When I hear – as I’m sure we all have – that social media has irrevocably changed the way in which people communicate with each other, and will therefore change the way in which brands (and their intermediaries) attempt to communicate with people, I reserve the right to remain sensibly sceptical.
Back in 2002 or so, I encountered a question in almost every client meeting I had, whether with existing or prospective clients.
“Do you do online PR?” I was asked.
Frankly, this question threw me into a spin – no PR pun intended. I would return to my desk and sit there reflecting on this question, or more to the point on my complete lack of a coherent answer to it. I felt like a latter-day Rip van Winkle that had woken up after a long nap only to find there’d been an unexpected shift of paradigm. The (PR) world had moved on without me.
You see, the problem was I didn’t even know what online PR was. Admittedly I wasn’t, back then, the grey-haired PR aficionado I am now. But I was no newbie either. And I had been the news editor of the UK’s foremost online news site. So, I felt if anyone ought to know what online PR was, and be all over it, it should be me.
But I didn’t. And that troubled me.
One of the nice(r) things about being a little older though, is you start to notice when things heralded as new are, in fact, a rehash of something that has gone before.
This brings me back to the issue of why I didn’t understand what online PR was? Because it never existed. In much the same way that social media has not and will not change the way people communicate – except, of course, at a fairly mechanical level.
I don’t know which was invented first – the fork or the spoon. But I wouldn’t be surprised if one of those implements was heralded as changing people’s relationship with food by some visionary or other. Sure, you scoop with one and, err, fork with the other. But the fundamentals remain utterly unchanged. You are eating. Transporting food into your mouth. Chopsticks will also do the job.
Back to PR. This is only my view, admittedly, but surely PR is the art of story telling – stories can be fact or fiction; if you don’t agree with me, ask yourself why some documentaries are more compelling than others, why some biographies are more gripping.
Story telling only works if you have something interesting to say and someone who wants to hear it. You can sit round the campfire, you can put it on a CD, you can go on stage and use performance art, you can make a movie or a one-act play, you can write a novel or even make a documentary. It is still, at some level, a story – words and images crafted to convey information in an interesting way.
I don’t doubt there are better and more sophisticated PR practitioners that will knock holes in my viewpoint with effortless ease. But I stand by the principle that if you can’t get the basics right – what’s my story and who do I want to tell it to – it doesn’t matter which medium you select for telling it.