Social media: freedom or fiefdom for public relations?

Social media is an antidote to the nanny state, for young people in particular, offering them a freedom that they are increasingly being deprived of. With its virtually (sic) non-existent rules, ever-evolving ‘etiquettes’, yet-to-be-determined legal precedents and myriad of platforms – which offer opportunities for expression and showboating never known before – social media frontiers are being extended each passing moment.

Social media playground for PR

This is a view recently touched upon on by John Roskam of the Institute of Public Affairs in The Australian. No doubt it’s not the first time this observation has been made, but it’s one I found quite striking and worth exploring.

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The nanny state which Roskam bemoans has been extensively discussed. It is a state of being which is seeing freedoms curtailed for the sake of occupational health & safety. It is having its most extreme manifestation in Australia’s economy, where safety is a major factor in the rising cost of doing business in Australia (e.g. mining, oil & gas), frightening off investment dollars (and jobs) elsewhere.

For Roskam, the freedoms lost to Australian youth are frustrating, too. Examples include children not being allowed to play physical games at school, no matter how seemingly benign, or playgrounds only being permitted to be constructed using certain equipment and after extensive and expensive risk analysis has been undertaken.

An extension of this is the political correctness applied to situations such as children’s sport, whereby coaches of young children are chastised if they answer questions about a match’s score, rather than answering in an obfuscating way along the lines of, “The score doesn’t matter, it’s about participating and having fun.” (Of course this is true, but if the kid asks the question, as a kids’ sporting coach myself I think there is a safe middle ground here which is not condescending to the children.)

Social media as freedom

It’s hard not to agree with Roskam’s assertion that social media offers freedom, though perhaps there is worth in the observation, too, that “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”.

And this is not just a throwaway line, not in the context of social media, anyway. Because freedom means being able to act like an idiot, a bully and a saboteur, just as it means being able to behave in a manner useful to society and/or simply to have some harmless fun.

We could talk at length about the cloak of invisibility social media offers those who choose to go down this path. How many times have we heard of cyberbullies and/or those who make comments whilst not choosing to make their identity known, potentially causing all sorts of unhappiness, yet running from taking responsibility for what they have contributed to?

Is this the sort of freedom we want?

Yes, the same sort of thing can and does happen offline, too.  But offline doesn’t have the same viral, audience multiplication characteristics:

  • More people can learn of an opinion, accusation, rumour etc online than they can offline
  • Social proof – the credibility of numbers. An implication of this is that if a piece of information is shared often enough online, then by its sheer proliferation it is assumed it must be true, when clearly this isn’t necessarily the case.

It is true, also, that many online environments can have a moderating effect on information, calming the waters of outrageous pieces of supposed information (more like a piece of data, really).

And it is similarly true, and here we have a wonderful example of social media freedom, that the information posted online can be curated by those choosing to share it. This can mean adding further (perhaps qualifying) insights and opinion, scrutinising what is being shared and, ultimately, accelerating a dialogue on the topic in a much more expansive (if not necessarily in a more intelligent) manner than could have occurred offline.

So yes, social media does offer a unique sort of freedom to all of us. How society ends up using the freedom, well, only time will tell. But it will be interesting to see how it evolves!

Freedom at last: implications for communication/relationship management

For communicators, social media offers wonderful opportunities to share information, enhance reputations and build relationships. And it can help mitigate the impact of crises, through issue identification, conversation monitoring, information sharing and having 3rd party advocates assist in the application of social proof.

Of course, when it comes to crises, social media has made worse many an organisational crisis, too, due to the number of people who can very quickly pick up on a piece of information (or disinformation, as the case may be) and share it.

Another major challenge for communicators are the proliferation of social media platforms which can be utilised. And it’s not one size fits all. One piece of information articulated in the same way cannot simply be replicated across all platforms.

All this interaction requires not just strategic insights, technical skills and creativity, but increased budget.

The many opportunities for expression social media and digital offers creates further new challenges. Video, photos, illustrations, software which makes and distorts all of this, with text being either bastardised into new forms or iterations of language or being superseded completely by digital’s current darling, video .

It’s tempting to accuse still images of dumbing down communication, with infographics being one manifestation. But that would be to deny a powerfully large thing we call the visual arts. Still, you have to wonder that whilst, yes, a picture is worth a thousand words, sometimes those ‘words’ may not make much sense.

Or, and here’s the killer, words may not be connected in a manner which the viewer is able to ‘decipher’ to give the words meaning.

Furthermore, the meaning audiences gain may not be the meaning intended. It is my belief words can be much more specific than images, both to capture the meaning and to customise the meaning in a manner more attuned to the individual’s ability and desire to decipher it.

Really, even at the best of times it’s hard to know to know whether social is a bane or a boost to professional communication. It’s certainly complicated it! And, as well all know, it ain’t going nowhere, so best we figure out excellent solutions and be ever open to a rapid evolution to the approaches we choose to take.

Where have you seen, or experienced, the impact which social media’s freedom characteristic has had on public relations or marketing? Where do you feel the freedom dimension is helpful or a hindrance to professional communication? Have you observed where the nanny state mindset is being applied to social media (apart from China!)?

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Government public relations is often best practice

Despite some negative ninny naysayers, practicing PR for government organisations is an excellent and rewarding option as it often takes a strategic, holistic, best practice approach, it is founded on a thorough process and great rigour, it is generally well-funded, it provides excellent career opportunities and it inherently exists to benefit all society.

Government PR works in teams to help all society

Yes, there are those smarty pants who think that working for government is a bludge (an Australian term for slacking off or taking it easy). I’d bet that most of these smarty pants haven’t worked in a comms role for a government organisation because, in my experience, this perspective is bollocks.

As someone who is occasionally [:)] accused of generalising, the accusation noted above is really beyond the pale. It is up to the individual (person and organisation) whether they don’t work hard to achieve best-possible outcomes. It certainly isn’t an inherent characteristic of government PR. If anything, it’s the opposite.

I’ve had experience with the following government organisations and they all worked (and work) extremely hard in securing excellent results, as well as applying what can loosely be described as ‘best practice’:

  • Australian Nuclear Science & Technology Organisation
  • Centennial Park & Moore Park Trust
  • EnergyAustralia
  • Endeavour Energy
  • Delta Electricity.

Best practice government PR

You only have to look at roll call of winners of Australia’s leading PR awards, the Golden target Awards, to see how positively the industry views the quality of government comms. Yes, this is due to more factors than the pure talent that works in government PR (see below) but that is clearly a significant factor in the equation.

There is a serious responsibility on all government employees to work hard, as all of us taxpayers are paying their salaries. There is also ministerial pressure on those who work in government departments to get it right. This is not a pressure to be underestimated.

In my experience, you do NOT want to get on the wrong side of a minister or his or her staff. I’ve seen it happen and the impact can be more severe than in a comparable private sector situation.

An outcome of this is that government PR tends to take a big picture, holistic perspective as well as seek to apply approaches that are founded on best practice.

The rigour with which government PR approaches its craft is often based on its endemic processes and quality controls. These processes and controls – like good PR theory – are not a burden. Conversely, they provide a solid, well informed platform from which creativity can be used to achieve effectiveness.

The rigour actually makes it easier to achieve excellent results. Admittedly, though, it can be a trial for those who have to document the processes in the first place!!

Funding for government public relations

Government departments and agencies are well resourced with comms employees. Communication – public relations and marketing – is highly respected as a discipline within government and its potential for reputation and bottom line impact well understood.

Because of this, the diversity of PR specialisations is well represented within government. Media relations, community relations, corporate social responsbility, marketing communication, sponsorship, publication production, event management and social media and website are some of the specialisations.

These and other responsibilities are sometimes blurred in single roles and even if they aren’t, opportunities exist to gain experience in complementary specialisations. I’d suggest getting these opportunities to broaden your skill set is easier to achieve in government than other sectors.

Getting these opportunities and experience can:

  • help stimulate interest and engagement in PR’s wider remit
  • provide opportunities for advancement in different specialisations
  • help build a skill set which facilitates career progression.

Like any industry, working in one area of government will often give you an advantage when applying for roles in other government entities as you have experienced the unique challenges and rewards of the sector.

Public relations benefitting society

One of my own passions is making a positive difference to society through the work I do. I’d like to leave some sort of legacy (no matter how small) that I can explain to my son in the hope that it inspires him to do the same. It’s one of the reasons we are both involved in Surf Lifesaving Australia – it offers an invaluable community service.

There really is no better place to work than in government if this is an aspiration you, too, have.

Government and its arms are there to make society a better place:

  • This includes ensuring our natural environment survives for future generations
  • This includes ensuring that, socially, all people have an opportunity to achieve their potential.
  • This includes ensuring that all people are given a voice in decisions that affect them personally and affect their concerns in the world.

Public relations is not limited to communication. Public relations is about involving relevant parties in decision making processes and issues which impact upon them – then evolving decisions and processes to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes. Of course, excellent results appear in many different ways and we need to take a broad perspective to our goal of achieving these outcomes.

Have you worked in or with government public relations? what can you tell us about your experiences? Good or bad? Come on, don’t be soft or shy – give it up!!

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Kill information overload now so public relations survives

The glut of information that all of us in western (and many other) societies encounter is making this information on the way to being close to meaningless, with meaning for people have most resonance through behaviour and tangible outcomes, such as products and services. An outcome of this is that unless PR practitioners focus more on outcomes of communication, not communication processes themselves, then we are on the way to making ourselves redundant.

Public relations should provide less information, not more

I don’t think when Jim Grunig and colleagues thought up two-way symmetrical communication they would have conceptualised the internet and social media, for instance, nor:

  • electronically changing signage at sporting arenas
  • signage on bus shelters
  • in elevators with further messaging
  • incredibly integrated manner in which sponsorship, marketing, public relations and other business disciplines have become so enmeshed.

The opportunities for information provision have accelerated and become more dynamic as technology has advanced. It would be nice to see more of the law of the jungle applied to this growth in ‘media’, but whilst avenues such as print media have had their influence decline, unfortunately the jungle has primarily fostered growth on growth.

The information thicket is evolving into impenetrability.

Of course, and this is encapsulated by younger people as they are born into this battle zone of media and content, we are evolving to cope with, counter and take advantage of the growth in media and content. But the opportunity to engage with and enrich stakeholders is getting slimmer and more slippery all the time.

And whilst communication will always be necessary to discuss attributes of organisations, products and services, without a customisation of all three to the needs and wants of their stakeholders then they are destined to go the way of dinosaurs. Unless, and this is a big unless, those responsible for these big three take an unethical, entirely self-centred approach and do things like engage in lobbying for their own – and their own alone – interests.

Many of us in public relations preach the thought leadership gospel, seeking a higher content ground on which to engage our stakeholders. And it’s a gospel I subscribe to. But even then, thought leadership is hardly thin on the ground. And this blog is an example of being part of the problem – more information!

Quality not quantity in PR communication

Part of the solution is communicating less and doing it better.

This goes to two of the basic precepts of effective public relations, customisation and targeting (underpinned by a third – knowing your audiences through market research). I think we often talk a grand old talk in this regard but mostly we trip over miserably in the walking of it.

Customisation means refining the content of our communication until is suits, as precisely as can be, our target audience. Too often we are happy with a ‘broad embrace’ of content, one that tries to tick too many boxes. This is an ineffective way to gain ROI. It will actually lead to disenchantment and intellectual and emotional ‘calluses’ being formed – scar tissue that builds up barriers to being affected or influenced.

The ‘broad embrace’ thinking applies equally to target audiences. We say that we have a specific target audience in mind, but really we’re happy for more than this audience to receive the information, in the hope it might generate a sale or pique the interest. It’s a real long shot, guys, and once again doomed to deliver dodgy ROI.

So how do we improve our customisation and targeting? Well, market research is your first port of call. And it should frequently be integrated into the communication to help with speedy feedback and ROI. Social media provides plenty of opportunities for this but so do nearly all other forms of communication:

  • Who liked your Facebook post?
  • How many click throughs/sales occurred through a Facebook or blog post?
  • How many comments did you get on your Facebook post/blog?
  • After a speaking engagement what did the attendees say about the presentation?

There’s many more, but undertaking thorough, evidence-based market research is the most reliable way of moving forward.

Moral dimensions of communication overload

There is a moral dimension in regard to information overload, too, as well as its customisation, as Kathy Cripps recently implied. Studies have confirmed the negative impact on health of too much information. It is a psychological burden.

We can either be part of the problem or part of the solution. We can help people with quality, customised relevant information or we can essentially ‘junk mail’ their brains with clutter.

We can also use meaningful forms or modes of communication, as Kathy also points out, such as images to help facilitate information flow if, of course, the target audience is receptive to and/or prefers receiving information in this manner.

There is a tension, of course, between the information that people want to receive and the information an organisation wants to supply them with – such as the promotion of a new product, for instance. But such is our lot – balancing commercial/organisational interests with stakeholder well-being.

Changing the focus of public relations

It isn’t really changing the focus of public relations as it is meant to be. It is changing the focus of what we in public relations are trying to achieve, a constant refrain of this blog.

The greatest value in public relations resides in its ability to understand the needs, wants, issues and preferences of both the organisation that employs it, as well as organisational stakeholders. We are the boundary spanners. We are the bridge between an organisation and its stakeholders.

Our role is to provide information and counsel to organisations and their stakeholders to assist all parties in being aligned. The most powerful way of doing this is often prompting an organisation to change the way it operates. If we focus more on this dimension of the discipline and less on generating reams of content – no matter how well intended and customised – then our profession will add more meaning to the organisations we work for and the society in which we exist.

Are you up for the challenge?

Do you ever reflect on the impact the abundance of communication we in PR distribute in the context of information overload? Do you think we have a moral responsibility to reduce the amount of information we are responsible for distributing? How can we solve this issue? Where do you think public relations should focus its effort in organisational business life?