PR, flackery, public information, press agentry, whatever you call it, its mission has always been spin: telling their side of a story. But in a world of links, in our new architecture of information and news, PR and original sources of information have a new role and responsibility. They can’t just spin anymore. They have to inform. In some cases, they even have to perform a journalistic function.
In the past, flacks could live behind the scenes, working stories and reporters and trying to push their client for coverage or get their angle into coverage. They were hidden. That began to change when a highly competitive, fragmented media world made access to celebrities — of show business, business, or politics — more valuable, putting the PR person in the role of gatekeeper. The press had until then acted as the gatekeeper to the public; now the flacks guarded the gates to the more valuable asset: the stars.
The dynamics have shifted again thanks to the internet, for now links and searches can take us directly to the source of information: a company’s, politician’s, or government agency’s site. This sounds like nirvana to the flack: direct access to the public, bypassing those damned reporters and editors. Fine.
But this also places a new responsibility on these original sources: We’re going to expect them to tell us the truth. We come to them seeking information about a product or a pubic stance or an action. If they give that to us, then great. They earn a place in that new architecture of news and information. But if they fail, if they give us incomplete or false information or try to hide behind spin that can always be unspun, then they risk new penalties: We won’t trust them, their products, brands, and clients and we will warn all our friends at twice the speed of spin. There are new penalties for misbehavior.
So this isn’t just about a new ethic of information necessitated by the link and search. It is also about a new form of self-interest for those who say they are in the business of public relations and public information. We’re the public and now we can not only come to you directly, we can penalize you directly when you lie to us.
That is one of the morals of the Edelman Wal-Mart blogging mess: The agency tried to hide in the old ways of PR but once exposed for its manipulation ended up doing more harm to itself and its client(s) and brand than if it had just done nothing. That was the message I would have tried to deliver to the Word of Mouth Marketing Association if I’d decided to go (see the post below) but I decided it was not the right venue and that it would deliver the message from the negative side.
There is a positive side to this message: Now that you have direct access to your public and now that the public can come directly to you for information, then give it to them: competely, honestly, openly, easily. If you have a good product and service, if you treat your customers with respect, then that becomes the best public relations you can have.