PR and the new architecture of information

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.

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  • Jeff, I was about to write my own comment here, but then I remembered an eloquent post written this summer by one of my Horn Group colleagues..

  • Couldn’t have put it better myself, Jeff.

    Well I could have, if the Website I list here was my full-time gig and not something I’ve found too little time for.

    I’m sure the “true” PR professionals are wrestling with the issues of their roles in the New Era every day. Sorta like TV news, which is where I work.

    But the grand upside of the “New PR” is that ANYONE can get their word out without needing PR “professionals.” And with the Web, companies large and small don’t need to hire some PR firm to curry favor from a reporter and hope they write about you – AND that they get the info right.

    If news is a conversation, as you say, then business-customer relationships now finally can be a conversation as well. Messier than the old ways, to be sure, but with SO much more potential on the upside for true brand loyalty, to those who deserve it and work for it.

  • The new architecture of information does not only apply to businesses. It can and should also apply to (small local) governments and private charities, and they have been slow to adopt this new way of looking at things.

    We have allowed the charities especially, to operate under conditions of presumption. We presume they know best about their often unpopular and uncomfortable issues, and have allowed them to function without question or full explanation of their methods. Most of these non-profits do their best to provide transparency and openness, but the few that do not ruin things for the rest.

    That’s where we run into trouble, because over time, some agencies have become adept at prevarication and non-disclosure, and they look every bit as fine and upstanding as the others.

    An equality of concept is sorely needed, because an appearance of good works does not always translate into good works actually happening. In some cases, the “cure” provided by some agencies is worse than the problem they claim to address.

  • Way to go, Jeff.

    It’s our disgust with the notion of spin and the PR mindset that people’s reaction to information is something that somehow needs to be managed by an agency that led us to our approach for Conversational Marketing.

    The difference between our approach and that of a PR agency is that we seek only to give our clients guidance with the goal of training them to do without us. At the core of all of this is the Golden Rule – the whole “do unto others…” thing. I never imagined myself blogging on behalf of a client, and I don’t – I’d rather help them find the people in their organization that can represent interesting and relevant voices of the company – folks in product development, engineering, people who have real dialogue with customers, etc.

    If an agency is blogging on behalf of a client, the dialogue isn’t as real as it would be if some of the people I mentioned above were conversing directly with the market, right? Then why do we need PR agencies for blogging initiatives?

  • Guy Love

    This reminds me of the earlier comments made by the fake Amanda on this forum. The Amanda avatar, who claimed to represent a PR firm, saw PR as the gatekeeper. This gatekeeper helped to keep internal institutional information behind a carefully managed firewall. In a sense, PR is now the rope in the informational tug-of-war between the public and the institution.

  • JF

    I love the old phrase ‘you can’t polish a turd’. It applies to PR now as much as ever.

    Why anyone in business thinks some other people in suits can magic them out of a bad or crisis situation is beyond me.

    Why PR people should wish to convey that impression for short term gain is likewise beyond me (yes they’re in it for the money but is it sustainable?).

    Good PRs, good companies and good CEOs are good at their job because the know what they’re about, not because they’ve taken someone out to dinner.

    Yes there is the odd person whose PR outweighs their contribution to life, but these get found out in the end. Typically anyone you read about frequently in the trade press…!

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  • Hi Jeff,

    Just wanted to make sure you made a very important distinction when writing your column. The problem here Jeff is that PR is much (much) more than “flackery, public information, press agentry.” Those things ARE included in PR but PR isn’t limited to those things. Know what I mean?

    What I mean is you’re confusing public relations with media relations. There are a whole bunch of strategies and tactics that are included in the public relations function that have nothing to with media relations.

    For example, I counseled one of my client to adopt an ethics code (based on employee recommendations), make sure that all department heads sign on and ensure that all employees are briefed about it.

    For example, I recommended to a client to give in to a number of request from its union. The logic was that the cost of accepting the demands is less than the cost (in employee morale) of refusing them.

    For example, I suggested to a client that he adopt a blogging policy for his employees (and that he consult them in its writing).

    See Jeff, all of these things are public relations. None of them are flackery, public information, or press agentry (to use your terms).


    Marc Snyder
    (cross-posted here: Jeff Jarvis’s column on the new responsibility of PR)

  • Your right Jeff, in that there is a new reality with blogs and other similar types of website and email lists. Once private conversations between communications staff and journalists are not published on a blog for all the world to see.

    Any company that understands the importance of building a strong brand by building great products will have always tried to get their message across about their product. Volvo is the classic case of a company that focuses on building great and safe cars.

    Blogs can help a company to tell their story by giving banal details about everyday life. Stonyfield Farm, the yogurt company has a blog about an organic farmer, the blog really demonstrates that Stonyfield is committed to making organic yogurt. Yet the blog does not even have to tell me the company makes yogurt. I have the association with the blog and company’s products and put two and two together.

    I actually think that blogs will help businesses really understand the benefits of building a strong brand and using the marketing concept in their business. (marketing is not just sales, but the process of identifying customer’s wants and needs and satisfying them, efficiently and profitably)

    As I believe that if a company does not build the best product a set of customers are willing to buy, its going to be a lot harder to sell their products because of blogs, and the web.

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  • You know Jeff, the funny thing about this whole controversy and the ‘new way of doing PR/marketing’ is that it really is the ‘old way’ of what we called listening to the ‘voice of the customer.’ Now customers’ voices are amplified, multiplied and whether companies ask for feedback or not they’re getting it. The ‘trick’ as in the ‘old way’ is how we listen and then respond.