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Friday, September 24, 2010

Did the Public Relations Industry Miss the Cluetrain?

I recently revisited "The Cluetrain Manifesto," which, written more than 10 years ago, has been hailed for its' forward-thinking and relevance, especially in today's social media world. In the manifesto, the authors (Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls and David Weinberger) assert that the Internet and "human to human" conversations will be the "end of businesses as usual."

With that perspective, they had quite a bit to say about the PR industry, and how the very nature of the century-old practice may be counter-intuitive to this new era of business.

"Ironically, Public Relations has a huge PR problem: people use it as synonym for BS...Everyone--including many PR people--senses that something is deeply phony about the profession."

However, that's not to say there's not a place for PR. It's that the industry, like all others, need to adapt to online communications:

"In the age of the Web where hype blows up in your face and spin gets taken as an insult, the real work of PR will be more important than ever."

This leaves me to wonder...has the public relations industry stepped up to the plate, or did we miss the Cluetrain?

Let's take a look at some of the concepts and quotes from the book...

Do you place value on relationships, engagement, and quality of conversation, or measuring success by media placement, hits, and ad equivalency?

"As soon as I stopped strategizing how to 'get ink' for the company that was paying my salary, as soon as I stopped seeing journalists as a source of free advertising for my employer, I started having genuine conversations with genuinely interesting people...That's how I discovered PR doesn't work and markets are conversations."

Are you telling stories or pushing positioning statements? Are you truly "relating to the public?"

Read a recent press release or pitch. Does it sound like a robot or a human?
Before the marketplace evolved, humans sold their goods by speaking to one another. Buyers spoke directly to sellers who then created products based on demand. As the marketplace grew, we became disconnected from this process, disconnected as humans, and far more disingenuous.

" were: conversations between people who sought out others who shared the same interests. Buyers had as much to say as sellers. They spoke directly to each other without the filter of the media, the artifice of positioning statements, the arrogance of advertising, or the shading of public relations."

The rise in popularity of social media allows us to go back to our human nature. To have conversations with like-minded individuals. To level the playing field. Breakdown the firewall.

Are you having conversations?

Keep in mind, it's not a conversation unless it goes two-ways, which requires some listening. Pushing out a news release is not a conversation. Pitching a "news story" is not a conversation. Listening to journalists, bloggers and influencers, learning their interests and expertise, and telling a story to someone genuinely interested in what you have to say? That's the heart of conversation.

"Conversations are where ideas happen and partnerships are have a conversation, you have to be comfortable being human. You can only have a conversation if you're not afraid to be wrong...conversations occur only between equals."

Be human? Be wrong? That's a scary proposition.

No company wants to place themselves in a vulnerable position, and no PR professional wants to be the sitting duck protecting that vulnerability. That's why, traditionally, we've protected the message, and controlled the spread of information. Problem? That doesn't work in social conversations among humans.

"Controlling information is like trying to control a conversation. It can't be done and still be genuine."

Now, consider this: for decades, PR professionals have, via press releases and pitches, "let go" of the message with the hope and faith that the journalists who "picked it up" would translate positively. Have we been able to translate that same faith to social media?

In this medium, we have an "economy of voice" and conversations are currency.

What is your voice? And, are you helping clients to find theirs?

"There's an inherent pomposity in much of what passes for corporate communication today. Missing are the voice, humor and simple sense of worth and honesty that characterize person-to-person conversation."

So, ten years ago, The Cluetrain Manifesto professed that PR industry (and others) needed to radically shift the way in which they'd been operating for decades. To let go of the processes and systems that separated brands from their public. To listen first and talk second. Basically...

"Losen up. Lighten up. And, shut up for a while."

And, if they didn't, the might face their ultimate demise:

"Organizations myst encourage and engage in genuine conversation with workers and markets-or go belly up."

The manifesto is now ten years old. The press release has not died, nor has the PR industry.

Did we totally miss the Cluetrain? Is it too late to hop on? Or, was it all an illusion?

Kary Delaria is Vice President of Kane Consulting, a social media marketing and PR firm that specializes in strategy, integration and measurement. You can contact her via email, or on Twitter.

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