PR2.0: Risky Relations

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PR 2.0Some would like to think that PR is undergoing a complete “revolution”. Others might just feel that the well publicised PR 2.0 moniker represents a greatly expanded toolset for PR, a new collection of ‘Media” outlets, or at least a major upgrade on the same old ‘code-base’ that PR has always relied upon. What it is for certain, is what PR2.0 isn’t.

PR 2.0 is not simply a loose or imitative spin-off term of Web2.0
These cross functional internet applications that are based on re-modeled AJAX and existing LAMP technologies, commonly known as Web2.0, enable much of the highly touted potential for “Social Media” sites to interact seamlessly.

Rather than just piggy-backing on this Web2.0 term, PR 2.0 should actually be seen as an exciting and timely emergence of an entirely re-invented industry. One that knows it is poised upon a great opportunity to redefine Public Communications and Corporate Relations, and create enormous new value models for all Marketing activities to benefit from in the process.

To stop and extrapolate into the immense Social and Commercial implications PR2.0 outstrips the current article title, and these will be reserved as an ongoing work in progress that I expect to continue researching and writing about indefinitely…and of course offering recursive links to the results.

For now, I’d like to make an initial exam of the exhibited risks to Web2.0 as evidenced by current applications and practices…By making an example of a particularly visible application of PR2.0 techniques.

The most obvious symptom of this change is that in today’s prevailing PR climate, the use of Social Media by some PR professionals is being highly scrutinized, and increasingly exposed in a highly cynical and negative light by the participants in this so called Web2.0 universe.

In various forms of Social Media sites, I’ve often seen examples where someone who simply appears to take an unpopular view in a public forum (perhaps playing the Devil’s Advocate, or otherwise genuinely convinced of an alternate view) quickly being called out as a “PR Lackey” or “Shill”. What’s even more interesting is the mob-mentality of this finger-pointing. First one accuser raises the flag that an otherwise well considered comment might very well be ‘planted’ there by PR interests, and then the accusations spread virulently with increasingly more vehemently comments. Almost as though this supposed outing of of covert PR interests has served to polarize the discussion even further. Not only is this trend very bad for PR2.0 practitioners who are pushed back into simply ‘lurking’ and gathering market research, but it also demonstrates some potentially ugly social traits as well.

The Web2.0 world is not only extremely Media and Net savvy, it demands clarity, transparency and disclosure, and will even eat its own young if it so much as sniffs a corporate or commercial interest at play in its midst.

The obvious challenges and demands of that these channels represent for PR2.0 are exciting and invigourating for proffesionals who seek deep and effective relations with the Public. Unfortunately, so many times it seems that these duties are relegated to Interns and junior Researchers, who are not properly equipped to either respond to difficult issues ass they arise in real-time, or to formulate strategy for the enddless variations that a discussion can take in a fully participative environment. PR2.0 is still far to underdeveloped to be left to people who are not entirely prepared to represent the Brand and interests of thei Client, or to be perfectly open and communicative about their motives.

For an industry that has historically operated behind the scenes, this seems to be a very difficult paradigm shift to make thus far.

Take the poignant example of the Micheal Bryant story. ((LINK))

Of course the reprehensible Bryant affair remains a particularly heated issue for now, but this recurring suspicion of planted PR spin masked as counter-points to discussion has itself often turned into a side-lines to the main threads of discussion. From a social point of view this is a dangerous trend where people will squash rational discussion if they so much as suspect an underhanded PR motive at work. This most immediately evident where there is a swaying element of power or money behind one side of the story. Not a good trend at all for PR firms servicing large Clients.

Even major News Media media sites are losing credibility as “social” discourse platforms, with many disgruntled comments being made about “biased Moderators” and “suppressed” information. For those of us who can presume that these supposedly suppressed sources might simply be profane/abusive malcontents (who break the “terms of fair use”), it is still difficult to rationalize why entire “Comments” sections below mainstream Media articles have been purposely closed and removed under obviously contentious stories, when they would have clearly raised heated and extensive online discourse.

In general, many official Media sources are being increasingly perceived with varied skepticism by the Public, especially since a Media-savvy public knows that Advertising (and “Advertorials”) are clearly going to hold a certain amount of sway in what (or even how) stories get published/broadcasted. This growing cynicism is especially present where Media sources cross over into a more “Social” use of Internet resources. Even something as simple as Journalists gleaning story ideas or researchable “facts” from their comments sections is being outted as a new form of sycophantic Media, rather than just a natural progression towards true Citizen Journalism or Public Media.

If the mainstream Media is being increasingly scrutinized for (real or imagined) underlying motives, what will that say for the PR industry that is widely recognized as a feed or source of Media stories? Although PR often represents bonefide Public Affairs or philanthropic Non-Profit interests, it is the gross majority of Corporate clients that the Public most identifies the PR profession with. This does not bode well for an industry that should be trying to draw closer to the actual Public, rather than seen as skulking at the back of boardrooms.

The means and methods of Communications have been irreversibly leveled by the Internet, which is no longer a revolutionary concept, but merely a fact of life. It is just a matter of time before the Public is provided with the ability to share credibility references for news/info with itself, and no longer have to rely solely on the iconic stature of traditional Media outlets to validate stories and information. Even here at the nascent age of “Social Media” (and whatever it will quickly evolve into), we already know that the mainstream Media (and it’s attendant PR sources) will not survive in their current form. This just seems to be unconscious knowledge, here at the tail end of history.

The public is already being conditioned to the fact that the most powerful stories are breaking and being spread virally over the Net, and then only later surfacing and being reported in the Mainstream. It would seem that the “real” news is not always coming from official sources anymore, and the traditional Media is now prying it’s way into the online feeds and sources, or “Influencers” as some experts would call them.

The fact that Bryant’s PR team is not only using Twitter, but PUBLICIZING it’s use of Social Media tools to send out it’s news releases actually deepens the public perception that they are being manipulated by PR professionals, who are now overstepping their traditional roles of feeding the mainstream Media, and reaching out directly. It is interesting to see how many Cycling Tweeters get followed for a little while by http://twitter.com/bryantfacts before presumably getting Blocked, since there are so very few Tweeters actually being followed by @BryantFacts to begin with. In essence everyone knows who’s behind @BryantFacts, and nobody wants to be watched, let alone interact with them. The only route from here for that kind of PR is underground, and that’s when things start to get truly messy and ugly for Society.

For the larger and respectable PR industry, I think this points to the early formations of a very deep tragedy, that can still be averted with some very open, clear, and engaging 2-way communication. Something that the Internet was based upon, and which PR would do well to emulate as best it can.

Sadly these high profile events, and the attendant negative spin of PR shortcomings in employing Social Media, come at a critical time for PR as an industry. At this opportune juncture in time when PR is being presented with the chances to radically re-invent itself (at least ‘optically’), it can either entrench itself in a slippery and outdated closed model, or seize the chance to present an entirely new face for itself. Perhaps like in so many other industries, it will be the small shops who will actually poise themselves to seize the opportunities of an increasingly socialised Internet.

Of course they will need to do a major job on the public perceptions of PR to begin with, or divorce themselves from the moniker entirely in order to progress into the future.

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