The New Public Relations: Strategic Alliance

I couldn’t have entered PR 2.0 (Gathering the Light blog) without my wife’s  tech knowledge and skills.  And this sort of strategic alliance is what I think our PR concentration needs (as the cliche has it) “going forward.”

Digital influence hasn’t replaced PR, but it has become PR’s cutting edge — so we have to incorporate it into the entire program from principles and writing through media relations and crisis com.

The advantage we have is that the kids are already swimming in digital influence and won’t resist it.  The disadvantages we have are academic decentralization: different teachers, syllabi, standards, as well as separate programs for day and evening PR classes).

I like the strategic alliance approach because it’s more realistic and pragmatic than the institution’s fervent fantasy that throwing money at “professional development”  will turn old school frogs like me into cyber princes.  Ain’t happening — at least, not that fast.

What has occurred to me under the pressure of “Stop Talking!” commercials and propaganda from well-meaning colleagues and IBM ads is this: What continues to distinguish public relations from its rivals — advertising, marketing and digital influence itself — is rather simple.  It’s all about writing. Here’s what I mean.

Yes, social media is a collection of technologies.  But those technologies depend to a significant degree on writing — which is itself a collection of technologies, most notably grammar, syntax, orthography (spelling), rhetoric &persuasion, etc.  These technologies are based on still other technologies: critical reading among them.

Without mastering those technologies, students prove time and again to be incapable of keeping a PR job, even if they manage to gain entry to one.

And it is this nexus of writing/reading/rhetorical/persuasion technologies that define the boundary between the effective practice of public relations and the practice of advertising, marcom, marketing/packaging and digital influence.

We humans have developed a highly complex system of words — of languages — which we use to communicate with each and, indeed, form social and professional relationships with each other.  Public relations is a practice with the capability not only to communicate basic utterances, but articulate complex concepts with all their associated subtleties and nuances — which is why new words and phrases are continually emerging into the language, and old words and phrases (“bailout,” “truthiness,” “maverick”) are reframed.

There is no denying that we live in a visual age, an age of screens, images and moving pictures. I’ve written about this in the PR Review. But just as computing machines didn’t produce the oft-promised “paperless office” but a cascade of paper from a single press of the SEND button, so our visual/video age has not put an end to writing, but rather given rise to an avalanche of writing: a seemingly bottomless, disconnected thread of email, blogs, IM’s poured into the visual frames of Facebook, MySpace, Linked In, Plaxo, Xing and a hundred thousand pile  of apps mounting daily.

The techno-utopians, would-be visionaries and apocalyptically minded tribe of gurus may not have grasped the significance of writing and writing-related technologies, relegating it breathlessly to the trash heap of history. But they miss the point — and most certainly miss the point about public relations as well as propaganda. No one doubts that pictures and video are not only powerful but now virtually ubiquitous. However, without writing-related technologies — not to mention the other fundamental communication skills of speaking, reading and listening — visuality can take communication and relationship-creation only so far.  The photographic is more and more necessary in the internet age, but can never be sufficient.

The implication for public relations is the approach business has known and used throughout history: strategic alliance. Partnerships. Pooling — of knowledge, skills and experience.

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