one thing I am certain, if firms, governments and other institutions wish to restore their reputations and win back trust they will have to face up to their problems in the real world, as I argued in my WSJ column here.