Johnny Depp and the History of Social Media

I’ve just spent a very pleasant half an hour messing around with Johnny Depp. To be precise, I’ve been playing with the mash-up on the Sweeney Todd site which allows me to cut my own trailer for the film. If I got bored, I could trawl the blog, throw a Facebook party or – had I been in time – join one of the many Sweeney communities clustered around the ‘mother site’.

As an example of embedded social media at work, the site’s a peach and demonstrates neatly just how far the tools have come in the last few years. Given that Euroblog will be running in a few weeks, it got me thinking about Toni’s post in which he posed the questions: “Has the relationship between social media and PR delivered on its promises’ and ‘Five years ahead: What will the future look like?’

As far as I am aware, there were no promises made concerning public relations and social media, although the tools have always held great promise and considerable potential for our organisations, clients and communities. Since the web (not the Internet) was born, the value and potential for engaging with communities online has been understood by many practitioners. Even during the static web stage, newsgroups and forums got people talking and when applications such as LiveJournal came on stream, many practitioners were just as quick to see the value of the blogging, RSS etc..

Many found their own ‘voice’ and have exploited the new tools to full advantage, building their own profiles and reputations online. Many of these practitioners are highly knowledgeable and share useful experience, comment and thinking – but sadly, others are caught in something of a time-warp, either locked into mainstream media relations or old marketing paradigms.

You may remember that in 2006, Time magazine voted ‘You’ as Person of the Year. ‘You’ because of the explosion of activity undertaken on the web, via blogs, YouTube, podcasts and every other web interaction from Twitter to

In 2008, I suspect the savvy could just as easily nominate ‘Us’ as Person of the Year (can ‘Us’ be singular?) because the collaboration and connection between us are the things that will increasingly form the bonds of societal change.

Public relations is concerned with building relationships, so as an industry the benefits of using the new channels as and when they emerged were obvious. It must be ten years now since we first applied what would be early versions of  now dubbed ‘social media’ applications for clients and on-going training in the use and potential abuse of the tools was something we viewed as a must even then. A key question isn’t necessarily what the future holds – as nobody can really answer that question with any certainty – rather, what do our future practitioners need to know about the wide variety of communication channels and how should they utilise them in their work.

Conversation about social media tools became a little over-excited in the last year or two, with lots of circular conversations and a fair amount of navel-gazing in all parts of the world. Then early adopters and engine drivers fell into a digestive phase last year as the short wait began for the next stage of the cycle, a useful pause that gave the general collective consciousness a chance to catch up as channels converged. The interesting thing about channel convergence is that any single point of convergence is still, and will remain for some time, a moving target. The current reality is that as tools are developed and become available, convergence is continual, but the cycle depends on fragmentation – a bit like a lava lamp, where the wax heats, merges in the light, gets too big, separates out and then starts again to form a completely new shape.

But fun, clever and snappy as the tools are, they are, or should be, ordinary elements of our work. The tools we use, rather than the job itself  (sorry Markus!). Our primary task remains the same.  Mainstream media has a different agenda because the new tools have changed the way they relate to their audiences. Which poses an interesting juxtaposition. In times gone by, there was a preference for people to have journalistic skills when they moved into public relations. Now journalists need to build relationships, will they be required to have public relations skills?

Our goal of facilitating and building relationships hasn’t changed. The new tools have simply speeded up the process and allow us to interact directly with our communities. Some practitioners, who until recent times concentrated on media relations alone, have experienced a bit of a ‘Eureka’ moment as they found themselves able to bypass mainstream media altogether (as niche community stories shared virtually don’t necessarily need the input or comment of mainstream. We can just get on with the job.

Applications introduced in the last few years allow us to listen, consult and engage more effectively with as wide or narrow reach as is appropriate. So I can connect with an activist community of four or set up a collaborative wiki that allows a 5000 strong community of employees to share knowledge and information about their organisation. I can launch a campaign on Facebook or myspace – or bypass that new ‘mainstream’ by setting up my own social network, creating a new community conversation that generates the understanding necessary to build the best relationship for all concerned.

You only have to glance at the World Bank, the UN, the UK’s diplomatic service, some of the large corporates or small, blossoming businesses like the New Zealand niche beer producer who Twitters away, joining the dots of his company identity, far outside the channels that would have previously been considered the ‘norm’ for such activity. Just thinking about Johnny Depp again for a moment, take a look at how the tools were used to launch ‘Pirates of the Caribbean 2 – Dead Man’s Chest’ and then for ‘Pirates of the Caribbean 3 – At World’s End’. In 2006, the trailers were intercut with ‘newsdoco-style’ footage for video podcasts, available on iTunes, while in 2007, a wikipedia page did the job, allowing fans to embed the latest trailer onto their own blog. In 2008, I can nip onto the Sweeney site and make my own trailer.  Who knows – in 2009, I may have even contributed to plot development, created a background clip or added something to the film’s musical score. More likely, my avatar will have been selected in a pre-production contest designed to prompt a sense of involvement and ownership  – brand loyalty being created at inception rather than at project’s end. Or maybe my hologram will win a prize to watch part of the filming. We become part of the story, rather than just an instructed observer.

Fine for the entertainment industry but (as Brian might say), what about the real world?  Well it doesn’t begin and end with entertainment (although entertaining content is a significant consideration). The NZ Police wiki launched last year connected and led to contributions from thousands more people than the organisation had previously reached using traditional consultation methods. Living history projects abound, people telling their stories by video, text or wiki entry in order to create live histories of communities and neighbourhoods. This knowledge management of neighbourhoods allows people to track change and identify where change is required. And in terms of facilitating change, the Big Green Rig project is an excellent example of technology being used to actually do something, rather than just talking about the technology.

So what does it all mean for practitioners? For our future?

Currently, there is a knowledge gap and that knowledge gap needs closing for those who have or who are about to fall through the cracks of this period of change. People who, for whatever reason, have not had access to the technology, or the inclination to use it.  Additionally, improved knowledge and understanding of public relations itself is required – inside and outside the profession/industry. As Judy reiterated in her recent post, in most places, anyone can pop up and call themselves a public relations practitioner and with a tiny bit of technical know-how present their view of PR to the world, which of course they are entitled to do, but they may well do a whole heap of damage to the profession along the way.

The fresh faces at our universities in 2010 will have grown up with the tools we have been talking about and experimenting with over the last few years. They won’t need to be taught what the tools are, but they will have to be taught how to apply them ethically and appropriately in their future spheres of operation.  They will need to be able to build relationships online and offline; in person in the board room and in the relevant virtual meeting spot, because it is easy to forget that there are other tools out there which haven’t yet gained the visibility or take-up that we have seen with networks like Bebo or YouTube – which remember, only launched in February 2005, had grown to a few hundred thousand users by February 2006 and which when it was bought by Google for a neat US$1.65 bn was averaging 100m video views per day.

The Facebook/Google backlash is already underway. ‘Us’ is a very powerful collective and if the last few years have taught ‘Us’ anything, it is that we won’t be ‘talked at’ but we will ‘talk with’. ‘Us’ will listen only when consent is given to speak and my goodness, the content had better be good. And if content providers start slipping into ‘old ways’ and exploit information and goodwill, we can walk away and go somewhere else where they don’t do that sort of thing, or make something new of our own.

Facebook got it horribly wrong in recent months by using ‘marketing at’ behaviour within a collaborative platform, so it will eventually fragment and dissipate like the wax in my lava lamp, but it will be a slow transition simply because of the high numbers using the platform.

Yes, these are disruptive technologies but they are now the stuff of ordinary life in many places. The World Wide Web Consortium, which aims to support or at least back up and develop the whole show, talks these days of the ‘ubiquitous web’. The web will not be device specific for too much longer and practitioners need to understand how to adapt their communications and conversations accordingly.

So we need to teach people how to create good content that is not device specific, content that is meaningful, useful, entertaining. Content that has evident values reflected and agreed by its communities. Our practitioners of 2010 will need to know how to devise and share this content with the right community at the right time in the right place using the right tools in order to build the appropriate relationships and they’ll need to listen -and listen well.  I won’t go on again about the practitioner as the ‘organisational listener’, but this role becomes even more pivotal as time goes on. Practitioners will be both activists and advocates, choosing and using technologies as they develop – because the ones they will use in 2010 probably haven’t yet hit the deck.

A long time ago, in what now seems like a galaxy far, far away, I was a young cub reporter in the English provinces. Within two weeks of starting my new job I had to go out on strike. We were striking over ‘new technology’. You may remember this advancement – it turned printing newspapers from a hot metal process to computer typesetting? Dire predictions were made, the gates of Wapping stormed and Britain plunged into its ‘Winter of Discontent’. I had no money for my first Christmas as a full time member of the workforce, instead spending long hours warming my hands round a brazier on an ill-tempered picket line.

We were told it was to be the demise of print, the beginning of the end, and assault on the Freedom of the Press. Journalists would be out of a job next, too much would be expected of them and so on and so forth. Now I loved the whole hot metal process. To this day, if I shut my eyes, I can still smell the ink and see the press run (and if anyone finds that a bit sad, I apologise, but I still think it is a sight right up there with rolling waves crashing on a West Coast beach).  But it wasn’t the end, it was just change. It needed a change of mindset, a change of approach and an understanding that things move on. Clever people think up new things all the time and we apply them as necessary because the need to communicate remains the same.

Anyone reading this has most probably grown up in a text-based culture. Recent technologies are actually more attuned to oral cultures and I believe we will see a rise in orality in the years ahead. A preserved orality at that, as we now have the means to record and preserve. That is to be encouraged, because it will allow more people to have a voice. But how will it be encouraged in education systems that favour text-based engagement to orality? Why are children being taught how to use Microsoft software in schools instead of being shown how to create their own open source applications? Hmmm. Maybe we need to go back a few steps in the system.

And, thinking about the future, maybe we also need to think about the sustainability of all this.  The mountain of dead computers and devices. The extra electricity required to keep everyone switched on, conversing, consuming and creating (mea culpa…).  Someone once said that the Internet begins and ends with coal – we need electricity to power it up and cables to connect it all together.  Here in NZ, we have the Southern Cross cable – and we need another one. In 2006, Kenya began a journey I recall to achieve its own cable and the battle to get the dark fibre down – as well as owning the content and maintaining control (look at Google’s rumoured Unity project) will determine much of what happens in the years ahead.

The push for more cable all over the globe reminds me of the start of the railroads in previous centuries – and I wonder what transparency, honesty and openness we will see in the dark fibre companies of the future as this new ‘gold rush’ begins in earnest. And if, when all the cables are in, a country or two decides to snip off their end – what then? At the very least, I hope the collective surge towards improved practice, applied ethics, responsibility and transparency carry on into any disconnected future.

But I’d better stop there. This has turned into a much longer post than I intended and I really should do some work! But it’s a big topic and I’ll be very interested to hear what you think.

So until the electricity goes off and while the fibre is affordable, connected and reasonably uncontrolled, we should be making sure that practitioners know how to listen, how to tell a story to create understanding, how to chose the best channel for the job and how to help their communities understand and contribute to the world around them. If the cable layers and engineers are the drivers, then as practitioners and communicators, we should be the navigators. By thinking more flexibly and using the proliferation of communications tools at their disposal, our future practitioners will have a greater opportunity than ever to make a difference and make the most of whatever the future might bring – cyber pirates permitting of course!

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6 Replies to “Johnny Depp and the History of Social Media

  1. Just another small PS to this post – if you haven’t caught up with the cable woes this week, take a look at the latest ‘cable cut’ news – – is one of the many reports all of which demonstrate just how fragile our social connections can be. The phrase ‘hanging by a thread’ springs to mind!

  2. Thanks Kristen. The biggest thing about Snakes on a Plane wasn’t the snakes, more that the producers added five days of extra filming thanks to the massive online response they had had – they wanted to bring it into line with the fan-base expectation. As a result, the film has its place in the ‘history’ books on wikipedia if anyone fancies reading the whole story.

    Other things to look at include the pace of development in machinima which has increased dramatically through social media. Obviously, there have been a books and documentaries too and I think one of the more edgy bio-blogs is about to cross into mainstream as a film with one of the US ‘mommy blogs’ is being turned into a TV show. It will be ‘commonplace’ any day now (if it isn’t already?) in the same way that it is for music and some of the other arts.

    The interesting one to watch is going to be the political use of social media around the world in the next eighteen months or so – now that will be scary!

  3. Cathy,

    Just on one tiny point of your post: there already has been a film written through social media. The 2006 send-up of against-all-odds police films (Snakes on a Plane) was written this way. You have to like that sort of tongue-in-cheek parody, but some of the dialogue is really pretty funny.


  4. Many points worth debating, Catherine.

    Last year at Euroblog 2007, Giovanni Navarria, a young scholar from Westminster University, presented a paper analysing in depth the Beppe Grillo phenomenon which, as you say, has since grown also in political clout.

    Quite correctly at the time, Navarria claimed that while the blog was highly influential in civil society it had very little clout amongst the political community..but that changed September last when Beppe succeeded in rallying some three hundred thousand live demonstrators in Bologna for his ‘fuck off day’ (literally vaffanculo which translates as ‘up yours!’).

    This morning Italy’s major newspaper, Corriere della Sera -the only one I can buy in form of paper (still like to have my fingers dark after the morning papers) at 7 am from my newstand in the West Village where I am now, about to begin tomorrow my NYU class- cites Grillo extensively maybe because, for once, his position on the after Prodi is similar to that of the editorial board of the paper i.e. change the electoral law before calling for new elections…
    We shall see…

    I will not dwell on the specific italian political situation except to say that I won five preXmas dinner bets based on the cabinet fall before end January, so that when I return home I will begin a tour of my favourite restaurants…which of course does not imply that I am in any way confident that the future will be any better (in fact, if the Corriere della Sera and Beppe prove to be wrong, then it will be far worse…).

    You say that the battle over control is on, and the troops on the ground are as many as they are confused.
    Yet, if we do not want to lose one further opportunity, I believe it is also up to us -those of us who think that social media is a powerful relationship building environment which needs to find a few acceptable generic principles and many specific applications (here I paraphrase Jim Grunig’s et als paradigm for a new global public relations framework)- and that we would not wish the baby to be thrown in the sink with the dirty water, we must make a serious effort to act now!

    It is interesting that you cite the ‘US’ concept because it relates directly, in the very meaning you also intend (I believe..), to a piece I had written a couple of years ago in comment to the New York cinema release of the famous BBC Adam Curtis 2002 four hour documentary (now widely available on the Internet, by the way) on the history of public relations and the Edward Bernays legacy whose title is The Century of Self. I am sure many are familiar with this.
    My comment was then titled ‘From the Century of Self to the Century of Us’ and Richard Edelman was then kind enough to link it in his blog and to recommed it to his readers.

    Yes this issue of ‘control’, however lofty and full of ambiguities, is a major issue which as professionals, besides being normal human beings, we need to confront.

    I am happy to say that it will be one of the major issues discussed at the Bruxelles Euroblog on March 13-14-15 and specifically it will be addressed by one very very excellent thinker prof. Giampaolo Azzoni, director of the multimedia and intercultural communication graduate school of the University of Pavia, highly sophisticated management consultant, jurist, philosopher and editor of the highly instructive blog (in italian sadly).

    Finally, last night at New York City’s Yale Club, Ipra (international public relations association) had its bash to celebrate its new president Bob Grupp with much of the world professional elite.
    Won’t go into details, but I will say that much of the discussion was focussed on public diplomacy (an issue on which the new president is an expert) and on how private and non governmental organizations need to increase their public diplomacy efforts in order to attempt to balance the increasing divide in all countries, none excluded, between the very rich and the very poor.
    As much as this sounds (and also is, quite frankly) lofty, I think that an appropriate and responsible social media is essential for any move forward in this direction.

    I have been trying to contact both Beppe (who I guess everyone knows was and is an elderly and famous stage and tv comedian and actor before having ever learned to type on a keyboard… and now is wisely and intellegiently using his blogabilities to attract younger generations to his artistic production…not to say he is commercial in any way, do not misunderstand me, but that he has been sufficiently capacble of integrating his commercial, political and cultural interests like few individuals. By the way, he is also a very nice guy, although the few times I have recently heard him speak he has begun to resemble those intolerable evangelist fanatic preachers which populate the middle america scene..) and Casaleggio (his social media mentor) to get them to come to Bruxelles for Euroblog 2008 but I have not yet been successful. Am trying.

  5. Thank you Toni – you are very kind. And triggered by your point concerning relationship oriented competencies, this is a ‘PS’ to my post in the light of the resignation of Prime Minister Romano Prodi yesterday.

    Another example of virtual influence and reach at work is the Beppe Grillo blog, which mobilised so many people in Italy last September (now he really would be a great speaker to have at Euroblog and I’d be extremely interested to hear your view on his impact in your country as my view is of course purely external and completely virtual).

    He said, back in September:

    “ The Internet was born free. One of its laws is transparency. You can’t hide anything on the Internet and you can’t tell lies either. The Internet means the end for the politicians who say one thing and do another. Anyone who starts a blog should know that.”

    Grillo’s comments were not directed at PM Prodi, but another politician who withheld unfavourable comments from a blog he ran – so much so, that people cloned the politician’s blog just so they could add their own unfiltered and unmonitored comments.

    Beppe Grillo’s blog – – (I think it is something like the 10th most linked to blog in the world) has acted as both influencer and catalyst in Italy and the perceptions of Italy it creates elsewhere in the world are quite at odds with the warm, fuzzy, cuddly impression I have (as a big fan of Italy) and probably many other thousands of people. And the interesting thing is that his influence on readers like me doesn’t just get us muttering to ourselves about the injustice of it all – oh no. Instead, those with a fringe interest become harnessed into the debate and a percentage of those will then go on to act, either by direct involvement, or by spreading the debate – and altered perceptions – even further afield.

    His blog is a community born from words and thoughts – new relationships formed with direct actions taken as a result of those relationships – which you can see maturing on the YouTube footage. Very nicely joined dots.

    In contrast, we move from Beppe’s desire to ‘change’ actions to some scary remarks from Donald Rumsfeld which seek to ‘control’ actions. His comments are quoted both in the New York Times blog and Air Force News which reported:

    “In an address to an information warfare conference, Rumsfeld said the United States is “sitting on the sidelines” in a global battle of ideas. “We’re barely competing,” and for that reason we are losing, he said…

    “21st-century agency for global communications” to use modern methods to spread the United States’ message about the importance of democracy and freedom, much as the U.S. Information Agency spread that message during the Cold War, he said.

    “The USIA was folded into the State Department in 1999 and the United States “lost a valued tool to help tell the story of a nation that was carved from the wilderness and conceived in freedom,” Rumsfeld told an audience of military members and defense contractors.

    “A 21st-century version of the USIA is needed to harness new communications techniques — from blogs to online social-networking sites to talk radio — to counter a constant torrent of propaganda from radical organizations, particularly in the Middle East, he said.”

    And from those words, we flip to more ‘control’ attempts. Add into the mix the story of the ‘Anonymous’ group of hackers that have taken on the Scientologists, following the withdrawal of the Tom Cruise video from YouTube (1). The group claims the take-down is internet censorship hence their campaign. Finally today,(2) the conviction of one of last year’s cyber pirates for the distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks on Estonian sites – dubbed the first ‘cyberwar’ by the way – and we have a virtual maelstrom of activity where, I would humbly suggest, a bit of relationship building would not go amiss!

    Increasingly, we will see people moved to action by what is said and perceived online. As practitioners, we will be called upon to mediate in these circumstances – and if we are not being called upon we should be out there telling people we know what to do and we can help. (Hands up everyone who has their online crisis plan tucked in their back pocket? No? How come?)

    The fight for control of the social media environment – legal, corporate, financial and otherwise – is on. But like Pandora’s Box, the things released by the technologies cannot be recontained. Controlling the technologies will do no good at all, because the disruption they have caused has enabled people – ‘Us’ – to see what’s possible, so even if control mechanisms are created to prevent words initiating new communities, we know how it’s done and can do it again – we just might have to get a little more creative.
    The hope – which never left Pandora’s jar – is that we’ll stop modelling everything on quasi-Victorian power and control values and start the hard graft necessary to implement new models more suited to now. Ones that work on building sound relationships that facilitate outcomes that create positive change and improvements in all areas of society (business and government included) rather than models that say one thing but do another.

    Relevant links



    3. December’s NYT story on comic turned blogger, Beppe Grillo –

  6. Cathy,
    this is truly a great post and a very timely one at that.

    As you indicate, in a few weeks in Bruxelles (13-14-15 march) many public relations and social media professionals, scholars, thinkers and doers from the euroatlantic zone will be discussing the very issue you elaborate on, thanks to a program jointly set up by Euprera and Edelman, and your thoughts are an excellent appetizer.
    We have almost finalized the full program and I will post on this as soon as it is closed. But be prepared for an astounding array of diverse views coming from all sides of the cultural spectrum… A truly memorable experience it will be…

    Back in 2004 (light years ago..) at the annual Bled Symposium Fabio Ventoruzzo (a young colleague) and I presented a paper titled Integrating Real and Virtual Environments in Stakeholder Relationship Management which, amongst other concepts which have since become obsolete, argued that our profession had, as many times in the past, yet again failed to embrace the Internet as an entirely new and different relationship environment.
    After all, we call ourselves public relators…
    In fact and until then, albeit of course with minor exceptions, we had focussed on the Internet merely as another, however powerful, communication and information tool (exactly like all others had done) not realizing that, if properly approached -as public relators, and not simply communicators or informers- we had the tremendous opportunity to adopt the Internet as a relationship environment (not substituting but converging with the ‘real world’ environmente) which allows us to overcome that historically professional constraint which never gave us the possibility to develop one-with-one (and not one-to-one) relationships with our stakeholders (or influential publics, if you prefer) obliging us to rely on third party intermediaries to get our contents to the attention of larger groups.
    Many of us still need to come to grips with this, because we tend to consider communication and information as our real competencies and to little has been elaborated on the specific relationship oriented competency, with the result of leaving this opportunity to marketing, advertising, sales promotion and, even more so, direct response (in its word of mouth or viral applications).

    I entirely agree with what you write and am happy to have the privilege of continuing to lern from your very thoughtful and intelligent approach.

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