Ya know, every so often, lightning strikes here. Every so often, the muse will drop by with a gift. This is certainly one of those times.
The following is truly a reference piece. Our colleague Ike Pigott was recently inspired to write on the modern age of PR and its present dilemma. Using a fundamental postulate of quantum mechanics, Ike sheds light on PR's present uncertainties. It's genius.
By way of background, Ike Pigott is a veteran reporter turned communications coach. A 16-year veteran of television news, he was an Emmy-winning writer with a reputation for storytelling. A gifted coach, he taught broadcast storytelling to stations before moving on to corporate interview coaching and crisis communication preparation. Pigott is now the regional Communications and Government Relations Director for five southeastern states for the American Red Cross. He's also a widely-respected social media expert who blogs at Occam's RazR.
Without further ado... here's Ike:
Heisenberg's Curse: How it Killed Social Media
By Ike Pigott
Not to get too technical but.... you're reading this because tiny little fuzzy packets of energy called "electrons" are slamming with pinpoint accuracy against color-coded targets on a luminescent screen - dislodging photons that excite receptors on your retina. As long as the gun stays accurate enough, the pattern of these photons and the various colors they represent create lines, curves, and pictures that your brain interprets as words and concepts.
If the first paragraph blows right past you or evokes Science Class Anxiety, then we'll sum it up this way: as long as the gun stays accurate, your world remains in focus.
Okay? Well, since electrons are so important, you'd think we'd know more about them. From a distance they are quite predictable, but as you move in closer they become impossible to measure. They are so tiny, the only way you can learn anything about them is to bounce something off of them, magnetically or physically. And as you do so, you end up kicking that poor electron in a completely different direction. Quantum physics tells us you can't know everything about an electron. Werner Heisenberg explained this concept as the Uncertainty Principle - in essence, the act of observing distorts the observed.
Hold that thought. There's a great lesson there. Enter the modern age of PR and its present dilemma.
The PR Purists are pitching a fit today because the Marketing and Advertising people are encroaching on sacred ground, with no reverence for the glory days. They're using PR tools and PR tactics without PR ethics. They're shaking us down not for more than our lunch money... they're after our legitimacy. Hence, we have a veritable frenzy of navel-gazing and kumbaya, contemplation of PR's DNA, and a lot of "whither blogging" and "will PR 3.0 arrive fast enough to rescue us?" At the end of the day, we've got a lot of dead trees, and tools too dull to cut a path to salvation.
First, let's acknowledge the rules are changing. The same technological disruptions that are causing the Marketing and Ad people to cloak themselves in PR garb are affecting us in a different way. The channels that used to be asynchronous are no longer one-way streets. "The audience" is no longer content to sit back and have a message broadcast at them. They want a pinpoint beam of electrons specifically targeted for them and them alone. It's a change of expectations borne by a change of technology - we're at a weird point in history where 'memory' has been usurped by 'search'.
Think about it. We're getting away from the notion of 'remembering stuff.' Simonides pioneered the use of rhyme and verse to memorize epic poetry. Now we don't even remember seven-digit phone numbers. Today, the real skill of importance is 'finding stuff.' Who is more useful to your company, all time Jeopardy champ Ken Jennings or a die-hard Google Ninja? It's the Google Ninja. Every office has 'the one' who knows how to quickly snag some piece of useful information out of the internet. If your supervisor is smart, 'that one' has job security. We don't need to know what - we just need to know where to get it. That's great if you are looking for a fact, not so great when looking for a recommendation. That's the job of social networks. Social networks have been around for eons, and are fueled by the trust of the individuals in the circle. Good advice is the club dues for the sense of belonging.
But the Social Internet changes the dynamic by several orders of magnitude. Instead of spending the time to develop a small network of general friends for recommendations, you can now have dozens of networks attuned for a specific purpose. I'm personally registered on a number of forums and services - some are single-purpose, some more general. But I know which ones to plumb for job contacts and which ones to ask for music recommendations and where I can discuss physics or PR. I can change directions as often as I please, participate in several about as simultaneously as anyone can. I can also dispose of any networks that are no longer useful to me, because I didn't invest a great deal of time getting to know the people. General relationships give way to the specific - and each individual retains more autonomy than ever in charting a course.
All of this spells trouble for the people who have been tasked with controlling the message. You can't be in every channel. And as we are learning, disruptions of the disruption have rendered a lot of our calculations meaningless. Measurement was always alchemy at best - every practitioner had a Philosopher's Stone, and everyone else had Fool's Gold.
Online measurement gave us some hope, but the pageview and the clickthru and even feed subscription totals are now suspect. We can't compare apples to apples, because mashups make applesauce. The consumer is picking and choosing his own electron stream, and the picture on our monitor is one of irrelevance and chaos. That's why today's buzzword is "influence."
The idea goes that if you open the measurement beyond one channel, you can see what people actually do with information and identify who the "influencers" truly are. This is a central tenet of certain white papers floating about, and even though they are silent about the details, there are protocols for following atoms of influence as they pop from stream to stream. Think RFID as a microformat. We could apply better analytical tools to see who has the pull across multiple communities - who is ahead of the curve - and how likely the crowd is to follow. Of course, that comes with one minor problem: people at their core don't like to be tracked and hate to be manipulated.
That's why I am so fascinated by a recent white paper recommendation that PR alchemists get out of the lab jackets and jump into the test tubes. The rush appears to be on for everyone now to get involved in relationship-building - an old-school approach to a new-wave challenge. The new-wave zealots will tell you that PR can save itself, if only it abandons results and gets dirty in the trenches where influence is won! But it's there we meet Heisenberg. It’s there we're doomed.
Here: Those who congregate in virtual groups - be they forums or platforms or just circles of friends - are following a trend. They want a specific network for a specific use, and they don't want to spend the extra time dealing with trivia. The moment things go off-topic, they are done.
Outside observers kill communities in a hurry, regardless of the transparency of their motives. The only tolerated agenda is pure: thrash metal fans don't want Mr. Labelpants from Arista watching over their shoulder. The Curse of Heisenberg: The act of observing disturbs the observed. So that leaves us with completely Naked Conversations. The PR guy now has to be the biggest fan in the forum - the king of the community - top Twit in the Twitterbin. And then corporate expectation will be nothing less than maximum influence. That means that only the rabid fans will have the inside track to be PR representatives. Even transparent, the lack of Motive Purity changes the dynamic of the group.
Bottom line: Corporate expectations being what they are, some degree of control will remain on the agenda. The message might be out of their hands, but then again it never was firmly in their grasp to begin with. The illusion of control was a product of a tiny number of outlets - slits that kept the electron beams somewhat coherent with a minimum of interference. A few years ago, the slits became close enough together to blur the results, and now the screen is gone altogether. We're all bathing in our own complex streams of radiation, and PR's challenge is to create relevance once again.
You can choose to be immersed in the community.
You can choose to be an advocate.
You can choose to be transparent as to your motive.
But you can only pick two of the above, because the communities won't let you have all three.
I poked Amanda Chapel this week. I was respectful, took proper precaution and I think it was good, if not brief, for both of us. Emboldened by my first successful poke on Facebook I began to poke others. With all this indiscriminate poking going on it’s no wonder that this online community is propagating at an alarming rate.
A “poke” on Facebook is equivalent of saying ‘yo, wassup’ and then moving on until you get some kind of response. You poke, gather friends, join groups, add all kinds of widgets and doohickeys to your profile and something is supposed to happen. Your life changes? You find the perfect mate, the perfect job, zing! make that connection you dreamed of your whole life? Or you simply waste more time futzing around the Net.
I was poking and futzing and jabbing all over the place this week because of the disturbing post on Strumpette last Monday – see A FIRST: Strumpette Spares Life of WOMM Evangelist. The post was about the ‘White Paper’ offered by Paul Rand and Giovanni Rodriquez on behalf of the Council of PR firms. The White Paper was a ‘call to action’ to critically discuss the “traditional vs. conversational” PR debate. So naturally, with this enticement, I was prepared to throw myself into the big conversation. The problem was that nobody was talking.
Amanda sent out an email to heads of many of the top PR firms to join the debate. No takers. A scan around the blogs of the PR firm CEOs showed no activity except an occasional pronouncement about how we have to stop controlling messages and learn to have conversations. Isn’t it obviously ironic to issue a statement about having a conversation and then refusing to engage in dialogue? Isn’t this the essence of the problem with PR, saying one thing and doing another?
So I retreated to the Strumpettes group on Facebook and started a discussion called “Where’s the conversation?” That went nowhere but a discussion started by David-James Vaughan titled “Is blogging dead?” sparked some intriguing responses and a smattering of a debate. I am beginning to think that perhaps the answer to that question is yes, or at least possibly. Like all movements that capture a “moment” there is an initial euphoria, a peak, then a decline. Sunrise doesn’t last all morning, as George Harrison used to sing, and the fantastic proliferation of blogs makes meaningful dialogue harder to find.
David-James, a graduate student in Ottawa, ON, is listed as ‘VP Recruitment & Outreach’ for the Strumpettes Facebook group. This is a good choice since David-James apparently has no trouble in his personal recruitment efforts. He has an astounding 506 Facebook friends, most of whom are smiling, attractive, bright-looking women. Hey D-J, is everybody in Canada that healthy looking?
On Thursday, March 8, 2007 at 7:41 AM, Ronn Torossian, President and CEO of 5WPR, emphatically promised that he was going to sue us. No real reason, he was just irritated by our teasing him about getting in bed with pornographer Joe Francis. Anyway, Ronn gave his obscenity-laced word that we'd see the complaint in 72 hours. It's now late by
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