Monday, 1 June 2009

Behave yourself

All human advances seem to come with an inbuilt temptation to bad behaviour. Social media, despite its often high-minded presentation, is no different and offers new hazards to PR practitioners attracted to the dark side of communications.

'Astroturfing' is the suitably new media term for the shady practice of creating a blog, website or other platform as a front for another organization. The PR Conversations blog has an interesting reference to this phenomenon in a Q and A with a prominent PR agency CEO.

The Chartered Institute for Public Relations rightly takes a dim view of such tactics and has added a special social media section to its code of conduct (note references to 'flogs', 'white hat SEO', 'black hat SEO' and other anti-social behaviour).Yet while astroturfing projects a sense of organized conspiracy, the freedoms and ease of access offered by social media surely open up a host of lower-level but equally questionable ethical developments.

Is it right to lift material from an individual's Facebook page and publish this in other media without their permission? When does reading blogs and social media chat by PR practitioners shift from innocent participation and environment scanning to eavesdropping? What protection do individuals have from PR people intervening in their chat to steer and influence debates? Does anonymity in the blogosphere and in web comments undermine the whole ethos of wider access and stronger freedom of expression?

Phillips and Young in Online Public Relations (p.226) raise a fundamental question: 'What is the function of public relations in this contested area of message exchange? Is it really about facilitating an exchange of information through a model of two-way symmetry? Or is it about persuasion through the projection of messages and partial truths designed to encourage behaviours and attitudes favourable to the client?'

Bit of both, anyone?

Friday, 29 May 2009

Exclusive: Shirky on PR

Well, he was courteous enough to answer a number of questions villager's alter ego sent him in an e-mail. Here is the exchange:

Q - Do you see public relations as a mass media discipline struggling over the loss of gatekeepers?

A - In many cases, sure. The imbalance of production to consumption of media in the 20th c was so enormous that anyone who got anywhere near it ended up with a business model that isn't readily able to tolerate a massive influx of communicative amateurs.

Q - Is there a role for public relations in the new paradigm where groups have freedom to mobilise more freely?

A - I don't know how it is over there, but here the phrase 'public relations' suggests relating with the public, while 'PR' suggests lying to the public. So sure, since the public is not much more capable of entering into something like a relationship, there's a role, but many people in the PR industry seem unprepared for such an outcome. (Like many people with a public platform, a good part of my spam filtering is set up to defend me from reading anything PR-related, like auto-deleting email with the words 'For Immediate Release' etc...)

Q - Are you aware of the Grunig and Hunt model of symmetrical communications - the notion that groups can communicate in perfect balance, and through the free exchange of views arrive at mutual understanding?

A - I'm not aware of it, and will look it up, but I am skeptical, because I have never seen group interactions even approximate symmetry.Indeed, from the work on powerlaw distributions in social spaces, I'd characterize the situation for group interaction as "Large.Symmetrical. Engaged. Pick two."

Q - Some think social media makes this public relations holy grail more attainable. Others think it remains idealistic and takes insufficient account of the inherent power imbalance in all exchanges between groups. What do you think?

A - The latter.

Plenty food for thought. And good to see a social media champion staying true to the ethos of interactivity.
pic: Bill Sheridan/flickr

Thursday, 28 May 2009

All pull and no push

What happens when people are given unlimited scope to 'pull' out the media content which gives them the most gratification?

Blumler and Katz's 'uses and gratifications' mass media theory and the later 'expectancy-value' model from Palmgreen and Rayburn were both founded in the last century when following your particular interest, hobby or obsession through media was limited by the narrow range of mass media outlets and the cost barriers to specialist content. It must have been relatively easy to measure satisfaction levels with particular media and to research what would make audiences migrate to better levels of gratification. And the size of audiences probably allowed researchers to work with significant error margins.

The notion of understanding channel choice by analysing the individual search for gratification still seems potentially a very powerful model. But deep insights will surely be gained only by stretching the model into a more psychological approach. That would open the way to assessing the full impact of a media world where individuals can pursue personal obsessions to a degree unimagined in the mass media age.

Instant access to any kind of gratification takes the solitary individual beyond previous barriers of peer pressure and conformity. Unmediated communication removes gatekeepers applying an interpretation of consensus or established norms. But what do we know about the impact of leaving behind these filters? What happens, for example, when people seek only those with whom they agree, find them easily and remove themselves from the pressures of building consensus? Has anyone researched whether social and online media trigger or accelerate latent addictive tendencies? The alarming ease with which gambling and porn colonised the web is not encouraging.

Shirky cites Robert Putnam's book Bowling Alone about the destruction of social capital in the US. Is it really feasible to think social media can compensate adequately for this loss? Why should we expect someone enjoying ever deeper exposure (even addiction) to their own obsession to bother with the complexities and compromises inherent in community activism?

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Welcome to the digital dystopia

In his new book Cyburbia James Harkin paints a particularly bleak picture of our online world, one in which we are slaves to electronic information and caught in an endless feedback loop. He has posted the introduction on his website.

Here is a taste:

'... no longer content with staring at garish websites on a computer and sending the odd email to our friends, millions of us took to spending vast tracts of our time hooked up to a vast online information loop – mainly on sites like eBay, Google, Facebook, Second Life and YouTube – peopled and governed by ordinary people like ourselves. In doing so, we volunteered ourselves act as human nodes ferrying information back and forth between ourselves on a vast electronic information loop - and, at least for the time we spent there, we would find ourselves behaving as such.'

It's all a bit on the gloomy side but a welcome corrective to those who seem to think texting and video conferencing are adequate substitutes for a chat over coffee.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Benign revolution or mob rule?

The manifesto for social media, the film Us Now, can now be watched online.

For 60 minutes a succession of digital gurus, including Clay Shirky, state their case. Any villager should be gladdened to hear such committed advocacy for a 'gift economy', 'collaboration' and a new take on community spirit. The movie brings to life many of the examples quoted in Clay Shirky's book, Here Comes Everybody. Appearances from politicians like Ed Milliband and George Osborne have added piquancy given the current revelations about expense claims in the British House of Commons.

And yet... It sounds churlish but the utopian zeal, for this villager at least, comes close to undermining the whole case. "If you could actually combine that innate intelligence {of} millions of different opinions from people with different perspectives you would end up with fantastic policies," says one contributor. True, but that is the holy grail of democratic politics. The absence of any detailed discussion of power, conflict or decision making on complex issues suggests it would be foolish to assume that social media is the path to democratic utopia. Another voice adds that the new freedoms powered by technology would open the way for people to "go round the side of representative democracy." Chilling, if you push the notion to extremes.

A more moderate view pops up near the end of the film and concludes that what might be a revolution to Clay Shirky is "not a recipe which will work in every situation."

Despite villager's scepticism this is a film which every PR practitioner should see. Nobody will look at one-dimensional stakeholder maps in quite the same way again.

Postscript: Strange to report, but the accompanying Us Now blog is a pretty lifeless affair. Perhaps the film said it all. Or people agreeing with each other makes for poor blog copy.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Only a game?

Games like the one above seem in questionable taste given the threat from swine flu, the virus which has claimed lives in Mexico and the US. Yet the defence offered by games designers is thought-provoking for everyone with an interest in media and public relations.

The Guardian newspaper spoke to Ian Bogost, co-founder of Persuasive Games, which designed Killer Flu, a game actually commissioned by the UK Clinical Virology Network. "Our game is about increasing information and reducing panic," he told the paper. "Playing out worst-case scenarios is how we make sense of things." Bogost also explained why he thinks games have a power and impact not held by other media: "They allow you to understand how systems work. Epidemiology may actually be better explained in game form than by pamphlet or documentary."

Tellingly, Bogost also believes that no subject should be denied the gaming treatment: "There was a time when we asked the same questions about the novel," he said. For the PR practitioner looking to find compelling ways to bring issues to life - and reach young audiences - this medium has clout well beyond one-dimensional news or side-bar graphics. Swinefighter apparently notched up more than three million plays in one week.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Custard tale gets under the skin of social media

Bird's custard powder was the foundation of many a dessert in villager's childhood but now reappears as a defining example of how social media gets to issues previously kept under the radar of mainstream journalism.

Today's Metro newspaper carries a colour page three lead on one Kent woman's 'desperate hunt' for a packet of Bird's custard. How desperate? Well, according to Metro, Jules Serkin visited corner shops, Tesco and a Co-op, where she settled for a tin of their own brand custard.

And that is pretty much all that happened before the digital dimension kicked in.

In the old days such a mundane tale would have been spiked in a second, albeit with a sharp question about news judgement. So what has changed? The 'story' was picked up by Jules Serkin's local paper, the Whitstable Times and the web version attracted 200 comments from around the world, making it the paper's most popular item.

Quite why Metro opted for the full page treatment is still a mystery to villager. Perhaps web and technology guru Clay Shirky would understand. In his book Here Comes Everybody he demonstrates how the old ways of filtering material for publication are being pushed aside by the mass access opened up by the internet and social media. Traditional and lofty editorial judgement has lost power as user-generated content gains ascendancy and is no longer kept separate from the mainstream media. Shirky writes of a revolution in communications: 'the increase in the power of both individuals and groups outside traditional organizational structures is unprecedented' (p 107).

He highlights many inspiring examples of how this new freedom is allowing groups to organize and push for change outside of established channels and patronage. Yet the Bird's custard tale raises a nagging doubt. What if this new power produces a tidal wave of trivia which by its sheer volume overwhelms those voices for change and undermines flawed but not wholly ineffective channels for democratic action - like local newspaper campaigns for causes more worthy than dried custard?