New media – more accessible?

Posted on: August 3, 2007

One of the claims being made for new media is that it gives greater access for ordinary folks to express their views and debate politics. The current US election prologue is being put forward as the first real “Internet Election”, although this claim was made for the 2004 campaign.

In his ‘Read Me First’ column in the Guardian this week, Seth Finkelstein, takes a swipe at the limited access to citizens in the recent CNN YouTube debates with a column headed, New media is just another way to pull the same old tricks. Finkelstein argues that “new media bring new media manipulation and new media exploitation” and that the method of selecting YouTube postings by a gatekeeper was the same as “contests where the winner gets a cameo appearance on a TV show”.

He goes on criticise the process further with, “ss is typical of user-generated content, despite all the hype about empowering citizens, the individual is utterly powerless, except to try to please and serve the interests of the gatekeeper and thereby obtain some attention (but not remuneration).”

There is a raft of issues that arise from this critique: would the candidates have participated in an open-access debate where they didn’t know what issues were likely to be? That’s highly unlikely, although it might make edgy broadcasting. Would broadcasters, like CNN which staged this cross-media event, give up their control and their standards of presentation? Again, highly unlikely.

So Finkelstein’s hope that a true shift in power could have occurred was forlorn before the start of the process because the broadcaster as gatekeeper has too much to defend and he recognises this in his sign-off comment: “… we should never mistake a change in media style for any advance of citizens’ power in politics”.

New media has also brought unforeseen problems for two of the UK best known brands – Vodafone (mobule phones) and First Direct (online banking) which bought packages of online advertising space on Facebook and ended up on a page giving information about the far-right British National Party (BNP). As the Guardian reports, “the move may affect other advertisers on Facebook by highlighting a current lack of control over where the multimillion page network places their bookings”. The report highlights the problem that there is little control over where where advertisements appear.

Ironically, The Guardian’s online version of the report includes a Vodafone click-through advertisement across the top of the story (or it did when this blog was being written) which again shows the problems that advertisers have when seeking associative coverage of their organisation.

Perhaps these two instances of new media problems – lack of access to a range of voices and damaging associations – make a collateral case for well-researched, targeted public relations activity. The public relations practitioner as an intermediary can have a valuable and ethical role to play in promoting genuine debate.


4 Responses to "New media – more accessible?"

Unlike some PR gadflies and online cynics, I don’t subscribe to the idea that the YouTubes and Facebooks of the world will lead inexorably to the death of PR — I agree with you, Tom, that PR becomes even more important. But, it cannot be PR driven through the old Press Agentry/Publicity prism.

The ethical and strategic PR hats have to be on all of us — we must re-establish the need for honest and authoritative voices among the din of the bazaar, and we’re the ones to do it.

Eventually, online ads will take on much of the process infrastructure of print — advertisers won’t be satisfied having the outlet decide where and when the ad will appear. But that is a matter more for our cousins in Advertising .

For PR, the traditional method of selecting audience, messages, methods and objectives will lead us to smart choices about which vehicles make the most sense for our situation.

I agree with both that new media = a new approach by PR practitioners. Although there is a gatekeeper at YouTube in terms of picking highlights, the reality is the self-selection, word-of-mouth model is far greater than ever, and thus content has to be more relevant and compelling to get noticed.

With regard to ads: On my very first day with RAC some 14 years ago, I found myself giving live interviews about why the organisation had pulled its advertising from a national newspaper because of its juxtapositioning with a negative Diana story. Let’s not be fooled here, this is not a new issue, it’s just the ad industry being caught out be a medium that is ahead of their thinking.

It’s interesting to note that after I posted on the Facebook issues, there was a rush of advertisers (including the UK government’s top spending Central Office of Information) to take advertising away from that social networking site. (I hasten to add there is no causal connection between my blog post and those decisions). It could be that online advertising is entering an early stage of maturity where the early adopters are now evaluating the value they are gaining, not only in the simple click-through stuff but also in the impact on their reputation.
The race to be seen as ‘cool’ and associated with social media is now being balanced with the reality of a greater lack of control over messaging than in mainstream media.

As for my hope that PR may be gaining a greater share of spending, it seems forlorn. The COI has upped its spend but the percentage for PR is stuck around 10% or slightly less. Nothing much changes.

These are issues that we will continue to face until client side thinking begins to understand that the significance of ubiquitous communication is ‘user generated market segments’, (actually issues based publics). Targeting and gatekeeping is now changed. This ‘consumer centric’ view is not served by CRM style relationship activity. The marketer is now the market.

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