B2B Marketing

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 declaring 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 Facebook 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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  • Ken,

    Thanks for the comment. I think your point is absolutely accurate. I thought about delving into the reuse of news when writing the post, but decided to try and keep it focused for greater impact. In my mind, this is another area where postmodern theory applies in the Web 2.0 world. The question I think is whether real news generated by the NY Times and then applified on the Web can any longer be distinguighed from user generated content in its reach or impact, e.g, the Obama girl. And, it depends on your audience/product as to which is better to focus your PR efforts on. To me this is the fundamental ethical question in PR, each firm/professional will need to decide just how comfortable they are facilitating the distribution of unfounded opinion and simple entertainment when it is in the interest of the product or service being promoted versus only disseminating quality news through quality channels….that said…we should all be grateful that we still have trusted media like the NY Times. Distinguishing fact from opinion is fundamental to our democracy. But, not necessarily to marketing, particularly for emotinally driven B2C brands.

  • I think you’re right in the big picture, but you’re underestimating the power of traditional media on the Web 2.0 world. I would posit that many bloggers would have little talk about if it wasn’t for the New York Times, and every other professional journalism outfit. Yes, some bloggers are creating “news” — but they are in the minority. Far more are generating original opinion about news and amplifying news reported elsewhere.

    Your New York Times story doesn’t sit in the nytimes.com library. It gets picked up by other media. It becomes searchable — and a key part of any good SEO strategy. More importantly, if it’s a good story, or a provocative one, bloggers link to it and talk about it.

    None of this invalidates your thesis that PR firms and brand marketers need to figure out how to create community around their brands and to create and maintain conversations with customers rather than talking at them. Companies and agencies are going to staff and train around that. But at the core, there’s a story to be told and a conversation to be had.

    News companies may be printing a paper, but their journalists are out there creating news, getting it online, blogging about it themselves, and giving the rest of us something a little higher on the credibility continuum to find, to talk about and post about and blog about — and that counts for something in every communications every strategy.

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