Monday, October 16, 2006

The ivory tower meets the real PR world

As a historian, I know how the introduction of new media has worked in the United States. A new medium comes along (think radio). People talk about the possibility for cultural uplift--how virtually anyone can learn, be exposed to new ideas, hear the best music, and engage in political debate because they've heard the words directly from the candidate or official's mouth. Then along comes advertising and PR. Soon the airwaves are full of jingles rather than opera, news that attracts an audience rather than providing information about boring things like economics or foreign policy, and stage-managed speeches rather than genuine debate. (Roland Marchand analyzed this best in Advertising the American Dream.)

As a public relations professor, I'm fully cognizant that what I teach in the ivory tower isn't necessarily what happens in the real world of PR. We talk about the ideal speech situation (Habermas), two-way symmetrical communication (Grunig and Hunt), call it what you will--but the idea is supposed to be that PR professionals, in addition to providing facts and information, create dialogue between an organization and its publics. This is the only meaningful justification for the practice. Don't give me the tired "marketplace of ideas" concept; there's no such thing, and even if there were, just like in the economic market, the people who are already rich have a big advantage over everyone else. That's why I'm so excited about the potential of social media, which does level the playing field, and that's why Edelman doesn't get a bye this time. (See Constantin's roundup on PR meets the WWW if you somehow missed this story.)

Social media have the potential to "uplift" much like radio or television did. They also have the potential to become polluted with advertising garbage, public relations fluff, or lies, so that even the genuine, good stuff out there is looked upon with suspicion by participants. It doesn't have to be that way. But when an agency that positions itself as the market leader fails on the principle of "Protecting and advancing the free flow of accurate and truthful information [that] is essential to serving the public interest and contributing to informed decision making in a democratic society" (if you don't recognize it, that's the PRSA Code of Ethics), it makes it hard for the rest of us to forgive and forget. If Edelman will do it, or allow its client to do it, or whatever happened, what's to stop a smaller, less visible, or more desperate organization from doing it without qualm, or even second thought? As Todd Defren points out, the silence from Edelman bloggers screams hypocrisy.

The blogosphere is a more fragile place than people may realize. Who will protect it--Edelman? You?

Addition: Now this is what I'm talking about!

Karen - thanks for the link to Diva Marketing and your kind words. Any company that positions itself as a 'leader' in a field has an obligation to 'project the integrity. Yes, it was critical that Richard apologize. However, I sure wish I were a fly on the wall when the discussions were taking place.

Thank you for introducing the next generation of marketers/PR professionals to social media and the responsibilities that come with working in this emerging industry.
Here's the thing: I know I've made a lot of mistakes on my blog. When I first started I didn't know you aren't supposed to delete entries, and I did that a couple times. But once I found out, I stopped doing it.

If Edelman wants to position itself as a leader in this field, it cannot knowingly participate in something that's wrong and then apologize for it afterwards.
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"More important than the curriculum is the question of the methods of teaching and the spirit in which the teaching is given" --Bertrand Russell

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