Semantic Web – Not Our Business?

We haven’t swallowed (not to mention digested) this Web 2.0 mouthful yet, and now they are trying to feed us some Web 3.0, or Semantic Web. Well, I have been interviewed about the role the Semantic Web is or will be playing for PR. With kind permission of Semantic Web Company, where the interview originally appeared, I re-publish the questions and answers here, as the readers of PRC presumably are quite different from the Semantic Web crowd. Anyway, feel free to – verbally – chop up what I said. Here we go:

Marion Fugléwicz-Bren (Semantic Web Company): Many experts talk about paradigm shifts concerning Web 2.0, Web 3.0 and the Semantic Web – in which ways can these developments have an impact on the Communications-Management-Business?

Markus Pirchner: As a Public Relations (PR) practitioner, I am less used to differentiate developments by version numbers but by phenomena which might constitute a paradigm shift. Though PR academics currently disagree if Web 2.0 is indeed a paradigm shift, for PR practitioners the communication context is changing rapidly. The gate-keeping role of traditional media is shifting, if not disappearing; a plethora of new technologies and applications are disrupting the ways of communicating with relevant publics and stakeholders, enabling direct, unmediated, two-way symmetric communication with people (as opposed to the previously very common “communicating to”).

In a word, from a PR point of view Web 2.0 is this new territory of relationship building and maintaining of direct communication, which still has to be explored by PR – both in theory and practice. Web 2.0 is not about technology (though it’s based on some amazing stuff) but about social networks, relationships, communication, mindset. It’s unleashed activity with little structure except for the nodes and ties of the social net.

The Semantic Web, or Web 3.0 if you want, will probably not be simply a semantically pimped-up Web 2.0 but will put all the Web on a new level (just think about search technologies). As far as I have understood the concept of the Semantic Web (which might not be very profound, I admit) it will be much more structural and technology-based, though technology might not be as visible as in Web 2.0.

MF: Could new technologies like the “Next Generation Web” affect the PR-Biz in a way that makes PR-people partly obsolete – and how can jobs eventually change in the future?

MP: I don’t really feel fit to make any predictions on how the Next Generation Web will influence the ways PR practitioners will do their job. We don’t even have developed a clear picture yet of the impact the Interactive Web (Web 2.0) has on PR. Some Web 2.0 enthusiasts have already – a bit prematurely, I would say – announced the death of PR. If they were right, we wouldn’t have to bother about PR and Web 3.0.

But let’s have a look at how PR is dealing with the current developments of the communication context, and I am not talking about mere technicalities like using monitoring solutions for the blogosphere or social networks etc. Those can be implemented very easily.

Where has the PR industry arrived at? If we imagine a scale with Web 1.0, 2.0, 3.0 etc. as its units, PR practitioners cover the stretch from Web 0.8 to approximately 1.5. Yes, some still haven’t really come to terms with the static web, don’t know how to use websites etc., professionally. But that’s a tiny minority. The vast majority of the PR industry is very well aware of the possibilities Web 1.0 offers to communicators and they are beginning to dig deep into Web 2.0.

Nevertheless, except for a comparably small group of early adopters we are only halfway there. This not only applies to PR practitioners; for PR academics the situation isn’t very much different, as the recent EuroBlog 2008 symposium in Brussels has shown. We lack both theoretical insights as foundation for solid PR work, and a sufficiently large sample of practical experience as raw material for scientific analysis.

MF: Is the Web 3.0 still too far away, out of reach for PR-workers?

MP: Not necessarily. The Semantic Web has already appeared on the PR radar. At the peripherals, that is. There is even a project, started in 2001 and currently chaired by Anne Gregory (Leeds Metropolitan University), that aims at developing XPRL, an eXtensible PR Language ((XPRL), fully charged with semantics, of course. So far this group has developed three process standards for media relations: document release, clippings briefing and coverage report.

No doubt, this is just a small fragment of PR work, but it’s a start. One that would deserve wider support. I doubt, though, that this group will find enough volunteers in the foreseeable future; notwithstanding the fact that a full-scale XPRL could reduce the cost of PR by at least 25%, as XPRL.org’s research has shown.

MF: What makes the PR-industry hesitate still?

MP: To my opinion, these are the crucial factors:

  • the PR industry has some really pressing business on its agenda, e.g. proving the impact of PR on the bottom-line of companies and organizations; defining and developing PR ethics; coping with the practical and theoretical challenges of Web 2.0 and
  • recognizing and understanding the benefits of the Semantic Web.

The first factor is simply a matter of time; those tasks should be satisfactorily solved on both levels in a couple of years. To get a good grasp of Web 3.0 might turn out to be the bigger hurdle for PR people. PR industry mainstream has never been at the forefront of developments (neither has mainstream media), and it is not expected to be. It’s simply not its job; it has always relied on the tried and tested.

PR industry will adopt anything that makes its job easier or more effective and successful; that’s why the Semantic Web will find its way into PR in the end. But it will be a long and winding road, I guess. What makes it explicitly difficult is the fact that the usefulness of Web 3.0 isn’t solely based on a conviction of the PR industry that it would be “great” to have Web Semantics in its arsenals. The usefulness emerges in the interaction between PR and the stakeholders.

Let’s take e.g. media relations: It wouldn’t make sense for PR to develop ontologies and schemas and whatnot if there is no receiving end, i.e. if media are not ready, willing, and able to make proper use of it. Just look at the attempts to introduce the New Media Release (or Social Media Press Release) as an enhanced means of media relations, spruced up with folksonomies, social media repositories and other small-scale “semantics”. It seems that traditional media are even slower adopters than PR people.

If we agree that PR’s role is the development and maintenance of relationships to relevant stakeholders, then it is obvious that the Semantic Web will only gain importance if it offers sufficient benefits to all sides involved in those relationships and if those benefits are recognized and accepted by them. The PR industry will only be part of the game, and most certainly not its driver.

MF: Who is going to benefit and how is it going to work out?

MP: If we look at the results XPRL.org has achieved so far, it may not come as a surprise that they focus on media relations, which still represent one of the quantitatively more important areas of PR activity (especially in Austria). And as long as facts-based communication is concerned, there are certainly lots of advantages in integrating Web 3.0 technologies. So this may as well – or even more so – apply to Financial or Investor Relations where we have for larger parts to deal with structured, schematized data. Another field where it should be comparatively easy and rewarding to introduce Web 3.0 concepts is Internal Communications.

But we must not forget that Public Relations deal with relationships, which are mostly “fuzzy” by nature. (And sometimes I get the impression that this “fuzziness” isn’t really unwelcome at all to PR practitioners.). So all we’ve got to do to get the PR industry on the Semantic Web bandwagon is to squeeze the fuzziness of relationships into an ontology. In German we call this “Quadratur des Kreises” [= trying to square the circle; ed.].

I’ll be eagerly watching.

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2 Replies to “Semantic Web – Not Our Business?

  1. I really do think that it is time to update this debate. There are now a number of us beginning to look at practical applications of web 3.0 for the sector.

    We already have semantic analysis of content here http://reputationwall.appspot.com/?sid=1454018

    Philip Sheldrake through a weekly forum at the CIPR http://bit.ly/9A2dea is beginning to attract people who know much more about Semantic PR than many would have believed even a year ago.

    Who knows, this week at the CIPRSM meeting there may be some new ideas about how social grouping can be identifies as part of Web 3.0.

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