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.