Posted by Amanda Chapel
5 good reasons why PR is incompatible
“Conversational Marketing”... now does that sound cool or what? It’s certainly all the buzz around the water cooler here lately. Just last week Jeff Jarvis touched on it in a great interview of David Weinberger from the Always On Conference. And surely we've all seen Joe Jaffe’s Social Media Survey making the rounds. Good? Maybe not. Looks like we are about to replay the Wikipedia debacle actually, i.e. a HUGE opportunity where the PR industry is prematurely locked out. That has a few industry experts scratching their heads and asking why. Here we try to answer that. Among other things, we might just be too stupid for Conversational Marketing.
Okay, let’s back up a minute. Where’s this coming from? Well, unless you’re a sheltered luddite or have been marooned on a deserted island in the South Pacific for the last five years... generally speaking, blogging is now the recognized cure for cancer and Jarvis is up for a Nobel Peace Prize. In PR, there’s been a huge rush to feign invention and experimentation: Rubel’s slinging all things widgets; Phil Gomes has perfected the groundbreakingly mindless StoryMaker Upper 1.0 ™; and Rick Murray, the president of a division of the largest independent firm in the world mind you, is touting the value of "fake people doing fake things spending real money" in Second Life. It’s a mad, mad world. Today what you’ve got is a plethora of half-baked cockamamie ideas held out as salvation by people who, by and large, are vying for position to cash in financially and/or politically. Fact is, it’s a smarmy, mad, mad world.
Now it’s all about “Conversational Marketing” (CM). Not to be confused with conversational French – which of course is to know just enough to order coffee and find the rest rooms – CM has become the slutty WOMM (word-of-mouth marketing) with a new doo and fresh douche.
CM entered the geeky lexicon seven years ago with “The Cluetrain Manifesto.” In the hypothetical, CM is the bottom-up approach to communication where “broadcast” is replaced by connecting directly with customers. The book proposed that "markets are conversations,” and because of technology, i.e. the Web and the ability to scale, “In just a few more years, the current homogenized ‘voice’ of business will seem as contrived and artificial as the language of the 18th century French court.”
Hmmmm... Yeah if you lived in a pod commune on the planet Zork and bought food telepathically with radiant mednars maybe. Nice theory but almost totally devoid of the earthly realities of human nature, transactional dynamics and the legal traditions of property. But it sounds good and is a perfect constitution around which to rally the legions of Open Source have nots sitting in their underwear in their parent’s basement. Hell, this could very well be the rallying cry for disintermediated disintermediaries everywhere.
...And that’s where the swarm of marketing opportunists (redundant) swooped in. WOMM has kidnapped the pristine virginal CM. According to Tom Hespos, President of Underscore Marketing: “WOMM tries to make the idea of connecting directly with the marketplace compatible with the broadcast thinking typical of large corporations, mainly by taking the conversation away from the people working at the corporation and giving it to a group of paid agents. Really, the two concepts are polar opposites.”
Poor CM. She's held captive now doing $400/hr. tricks in a seedy PR office near Times Square.
WHAT’S PR’S ROLE?
Here’s where it gets really interesting. It might be genius and then again it might be totally insane. No matter, it surely explains why agency execs drool at the thought of it.
Okay, try to follow the logic. The key to CM is that a client organization is supposed to relinquish control. So the question is: what does a manager manage in a system sans management? That’s where the real genius comes in. If you can’t manage it, you can’t measure it, i.e. you can't measure me; and if you can't measure me and are still paying me a lot of money, well trust me it must be good. If you’re the head of an agency, you’re seeing big green dollar signs right about now and feeling a little woozy. Call home. This could be the big one. Your ship has finally come in!
Seriously, Weinberger in the interview referenced above asks the right questions: “Does PR even have a legitimate role? Is it possible for PR to be truly transparent? How can someone paid to enter a conversation not fundamentally corrupt it?”
Here, David’s right.
WHY IT WILL NEVER WORK
There are 5 good reasons why PR is incompatible with Conversational Marketing:
1. Totally green ethical organizations are very very rare. Excuse me but promoting a company is only half the likely function of PR. We are advocates proactively as well as defensively. We live in an age where pretty much everything will kill ya; and corporate weasels doing the perp walk on the nightly news is a veritable parade. That said, by definition, a PR person has too much of an agenda to participate in CM.
2. Today, the savvy social media participant strongly rejects even the hint of PR's MO, "influence." Why? Because we are all empowered now. We make our own choices and are offended when others try to make them for us.
3. From a business service buyer perspective, devoid of “targeted influence,” it's just a bit too kinda-sorta-maybe-California. It's too amorphous for people writing checks to buy and it's too amorphous to measure results. A derivative of Murray's Second Life quote above: you've got fake people doing fake things of undetermined value delivered... maybe. No thanks. That engagement is too hard to sell and too easy to lose.
4. The "true believers" in Social Media continue to gloss over the overwhelming business risk. They seem to almost deny human nature. Here, keep these in mind when considering the potential exposures inherent in CM:
And 5., the single most important reason... the CM mind is not aligned with the PR body. Here, when you impose an ideal on a group not aligned with it all hell breaks loose. Look at Iraq. It is pure cultural arrogance to insist that democracy fits all and is best. Just look at the difficulty PR faces presently as it rises to face accountability and ethics. And now we expect them to take the intellectual leap to transcend it? C'mon. PR is just too stupid.
PR Can Do Conversational Marketing
Post titles are often meant to stir up a reaction via a generalized headline that can both be true and not be true based upon some context and description. My favorite Molotov cocktail-throwing muse, Strumpette, has condemned the PR industry
Weblog: Digital Influence Mapping Project
Tracked: Feb 06, 19:27
Strumpette Says Conversational Marketing and PR Aren’t Compatible
Strumpette links to a column I wrote last year in a piece about why Conversational Marketing and PR aren’t compatible. And Doc says here we go again… Interesting stuff from Strumpette, and I don’t disagree with all of it. I do, how...
Tracked: Feb 08, 07:50
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Well wasn't that nicely framed and phrased.
To answer the titular question, yes, PR is too stupid. By a long shot.
I also agree that if there's the possibility of financial gain to be had from activities associated with as-yet unexplored corruption of new social or interpersonal communciations channels, then yes, new PR revenue streams will soon follow.
I object!!! I refute!! Okay, so maybe I agree a little. But if you are willing to accept my crosslink to my post-response, you will see my point.
cut and paste, I guess...
I posted this on your blog, but don't know a way to link to that post directly so I want to respond here, slightly edited for clarity's sake.
In general tend to agree with Amanda - I'm certain the CM head and PR body don't match, but I tend to see the problem a bit differently than you frame it. Still, Amanda's conclusion, that this mismatch is fundamental and too deep to fully overcome, is right on.
Your blog's post misses or glosses a key point in this article: the identity and role of the individual human being participating in the "conversation" matters. And not just a little. I'm primarily a designer, and speak a common "design" language that others in related fields readily understand. Our words, phrasings and perspective share common roots. Outsiders who enter this community unarmed will not be well received. Similarly, I would have a hard time discussing and recognizing issues in the PR component of projects I'm tasked with, especially in conversation with real pros.
I'm well aware that copy and technical writers, designers and others create products and sell things entirely outside their expertise. But when we do these things, there's a great deal of research, and the work product itself is done in collaboration with, and reviewed by REAL experts. Time, reflection, and revision are hallmarks of that process.
By contrast, CM is a gut-instinct, rough-and-tumble shoot-from-the-hip world. How do you shoot what you can't see? How do you respond to things appropriately when you're gut's never engaged? I don't see it happening.
Bottom line: It may be comforting and good business to cling to the belief that PR pros can transform CM into a corporate marketing tool, but that hypothesis stands in opposition to the concept of genuine "conversation". PR is about shaping and spinning reality to specific ends. CM is just about reality, and perception in CM is colored by the role of the speaker. A PR pro may participate in customer channels, and shamelessly revel in his/her identity as you suggest they must, but once that aspect of their life is revealed, their statements are subject to immediate and extreme discount. Taking the other tact, hiding one's identity can lead to even greater problems. Thus, I see no legitimate role for traditional PR in true consumer conversations.
On the other hand there is PLENTY of room in CM for people inside corporations, doing the real work that affects products and customers, from the guy sweeping the floors to the the girl with the corner office and new Jag. Genuine, real connections can help far more than PR-brewed phony ones. The key is for legal departments and management to let go a bit, and encourage (even reward) those with a flair for communicating to customers.
As I see it, the real challenge is not to transform "old school PR" into "new school CM". That path is a dead end, discounting or ignoring what old school PR does well, and wasting PR pro's time (and the company's PR budget) with tasks others might do better. PR is good at getting things noticed in the MSM. CM is good at connecting producers directly with consumers. The real challenge is human and fundamental: getting people at the top to let go, and providing the people below them with the etiquette, and basic rules they need to participate in appropriate conversations.
Finally, I believe a lot of the problems faced by marketers and companies today are generational. This was made crystal clear in last week's Super Bowl commercials. Some were aimed squarely at middle aged baby boomers, complete with the Voice Of God narration we've heard since grade school, and the authoritative, swing dick alpha males fully in control. Most were aimed at other demographics, and if you were at a party with a mixed age crowd, you probably had as much fun as I did; Some boomers were indignant and actually angry about commercials they didn't get. And conversely, those same folks were offended, and silently steamed as the younger crowd made fun of the spots they thought were funny.
Any creative working today has seen this first hand. We're asked to do viral things, and shot down when we do them. There's an unstated (well, depends where you work) rule that things have to pass the Boomer Test. The boss is a boomer. If he doesn't get it, no one will, so it's a bad idea, start over.
The same thing is true in many areas of life. In terms of PR the split is just as real, but takes different forms. For instance, old school journalists might well reject a "Social Media News Release" that doesn't follow the format of conventional press releases. Many people prefer a phone call to an email, still others prefer a quick IM. Human factors will increasingly play a role, as boundaries dissolve. Awareness of other people is the key. Conversation is definitely part of that, but it would be a mistake to enter conversations ill-equipped. PR firms using staff or robot-armies to spam or post on blogs is more of a problem than a solution.
It looks like we are going to have to squat in Amanda's kitchen to have this discussion. I hope she doesn't mind. i did post a comment on my blog which you can get to via cut-n-paste:
But here's a version of it with a rather obnoxious intro that is exclusive to Strumpette's blog:
Dave - your assertion that I don't get that who you are matters in a conversation is plain silly. You're a designer and speak design, well, I'm a Creative Director and I eat designers for lunch (okay, now I'm being silly).
But seriously, underneath the bad reputation of PR professionals (brought on themselves) lies the heart of a human being who may just care as much about the topic of a conversation. What you may not realize is that many PR pros specialize in areas that matter to them - health behavior change, non-profit advocacy, environmental sustainability, etc... They actually come to know issues and people in that space. They are even experts in their particular sectors. Assuming they are not suitable for conversation makes no sense. It's like saying a designer shouldn't be taking about PR.
Here's the full comment from my blog (which I would link to if Amanda would be so kind as to allow HTML in her comments!)
Dave - thanks for such a long and thoughtful comment. At the end of the day, I couldn't disagree more in your assessment of PR folks being a lost cause.
I think you, like a lot of folks seem to classify PR as "media relations" which is one distinct part of what these folks do. Ogilvy, for instance, does a tremendous amount of social marketing where we are trying to convince people to change behaviors, generally, to make them healthier or live longer. That's just one example of the diverse expertises inside PR that could make PR pros great at CM or whatever we want to call it. We actually do tons of research before "shooting" and it's almost never from the hip. We try to be genuine - I do, at least, - and when we are not familiar with a community, we say so and look for help from that community. We don't pretend we know everything. We don't pretend we're your best friend. We don't pretend we are someone else.
Look, I know that stuff happens out there. The bottom line is that it doesn't have to and will become less and less effective over time. I also know some superb folks in this field who approach outreach with the same care and respect that you appear tuned into.
Call me naive, but I think a lot of great PR folks can rise to the occaision.
I wholly agree that great PR folks can and will rise to the occasion. This is true in all professions. The more interesting (and perhaps germane) question: what about the rest of the industry? I should define who I mean: I'm not talking about the Ogilvy's servicing big, giant corporate clients here, but the bread and butter of the US economy, small shops to mid-size operations, running relatively tight ships. We may well agree on these matters too... not sure if we've discussed it yet.
I am suggesting specifically:
1) the mainstream approach to introducing the world to company's and products won't continue as it exists, or anything like it for very long. This seems to be the core of our disagreement. But today brand or company's ability to "control" or entirely direct it's "image trajectory" through tactical planning is under assault. Tight control of information and assets is one tactic that can fight info-networks to a draw at best. More active, sophisticated strategies pre-empt, side-step or short circuit problems by building strong communities around products that include customers and creators.
2) While the care and feeding of the MSM will remain the provence of PR pros, the broad thrust of "conversational marketing" is outside that circle for the most part, and whatever the causes, most times direct PR participation in the "conversation" is risky move, if not downright counter-productive. There are specific exceptions to almost any rule, but I'm not sure you've made a case that a PR pro's true identity and relationship can work in favor of the client in CM. On the other hand, I think it's pretty easy to make a case by both example and reason, where the identity of a product's creator's or others on a team can greatly enhance that conversation.
Let me cite one broad example I see in practice all the time. There are a handful of manufacturers and designers in the pro audio and video community who participate in virtually every major technical and user forum in the industry. They talk to all kinds of users directly, and many espouse their particular design theories or ideas vocally. Everyone knows who they are, and when they post they're treated with due respect - people hear them out, and often challenge them when appropriate... or not! When they're criticized unfairly other users usually scold the offenders. The designers and engineers can speak directly with little noise. Periodically a company's VP of Marketing shows up... a whole different reception usually awaits them. Their identity becomes a filter through which they're seen, fairly or not. This is a pattern I see whether it's an Adobe forum, or a tiny audio or video gear manufacturer that makes the Xtrundulator9000... the president, the engineers, even the customer service guys get some respect, but the market folks get the ol' tin ear.
The problem isn't that the marketing folks are bad people. Nor are the customers. It's just a matter of venue. In direct conversations, customers want the "inside track", the "horse's mouth", not the "horse's flack", no matter how knowledgeable, professional or relevant any individual in that role may be. This is true in the case of small, micro-markets, where the audience might even KNOW and RESPECT the Marketing guy already, in other contexts. As a rule I don't see how a third party, outside the company entirely, can participate in a conversation openly without their role/relationship working against them.
Finally, you cite a great example of the problem I'm suggesting when you talk about "shooting from the hip". There's absolutely a need and a role for research, and the world would be better if we all shot our mouths off less, style and aim aside! While CM requires discipline, and knowing when NOT to shoot, good research takes time and real work to be on equal footing in various settings. Signifiers are a part of any culture. Being able to post something in mid conversation is much harder and comes with an extra signifier-barrier for anyone outside of a particular community.
That's the nut of it to me. CM, at least by my definition, is all about community. We probably agree that anyone can become part of any particular community with a little bit of effort. But "parachuting in" to an on-going conversation in a narrow community, regardless of how much you might know about a particular product or even a field, seems like an ill-fitting role for PR pros.
Now, on an entirely different level I think we could also agree that PR pros can be active part of a CM program - identifying important "communities", and providing short cuts and encouragement for the "right" people within client organizations to respond to specific issues that arise. Indeed, I can imagine some fantastic software based tools, using conventions of PR, to manage and enhance their value to clients, without necessarily adding to their own workloads, or challenging anyone's ethical concerns.
There are exciting opportunities out there. Still, this is a very different kind of service than what most folks can offer, and it must be delivered in an entirely different way, for all the reason's Strumpette so ably broke down in her original post. PR might best use CM-monitoring/management tools to enhance the value of their broader services, without participating directly in those conversations.
Although I have not searched a great deal, it seems that Strumpette might be among the minority of PR blogs on this issue. Are there others out there that illustrate a similar perpsective?
No sadly. Again the title, "Is PR Too Stupid..."
CM is new. It's shinny. It promises to cure what ails ya and also good seats in the life hereafter. Wanna buy some?
Yes, sadly PR, is too stupid ... because it is bred that way and its practices are stale and increasingly ineffective. It is also true, as noted above, that PR in general is often mistaken for media relations in particular and it seems like there is plenty of room for CM to be employed effectively and ethically by smart and conscionable (I need a spell checker) PR pros. It is also true, as noted above, that CM may have its greatest effect inside an organization, if legal and compliance can loosen up. PR can no longer spin and control the dialogue. But the dangers of CM in the public domain greatly outweigh the benefits. I have always relied on instinct as my greatest asset in PR. I type at 3:30 in the morn and hit "Submit Comment." Whammo. Most of the clients I have represented would be horrified by that prospect.