A lot has changed in the last nine years in regard to the world of Public Relations. In Part One I compare the fable presented in the Late 1990’s book, Who Moved My Cheese by Spencer Johnson to the reaction towards today’s new world of Social Media. In Part Two of this series I compare how we looked at Public Relations in 2001 versus how we look at it today.
Public Relations 2001: The Power of Third-Party Media
In 2001, Public Relations was more distinct. A person could easily identify the roles and responsibilities. Publicity was defined as earning the attention of third-party media of an organization through free media channels. Promotion described the use of paid third-party media advertising (newspaper, radio, TV, phone book, mail, etc.) to gain public attention. It was easier to define Public Relations in 2001 because it consisted of three distinct roles: 1) The organization seeking publicity/promotion, 2) the third-party media, and 3) the target audience.
Of the three roles, the third-party media was considered a deity. The goal of PR professionals (and non-professionals) was to gain favorable attention of those key people in the third-party media so that they would talk about you to their audience. You could buy your way into the hearts and minds of the media, but the goal was to seduce the media and gain their favor. Journalists, newspaper editors, television news directors, and other media professionals had the power to make or break the public image of company and/or influence customers purchasing habits. The people in the media were the gatekeepers to the public.
In 2001, the Internet was not new, but it was still primarily a place of email and websites. PR professionals were promoting websites as another tool in their arsenal to reach the public, but many organizations still had their doubts about the importance of how a website could increase their business. A few could see beyond the existing uses of the Internet. Some of those gifted few might have imagined a world where junk mail and the yellow pages would become obsolete, but the idea of masses of people in continuous connection to each other was hard to fathom by almost everyone, especially PR professionals.
The New Cheese: The Individual
One person who saw something brewing in the early part of the new millennium was Tom Peters. In his 2003 book, Re-Imagine! Business Excellence in a Disruptive Age, he devoted a chapter to Individual Branding. He suggested a future where the skills and experience of the individual would be key to ‘New Business’. A world where a person isn’t swallowed up as a commodity in the belly of a corporation, but rather as an independent professional that companies would compete to have on their team.
In 2003, it seemed hard to imagine how an individual could become relevant in a business world that often captured employees and then made them sign non-disclosure, non-compete, we-own-you agreements. The ability for someone to market themselves was severely restricted, if not, banned outright by the corporation that made no promises of job security, but demanded total loyalty.
Perhaps Peters could see that the blogging sites of 2001-03 were signaling a new age of individualism; perhaps there were trends in place that Peters could project in the future; or perhaps (and this is my theory) that Peters has the ability to travel in time; but with the development and massive growth of Social Interactive Media in the last five years, Peters accurately predicted a new world of branding of the individual that is now a reality.
The Individual Trumps False Corporate and Media Gods
The rapid growth of Facebook and Twitter are two of the significant factors that changed the world of Public Relations. Facebook made Social Media acceptable to millions. Social Media allowed an individual to connect with hundreds of other people without the approval or denial of a third-party media deity. Ideas, opinions, and knowledge were now being shared and it all bypassed the traditional gatekeepers. It is hard to say what was the critical mass flash point that pushed Social Media into the mainstream, but once Facebook exceeded 100 million users there was no doubt that the Age of the Individual had dawned.
Twitter’s contribution to the age of the individual was two-fold. The 140 character limitation for Twitter messages created a need to link to blogs, articles, and websites to fully convey new information and ideas; therefore, the practice of embedding links into a Tweet became commonplace. That spurred a new connectivity of an individual’s ideas and opinions to the rest of the world. Prior to Twitter, a blog was primarily found via a Google search, but a Tweet brought more attention to the general public without relying on a deliberate search, AND, the Tweet put new information out to an audience that was already interested in the topic.
The second impact of Twitter was a continuous flow of connectivity. As a Social Media tool it put people in touch with each other 24/7/365. While other Social Media tools could make a similar claim, Twitter encouraged users to stay connected and placed a priority on real-time interaction. This was a pace of communication that corporations, with layers of control and approval, were not equipped to handle. The corporate practice of running every statement or concept by a Public Relations professional before it goes public was not possible in the world of real-time information. Twitter was designed for communication of individuals, not corporations, which is exactly the way users wanted it.
A Different Flavor of Cheese
Nobody will deny that Public Relations is still not a viable function in today’s world, but the old concept of the worship of third-party media like newspapers has been lost. Discussing the Internet and Social Media when a newspaper professional is in the room is like discussing a new girlfriend in front of someone who used to date her and got dumped. Public Relations is no longer an effort to make the best possible impression with the public as it is about being genuine. Users of Social Media can spot a fake PR effort and anything that smacks of a corporate sell job is rejected…permanently.
To survive in a world of ‘Social Media Relations,’ corporations no longer can hide behind the perfect façade of Public Relations. A business will be judged by the sum of its individuals and that means less control and manipulation of its employees. The successful company will unshackle its people to dazzle its customers with their expertise of the business, and their competitors will tremble in fear. It’s a new world, but not for those who don’t adapt and adopt.
Tom Peters world of New Business is here and Public Relations can no longer hide behind the curtain in New Oz.
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