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February 06, 2007


Dave Davis

In general tend to agree with Strumpette - indeed, I found her story before this one, but I found your summaries generally accurate. Like you, I'm certain the CM head and PR body don't match, but I tend to see the problem a bit differently. But Strumpette's conclusion, that this mismatch is fundamental and too deep to fully overcome, is right on.

Your post misses or glosses a key point in the original article: the identity and role of the individual human being participating in the "conversation" matters. And not just a little. I'm primarily a designer, and speak a common "design" language that others in related fields readily understand. Our words, phrasings and perspective share common roots. Outsiders who enter this community unarmed will not be well received. Similarly, I would have a hard time discussing and recognizing issues in the PR component of projects I'm tasked with, especially in conversation with real pros.

I'm well aware that copy and technical writers, designers and others create products and sell things entirely outside their expertise. But when we do these things, there's a great deal of research, and the work product itself is done in collaboration with, and reviewed by REAL experts. Time, reflection, and revision are hallmarks of that process.

By contrast, CM is a gut-instinct, rough-and-tumble shoot from the hip world. How do you shoot what you can't see? How do you respond to things appropriately when you're gut's never engaged? I don't see it happening.

Bottom line: It may be comforting and good business to cling to the belief that PR pros can transform CM into a corporate marketing tool, but that hypothesis stands in opposition to the concept of genuine "conversation". PR is about shaping and spinning reality to specific ends. CM is just about reality, and perception in CM is colored by the role of the speaker. A PR pro may participate in customer channels, and shamelessly revel in his/her identity as you suggest they must, but once that aspect of their life is revealed, their statements are subject to immediate and extreme discount. Taking the other tact, hiding one's identity can lead to even greater problems. Thus, I see no legitimate role for traditional PR in true consumer conversations.

On the other hand there is PLENTY of room in CM for people inside corporations, doing the real work that affects products and customers, from the guy sweeping the floors to the the girl with the corner office and new Jag. Genuine, real connections can help far more than PR-brewed phony ones. The key is for legal departments and management to let go a bit, and encourage (even reward) those with a flair for communicating to customers.

As I see it, the real challenge is not to transform "old school PR" into "new school CM". That path is a dead end, discounting or ignoring what old school PR does well, and wasting PR pro's time (and the company's PR budget) with tasks others might do better. PR is good at getting things noticed in the MSM. CM is good at connecting producers directly with consumers. The real challenge is human and fundamental: getting people at the top to let go, and providing the people below them with the etiquette, and basic rules they need to participate in appropriate conversations.

Finally, I believe a lot of the problems faced by marketers and companies today are generational. This was made crystal clear in last week's Super Bowl commercials. Some were aimed squarely at middle aged baby boomers, complete with the Voice Of God narration we've heard since grade school, and the authoritative, swing dick alpha males fully in control. Most were aimed at other demographics, and if you were at a party with a mixed age crowd, you probably had as much fun as I did; Some boomers were indignant and actually angry about commercials they didn't get. And conversely, those same folks were offended, and silently steamed as the younger crowd made fun of the spots they thought were funny.

Any creative working today has seen this first hand. We're asked to do viral things, and shot down when we do them. There's an unstated (well, depends where you work) rule that things have to pass the Boomer Test. The boss is a boomer. If he doesn't get it, no one will, so it's a bad idea, start over.

The same thing is true in many areas of life. In terms of PR the split is just as real, but takes different forms. For instance, old school journalists might well reject a "Social Media News Release" that doesn't follow the format of conventional press releases. Many people prefer a phone call to an email, still others prefer a quick IM. Human factors will increasingly play a role, as boundaries dissolve. Awareness of other people is the key. Conversation is definitely part of that, but it would be a mistake to enter conversations ill-equipped. PR firms using staff or robot-armies to spam or post on blogs is more of a problem than a solution.

John Bell

Dave - thanks for such a long and thoughtful comment. At the end of the day, I couldn't disagree more in your assessment of PR folks being a lost cause.

I think you, like a lot of folks seem to classify PR as "media relations" which is one distinct part of what these folks do. Ogilvy, for instance, does a tremendous amount of social marketing where we are trying to convince people to change behaviors, generally, to make them healthier or live longer. That's just one example of the diverse expertises inside PR that could make PR pros great at CM or whatever we want to call it. We actually do tons of research before "shooting" and it's almost never from the hip. We try to be genuine - I do, at least, - and when we are not familiar with a community, we say so and look for help from that community. We don't pretend we know everything. We don't pretend we're your best friend. We don't pretend we are someone else.

Look, I know that stuff happens out there. The bottom line is that it doesn't have to and will become less and less effective over time. I also know some superb folks in this field who approach outreach with the same care and respect that you appear tuned into.

Call me naive, but I think a lot of great PR folks can rise to the occaision.

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