The history of public relations as a field is deeply intertwined with the history of mass media. Post-War public relations in particular became very much a streamlined process of building relationships with publications and broadcast networks. This was what made the most sense under that technological paradigm–if organizations wanted to get a message or project an image to their relevant audiences, mass media were really the only available channels.
As with every communications institution that grew up in the mass media environment, public relations is currently in the painful process of redefining itself.
The more interested I grow in the subject, the more I think about an incident a couple of years ago that seems to me to be a microcosm of the challenges that new media poses to anyone stuck in a mass media mindset.
Back in April of 2009, a number of books with homosexual themes suddenly stopped appearing in Amazon’s search results. A number of bloggers made a call to arms against what they perceived as deliberate and systematic discrimination. The whole thing blew up on Twitter under the hashtag #amazonfail. Amazon was slow to respond, but eventually explained that there had been a glitch originating in Amazon France that permeated their system. A fuller summary of events can be found here.
What ended #amazonfail were not the efforts of Amazon’s PR team, however, but a single post by Clay Shirky. I was astonished at the time how Shirky’s post seemed to dispel the whole thing like so much smoke in the wind. After he published it, a huge number of people shared the link, flooding the hashtag search for #amazonfail. Then, after less than a day, the volume of tweets on the subject dropped dramatically.
There are several aspects of this incident which are instructive.
First, during the entire time this thing was blowing up, there were a group of people who seized the moment to draw attention to discrimination against homosexuals in general. In general, it is the case that one interest’s PR disaster is someone else’s PR opportunity, and that plays a part in how the PR disaster grew in the first place.
Second, one influential outsider–Clay Shirky–was able to accomplish what no one on Amazon’s PR team could possibly have done. Precisely because he was an outsider, who had no stake in the matter, his words were more credible. He had a large audience–particularly in those days, when he was blogging fairly regularly. Many of the people who tweeted the link to his post hadn’t tweeted anything else on the subject of #amazonfail. This was noted with frustration by this guy, who had been extremely active during the whole fiasco and did not buy Shirky’s argument. I watched him at the time as he went from being part of the unified angry hoarde to among a few lone voices in the woods left who were still outraged after Shirky’s piece went viral.
What was way more valuable than anything anyone at Amazon could have done at the time was Shirky’s trust. If Shirky believed that Amazon’s explanation was just trying to cover up something they didn’t expect would draw so much attention, things would have gone very differently. Since Amazon had credibility–at least in Shirky’s eyes–he took them at their word.
Laying a Foundation
PR is and has always been about trying to influence the story about a company, or individual, or government. That hasn’t changed, and never will. What the modern technological shift has done is made it much more important to build trust. Trust in general, and trust from people like Clay Shirky in particular. If you are caught in a lie, it isn’t going to help you the next time around. And if you establish a pattern of being dishonest, the Clay Shirkys of the world will definitely not give you the benefit of the doubt.
When Facebook PR gets caught trying to bribe bloggers into smearing their competition, that doesn’t exactly inspire trust.
When Apple replaces your iPhone or Macbook, no questions asked, even if your warranty just expired like a week ago–that builds trust. I have never had this experience, but I’ve heard it from a lot of people I know, and it definitely made me feel more confident about my choice to buy an iPhone.
Trust is elusive; it is hard to build and easily lost. There is no formula for winning it, other than the obvious ones–be honest, admit mistakes, and engage your critics. None of which is any guarantee.
I don’t think PR needs to be redefined. The goals are constant over time; it’s just the tools that have changed.