23 February 2011

‘Spinning Communication’ – Vice or Virtue of Democracy?

“We believe in shaping the mind of the public!”

Is this quote slightly disturbing to you or is this exactly how you see active engagement in democracy? With our freedom of speech we created, virtually anyone can say anything about anything they want and send their message across the public. This freedom of communication allows individuals to communicate in the way that suits them best. However, it is important to question which party is distributing what kind of information, in order to understand how information is being produced, processed and distributed.

The picture below is a small visual example of how the media could potentially ‘spin’ a story, following their own agenda. In the middle we see the actual picture. Left and right we see part of the picture, both telling a completely different story.

Every organization has their own agenda they follow and practice their activities according to it. With this in mind, how can we trust anyone if distribution of information is subjective on all levels? A fellow student at university provided an excellent example:

“If there is a suicide bomber in Palestine, CNN talks about a terrorist and Al Jazeera talks about a martyr”

Two news outlets that are supposed to ‘speak for the little man’ have two different approaches in providing information, eventually shaping the mind of the public with their own set of agenda. So if the media is subjective to their activities, how could anyone criticize political agendas and ‘spin doctors’? If the media is supposed to be a ‘watch dog’ of the government, but follow their own agenda, who are we, the public, to trust? It seems that there is little objectivity in providing political information and news for the public. This leaves us with little surprise that people trust more organizations that are ‘transparent and have honest practices’.

Public Relations practitioners within politics obviously have their own agenda and communicate accordingly. PR’s are the ‘advocates for just one voice’ and communicate between themselves and the public. However, if too much power over the communication is gained, how can a democratized environment be sustained? If Alistair Campbell chooses on purpose selected journalists during a press conference talking about critical issues, is this still part of the freedom of speech we are all proud of?

The line between representing the communication between a political party and their publics, and the distribution of selective information being sent is very thin. While one is a fundamental element of democracy and freedom of speech, the other one leans towards censorship and propaganda. So if both the media and other parties have their own agenda they follow, how can information be objective? If ‘spinning’ is a soft form of propaganda (Moloney, 2006), how can this happen in our political organization? Seems like our democratic system has some big flaws in it.

Clearly, this topic of contemporary theory and issues in public relations creates more questions than answers in an area of extreme importance for the industry and democratic practices.

So who are the real ‘spin doctors’ after all? It’s a question only oneself can answer.

Davis, Anthony. Mastering Public Relations. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Print.

22 February 2011

Audiences and Stakeholders – The ‘Publics’ of Relations?

When we think about the term ‘Public Relations’ on itself, the question remains who exactly the publics are and how the practitioner communicates with them accordingly. Several theories on audiences, stakeholders and publics have been presented over the years that prioritize certain groups of people by categorizing them via various elements and variables, which have some sort of impact towards the organization.

So what is the exact difference between stakeholders and publics?
According to Grunig and Repper (1992), they describe the difference between the two as stakeholders being affected by the decisions made by the organization, or their decisions effecting the organization. The relationship between the organization and their stakeholders is based on effects caused by either ones activity, but does not necessarily mean they will be active towards an action. Publics on the other hand, are seen as stakeholders who actively organize something about a problem an organization has done, therefor being more active than just stakeholders and tackling a problem. Additionally, Davis (2004) suggests that ‘publics sound more important’ and continues suggesting that some groups do not develop from stakeholders to publics, but to publics immediately, such as pressure and cause-related groups.

(Polonsky's Model of Stakeholders)

New problems with old models?
While discussing theories on audiences and stakeholders, we quickly see problems that the PR academics did not take into consideration while developing the models. Even though the models and theories have important elements for the academic understanding of the industry, it is required to question the models and see whether they apply to our modern age or if they need adaptation and modification in accordance with contemporary developments.

Bernstein’s communication wheel for example is not considering or implementing new variables such as social media (ea. two-way communication), which is a key aspect of modern PR practices. Also, the model puts all communication channels and their stakeholders as equal parts. Today it should be quite clear that certain stakeholders, as well as specific communication channels, need to be prioritized. This prioritization is necessary as equal focus on all audiences and channels is not very effective.

(Bernstein's Wheel of Communication)

Another model, which may need some modern changes, is Esmans linkages theory. The problem with this model is the importance of certain stakeholders of the organization. With the development of social media and the ‘bottom-up’ power of the consumer and other minorities, we clearly see the need of change of prioritizing stakeholders with their linkages towards the organization. Even though the model categorizes stakeholders somewhat basic and perhaps well for its time (1967), reconsideration of the actual linkages needs to be made. Stakeholders such as students, women and minorities should be placed in different categories or simply be eliminated and seen as part of the ‘main stakeholders’.

(Esman Linkages Theory)

With so many questions and adjustments towards the models, it is important to understand that the models were created in accordance of their time. However, with emerging technologies and new developments in communication, these models need to be either modified and adjusted to the present progress of the public relations industry. Alternatively, new models based on old theories, need to be created in order to work for contemporary public relations understanding and practices.

This well structured and clear presentation describes and explains the communication between organizations and their stakeholders, public and audiences.

Davis, Anthony. Mastering Public Relations. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Print.

Grunig, James E. Excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management. Hillsdale, NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates, 1992. Print.

04 February 2011

Hyper Communication: A trend the PR industry needs to be prepared for

In an age of instant access to the largest information source we ever created, the Internet, and digitalization of virtually every single medium we are familiar with, models of communication change, merging with these new developments. With new technologies being substantial parts of our daily lives, we need ask ourselves how the way we communicate with each other changes and what potential impact this development has on the public relations industry.Surfing the web and consuming information takes a lot of time. Think about it: you sit down for several hours, checking your most favorite sites and often you will be distracted by that 'funny video' your friend just sent you. More time in front of the computer means less time for other activities. So in these busy times your time off gets more valuable than ever. This blog post discusses the evolution of communication models and questions the implementation of this development in different sectors of the industry.

So what exactly is hyper-communication?
Simply speaking, the model is a two-way communication model we are all familiar with. In these days, two-way communication is pretty much the most important model of communicating, which is a fundamental part of social media. Social media allows for a two-way communicative platform, where both the sender and receiver have the opportunity to communicate with each other and express ideas. This is particular important to understand, as the hyper-communication model I am about to explain is an evolution of the 'traditional' two-way model.

While conducting research about communication models, I stumbled upon a relative old book about mass communication models (Communication Models - For the study of mass communication by McQuail and Windahl) and realized quite quickly that many of the models were outdated and did not take into consideration variables which are very important in the digital age we live in. Basically, the models listed in the book described how mass communication works and how the models change from industry to industry. What some the more important models did not take into consideration were three very important factors I believe are essential for the future development of the way we communicate with each other: access, delivery and location.

Access of Information
With mobile Internet on the rise and soon surpassing 'traditional' access to the web via your computer, we need to understand what potential impact this may have on the industry. Consuming the content of your favorite Blog or going on Facebook is primarily accessed from either home or work. It is true that more and more people access these platforms with their mobile, but if we are talking about the every-day consumer, this means that access to your sources of information is limited to certain times of the day. However, with mobile communication taking over, access to information is location independent and therefor requests adaptable and new ways of thinking from the industry.

A recent, failed example: On my way to King's Cross I saw an advert from the London Midland trains. They are currently having a promotion where you can travel anywhere on their routes for 10 Pounds return. On the bottom left of their advert they had a QR code for your mobile to be scanned. So there I was, downloading a QR reader for my iPhone, getting excited for an easy access to the promotion, expecting some sort of mobile friendly website that would allow me to directly make use of this sweet promotion. What happened next justified my thoughts on the evolution of communication and how many companies are not realizing what they are missing out: the QR code, which was essentially a bit.ly URL, forwarded me to their official London Midland train site in original size. Complicated to navigate and not optimized for a mobile environment in one of the most busiest places in London. While this would have been greatif I'd had my laptop with me, trying to take a picture with its integrated webcam in the middle of King’s Cross, this was clearly a stupid and quite useless approach to integrate social scanning in order to redirect their audience to the site. Their attempt to have an easy access to the site was a simple fail in my eyes and they potentially lost a customer. Yes, the link could have been bookmarked for further use for home/work, but if you already have an A1 advert in front of you, I’m sure most of us will somehow find in on the web. Actually, scan any QR code in the city and they all lead to pretty much nowhere, unless you are up for bookmarks which you will, and let's be honest about this one, never ever use anyway.

So clearly, the actual access of your information needs to be accessible in such a way that your audience has to do as little as possible. QR codes may be one possible tool to be used, but if used, it’s important to keeping in mind where the code leads. Then again, with NFC coming and growing, who knows if any of this will be ever relevant? Looking it from a somewhat theoretical perspective, I guess the most important thing to keep in mind is the ease of access of the information.

As important as access to your information is, delivery of your message is another way to see the evolution of the traditional two-way communication. With Twitter and other (micro) social media taking over in the way we communicate, information travels faster than ever and we clearly see a development the industry often overlooks: the receiver does not want to consume big chunks of information (text, video, audio) and is more likely to understand and pay attention to more concentrated and shortened amounts of information.

A good example is the well-designed CNN app for iOS devices. Every news story has an image followed by two bullet points summarizing the whole news. CNN understands that their receivers do not have enough time to read all news in a full context. My teacher in Social/New Media PR keeps on telling us that “people do not ready anymore, they skim information” and I couldn't agree more. Other news apps such as the NYTimes, Reuters, BBC and many others are more traditional and have a headline that has to describe pretty much everything in one line. Clearly, this approach does not allow for too much information and the receiver therefor may loose interest in the story.

As PR professionals it is essential to understand that receivers skim information and tend to be quite selective with the content they consume on the go. Reaching the audience efficiently in such a way that they get hooked to your message is key. This means that instead of bombarding your audience with large of amounts on information, feed them accordingly with bullet-points, concentrated one-liners, etc. This is the reason why I love Twitter’s 140 characters limitation. It forces us to be very direct and to the point (unlike this blog post), & evn chnges the way we wrt thngs. Pls RT.

Another important aspect of the ‘hyper communication’ environment we live in is the value of information. Information has been commoditized to such an extent that our dear friends from the newspapers are struggling so much competing with online news, which delivers news to the second and not just once a day. What does this mean?

Delivery + Time = Value of Information

The faster you deliver, the more valuable your message is. While this is definitely true for news, it is also relevant to PR practitioners if mobile communication becomes a more and more important of our lives. Just think about time limited promotions combined with location-based information. I am already running slightly out of ideas, but I guess my point is that the more we move, the more we travel and are out and about, value of information decreases so fast over time and the messages we consume are pretty much disposable (anyone reads a blog post twice?).

As information is virtually everywhere, location-based information will be of more and more importance. Foursquare is pretty much the forerunner of location based information and data, but who knows what the future will bring in location based data. Perhaps some PR in augmented reality? I guess it is important to understand that information and data will be more important based on access of location in the future. With smart phones outselling 'normal' phones, its just a matter of time until we all get familiar with these promising technologies and use them like we never missed them.

Specific roles of the social media channels
I hope that so far you had a little thought on how I think communication changes when more people will access the web with their mobiles than from home. We won't create massive documents or power points on our mobiles or tables (phones to create things other than pictures/videos = fail), replacing our home computers, but quick and concentrated consumption of information will take over at some point. Personally speaking and being a typical example of the mobile generation (Generation Y?), I reduced reading the news and consuming other content by approximately 50% since I started using my smart phone.

But when we start consuming more and more content on our mobiles, how can we be more efficient at it? A recent Tweet from PR2.0 master @briansolis suggested that all social media channels have some sort of role in our lives and I couldn't agree more.

Maybe slightly scary at first, he put several aspects of our lives in 'little boxes', ea. social media platforms, and has therefore created a good overview of which tools help us doing specific things. What made me use this suggestion for categorization for this blog post and a research paper I had to hand in recently, was the fact that if the sender, or perhaps we should call PR professionals 'producers' now, need to understand what kind of information goes where. Understanding this categorizing of information allows us to be specific with the messages we send and understand where the receiver gets his data. The graph may be common sense, but its just a really good way to see where information is stored and accessed. Oh, and let's not forget that common sense is not quite common.

My tiny conclusion
We can speculate and discuss 'models' as much as we want, but in the end we have to understand what receivers want and how you (and one day me too) can reach them the easiest and most efficient way. From what I see in London every single day, the industry needs to learn more and understand how to work with new technologies and developments more than ever. Content and access of information is nowhere near mobile friendly and only a handfull of sites are designed specifically for mobiles, making is easy for the receiver to, well, receive information. The implementation of the so called 'new technologies' seems to be very slow or poor. So the question is if the professionals within the industry have the necessary tools and skills required in order to be successful. In my opinion there is quite some training needed and I hope the PRO's know that as well. Where there are lots of new opportunities, there is a lot to learn.

So, what do you think? Does the industry need new skills and in-depth understanding of these developments? Is my approach right or wrong? Do you believe in the future of mobile communication as the way we'll communicate in the future or is this just a useless 'hype' (geo-tagging 2.0, hello?)?. Discuss, comment, criticize constructive and please share if you like this post and want to give a post-graduate PR student some exposure within the industry ;) Any feedback is highly appreciated.

Until then, enjoy the upcoming week and watch out for more interesting stuff to be posted soon.