One of the aims of my contribution to the North East CIPR conference was to try and pull together some of the ideas and themes devdloped by an impressive line-up of earlier speakers, beginning with Robin Hamman, of Headshift, followed by Stephen Davies talking about Twitter, Simon Wakeman on social media and local government and Mark Payne from West Midlands Police.
My contribution was about encouraging delegates to think more carefully about the implications of the growth of social media on PR practice. Clearly, I was preaching to the converted in that they wouldn't have attended if that was not their intention, but I thought it would be useful to highlight some of my sources and suggestions for further reading.
I used three core themes. Firstly, I tried to illustrate the way in which the very rapid adoption of social media technologies has changed the "vector of communication" (see Online Public Relations 2nd ed, by Phillips and Young). Suddenly, almost everyone can pass on their views to almost anyone else, and these views are linked and searchable; reputation is the aggregation of individual opinions, and this aggregation is empowered by social media. At a micro-level do a Twitter search on #necipr and see what views were expressed in real time by a significant percentage of delegates; searchable reputation, or the doing it because we can twitterings of a small, self-selecting group of technophiles - you choice!).
Secondly, I used the CIPR's own eyes-ears-mouth logo to stress the importance of listening and watching as well as speaking, and suggesting the two to one ratio expressed visually is actually at the top end of talking. To varying degrees, I think all the other speakers made similar points.
My third theme was ethics, based on my optimistic belief that the reach, transparency and porosity offered by digital communication (see Gregory and Fawkes 2000 JoCM paper Applying Communications Theory to the Internet) brings the work of PR into the public gaze in a way in which we have not seen before. In one sense all this is saying, bluntly, is that you have to be more honest because the internet means that if you try to deceive you are much more likely to get caught. More importantly, social media forces PR practice out into the open; it is harder to be the invisible hand shaping messages when the communicators are tangible and named.
I used a video made by the United States Air Force to examine how it sought to enlist social media in the battle for truth in the propaganda war on terror; lots of explosions cast an intriguing light on the notion of a PR offensive. The video is helpful in showing how the USAF tries to harness new techniques, and the importance of storytelling as communications tool, but at the same time showed little willingness to create dialogue - more shoot first, ask questions later than a Grunigian attempt at two -way symmetrical communication.
I also used the USAF guide to responding to adverse blog posts. It is very rigid and formulaic but worth careful consideration - especially if, as many delegates were, you are communicating on behalf of an inherently conservative and inflexible organisation.
Having talked about dialogue, we thought about who we need to talk to. Like the final speaker, Robin Wilson, of McCann Erikson, I used the ladder developed by Groundswell, and also drew on analogies linked to discovery developed by David Jennings in Net, Blogs and Rock'n'Roll. Maybe I should have said more about foraging, crowdsourcing and social bookmarking....
To put all this effort into context - remember it is effort, and it therefore must mesh with the organisational plan - I looked briefly at David Phillips' visualisation of a Grunigian view of PR.