Online public relations is not that different—crowdsourcing isn’t a feasible strategy

There’s an old adage that decisions by committee really aren’t that effective, particularly as the eventual outputs and outcomes tend to be second rate. Plus no one is truly accountable or assumes an authoritative role and voice.

This tends to be an internal problem, perhaps reflective of a corporate culture lacking in vision and leadership.

Something similar that’s perplexed me for awhile is this nascent concept about recruiting “friends” to assist in online corporate—or, more often, client-based boutique agency or consultancy—public relations.

Primarily this is in regards to social shares and comments about posts on various platforms, regardless of their:

  • intrinsic value and how much they relate to the host organization’s offerings or ethos
  • originality, objectivity and thoughtfulness
  • effectiveness in communicating pertinent information, rather than opinionating
  • sense of decorum (a key public relations skill); or
  • suitability of audience (particularly when unrelated to known or unknown organizational stakeholders or publics).

In the case of client-based work, sometimes things that are actually proprietary are used as online social fodder without explicit permission, mainly to promote and highlight the agency or consultancy work, rather than the organization paying the bills.

How does crowdsourced PR and marketing happen?

Often the concept revolves around a (cult-like) personality that enchants and encourages others to undertake the social PR or marketing work for free, whether by shares or supportive comments. And by supportive comments I’m referring to those “filter bubbles” of discussions, which tend to be of the “confirmation bias” variety.

Unlike traditional media, it’s rare to see a true debate about current events (usually a perceived company online “crisis”), concepts or ideas taking place in social media platforms such as smaller company blogs or Facebook accounts. That’s because too-often a Lord of the Flies scenario results, with the Ralph/Piggy dissenters being set upon. Rather than suffering “the pain of independence” (a term I learned about in Susan Cain’s thoughtful book, Quiet, which played a big part in my Boring Byte column), most nonconformists (i.e., independent thinkers) retreat from further commenting, at least from “owned” social properties.

Ergo, the person who first offered the information or opinion appears unchallenged. Whether that translates to more clients is up for further evaluation, as debates present an opportunity to re-examine, demonstrate knowledge and expertise and offer proof points.

It’s not unusual to find that many of the acolytes are much younger and, inevitably, less experienced in the public relations discipline.

Alternatively, the players focus on a similar type of practice, so a quid pro quo type of unspoken deal is in place. With platforms that operate on a basis of forming “tribes,” it’s actually rather overt and obvious that a sharing arrangement is in place.

Note that I don’t see many companies/brands participating directly in this type of tribal content sharing; similar to the offline world, corporate employees focus on promoting their own company or their partnerships with others—maybe research or case studies related to the industry or sector—not unaffiliated consultancies or individuals. This type of platform appears to appeal most to North Americans, particularly marketing consultants.

What’s the ROI of time/sharing?

In return for this endorsement, generally the “sharers” and frequent commenters are petted and feted, perhaps thanked, highlighted and/or linked to in later articles or have their online communiqués similarly social shared, i.e., no-cost rewards. Maybe he or she is asked to produce a guest post—again, for free. Sometimes a person even gets hired by a small business CEO who takes a shine to him or her—particularly junior practitioners—or two, like-minded “social” consultancies set up short- or long-term partnerships.

Even if none of the above result, I imagine the hoped-for trade off regarding participating is social profile (i.e., a higher “personal brand”) and a sense of being liked, nay “nurtured” as part of a cohort led by a recognized individual.

That’s the clever part of this paradigm, participants feel like they are part of a community, so they don’t conceive of themselves as being unpaid labour or have a sense of being “used.”

The primary appeal is personal vanity. But if you are employed by an organization of any size, particularly in a public relations or marketing capacity, the question one must ask:

Is this the best way to spend social time, essentially highlighting and promoting another business?

How viable is this social construct?

No matter what country you work and live in, I suspect you’ve witnessed a similar kind of “social” construct and messianic influencers, with only small cultural variances and details, meaning my observations resonate.

I’m sure it is its own form of dedicated—possibly slogging—work, so full credit for the ingenuity and persuasiveness demonstrated by these social PR or marketing “leaders” in inspiring this type of unpaid devotion, particularly for an extended period of time.

My question to middle- to senior-level, in-house or large agency practitioners is whether you’ve had individuals not affiliated with your organization ever doing this kind of ongoing free promotion and persuasion for you in the offline world? (Affiliated individuals would include your communication team and other staff, partner organizations, maybe former employees who left on good terms and remain supportive.)

I don’t mean formal blogger relations.

And this goes beyond the concept of “brand champions,” particularly as most champions aren’t friends employed in various communication fields. The best brand champions are organic, with no affiliation beyond appreciation for a company’s ethos and/or its products or services.

In particular, I’m thinking of when the individuals in question are, to at least some extent, a “competitor” for market and mindshare.

I’m confident the answer is no.

(Another proviso is that this doesn’t relate to PR or communication association work undertaken in a volunteer capacity—or any volunteer work for that matter. The next post on PR Conversations will demonstrate an ”information partnership” between competitor PR agencies. Rather, I’m referring to the competitive marketplace of B2C and occasionally B2B.)

The challenge to organizations and larger agencies

If your organization is committed to including a social media component into its integrated communication and public relations programs, this is what you are coming up against—all of the noise and the distractions, some of it a bit manufactured as described above—in the space regarding devising nutritious content.

I’m sure your C-suite isn’t overly concerned about not having the attention of competing practitioners, but the perception may be that your messages aren’t being heard or shared as much as they should be, compared to others.

That’s because your communication team and you are the ones paid to perform the work and reach out to appropriate stakeholders, not a roving social posse of communication opinionaters. If it is high-quality and appropriate information, specific to your long-term and consistent organizational narrative, hopefully it will be consumed and shared.

There won’t be short cuts and likely there won’t be a coterie of near-automatic sharers and commenters, beyond core constituents or people who find you via search. But remember that it’s the quality of the shares and questions/discussions, not the quantity.

And it’s the outcomes: the business that results, the partnerships that are formed and the reputation that is maintained.

Ergo, I wouldn’t get too discouraged about the quantity of overt online attention, particularly if the aim is long-term memory and organizational narrative credibility, related to reputation, value and relationship building.

How can this social construct be useful?

If you are in public relations/communication hiring (employee, agency or consultancy) or partnering mode, I do think it’s useful to pay attention to this social construct and digital footprints people are leaving. For example, look to potential candidates for the following:

1. Do people offer opposing but on-topic, well-argued and thoughtful views—I like to say “fact-based, rather than opinion-laced”—even in the face of groupthink?

2. Does their discourse and debate always remain civil?

3. Do they make sure to debate ideas, rather than attacking individuals?

4. Can you sense any breaches of trust and privacy, such as publishing or offering information—or an opinion on something—that was obviously off the record and not cleared by the organization or individual in advance?

As counsellors for corporate issues and reputation management, you want assurance that (appropriate) discretion, knowledge and skill set seen online will continue offline within the organization by the new public relations hire.

I’m sure you’ve seen it happen where a bright individual with a high and active online profile gets hired by a large, credible organization. Suddenly he or she is not nearly as active or noticeable online.

The reason for this is because the person understands working for a company means that the corporate brand takes precedence over the personal one.

After all, organizational public relations really can’t be crowdsourced.

Nor should it be.

Articles referencing this post

The Hidden PR Persuaders (Flack’s Revenge)

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18 Responses to “Online public relations is not that different—crowdsourcing isn’t a feasible strategy”
  1. Don Radoli says:

    Judy,

    A pleasant coincidence that you mention “Confirmation bias” in your post when we have just had an
    e-mail exchange here on the phenomenon. Specifically: supporters and opponents of a liberal immigration policy in Norway always find support for their position in our decisions. Damned if we do and damned if we don’t.

    Ironically, the validity of the “Confirmation bias” hypothesis is itself subject to the bias. Those who believe in it tend to over-emphasise its relevance in persuasive communication to an audience that is for or against a given position. Conversely, those doubt its validity under-empasise its effect.

    This youtube video illustrates the case: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CjWOP1aLEIs

  2. Judy Gombita says:

    Thanks for the comment and the link, Don. Serendipity that a similar discussion is taking place in your office.

    At least when it comes to the issue of “a liberal immigration policy” in Norway–or not–the people having the discussions are the direct stakeholders. To give an example of what I was illustrating, it would be citizens of other countries (say the other Scandinavian ones like Finland, Sweden and Denmark, or maybe The Netherlands, which is going through its own immigration challenges) weighing in on the discussion.

    Have you read either Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble or Clay A. Johnston’s The Information Diet? Although neither is directly related to public relations and persuasions, both relate to the idea of hanging out primarily with people who “think” like us. In fact, Johnston even cites Pariser (as his book published later).

    I’m interested in seeing how Norway resolves the issues, not only because of the horrific mass shooting incident and later trial, but because I’m from a nation where immigrants (and accommodation) are shaping not only our current country, but our future ethos and directions.

    You definitely work in a challenging area of public relations. Wishing you the best of luck in reaching all of the right stakeholders with reliable and relevant (i.e., “nutritious”) information.

  3. Judy – interesting post (oops, wonder if that’s confirmation bias???). A few thoughts I had after reading the post.

    First I was reminded of a great book by the late Stuart Sutherland called Irrationality. He talks about the availability error – or relying on what first comes to mind. As we’ve discussed before, this seems a danger of the always-on, instant response mechanisms induced by engagement in social media. Which I suppose in turn feeds into confirmation bias (love the video – Don).

    Secondly, not sure if you’ve seen this Forbes article about Twitter displacing the news release (http://www.forbes.com/sites/peterhimler/2012/10/02/can-twitter-displace-the-news-release/). It talks about how online ‘influencers’ promote something actively via Twitter. Well of course, this is a way of biasing the news agenda as it gives the impression of a particular viewpoint being dominant (so much for objective opinion poll research – if there ever was such a thing).

    I’m not saying the traditional printed word is infallible, but you have to wonder if the increasing reliance on social media at the expense of traditional media (http://www.people-press.org/2012/09/27/in-changing-news-landscape-even-television-is-vulnerable/), contributes ever more to the irrationality, bias, crowd-sources information that can have influence when it shouldn’t.

    There is perhaps an illusion of openness and accessibility to information – which would certainly be an improvement on the way we increasingly learn that traditional journalism often restricted the public’s awareness of things that they probably should have known.

    But, are we losing some of the benefits of considered information – or even the transparent bias or position of those arguing a position? I heard an interesting item on the radio yesterday evening about the value of peer review for journals. Now that could be considered crowd-sourcing (and I’ve heard before how some journals only favour certain viewpoints), but at the same time, isn’t there merit in having expert debate around a topic. Perhaps the ideal is that this could take place in the public arena – but then we’re back to the bias and loading of comments place.

    • Judy Gombita says:

      Heather, given that you had no idea (or input) what I’d be writing about in this post, I don’t really think you finding it “interesting” is confirmation bias. More likely is the fact that we are both independent thinkers, who more often than not arrive at similar observations and conclusions (after a fair amount of reading and thinking, that is). I like to say “kindred spirits” rather than confirmation bias. But maybe that’s just some semantics justification. :-) Besides which, in your usual fashion you’ve gone off into all kinds of interesting directions in your part of the conversation (or organizational narrative). I’ll take a stab at all of them.

      Confirmation Bias

      I do think it’s interesting that all three commenters so far have focused on the “confirmation bias” aspect of my post, which was really some window dressing to a post about a social media and public relations strategy for business, including which “owned” social media properties made the most sense to spend time. That having been said, I must be agreeable (nay, decorous) in following the lead of commenters as to what sort-of on-topic area to discuss. Especially when you are all offering up such great links!

      Irrationality

      I like the sounds of the Stuart Sutherland book. When was it written? I’m curious to know if it was early enough to include any of the online sphere.

      Definitely the always-on, instant response mechanism tends to kick in. My observation, though, is that most of the filter bubble discussions revolve around the “this was right” or “this was wrong” idea, perhaps expounding WHY the organization or person was right or wrong. But often times I find (in social media) that response mechanism kicks in before the right questions were asked. Two examples, both American:

      1. The Susan G. Komen incident last year, when it was announced that in future Planned Parenthood wouldn’t receive grants in future.

      A firestorm erupted of political partisanship and pro life or pro choice sentiment.

      I’m sitting there thinking: When was it decided that a private foundation had to justify where it would give monies raised? Let alone the fact that my understanding was that monies were being raised for RESEARCH to find a CURE for BREAST CANCER. Of course the much bigger, American-centric question that didn’t appear to be asked by anyone except this Canadian: Why is it people think it’s the responsibility of a private foundation that was set up for research to fund lower-income women’s regular healthcare? Coming from the same POV as other western nations, I think it’s the STATE’S responsibility to provide universal healthcare. Not a private foundation. Not an organization with the name of “Planned Parenthood.” (Planned Parenthood exists in Canada, as well, but its mandate more closely resembles its name.) PP doesn’t even provide the sort-of-related to research mammograms for crying out loud, only screenings.

      2. Today I come online to find another social media frenzy, because a well-known kitchen appliance company was tweeting about the presidential debate and one, stupid tweet happened, somewhat derogatory to President Obama. All of the discussion seems to centre around how the quickly deleted tweet and apology, etc. were handled. Was it done right? Could more have been done? Did it totally suck?

      Me? I’m sitting there thinking: why on earth would a kitchen appliance company be tweeting about the presidential debate?! How on earth would that fit into its mandate and communication strategy?

      Twitter vs. Traditional News Releases

      I’ve only skimmed that (long) Forbes article so far, but I think this might be another confirmation bias reaction. After all, a lot of marketers who have gone digital in a major way keep trying to convince their clients (and others) that they really don’t need to spend time in traditional media relations or look to get coverage in mainstream media. Why not? Because they can do all the same stuff online, on their “owned” properties. These tend to be the same marketers who have it forever stuck in their heads that “public relations” is nothing BUT media relations. You know, of the “marketing PR” variety. Good luck when it comes to a crisis or any other issues or reputation management scenario, when you sure as heck want to persuade the media and publics about your business case.

      As to your other observation about media, at the fairly recent (annual) Word on the Street Festival I attended one panel session about “The Future of Journalism.” I have to tell you, one of the panellists, who is the associate chair of the Ryerson University School of Journalism made a lot of derogatory remarks about public relations, talking about too many students going over “to the dark side” upon graduating, how many puff pieces were placed by PR people and their maneuvering, etc. But, she also indicated at the end of the panel that she found far too much present day journalism focusing on “opinons” over (fact-checked) “information” and at least some balance in reporting.

      Peer Review

      It’s interesting that you brought up peer review, because at one point (before the post was already getting longish) I thought about talking about what resources we could or should look to (over that of online “experts”). This was primarily aimed at the younger practitioners. What their university professors had said, what was in the textbooks and what their national PR association was producing were some of the guidelines I’d suggest, particularly from a decorum point of view, as to what should and shouldn’t be said, how to argue a position, what is proprietary information, trying to balance all points of view before responding, etc.

      Aren’t those sources all “peer reviewed” to a certain extent? Shouldn’t young practitioners take their (online) cues from the classics, rather than these online “leaders?”

      • Don Radoli says:

        It is irrelevant whether you think it is not interesting that your readers choose to comment on only one aspect of your text. After you (as the author) have delivered your text, it exists independent of you. Possibly you other points were uninteresting — in this context. A judgement to made by your readers.

        Different texts exist for different purposes. In the PR field they should ideally exist for impact or influencing an audience. They’re rarely tailored for an audience of one or two as you seem to suggest.

        A text on PRConversations, is by its very nature targeted to a wider audience than just “self-narration” — wanting to hear the echo of one’s own voice that inevitably results in “self-affirmation”.

        Some of the mistaken assumptions we as communicators make include assuming that our audiences have the same communication preferences as ourselves. We sometimes to structure our communications on what we intend to do and not the impact or effects we intend our message to have.

        We also tend to present arguments in the order that makes sense to ourselves, assuming if our audience doesn’t get it, it’s the audience that has a problem.

        The ultimate objective of any persuasive writing (as I assume all PR texts are), is to get your audience to receive, comprehend and hopefully accept your arguments and act on them.

        • Judy Gombita says:

          I actually found it “interesting” not “uninteresting” Don. It’s quite helpful for future posts in terms of what or may not resonate. Of course in this case (so far) that would apply to Heather, Bob and you. (I can also tell you that Page View numbers are quite healthy, meaning that a lot more people are reading than commenting.)

          This is very true:

          “Some of the mistaken assumptions we as communicators make include assuming that our audiences have the same communication preferences as ourselves. We sometimes to structure our communications on what we intend to do and not the impact or effects we intend our message to have.”

          It’s the concept I argued in my Nutrition Byte column (on Windmill Networking): devising your “content marketing” strategy to provide the information your stakeholders need or want, rather than simply pushing out all of the information you THINK they want or that the organization is telling you must be shared (you know, like those “media releases” that actually have zero news, only marketing or corporatese).

          I do appreciate you weighing in (twice), as that means at least one part of this post resonated with you or that you wanted to provide more information or argue something otherwise. For me that is a compliment. And I agree with you that “The ultimate objective of any persuasive writing…is to get your audience to receive, comprehend and hopefully accept your arguments and act on them.”

          Here’s hoping you accepted at least part of my argument.

          • Don Radoli says:

            Mea culpa, Judy. I now notice that your first sentence under “Confirmation bias” above starts: “I do think…” For some reason my mind connected the do and the first letter of “think” into “don’t” and voila the textual “tirade” was in motion. You could say “I was reading to write not to comprehend. My mind filled in something that was the complete opposite of what you had written.

            Thanks for the link to Bob’s blogpost.

  4. Bob Geller says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful post Judy, enjoyed this, although I am sure that it made a lot of people squirm. Hard to argue against the logic you present, yet those tasked with social media in support of marketing and PR have the very real challenge of scaling the effort, and crowdwsourcing, insourcing, whatever we call it seems to be a tempting option.

    On the subject of confirmation bias, please see this NY Times op ed. How do you change minds in polarized echo chamber of today? http://nyti.ms/QHEpWL

    • Judy Gombita says:

      I’m glad you found it a worthwhile read, Bob. I deliberately did not name any names (or organizations) because it really is more of an aggreate or composite of behaviour that I’ve witnessed, ever since blogging really started taking hold. The other social media components and the desire for people to “share” content seems to be what’s really ramped things up.

      If people squirm that means they recognize themselves (or their “friends”) in the scenario. And you only squirm when you know what you are doing isn’t (quite) kosher. The possibility exists that perpetrators think it’s perfectly fine. Or that they’ve never heard of PR Conversations and our ethos, so really could not give a damn. :-)

      I’d be very surprised if my article caused YOU to squirm, because I’ve never seen you exhibit any of that kind of crowdsourcing in your own writing (your agency blog, personal blog or column on Windmill Networking). You simply produce great content and interesting points of view that get read and shared naturually. And you know the job and the type of work you are paid to do at your agency, so that’s what you spend the bulk of your offline AND online time doing–right?

      Thanks for the link to the New York Times article. Now I have a new phrase, “affirmation bias” to add to my collection. :-) Like the Forbes one, it’s rather long, so I’ve only skimmed it so far. I’ve printed it out to read when it’s quiet and I’m less distracted.

      (That’s something I dislike about the Forbes articles, Heather. They are equally long but put on numerous pages. Even if you choose to print it out, you have to print out several pages. I think this article was over six pages.)

      Anyhow, thanks for reading and sharing (without prompting!) and comenting on this post, Bob.

  5. Judy Gombita says:

    On his Flack’s Revenge blog, Bob Geller wrote an interesting, complementary post: The Hidden PR Persuaders

  6. toni muzi falconi says:

    very much enjoyed post and discussion. good things are always happening here. congatulations.

    • Judy Gombita says:

      Thanks for the feedback and encouragement, Toni. Hoping to post the John Paluszek (Ketchum) and Katie Sheppet (Edelman) interview soon, which shows the “information partnership” paradigm in a very good way!

  7. Bil Huey says:

    At the risk of engaging in what Don terms “self-narration,” and, as one who has suffered “the pain of independence” for most of my professional life, I can say that crowdsourcing is an aberration, a cybermob in search of a mission, and—all in all—a crock.

    Consider PRSA’s recent crowdsourcing exercise to come up with a new definition of PR. Not an original thought emerged, despite thousands of bytes and lots of kibitzing. The result was not a definition but a description of what PR people think they should be doing but usually aren’t.

    Crowdsourcing appeals to marketers because marketing is a numbers game, and by its very name crowdsourcing is designed to generate sizable numbers. Like focus groups, crowdsourcing may be useful for insights, but I wouldn’t bet the farm on anything that comes of it.

    • Don Radoli says:

      I can assure you you’re not “self-narrating.” Hilarious visualizing a “cybermob.” Hope it’s less dangerous its cousins – cyberstalkers.

    • Judy Gombita says:

      I can see you having suffered the “pain of independence” Bill! :-)

      I must disagree with you about the PRSA crowdsourcing initiative, including success or not. I think the reason much of the cybermob rebelled against the final outcome definition, is that it was mainly marketers, agencies and vendors, most unaffiliated with PRSA, who participated and wanted an end definition that spoke to tactics and platforms (like the Internet) that THEY did and USED, rather than trying to define the communication management function.

      Remember, the end definition was much closer in sentiment to the (earlier) CPRS one.

      Thank you for this paragraph, though. I really like it and agree…so you aren’t independent in that thinking!

      “Crowdsourcing appeals to marketers because marketing is a numbers game, and by its very name crowdsourcing is designed to generate sizable numbers. Like focus groups, crowdsourcing may be useful for insights, but I wouldn’t bet the farm on anything that comes of it.”

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