Thursday, 28 January 2010

PR and the Social Media Bangwagon

“Evolution is evolution – and it’s happened before us and will continue after we’re gone. But, what’s taking place now is much more than change for the sake of change. The socialization of content creation, consumption and participation, is hastening the metamorphosis that transforms everyday people into participants of a powerful and valuable media literate society.“ - Brian Solis

In class today we touched on a subject that I particularly feel attracted to and that in my own, probably biased, opinion is the future of public relations: social media. 

There are tons of materials on the subject -especially online- and more than enough (self-proclaimed) experts that preach about the unbreakable bond that PR needs to build with social media in order to have a glorious future. And, of course, they are always sure to add convincingly build arguments and cleverly constructed examples to serve as proof of just that. Brian Solis, Shel Holtz, Todd Defren, Scott Monty, just to name a few of those whose blogs I find myself regularly reading. Some are more convincing than others; some insist on the world domination of new media, others tend to be more moderately opinionated on the matter. But they all view social media as the future.

And the thing is, if you're mesmerized by the influence that social media undeniably has on the world around you, but especially by the impact it exerts on your own life (like I tend to be when I wake up in the middle of the night because there is something I just *need* to tweet about), you will surely embrace all of it, jump on the bandwagon and stubbornly fight off all that try to prove it wrong.

Social media has creeped into our daily lives and has somehow become addictive, an extension of our material life, a place to cultivate our digitally enhanced alter-egos. And oh how well does it all mix with public relations! There is obviously no way of knowing what will happen to the industry in 10 years from now; we can't even predict, all that accurately, what will happen tomorrow. But if I had to take my best guess I'd say that social media is the trend to look out for and the driving force behind what PR will be at that point.

All the stats are there and proof of how efficient platforms such as FaceBook or Twitter can be has surfaced on numerous occasions (just think of all the buzz that social media, and social media alone, created around the iPad launch this week). It's up to the PR professionals to start rewiring their brains in business mode when it comes to how/ what to post on their blogs or update FaceBook statuses with, and figure out the proper way of using all these new tools in the advantage of their company and clients.

Because the hardest problem that a PR practitioner will ever face in the area is how to use social media to their advantage. Even though when you think about it in terms of 'updating information on Facebook' or tweeting 140 character messages on 'what's happening', you feel that it should come naturally (I mean, after all, it is something that you pretty much do every day), it may actually be harder than it seems once applied to an organization's or client's needs.

How do you time the release of the information, what kind of message do you want to send out and how do you make sure it doesn't get distorted on the way (we all pretty much know that social media = lack of control), how much information is too much or what social media platform best fits the profile of your client and the requirements of their audiences. Not to mention the whole issue surrounding measuring and evaluating results or that of defining the new ethical boundaries, if any left at all.

Information flows faster and more uncontrollable than ever before; and what better glimpse at this reality that a simple analysis of the dynamics of Twitter trends or of viral campaigns such as Facebook's 'What colour's your bra?' And if PR has come to terms with the loss of control over that information, it's about high time it start gaining some of it back.

All of the sudden we have all these multitude of voices that are automatically invested with power and that create a lot of new third party endorsers. PR practitioners have to come up with ways to manage these voices, identify those which are most relevant and powerful, and shift the power balance towards their client or company. And multiple voices also come with a benefit: two-way communication is more enhanced than ever. This is an exceptional opportunity to find out exactly what the public is thinking about and if social media hasn't told you that it means that the online tools are not being used properly.

In this new digitalized world, monologue has given way to dialog, professionals to amateurs (these days we seem more likely to trust in the words of bloggers than in any 'official information' we receive) and authenticity seems to be the key. But is transparency also a core integrated element of social media? It is definitely a top requirement in the social media scheme of things, but how realistic is it really? Gatekeepers have always been there to serve their purposes and social media is no different: the gatekeepers are there, just not as obvious as before; unspecialized users tend to be oblivious to their existence, but they are real. The public wants honest non-biased opinions in their grand search of the Truth, but it doesn't always seem to be feasible. Of course transparency is the basis of building trust and relationships, and these two elements are key to good public relation practices, but there is such a thing as too much information and honesty don't have to equate with utter vulnerability. And it's again the PR professional's duty to find the perfect balance between the two.

Used correctly, social media is capable of offering the PR professional the means to send out controlled messages while giving the public the opportunities and exactly the information it needs. And once PR learns how to manage all of the above, and starts using social media the way it was intended, the benefits are there to thrive in.

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Saturday, 23 January 2010

War, Spin, PR and Propaganda

"We must remember that in time of war what is said on the enemy's side of the front is always propaganda, and what is said on our side of the front is truth and righteousness, the cause of humanity and a crusade for peace"— Walter Lippmann

Our first class in this module focused on a discussion around PR and propaganda and we had the opportunity to watch "War Spin: The Media and the Iraq War." The documentary examines the story of US Private Jessica Lynch and tries to reveal some troubling facts about how American news media spins the truth in an effort to increase war-time morale.

British journalist John Kampfner presents his view on what happened to Lynch, and points out discrepancies in the news and stories that were sent out to the public. By bringing forward several aspects of the news industry, the program raises questions about war-time propaganda and the ethics, of lack thereof, of journalists.

Defining Propaganda

The word propaganda comes from the Latin name Congregatio de Propaganda Fide ("Congregation for the Spreading of the Faith), a department founded by Pope Gregory XV and devoted to the spread of Catholicism. The term itself, in that context, did not specifically refer to any negative practice, although propaganda certainly has gathered negative connotations in today’s society.

Propaganda messages can be delivered as part of the mainstream news media, including music, magazines, movies, and television shows. It can also take the form of reports, publications, and leaflets targeted to a particular segment of the population. Techniques used in propaganda can include appeals to fear, statements of prejudice, disinformation, demonizing the enemy, intentional vagueness or oversimplification. Typically, the most effective propaganda campaigns are based upon the truth; however, the facts are presented selectively in order to encourage people to come to a particular conclusion.

Harold Laswell (1971) defined propaganda as "the control of opinion by significant symbols, or, so to speak, more concretely and less accurately by stories, rumours, reports, pictures, and other forms of social communication. There is a need for a word which means the making of a deliberately one-sided statement to a mass audience. Let us choose 'propaganda' as such a word."

Edward Bernays (1928) defined modern propaganda as "a consistent, enduring effort to create or shape events to influence the relations of the public to an enterprise, idea, or group. He also defined public relations as "the attempt by information, persuasion and adjustment, to engineer public support for an activity, cause, movement, or institution". It's easy to see how both of Bernays' definitions convey a similar theme.

Both used as effective communication tools - PR and propaganda are supposed to position themselves at opposite ends of the spectrum. However, in the recent and not so recent past, governments have aggressively used PR techniques to reach the same results that propaganda achieved during the First and Second World War. The Iraq War and the Jessica Lynch's story are only two of many such examples.

Propaganda & PR Techniques in times of war

Phillip Knightley, investigative journalist, in an article he wrote for the The Guardian, identified the four stages of preparing a nation for war with the help of propaganda, but also more modern PR techniques:

• The crisis: a crisis which negotiations seem unable to resolve is reported to the public. Politicians, while calling for diplomacy, warn of military retaliation. The media reports this as "We’re on the brink of war", "War is inevitable" or other similar statements.
• The demonization of the enemy’s leader: comparing the leader with Hitler is a good start because of the instant images his name provokes. For example, Saddam Hussein was painted as a second Hitler by the Americans, hated by his own people and despised in the Arab world.
• The demonization of the enemy as individuals: for example, suggesting that the enemy is insane or otherwise incapacitated to make rational decisions.
• Atrocities: this includes making up stories to whip up and strengthen emotional reactions. A well-known example is the Kuwait babies' story, which I referred to in this post.

In March 2005, the New York Times revealed that there have been a large amount of fake news created by US government departments, such as the Pentagon, the State Department, the Census Bureau and others, and disseminated through the mainstream media. According to David Barstow and Robin Stein, the US Bush administration has “aggressively used public relations to pre-package news" and subsequently broadcast them on local stations across the country without any acknowledgement of the government's role in their production. These segments, that have reached millions, could amount to propaganda by the US Government within the United States, as well as internationally.

During the Iraq War, the US implemented several propaganda techniques: for one, they created false radio personalities (for example on Radio Tikrit) that would disseminate pro-American information on stations that were supposed to be run by supporters of Saddam Hussein. (Source: Schleifer, Ron. "Reconstructing Iraq: Winning the Propaganda War in Iraq." Middle East Quarterly, 2005, 15-24). Moreover, according to New York Times, they paid Iraqis to publish articles written by American troops in their local newspapers, under the assumption that they are unbiased, objective and truthful accounts of events. And the examples could go on and on, not only related to the US and Iraq but to the Afghan war, the war in Somalia (2006-2009), to China, North Korea or Yugoslavia.

What happened to ethics?

The problem we are facing today is that propaganda and PR, in a political context, are becoming harder and harder to separate. Tom Rankin says that "if what you're 'spinning' has a solid basis in fact, you're doing PR. If not, it's propaganda." However, it is widely established that effective propaganda techniques are based on the truth, which is sent out to the public in a selective manner. So basically it is spinned. Then where do we draw the line between propaganda and PR?

If a presidential candidate hires a PR agency to represent him, the role of the firm is to propagate a positive image of this person and organisation to the public, with the goal of getting him elected. Similarly, missionaries would propagate doctrines of the Catholic Church with the goal of spreading the religion and encouraging conversation. However, one falls under the heading of propaganda while the other is considered to be PR. How do we make the distinction, where do we draw the line? Is it all a question of ethics and morale values and if so, after watching "War Spin: The Media and the Iraq War" you have to wonder: is there any space left for ethics anymore?

  • Harold Lasswell, Propaganda Technique in World War I, The MIT Press, 1971
  • Edward Bernays, Propaganda, Liveright, Ig Publishing, [1928], 2004

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Thursday, 21 January 2010

Hello world. Hello PR

My name is Roxana and I am a master student in Public Relations at the University of Westminster in London. This blog is starting out as an assignment for one of my post grad modules and it is meant to bring forward and analyse different contemporary issues in public relations, throughout the course of the next few months.

And what better way to take on contemporary issues in public relations than through a blog - the essential new media platform - and what many believe to be the future of PR.

In hopes that this will not turn out to be a purely theoretical venue, nor an online ranting station, but rather a constructive, tactical and analytical approach to public relations issues today, I welcome you to my blog and wish you a pleasant stay. Feel free to ask questions or comment and be sure you will receive feedback.

Until next time,

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