Public relations needs more than digital natives

Whether you call it digital PR, online PR, or social media (SM) relations – public relations practitioners are being told they must enter this “brave new world”, embrace the “revolution” and engage with “new influencers” at every turn.  With a religious fervour, the gurus and advocates are now on overdrive in promoting technological solutions to assist organisations in monitoring, managing and evaluating every aspect of their public relations.  If your organisation, brand, campaign, or significant executives aren’t totally immersed in social media, their imminent decline and doom is predicted from the tsunami of online crises that are coming your way.

Anyone who has the temerity to question the all-consuming power of social media communications is attacked with all the ferocity of a feral cat.  Malcolm Gladwell is the latest to receive an online roasting for questioning, as Tim Addams in the Observer notes: “the prevalent idea that online social networks represent the future of campaigning and protest”.  After all, social media can claim such achievements as making Susan Boyle a global star, naming and shaming the “cat in the bin” woman, and challenging the X-Factor final line up – parochial UK stories that have gained world attention thanks to YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.

So is it wrong to ask if there’s a total lack of perspective from many in public relations who claim the future belongs to those who are digitally connected?  They’ve become so excited about the tools, techniques and potential of a virtual reality that they’ve forgotten to sanity check their enthusiasm.  Yes, social media can do many amazing things – but the majority of its use is insignificant and/or ineffective.  The world has become overloaded with professional communicators forcing their way into our every waking moment in order to sell us products, services, ideas or behaviour modification.  In this online world, they not only want to talk at us (although that’s frowned upon by the early adopters), but to engage and converse about the minutiae of our attitudes, beliefs and actions.

Rather than fretting about how social media can improve customer relations, organisations should focus on doing their job right first time and avoiding creating the issues that lead to people Tweeting their frustration about the appalling service they receive.  Why aren’t PR practitioners devoting more of their efforts in this strategic direction than in the tactical clearing up little (and big) messes deposited in social media?

Undoubtedly there’s still ample opportunity for understanding social media and other digital tools; learning how to integrate these into everyday public relations work and making recommendations to organisations about optimum strategies.  But surely this is evolution not revolution?  Our predecessors needed to adapt as much to new technologies in their day – whether that was to use the telephone, fax, photocopiers or a zillion other changes to the communications status quo.

Much of the clamour to gain new skills and knowledge seems driven by a fear of being left behind.  Although as in many other areas of life, those coming later to the party tend to benefit from simplification of technology to accommodate mass usage.  Indeed, it won’t be long before the training courses stop and everyone is expected to know how to use social media, because it will be an accepted aspect of life.  As with writing press releases, poor practices will continue – even a media spamming charter won’t change that.

But perhaps we shouldn’t worry as the digital native generation of public relations practitioners is coming our way.  These folk are totally comfortable with social media tools – or so we are told.  In fact, PR students and young practitioners are being encouraged to think this is the only skill they will need; that their career will be entirely about social media.  Why, they should be heading up the digital PR team – giving clients strategic advice and creating imaginative campaigns.  Doesn’t every consultancy need a team of technically adept bright young things to prove its credibility to clients wanting to maximise their online influence?

Take the self-proclaimed digital mercenary, Graeme Anthony as an example – who has “now catapulted himself into the spotlight on a global scale” as a result of his YouTube CV/resumé.  Fortunately Graeme has his head screwed on and questions the hype that has surrounded his initiative.  It does seem absurd that Graeme’s ability to craft a nifty video is seen as “the best job application ever”.  Sure, he is demonstrating self-promotional ability – but how does this translate into the wider skills that PR practitioners require (and Graeme can probably offer if anyone can see beyond the SM buzz)?

The future of public relations requires more than SM-equipped digital natives and we are doing a total disservice to both the profession and young practitioners by focusing exclusively on this emerging set of skills and techniques.  Indeed, when today’s under 10s enter the workplace, it won’t just be PR practitioners, but the entire population (at least in many countries) who will have grown up with such technologies.  Much in the way that most of us today lack the practical mechanical skills of our parents and grandparents, it is likely that future generations will just use the myriad of tools without question.  Whether or not they see these as tools of revolution, or just means of communication, only time will tell.

What I suspect is that it will continue to be critical thinking and strategic understanding that are the core competencies required by leading PR practitioners in the years to come – whether they started out as digital natives or digital immigrants.

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29 Replies to “Public relations needs more than digital natives

  1. Great post ever! As far as I thinks and always says that first and foremost you have to be a good strategist and communicator; these are the main things which makes a brilliant public relations person. Actually your points are very reasonable, and difficult to avoid.

  2. Your points are reasonable, and difficult to dismiss. Nevertheless, I maintain that adults are ahead of kids in making best use of digital technology. I also don’t accept kids have a natural advantage over adults. When I say this I’m making the point about the serious business of work and using new technology in the etherprise. That’s for adults to lead. That’s where the real value of the stuff gets exploited. Kids might love technology, but it is we who socialise them rather than them who teach us how to make use of the stuff – that we invented – for the benefit of society (however inadequate some of of us – including me here – might appear as we fumble with the latest gadgets).

    Kids are self-centered, that’s what kids are like and always have been, but the use of technology in society is a collaborative and value-adding business (that’s not playtime). That requires a general skill possessed by adults, not by the young. Of course, as always, young adults can help with innovation (Facebook, Google, Microsoft etc.) but their success has nothing to do with childish advantages and at the end of day requires execution skills they lack at the start of the venture.

    What does this all mean for PRs? One is that what kids and adults want from digital stuff differs: the market and motivation for kids is play in their own space, and for us it is work and play. Also, I don’t think that creating the myth of digital-whiz kids has done the adult world much good (and by implication our clients’ and our own self-assuredness). It undermines our confidence in the great strides we have made and will make still by commericialising this stuff fully. There’s a useful exploration of the issue here by a leader in the field:

  3. I so dislike the term digital natives when its used to praise youngsters at the expense of their elders. The over 40s, not the kids, are the original digital natives (pioneers). Kids today grow up with digital stuff the way we (the over 40s) grew up with processed food. We hardly knew how milk was processed or what the difference was between wheat, barley, corn and sugar beat. Most of us didn’t know which cereal went into which food on our plate. Likewise, today’s kids get to see only the easy-to-use interfaces on devices that our generation designed. Too few kids get to learn much about the ones and zeros that make the digital world tick. The more that digital stuff becomes taken for granted, the less of a difference the generation gap makes. The only difference today, in my view, is in how we use the stuff.

    1. Paul, I like ‘digital natives’ as a concept not as a judgement though. For me there are some useful considerations if you grow up with technologies that differ to those who come to it later in life. First as you say, the ease of use means small children take to digital in the same way they learn their native language(s). They perhaps form neural brain connections or train their muscles so use becomes more instinctual. They also lack the fear of the new and become incredibly confident in exploring or playing with cameras, computers, etc. A 3rd thing is that they learn from each other which is a great help in terms of shortcuts, etc. All these can apply to those who learn when older but generally ‘immigrants’ are less fluent unless they immerse themselves.

      One of my points is that they don’t need to know how things work much as most car drivers lack mechanical capabilities. Perhaps that frees them up to be quicker and smarter with the tools at least on a practical level.

  4. I’ve been away for a few days in Kiev (Ukraine) to speak at our colleagues’ annual conference (highly professional, by the way), and someone there alerted me about this conversation (not even Blackberry was working..mine, of course, not others’).

    I would just like to express how proud I feel of having been part of this adventure. Thank you, Judy, thank you, Heather, thank you, Markus.


    1. PR Conversations wouldn’t exist (and I wouldn’t know Markus, although I “met” Heather elsewhere) if you, (sixty-something) Toni, had not decided to morph your Toni’s Blog into a collaborative format and invited several of us to participate. So we really have you to thank for the adventure.

      And none of us are digital natives, that’s for sure.

  5. Don Radoli raises some good points. The Net tends to decentralizes communication more than it centralizes it by breaking us up into small groups, even on Facebook. So we don’t have a collective connection to 600 million or to the 1.9 billion of the world’s, or a mere 28% of the total, population which has online access (most of it narrowband, or, as in Britain, mostly shoddy second-rate broadband).

    I’ve spoken before about the dangers of technological determinism (technology is a dependency not the agent) and I think that Heather is very correct to point out that the virtual world mirrors the real one. The starting point should never be with technology as a medium, but with real people with real world concerns which get expressed in different forms in different places as space and time contract

  6. Interesting provocative post, Heather. If we step back and go back to basics, we’ll surely appreciate that there is “no big deal” about the medium (and impcitly its reach) in a long term strategic perspective. It is the substance of the message and the influence it evntually elicits from those you want to influence that is paramount.

    A ridiculous example will illustrate this: all the interlocutors here have access to internet and broad band and can write, and yet, I dare say, will never be as influential as William Shakespeare or JK Rowlings for that matter.

    When I get caught up in a discussion about the importance of a medium, I always remember a quote attributed to a british Prime Minister who proudly announced to Queen Victoria that she had telegraphic contact with her subjects in India — after the establishment of the telegraph from London to this part of the then British Empire. The Queen reportedly replied: “My dear Prime Minister, what do I have to tell the people of India.”

    The claim that there 600 million and therefore one can communicate directly with them does not make business or communications sense. Without a targeted message to a target audience, all communications may be like shouting in the forest — you get an echo of your own voice and nothing more. Come to think of it, what can you tell 600 million people? Are you sure they’re listening?

  7. I’m in my final year of a CIPR accredited PR course, and from my perspective the approach to social media is something that’s actually been very balanced. Our current classes right now focus on ethics, PR strategy and communication skills, not Twitter and Facebook.

    We have had social media classes of course, but it’s always been entreched to us that social media is a tool, a means to an end and a valuable skill, not the only thing we’ll ever need to worry about. At the end of the day, if you come out of a three year course and tell an employer that you don’t have a very firm grounding in social media, you’re putting yourself at a huge disadvantage.

    I disagree with the idea that eventually you wont need to teach anything about social media, it’s an odd myth of our generation that becuase we’ve grown up with computers all around us, it doesn’t mean everyone knows how to use them. There’s a vast difference between bein having a Twitter account and utilising social media effectively as part of a wider campaign strategy.

    Spending 3 hours a day talking to your friends on Facebook doesn’t prepare you for the digital side of a PR career anymore than say, reading Moby Dick will make you a sailor.

    1. Rob – you do raise a valid point about needing to integrate tactics into strategies – which is more about management and yes, that is something where experience and learning will continue to be needed. My point is more that future generations will be equipped with the basic capabilities in much the same way that those entering the workplace today no longer need word-processing or other technical IT skills, let alone how to use a telephone (which were all taught to employees in the past). At the moment, it may well be an advantage to have social media skills – but that used to be the case where CVs trumpeted ability to use Word, Powerpoint, telephone manner etc.

      Simply focusing on the skills aspects of social media won’t be enough in even a year’s time, in my view and hence it is right that the CIPR qualifications reflect the strategic value not simply the tactical.

  8. Brilliant post. Spot on. Good also to see Stuart Bruce join the discussion – he’s one of the few leaders in the field who also talks sense about this stuff. If we step back a bit and look at social media in a wider context of technological and social development (not least the graphical revolution) we should be able to keep our feet on the ground, while pulling the rug from under the people who spread hype.

  9. Editorial influence – public relations, public relationships or whatever this thing we do ends up being called or encompassing – is not just about understanding digital media. It is about understanding how ways of creating influence are digitising, so that we can communicate better.

    PR people in the future will need to be able to understand and work across all forms of media. Everyone has lots to learn. Digital natives must understand conventional media, and vice versa.

    We are guilty as an industry (well, some corners are) of deliberately overcomplicating digital change and using too many big words, which only confuses clients and will not be good for our reputation long-term. We are rapidly gaining tools that enable us to be more commercial in what we do – it’s time for less jizz and more biz.

    1. Great point, Steve. Yes, PR needs more than digital natives. But until the whole of our community is comfortable with the new social/digital paradigm, we need to continue the focus on learning. If that means a temporary shift toward worshipping social media gurus, ninjas and Jedi masters, so be it.

      The core of PR is to influence the opinion of some set of publics. Social media tools are just one way of accomplishing that task. Social media has not somehow usurped the importance of other PR tools or overall PR strategy, but every PR practitioner had better be well acquainted with all of them.

      In practice, that means this industry needs to focus on ensuring its members understand the techniques, strategies and implications that come with the new social media territory. Since the fundamentals of media relations, public affairs, event marketing and the like are well established, it’s no wonder we spend so much time talking about social media.

      One comment here summed it up nicely: “Being ‘digital’ or ’social media savvy’ is now an essential hygiene skill for a public relations professional, but it isn’t an end in itself.”

      Exactly. But until every PR professional knows how to strategically weave social media concepts into their recommendations, we should continue the social media charge.

      1. I still maintain this needs a sense of perspective – are the fundamentals of media relations really well established in PR practice? If so, why do we need anti-spam codes, ongoing debates about AVE measurement and so on. Likewise, why still all the questions about ethics in public affairs – and why are so few events lacking in delivering strategic return on investment? There is a danger that all the focus on social media is just about PR practitioners being busy fools in another arena rather than asking the essential questions about the quality and value of what they are doing. And doesn’t that seem to echo the charge of the light brigade.

  10. Fantastic post Heather. Chimes with what I’m always saying is that first and foremost you need to be a strong strategist and communicator, that’s what makes a brilliant public relations person. Being ‘digital’ or ‘social media savvy’ is now an essential hygiene skill for a public relations professional, but it isn’t an end in itself.

  11. Having just recently completed PR school I have to agree with you. The backbone of PR will always be strategic thinking. Just because you’ve grown up using the internet does not necessarily mean you’re going to be able to strategize the best ways to use it. Especially from a company or brand perspective.

    When I started my PR schooling in the fall of 2008 social media was just a beginning fad. I chose to learn more about it as I saw it will play a big role in the PR practice of the future, but I did that part on my own while still learning in and outs of “traditional” PR. I chose to learn these traditional skills and transfer them into the digital world.

    My year had no classes that specifically looked at the use of social media, but the following year had one specific class just for it while also incorporating it into other classes. I think that it will be important for future PR practitioners to understand how to use social media, but it’s only meaningful if they can import traditional PR practices into this digital world.

    Just because you grew up digital does not mean that you can run the digital for an entire company because everyone else is too old to understand.

    Sheldon, community manager for Sysomos

    1. Sheldon – thanks for your comments. I do think PR education was rather slow in integrating social media into qualifications. I think there is merit for a standalone module as well as inclusion where relevant in other aspects of a syllabus. This seems to be the approach that many PR degree and professional courses are adopting. But as you indicate, it is necessary to keep up to date with developments, whilst maintaining the ability to incorporate new and traditional PR practices as appropriate into strategies and campaigns.

      One other point coming from your point about those who grow up digital not being equipped to run this area for an entire company is that organisations can be so carried away with all things online that they forget about other means by which we communicate. I happen to believe that as we receive fewer letters in the post, there is room for opportunities to reach people here. Likewise, if fewer people are reading traditional newspapers, those buying them are perhaps more engaged. And, there’s still huge advantage in picking up the phone or meeting face to face that cannot be achieved by Skype or virtual environments. Although of course, the new media does provide a solution when those means of communication are not possible.

  12. Heather, thanks for including a reference to blog {grow} In your article. I would like to clarify that you perhapd mis-read the core point of the article. It was not that students will spend their entire career in social media, it was that I believe, for sound economic reasons, that social may emerge as a stand-alone professional discipline.

    There was a time not long ago that i would have agreed with your article. I come from many years of no-nonsense marketing in blue-chip, Fortune 100 B2B companies. However, after studying and experimenting intensely for the past two years, I have conlcuded that I was wrong and you are too.

    No, we should not throw out what we’ve learned or good PR and marketing fundamentals, but this is indeed a revolution. For the first time in human history we have access to free, real-time, global communication. Anyone, virtually anywhere can be a publisher. This is nothing short of revolutionary because unlike books, and newspapers, TV and radio, websites and email, this communication is two-way, interactive and collaborative.

    Furthere, it is where the people. They are abandoning traditional media while the every study shows conclusively that peole are spending vast, and increasing amounts of time on social platforms. To ignore this places your career, and yout clients, at peril.

    I’m sure this short response will not convince you otherwise and I’m sorry we got off on the wrong foot in our initial connection, but I have consulted and taught on this subject for some time now and have seen enough to conclude that the revolution is upon us.

    Thank you for the thought-provoking article and best wishes, Mark


    1. “I have conlcuded that I was wrong and you are too”

      Giving actual examples and justifications for that claim might give your point at least a hint of validity. If you can’t back up your opinions with facts, they’re worth precisely squat.

      Are people moving away from traditional media and are people more active in social media today than they were years ago? Absolutely. But how much of that is based on a real disinterest in traditional media versus those outlets suffering because of broader economic issues? How will interest in social media change with the post-Facebook generation or when social media fatigue sets in? When will that happen? I don’t know. Neither do you. But without accounting for those (and I’m sure many other) questions and issues, it’s really little more than a guess that social media will thrive as its own discipline well into the future or that Heather’s opinions are any more “wrong” than your own. Remember, for all of your own personal experiences and observations there are those in the field who have also witnessed the opposite.

      1. Jennifer, answering your question would require a PhD thesis.

        There are now close to 600 million people on Facebook. It is by far the largest media channel in the history of mankind. More people interact on Facebook than on all of the U.S. television networks combined. And that’s just Facebook. 100 hours of content are being uploaded onto YouTube every minute. The US Library of Congress is now storing all tweets as a published historical record of our society.

        True immersion and deep understanding of the digital channels is essential to any professional marketer today.

        Respectfully, if you are truly concerned about marketing to a “post-Facebook generation,” instead of facing the indisputable and overwhelming data in front of you right now, there is no fact or figure I could use to convince you.

      2. Then get a PhD thesis before spouting that others are “wrong” about issues you admit you can’t fully understand or account for.

        600 million — how many are truly active? How many of those 600 million give a damn about X, Y, or Z brand as opposed to personal networking, where PR folks would have any reach whatsoever? Throwing out generalities doesn’t make a business case. And guess what. More than 600 million people communicate (*gasp*) face to face every day. Does that mean the future of PR is in those who can get there and reach people one-on-one? No. It means you stick to the fundamentals and you use the tools you have available to you at the time. In no way does it mean the tools drive the discipline.

        No one here has said that PR folks don’t need to have some understanding of digital media. But you hyping it up as though it’s something incredibly new or innovative at this point is just silly. It’s not. Social media is not new. It began with chat rooms and forums rather far back in the day. We just have a bad habit in this industry of thinking that throwing buzzwords around makes something shiny, new, and different and if we can toss a new title in for ourselves, all the better.

        And (respectfully), if you’re neglecting the fact that the post-Facebook generation is already here and growing in one of the most coveted market segments out there (teens and young adults) then there’s no fact or figure I could use to convince you either. But my point remains, if you have no facts and figures to back it up, don’t come into someone else’s home blatantly telling them they’re “wrong” just because you have a difference of opinion. Disagreement is one thing, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But it doesn’t make you “right” and someone else inherently wrong because you have different thoughts and experiences that tell you two different things.

    2. Mark – I appreciate your post’s primary point was about a stand-alone career in social media, but to me that seems no different to many other separate disciplines which provide tactical, often niche services to organisations. In terms of a revolution – I honestly believe claims for this are overblown. Is the development of free (well you need to have access to the technology and relevant skills – so some costs involved actually), real-time, global communicaitions really as significant in world history as the development of the printing press? Of course, anyone today can become a publisher – but surely that was true once people learned how to read and write; our publishing was just on a more micro level with letters, etc. Also, although the potential of social media is “two-way, interactive and collaborative”, the vast majority of what is being “published” is none of these things. Few Facebook groups evidence much life, most LinkedIn groups seem to be full of job seeking self-publicists and Twitter is dominated by broadcast statements whether originating from companies or individuals commenting on what they have just done or indeed seen on television.

      I am not advocating that PR professionals ignore social media but that it is put into perspective; not least because of the change that you indicate. Those who make their careers specifically in social media may well end up being as niche specialists or indeed as redundant as typists, telephonists and other technicians whose specialism is now everyone’s basic competency.

      The point for me about this “revolution” is that every small child is being equipped to see this not as a battle, but just normal life. So we all need to look beyond social media for our careers if we don’t want to risk being an expert in something that will no longer requires expertise.

      1. The printing press was indeed revolutionary so i think this comparison is valid. Prior to the social web there was no way for a common person to have a global voice. That, I contend is revolutionary too.

        Any one who reads my blog would know that I have a background in traditional sales, PR and marketing. For anybody entering one of those fields today, I strongly recommend studying the fundamentals. Social or not, the fundamentals still apply. So, I am not somebody who approaches this topic with religious fervor.

        However, you criticize those who “believe the future belongs to those who are digitally connected.” Do you see a lot of people hanging arond coffee shops reading magazines? Or are people literally tethered to their mobile devices? Texting is the new conversation. Facebook is a lifestyle. Mobile enables an always-on, always connected way of life that is addictive and permanent. There is no going back. There will be no resurgence of traditional media.

        You are ignoring overwhelming facts. Any one entering our field MUST embrace the digital age or be irrelevant.

      2. Mark – although the social web enables the “common person to have a global voice” – even a quick scan of its use demonstrates that few are using it for such a purpose in the sense that may affect anyone in PR, marketing or sales.

        And, yes, I do still see people reading magazines, newspapers and indeed, talking to real people – rather than simply being “tethered to their mobile devices”. Texting may be the “new conversation” – but how many of us relish, let alone have a text conversation with brands? Facebook as a lifestyle doesn’t mean looking forward to the latest communications from companies. People may well be “always-on”, but like the hundreds Tweeting away last night, they are discussing the latest television programme – that’s still the power of mainstream media.

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