New tools don’t make New PR

I probably dont come to this in the best frame of mind, having just listened to several hours of rant about how social media is The New PR. I am a little jaded by this, as it has become something of an old story, particularly if you have been involved with the ongoing application of online communications tools. As each new group of practitioners comes across Pandoras social media toolbox they tend to either blanche in horror at the enormity of it all or realise the potential and start building applications into their strategies. The other dreaded course of action is that they become New PRevangelists, filled with the kind of zeal previously found only among reformed smokers. So Im going to take a moment and add my own contribution to the melee…

Social media tools – blogs, podcasts, video casts and so on – are just that. Tools. The rate of development in the field is such that already, in certain quarters, there exists a certain nostalgic fondness for the days when a blog was just a blog. If you listen to the twitter, you will, as a practitioner, realise that these particular tools simply allow us to connect more quickly with those who populate the communities we serve. Take Twittervision as an example. In 140 characters we tell the world (or our community) our story of that moment. This mix of bulletin board, instant messaging and signpost blog becomes our own personal newsflash. We can alert our communities to the most recent activity our organisation has undertaken, stay in sync with other developments and within seconds – using our tinyurl -communicate in real time so we can exchange goods and services, explain the intricacies of a new development or simply use that real time to further build the relationship.

Fabulous. We can connect with millions in a second. But do we want to? Really? From a practitioner perspective, the answer has to be no, we really dont. I am much more interested in creating a precise and lasting connection with the communities that my organisation serves than a heady rush to the top of Technorati. Creating meaningful conversations with the individuals within our communities so that we can, together, build something a bit more lasting than a one-laugh wonder viral campaign.

If you want to use a blog to build a personal following, earn your money from GoogleAds or similar, then by all means go for the mass-media model. Over the last five years or so, many people have done that extremely successfully and some, sadly, have fallen victim to the dangers of online celebrity. But from a practitioner perspective, social media conversations need to enhance understanding, share knowledge, add some value and create discussion – but within the context of the relationship building process. Social bookmarking, variations on Twitter, services like MobaTalk and of course good old VoIP will develop further but ultimately the content we create and share will act as the initial parameters for our organisational relationships.

So while some have dubbed social media interaction as the “NewPRor PR 2.0, it isnt. Public relations is about building relationships and while social media tools and tactics have provided considerable food for thought, altered the approaches that can be taken and created new models and methods of operation, the central purpose of building relationships hasnt changed. As practitioners we need to be well versed in the use of these tools and while some of them are a bit more exciting than others, they are the means to an end, rather than an end in themselves.

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11 Replies to “New tools don’t make New PR

  1. Well, what an interesting exchange.
    Markus, I had to smile when I read of your attempts to get people to use email, build websites and learn how to operate in the virtual arena, as I would have been struggling with the same challenges and attempts to persuade at exactly the same time, so your reminiscences really struck a cord with me.
    Toni, I didn’t agree with Peter particularly as society has changed in many ways, depending on where you set your benchmark, where you live and which scientists you favour. I have also read his final sentence many times, wondering if I was misinterpreting the meaning –
    “suspect you could have more fun and learn more from a chat room about public relations that was open to the world at large …”
    As this is a platform open to the world at large and one much more open than a chat room where participants generally operate in a closed, protected system (unless of course, I have missed something in the reading of his words and would welcome enlightenment) I did find that remark a little confusing.
    Some blogs have a large readership, some small, but it really isn’t the size that matters – as always, what matters is the quality. A blog aimed at just one reader might well be the one which makes a significant difference to the state of a particular relationship if it helps progress dialogue necessary to build a better relationship.
    Brian is right too, in response to the ‘how would we have done this’ before question. There were – and are – many other platforms, from bulletin boards to carrier pigeons (even the odd phone call perhaps, although Skype and JahJah have really blown that away too) but what makes the current tools remarkable is their ease of use, accessibility and portability. We can listen more effectively and when you then add the requisite for transparency into the mix – as Markus said earlier – the impact is as heavyweight as Gutenberg’s ‘tool’. But as I said at the start of this conversation, the inherent usefulness, flexibility and connectivity of social media applications doesn’t make them the ‘New PR’. I think what they have done in our area of operation is help a large number of practitioners realise (when perhaps they didn’t before) that public relations is about building relationships and as part of the process, they can use unfiltered channels such as the ones we utilise on this platform.
    The quote which Markus kindly added:
    “Societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media … than by the content of the information” (Marshall McLuhan, 1967, The Medium is the Message)”
    I personally feel still belongs to 1967, rather than 2007 (sorry if this is in anyway disrespectful to McLuhan fans) because it is the participatory element which is the key to social media – the content, conversation and creativity – which makes it powerful, not the mechanism itself. We have been able to whizz information all over the place for a long time – beginning probably a couple of years after the quote with the first landing on the moon, which my parents marked by renting one of those ‘new fangled’ colour television sets so we could see it all happening (yes, I know there is a certain irony there, given the footage was greyscale). What individuals were not able to do previously was to participate in any significant way. The technology allows us to forget about the media we use and concentrate on the message in ways that would have been inconceivable in 1967. Maybe the enabling capacity of social media means that that in itself allows users to shape a different society, in which case McLuhan is still relevant, but, I would advocate, only temporarily so, as we become selective and choosy in the way we deliver our content to the relevant individuals, faced as we are with a multiplicity of filtered, unfiltered and semifiltered channels. The medium becomes immaterial in a message-centred, relationship-orientated environment.
    The ‘disruptive’ technologies will continue to develop and new applications will be introduced almost daily – but our ultimate business, that of building relationships, will remain the same. So the content, the shared meaning, the conversation and the discourse are the really important things, and these will continue in some form or another even when someone switches the power off, the battery has run out on the laptops and we are revving up the carrier pigeons again…
    On the upside of all this, I am quite chuffed (old UK expression meaning ‘jolly pleased’) to fall into the ‘nerds and techies’ category and I hope Markus this helps you with your rant – or it might just tip you over the edge into a new one, which I look forward to…

  2. Turns out the International Association of Business Communicators has NOT discontinued its podcast. The association simply took the link off its web site for a while, and has now replaced the link, and there’s a new podcast to listen to. Try and look for the link. It’s pretty obvious.


  3. Markus, I’m sure you are aware that Marshall McLuhan is yet another Canadian-born (although truly a citizen of the world) iconic role model. As his house is located close to my own Toronto ‘hood (and I’m pretty sure his widow still lives there), it’s quite gratifying to have a global colleague quote him.

    And I very much like what you said, “multi-faceted, multi-cultural, multi-national, networked, searchable global discourse,” although, ultimately, like Catherine I agree it’s the quality of the conversations and relationships that develop as a result of the tools, rather than the quantity of noise produced.

    In some ways it’s not that different from the established publishing industry: lots of books (around the world) are produced each year, but how many of them really contribute to your quantitative and qualitative knowledge base?

  4. Me again 😉
    May I just add one quote? “Societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media … than by the content of the information” (Marshall McLuhan, 1967, The Medium is the Message).

    @Brian: Of course, YMMV. I can remember the olden days of CompuServe, which then used to be a rather costly, proprietary platform. But I can’t think of any lasting impressions of fruitful debates on pr topics. Reason may be that I didn’t stay very long with CompuServe, because I soon found a decent ISP for my dial-up access to the internet.
    Of course there were mailinglists on pr, and I have been on some of them, and even a few usenet newsgroups. But from my POV nothing compared to the multi-faceted, multi-cultural, multi-national, NETWORKED, SEARCHABLE global discourse that’s going on right now.
    For me it’s a new quality of relationships to my fellow pr practitioners (and scholars) worldwide.
    The failures not being to be blamed on the technology – I totally agree.

  5. We’ll try again, this time hoping that the whole message I wrote gets posted.

    Regarding the question posed in teh first comment:> How would we have had a conversation on PR topics on a global scale in pre-web(2.0) times?

    AND THE ANSWER TO THE QUESTION, deleted from the last time I tried to post it, is: We would have gone to the Compuserve PRForum, which worked for years and years on CompuServe and then via the interner.

    And many of us would have gone to IABC’s own bulletin board, the name of which escapes me, which was pretty good until the IABC brain trust made changes that lead to vast amounts of spam, and the demise of the messaging system.

    IABC’s cuirrent members-only “Memberspeak” has been working fine, technically, for years. Well before we got all caught up in the jargon of social media and PR 2.0 and so on. Memberspeak was and is badly promoted and poorly run, that has nothing to do with technology.

    IAVBC has killed its Podcast, started only a few months ago — fat lot of good social media about communications does for an association of 14,500 members in 60-some countries. (or else IABC just messed up its web site and accidentally dropped the podcast links — but I think it is dead.)

    All of IABC’s blogs are failures — again, notwithstanding the poor technology imposed, not because of anything to do with technology but due to bad communicaitons management.

    For good multinational communicaitons via the web — and from well before PR 2.0 and social media, try and then the forums section.

    You’ll learn a lot about photography.


  6. Phew, what a debate! 🙂
    @Brian: I’m not sure what you were trying to say; or was your comment cut off?

    @Catherine: The twittervision link isn’t working because there a typo in the URL. It should be

    @Toni, Catherine: Peter Walker’s objections amazingly remind me of discussions I had with the majority of PRVA members when I proposed to use e-mail as the main tool for communication within the association. I wasn’t exactly ridiculed but wasn’t received with enthusiasm, either. That was in the early 90s. No need to add that they all use e-mail today. Same happened when I proposed to set up a website as a central tool for informing our stakeholders about the association and current events in the mid-90s. Nevertheless the PRVA website had it’s 10th anniversary last years (not in the initial design, of course) and the stats say there are 50.000 unique clients and half a million page impressions per year.
    Same thing happened, when I proposed to pulp the printed PRVA newsletter and replace it by an electronic one (actually, it’s a combination of online magazine and e-mail newsletter now). Many were fearing a loss of reach. Today we have approx. 2000 subscribers to the newsletter (and podcast), 32.000 unique clients and 345.000 page impressions per year (for the online mag).
    With this verbose listing I’m not trying to demonstrate my influence (which isn’t worth mentioning) or far-sightedness but that fact, that pr practitioners seem – on average – to be very late adopters. This is perfectly okay, as PR is overall and per definitionem “mainstream”. It should and does rely on the tried and trusted. Experiments and the evaluation of new ways of establishing relations usually happen at the fringes and in niches. And usually they have to overcome an enormous moment of inertia until they fit snugly into the general “picture”.
    For me Peter Walker’s arguments indicate a mass-media approach to communication. Btw., even if on a mass-media level there are not so few blogs that can compete with e.g. newspapers as far as reach and influence are concerned (see David Sifry’s recent State of the Live Web for details).
    You won’t be surprised, that I quite disagree with what he says about blogging. Blogs just cannot be judged by numbers alone, but by the influence each single blog has for it’s readership. (I don’t want to go into the details of the “Long Tail” aspects of blogging but want to refer to a recent study by german scholar Jan Schmidt, which show how and why blogs are important and influential even with small readerships). And Walker is totally wrong when he thinks that blogs are only useful for tech nerds and early adopters. Maybe that has been true in 2000 but certainly not now.
    I’m not finished yet :-)) That he reduces his observations to weblogs isn’t very helpful (or satisfying), either. There’s a plethora of social networks and other social media that would (and should) be worth to be taken into consideration.
    And would you all really agree that society hasn’t changed in the last couple decades (Jan van Dijk draws a different picture in his theory of the network society)? Does it really all boil down to honing our skills in manipulating time zones and the transmission of data? If so, all we had to do is to perfect our use of tools – and not our ability to establish and improve relations to our stakeholders.
    He may be right, that the IPRA chat room provides a perfect picture of the state of pr practice, but why should we accept this without argument? The status quo of pr practice just might not be adequate for the challenges we are confronted with.
    (Could someone please stop me ranting on and on? ;-))

  7. by the way, here is my reply to peter walker:

    Thank you for the enlightened encouragement, Peter.
    For me, when I am wondering about what I may have got wrong, I think of you and I take great comfort in knowing you are out there watching over us with all the right answers to all the wrong questions,,, take good care.

  8. Stimulating dialogue…
    I cannot resist the temptation to provoke both of you, and all the others who will want to join our conversation, by reproducing what my good friend Peter Walker just wrote to the yahoo ipra group this morning in response to my good bye letter from tonisblog:
    Good wishes with the new blog … sorry you feel cornered and / or confused by what you see as a new environment. Me, I see nothing new in the acceleration of communication ….I am sure someone could tell me what is new about the environment in which we live other than speed of transmission .. but society hasn’t changed, the work of the social scientists of the 1930s on communication still holds true we just have more and faster media to use.. it makes the whole issue of asynchronous and synchronous transmission of data, and the manipulation of time zones more of a fine art than it was when Gennasi Gerasimov demonstrated that the Reagan White House was not as smart as Moscow when it came to managing communication.
    Blogging is no more than the extension by means of the internet of those small communities of topic based self interested that have always existed to pore over new ideas and internalise common interests. There is some interesting analysis of work done FUJI and others that identify just how small the readership of blogs actually is. Of course when it comes to technical matters they tend to be the places where the early adopters and technical critics live – useful if you want to float a new technology idea or product. Better than most trade magazines but that’s all they are …
    If you want to see where public relations practice stands today then monitor the IPRA chat room and be surprised and then realise that for all the brave talk nothing much has changed and wherever you are in the world the fundamentals are the same as they were and have been …
    But enjoy the blog co-operative ..I suspect you could have more fun and learn more from a chat room about public relations that was open to the world at large …
    Best wishes

    And, now, Markus and Cathy, what do you think of this?

  9. Dear Markus
    I agree entirely that social media tools are disruptive technologies and they have without doubt altered the way we do things – I think I said as much in my last paragraph, but it would seem I didn’t say it very well, so my apologies for that. The technology has changed the way people connect (including this platform, as you so rightly say) and they offer a voice where no voice was heard before. They use the power of community and networks to create change as well as altering the way we use, collect and deliver information. All these things I have mentioned in a comment elsewhere on this blog. There are many, many brilliant things about them and as an early adopter, I have been a user and fan of these mechanisms since their initial development. Really – a big fan!
    I simply have a problem with the ‘New PR’ bandwagon, which considers these tools in isolation and as an end in themselves, much as a previous generation would state that media relations was ‘public relations’ when clearly it was not. Public relations is about building relationships and we use a variety of tools to do this, adding and adapting the new ones as they appear. If the strategy merits it, then use social media as part of your tactics, but don’t count the use of social media as an outcome – it is still a means to an end, not an end in itself. It may well help you to achieve your outcome in a way that wasn’t possible previously – as well as give an instant indication of out-takes in some cases – but the content you create and the dialogue that follows will cement the outcome, not the tool itself. It is not always going to be an appropriate mechanism, particularly when you are developing relationships with communities that don’t have access to the enabling technology – of which there are many. Having watched the evolution closely from the late nineties onwards, I can see a distinct danger that we will end up with ‘information rich’ and ‘information poor’ communities, with the ‘information poor’ left out of the information loop (and ultimately the relationship) because an inclusive and encompassing strategy hasn’t been considered, with considerable consequences for the organisation concerned. And as new economic models are developed – applications in the ‘Second Life’ genre for example – what impact does that have on the excluded ‘information-poor’ communities? Not everyone in the audience is going to be online, or on a mobile (cell) phone, or even plugged in to the electric supply.
    So, if there was a ‘Social Media is Great’ t-shirt, I would have been wearing it for quite a while now – but I still won’t be waving the ‘Social Media is the New PR’ banner any time soon.

    As a PS – the ‘twitter’ that I mentioned was a link to not my description of circumstances or dialogue but I don’t think the link is working! The twitter phenomenon is one to check out – another far reaching tool with long term impact. As well as being a fun diversion in its present form, I think any practitioner joining the dots will see its potential.

  10. Catherine,
    I’m not sure if your post was meant to spark controversial debate, and maybe I’m spoiling your party, but I wholeheartedly disagree that social media are just tools. Of course, tools they are, but not “just that”. There are some strong indicators that they are what one could call “enabling technologies” or even “disruptive technologies”. They change the way people communicate with each other and relate to each other. It may not be the most stringent example but just look at prconversations: How would we have had a conversation on PR topics on a global scale in pre-web(2.0) times? We’d probably read each others publications (if we ever got them to be printed), maybe sent emails to one another.
    Did Gutenberg invent just a tool?
    No doubt it’s necessary that pr folks know how to handle the tool-side of social media (but that’s a no-brainer), but even more so they should understand that it’s not just another set of snap-in tools fro delivering their messages.
    We should look at social media not only from a pr point of view but also (and primarily) from the POV of what used to be called our “audiences”. It’s not “us” who decide, e.g., if twitter is good or bad, a waste of time and a pita, if our stakeholders use it for their ends, what choice (of tools) do we have? We can’t say, no no don’t use that, we have better means, just look at our nice press release (scnr). This would make twitter more than just a tool, it would indicate a shift in how relations are established and maintained.

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