Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Managing the opportunities and threats of the new renaissance

By Tony Blackie

In the 15th century Gutenberg brought the printing press into being, bringing with it the mass consumption of literature and the wider adoption of considered and critical discussion. This period was known as the Renaissance and is credited with bringing Europe out of the so-called Dark Ages and into the Enlightenment.

Fast forward to the 21st century and, thanks to the advent of the Internet and the digitization of visual and audio communications, the printing press has greatly expanded. Arguably we are witnessing a new renaissance – an explosion of new mediums.

It would not be an overstatement to say that the mainstream media is under attack from these new mediums. Consider the Drudge Report with its 3 billion hits per year, blogs, Google TV and Podcasting. Using the Internet, anyone can be a publisher or broadcaster.
Take for instance Luke Hyams who spoke recently to UK newspaper, The Guardian. Despite having no formal qualifications and never attending film school, Hyams is the 25-year-old writer and director of an “interactive soap opera” called Dubplate Drama. Dubplate Drama enables viewers to dictate story lines by sending text messages via their mobile phones. According to Hyams it is about allowing viewers to watch the program when and where they want - in addition to being broadcast on the UK’s Channel 4, Dubplate Drama can be viewed via a Sony PSP or a 3G mobile phone - as well as enabling them to contribute to content. Hyams says it is an example of setting viewers free from the “shackles of traditional broadcasting”.

Like many others, Hyams believes the days of traditional broadcasting, where viewers must watch their favourite program at a certain time as well as sit through the TV advertisements are soon to be over.

Likewise in the print world, the mainstream media is bearing an assault from alternative news sites and blogs. Many of these sites and blogs indeed pitch themselves as keeping what they disparagingly call the “MSM” (Mainstream Media) “in check”. Overwhelmingly conservative – according to blog ranker, TruthLaidBear.com, 8 of the top 10 political blogs are conservative - these sites feed into a broader network, particularly in the United States, of the highest-rating talk shows on radio and TV.

Thus these sites are highly influential. Michael Massing, contributing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review wrote in the New York Review of Books in December last year that the highly successful Swift Boat campaign against US President George W Bush’s contender during the 2004 election, John Kerry, was brought into being by the so-called “blogosphere” before it quickly spread to talkback radio, TV and other Internet news sites. Swift Boat did terrible damage to the Kerry campaign.

Massing says that partly as a result of the blogosphere and Internet news sites, newspapers are finding themselves “less popular than ever before”. This comes at a time when the newspaper industry is “itself losing readers while struggling to cut costs and meet demands for ever larger profits”.

As public relations practitioners we need to be alert to the blogosphere. Consumers, disgruntled employees or any other interest group can do tremendous damage to the reputation of a client by starting a blog. Peter Blackshaw, VP of a blog-monitoring software company, told the Wall Street Journal in June last year that companies can no longer afford to dismiss vocal consumer complaints as aberrations because these complainers are now able to blog. He correctly said that journalists these days go to Google before interviewing our clients and often stumble upon these blogs. This means our clients are likely to be on the receiving end of some awkward and unexpected questions. Journalists might also incorporate comments from blogs in their stories with comments that originate directly from your client. As public relations practitioners we need to be aware of what is being said about our clients in the blogosphere in order to respond to any misperceptions or inaccuracies and properly tailor public relations campaigns.

On a more positive note we should also be aware of the significant opportunities presented by the blogosphere. By monitoring blogs, we are now able to quickly and easily gauge public sentiment and respond to it. Blog monitoring is essentially a highly effective way of monitoring “word of mouth” as more and more people place their inner most thoughts and grievances on the Internet. As we all know, “word of mouth” is powerful and thanks to the blogosphere we have the good fortune of being able to hear valuable points of view that a few years ago might have only been expressed at small social gatherings far, far away from PR campaign planning sessions.

Like any profession, PR needs to be adaptable to changing realities. And every new reality presents us with both threats and opportunities. What remains important is that threats are countered and opportunities aren’t missed.