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The PR 2.0 ethical dillema – The Medium versus the Message

If there are two areas of cross-disciplinary study I would recommend for every Web PR and Marketing professional it would be linguistics and postmodernism.   The reason is that Internet marketing (and branding/marketing in general) is driven by forces described by these disciplines…and the ideas have been around for 50 years, so there is no need to reinvent the wheel by figuring it out for yourself.  I’ve seen a number of blog posts triumphantly delcaring that The Medium is the Message, and while true, I personally didn’t learn much from them that I didn’t already know from postmodern theory.

I’d like to try and clarify an idea that I think is creating great turmoil for most PR firms and media outlets in general, from blogs to wikipedia to cnet.  The difference in Web 2.0 is not that the medium has suddenly become the message, the medium and the message have and always will be fundamentally inseparable, the difference now is that a) anybody can create a message and b) anybody can modify the media.  This change is blurring the lines between PR and marketing, and IMHO to be successful in PR 2.0 and Marketing 2.0 you have to get these two fundamental shifts.

Old school PR adhered to a certain set of ethical rules designed around a certain media structure.  News was FILTERED by experts in the form of reporters and editors who controlled access to FIXED media channels, e.g., a magazine, a newspaper, a TV show, etc.  This was the world of broadcast media.  The ethical PR person followed this model by making sure the message being offered was newsworthy and by pitching this newsworthy story to these ordained few.  While this paradigm still exists, it is being rapidly eroded by user generated content and the Web’s inherent fungibility.   Now there is a spectrum of credibility caused by variable filtering that extends from MySpace to Wikipedia to the New York Times.  And, the medium itself changes every nanosecond with each new link that is created.

Depending on your product or service, your news credibility requirements take on different flavors.  For B2C, sufficient credibility may simply be what everyone else is doing…a trend.  For B2B, it is more likely to come from the more traditional experts or perhaps some of the newer ones like popular blogs.  The pressure on PR firms and marketers alike to adapt and take advantage of this new paradigm is strong.  Many will not survive the transition.  The two most important ideas that must be relearned are that a) your communication channels are radically expanded by social media and user generated content…you must have a solid understanding of your potential online media outlets and the right message for each and b) it no longer stops there, you must learn to modify the medium to your advantage.  More concretely, don’t just go to the NY Times and pitch your case study, consider what your presence should be on social networks, blogs, etc that are relevant to your customers…ask yourself:  Where do my prospects congregate on line?  Can I create my own community around my brand?  Then, create your own content and adapt the message to both the audience and the medium: don’t just make a viral video, because they are hot…you might be as well served simply by posting insightful comments to the right blogs.  And finally, focus on the medium itself to accelerate distribution and build a trail that leads back to your own website.  Link, link, link. Syndicate, syndicate, syndicate. Everywhere, all the time.  A news story in the print version of the NY Times lasts a day and then goes into library archives.  A blog post or a gadget can be redistributed across the Web, and a link from your story back to your website on a page rank 9 site has a much longer lifetime in cyberspace than the print equivalent in physical space.

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