Posted by Amanda Chapel
How PR Got Locked Out of the Web Revolution. Is Its Image Repairable?
This isn’t about what PR was forty years ago, or even ten. It’s certainly not about the once press-service function that was Ivy Lee. It’s not even about the marketing function that is Fleishman-Hillard, Weber Shandwick, Edelman, Ogilvy, Ruder Finn, GolinHarris or 99 percent of the agencies out there. This is about PR and its role on the web. This chronicles how the PR industry was until recently steamrolling its latest thing with total assuredness and bravado. Note “was.”
Now by way of a little background, this article was going to be titled, “PR Goose that Laid Golden Egg Found Dead.” Catchy, but it does tend to discount the gravity of the situation. It’s this: The huge promise that was PR’s “Me2Revolution,” seems all but a memory now. DAMN! And we were all gonna be rich! Well, maybe not tech-bubble filthy rich but certainly well above Lake Webegone average. PR’s web savvy geeks dreamt of McMansions, financial security, and lives of speaking engagements, honors and applause. Jeremy Pepper, Scott Baradell, David Parmet, Tom Biro, Shel Holtz, et al., all thought they had a seat at the table. All were cocksure humming “I want my MTV” about Web 2.0. “That ain't workin', that's the way you do it; Money for nothin' and your chicks for free.” But what was once so cool has turned out to be the business equivalent of the Beavis and Butthead experience.
Where are they now? One sentence: Phil Gomes, PR’s self-proclaimed “first blogger,” is presently writing his memoirs of a year at Edelman, to an audience that’s gone flat line. I imagine him on the floor in some barren room at the institution quivering in the corner, mumbling to himself about the almost glory days. He could have been somebody.
What the hell happened? Where’s all the stuff that was the basis of the irrational exuberance? Apparently, the inheritors of PR Next Big Thing seem to have been cut out of the will altogether. There’s a rising anti-PR sentiment that seems to be taking hold as the de facto standard of the World Wide Web. The REAL question is this: Where does the industry go from here?
Let’s first look at what all the hubbub was all about. Here’s what history will write: At the same time Bill Gates and Tim Berners-Lee made any idiot with a PC and an ISP relatively on par with the NYT... Craig Newmark (Craig’s List) cut the oxygen to the tradition newspaper business... Rupert Murdoch diversified his offering to 500 plus channels to chase a dwindling audience dollar... Larry Page and Sergey Brin (Google) make it possible to circumvent copyright laws globally... David Sifry (Technorati) was tracking 100 million blogs and a whole generation not reading newspapers anymore... Chris Charron and Charlene Li (Forrester Research) documented a nebulous new world where a fragmenting media ecosystem gave rise to social networking. And PR’s Richard Edelman in effect stood up and said, “Nebulous! We own nebulous. Anarchy, I’ll take that bet!”
Actually, Richard took it a step further. He basically said that PR didn’t need the media anymore. Basically, now there was virtually nothing stopping PR from plying their trade instantly and globally. As to the media filter, he said, “You’re not God anymore.” And ya know what, the entire PR industry lined up behind him to lay claim to the Promised Land. “Money for nothin' and your chicks for free.”
Wow. What a long long way from Ivy Lee.
THE BEST-LAID PLANS
So what was Richard’s Me2Revolution planning to do? We were to lead, manage and influence the “conversation” in the brave new world of social networking. How specifically?
Well, after all the blogs, wikis, chat, podcasts, vlogs, maillists, IMs, after all the MySpaces, Facebooks and Second Lifes, after the myriad of social bookmarks and indexes in all colors shapes and sizes… really, all tactical instruments aside, there are only two basic ways strategically to approach Web 2.0. Frankly, it’s really not all that different than the ole fashioned political organizing. But instead of promoting a political agenda, you’re surreptitiously selling (shilling) a corporate product or service. Bottom line: I’m either working the crowd in the tent or I am distributing pamphlets to get them to the next prayer meetin’. In terms of the World Wide Web, I am either building hubs for them to come to or I am otherwise seeding the marketplace variously with positive messages on behalf of my almighty client.
From all the business disciplines, what better to deliver that than PR? Anarchy schmanarchy, Richard was making a bet and it seemed like a sure thing.
...OF MICE AND MEN GO AWRY
But it all went so terribly wrong.
First, those who were intrepid enough to have built nice web churches found them quickly populated by the lame and lonely. See, the purpose of blog “comments,” for instance, was "to finish the work." The basic idea of the “conversation” is/was that as we collaborate intellectually, the sum total of our efforts is far greater that any individual contribution. But instead of finishing the work, so to speak… the open social network attracted lonely idiots and pedophiles looking for friends and prey, genetic malcontents with a penchant for the ultra picayune, and emotional pugilists roaming for the sport of the next intellectual dustup. Any thing of any merit was soon covered in inane Post-It notes, non sequiturs masking any view of the author’s original intent.
It was not what those faint of heart were hoping to see. So to help organizations feel comfortable with this brave populist new world, Jeff Jarvis and his 6 million pitchfork-and-torch-bearing mob threatened an alternative, i.e., “Come out and surrender your company, or else!”
And then from the sublime to the altogether silly, Text 100’s Aedhmar Hynes became a cartoon character in Second Life that concluded her presentation with a little Irish jig.
So much for open churches idea. How about the opportunity to seed messages broadly in the electronic marketplace? Certainly, for PR that’s a natural fallback, a no-brainer if you will. That’s been the industry’s bread-and-butter since the beginning!
Nope. Then there was the pay-per-post backlash. PayPerPost is the new highly-controversial system that pays bloggers to write about products and services. The catch is that there's no requirement that the blog run a disclosure that the item is paid. BusinessWeek’s Jon Fine ripped it as “Polluting the Blogosphere.” Rafe Needleman for c|NET News said, “This is a bad, bad, bad thing. It's hard enough for bloggers and professional journalists to maintain their integrity as it is. Even an unsubstantiated rumor of impropriety can destroy a writer. And PayPerPost casts a pall of doubt over everybody.”
SPAM AND ITS AFFILIATION WITH PR
Remember the time when you’d just get a few spam emails a day, fairly innocuous solicitations for this and that, online colleges, refi specialists and Viagra. Then their numbers went up geometrically, 10,100, 300 per day. And then they got raunchy, Brazilian bubble butts and fuck buddies in your area. And then they got fraudulent, Nigerian scams, get rich stock schemes and phishing. And then it got to be that no matter what preventative measures you employed, some nefarious spammers still got through. Dam those spammers! Kill them all!!!
Actually, spammers aside, PR has been the undisputed king of the unsolicited and unstoppable strategic commercial message. Now that may very well be the industry’s Achilles Heel. Forget the fact that for years we’ve been shotgun blasting out thousands of press releases and blind pitches to the media. Now our mere presence in a transaction is suspect and damned at the onset. Here, this captures the market sentiment. The Consumerist last week did an expose of Edelman’s Mike Krempasky. In a related link, Scott Womack characterizes Krempasky as "a shill acting the part of arbitrator; but remember, the aggressor, the environmental polluter, abuser of women and children laborers, and destroyer of local economies, Wal-Mart, pays his salary to disguise these facts." And Mike’s a stand-up guy! But remember, perception is reality.
Today, to be a PR person is to be instantly suspected of unsolicited ulterior motives. When we are humming “I want my MTV,” the audience is hearing, “We got to move these refrigerators; we got to move these color TV's.”
HOW SERIOUS IS THE PROBLEM?
What if an anti-PR sentiment became the de facto standard of social networking? Maybe it already has.
A few weeks ago it was reported that Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has declared the world’s #1 reference site a spin-free zone. The open encyclopedia has summarily closed its doors to more than 40,000 PR practitioners worldwide. According to Wales, “The big problem with paid editing on Wikipedia is NOT that someone is getting paid to write, but rather that this causes a rather obvious conflict of interest and appearance of impropriety.” In another interview Wales said, “I think that PR-firms editing in a community space is deeply unethical, and that clients should put very firm pressure on their PR firms to not embarrass them in this way.”
In spite of Wikipedia’s ideal that “anyone can edit,” how did this dramatic exclusion come about? Add it up: Wikipedia has recently plagued by quality-control issues. The web today is hypersensitive to all things spam. PR has its reputation for surreptitious selling. And then the straw that broke the camel’s back, an enterprising young PR/researcher Gregory Kohs from West Chester Pa., launched a business a month ago, MyWikiBiz, whose very business model was to “help both for-profit and non-profit corporations, entities, and their products find a home within Wikipedia.”
And Wales slammed the door and locked it. “Any potential customers of MyWikiBiz are warned that paying someone to write an article for Wikipedia is very strongly frowned upon by the community. Policy in this area is still evolving, because we have recently come to understand how serious this problem can be. I personally strongly recommend against hiring MyWikiBiz or any similar "consultants" to help you get a listing in Wikipedia. This is counterproductive and unethical.--Jimbo Wales 04:31, 5 October 2006 (UTC)'
Finally, you be the judge. Do you think PR’s image on the net is repairable? I don't.
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Good perspective, if sort of pessimistic. :) Call me crazy, but I think we've always been a reputation challenged industry, a few bad apples, esp. high profile ones (Lizzie Grubman, anyone?) can do a lot of damage. Good is good, bad is bad, and there is lots in the middle.
It's a great time to be in the industry.
Sort of pessimistic? Hey- the band is still playing-one half of the boat is still above water-this sucker is suppose to be unsinkable- and I have a one-way ticket to New York. What could go wrong?
The article makes us as - PR profeesional - realise that internet it gives the ample opportunities, we are already using some of them to client advantage. But at the same time the article gives the flip side to how is the reputation percived of "reputation managers" in the internet space.
I think this is another straw in the wind on the emerging issue of Trust in online social media