Tag Archives: social media

Twitter for the Worker Bee

Just passing along a nice service piece for the emerging social media generation of undergrads and the scads of unbelievers and cynics. It’s a NY Times article on using Twitter as a work and networking tool, not just for status updates.


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Zappos: Low Brow Genius

Here’s the longitude/latitude of PR now:



Naked runner guy viral video marketing PR social media campaign.

(1) Convergence of PR/marketing and social media.
(2) Demotic (downward and out-there) cultural styling:

(a) sexual
(b) snarky
(c) adolescent
(d) slapstick (Monty Python/Bennie Hill)

Zappos succeeds in hitting the sweet spot of pop culture at this cultural turning moment.

In the postwar fedora-wearing, bullet bra era depicted in “Mad Men”,US cultural style was middle brow — the  creative fallout of Princeton-educated Eng lit types who ruled Madison Avenue.

In the Milennial Internet era observed online, US cultural style has gone Zappos: low brow emo, snarky, sexy, “Animal House.”  The web comes across as the collective expression of adolescent Id & ego mashed up with engineer geekiness.

Soundtrack: Jonathan  Coulton.

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Death and Life of Advertising III

In the first of my most recent three rants, I speculated that the free web, combined with the nonpaid freedom of public relations, may have sounded the death knell to that old hidden persuader, advertising. In the wake of social media and guerilla marketing, the asymmetric had at last overcome what the Euro pomos have been calling the hegemonic, the demonic  — the American!

Fredric Jameson, JP Lyotard, Guy DeBord, M Foucault, P Virilio — children of structuralism, poststructuralism, phenomenology and existentialism. Advertising: At the foul heart of what my onetime instructor Philip Roth liked to call “the American crap,” after a class discussion of Lolita and Genet.

But I digress, which if you’ve read Cather in the Rye you’d know is how the prep school masters permitted Holden Caulfield to be humiliated — as soon as his class participation went off topic his craven classmates were supposed to call out Digression! (the bastards!).

Holden’s dream: To catch the sweet little kids before they fell off the edge of the cliff of innocence.


For the Euro pomos and other, less articulate cadres, advertising the American crap was the horrid mission of the United States in its muscular, strutting post-World War II triumphalism. Worse, even, after the Marshall Plan to rebuild its enemies, the obnoxious Americans had not only put a lock on economic and military dominance — they had also cornered the market in international charity and forebearance.

Little holier-than-thou Fauntleroys! How the Euro pomos loathed the barbaric, unlettered, Bible-thumping rubes! It was so nauseating, at least for the most discontented of the European literati. And even Sartre’s exposure of antisemitism would be  eventually turned upside down by the Lyotards and Saids, as well as by the American, Noam Chomsky.

Today, the Rev. Jesse Jackson is “sick and tired of hearing about the Holocaust,” at least according to a rightwing talkshow host who regularly rants on AM radio.


But segue!

Advertising: That evil institution was the snake in the garden of consumerism. Advertising in the post-WW II era of American muscle-flexing. The pure products of America go crazy — isn’t that a close paraphrase of WC Williams? ee cummings hated consumerism, advertising. A generation or two later, Warhol embraced it, adored it, and as St Paul had grasped the message of the Sermon on the Mount, in I Corinthians 13, Warhol’s love unpacked the seriality and eliptical nature of American consumerist ideology, with its soup cans and Marilyn Monroes and Roger Marises. There was a certain gorgeousness in all that overdoing, all that redundancy, all that contentless passage of time, as in the 8-hour film he made about sleep.

For Guy DeBord, America was — is — the “society of the spectacle,” a lustful but not slothful gluttonous demon proseletyzing through TV commercials, brochures, billboards, movies (but oh how Truffaut and his pals loved the American movies!) sitcoms, kiss-kiss and bang-bang, as Pauline Kael would so vividly explicate.

Two of my wonky colleagues in the communication world took exception to my advertising-is-dead posts. In their comments, they point out that advertising isn’t dead — it’s simply one of the tools of influential mass communication, on the same team as public relations.

Well, of course. Advertising isn’t dead. Just ask your stooped-over primary care physician whether advertising is dead. Consumer demand for prescription drugs went through the roof when the packaged-goods brand managers and advertising geniuses realized that if TV commercials could sell underarm deodorant and laxatives, then why couldn’t it sell Rx drugs to remediate new-fangled-sounded conditions like erectile dysfunction and fibromyalgia and restless leg syndrome.

Poor old family physician: She works nights, pays extortionate malpractice premiums and gets a salary not worth writing home about. She is beseiged by her patients who, following the drug companies’ call-to-action, ask her about Cialis and Lipitor.

Advertising — dead? Not for the healthcare economy, which we are told these days is one-fifth of the U.S. GDP.

Sure, it’s dead for the Mom and Pop enterprises, crushed under the heel of Wal-Mart Nation. For Ma and Pa Kettle and their little startup business, the free web is the only way to go. They have no marketing budget, for crimminy sakes. Hey –you. Girls. Get over here. Want to make some money in the marketing business? Slip into these wolf costumes and do some running and tumbling in Harvard Square. When people ask you what the hell you’re up to, show them these — our products, these organic  frozen pizzas with our web site stamped in red.

Guerilla Nation! Perusasion Nation

That’s our  cultural emotional zipcode.

Advertising moribund? Think again. We are all “Mad Men” now.

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The Future of Advertising? It’s PR!

Not long ago, as social media hit the fans, PR firms’ early adopters let out a curiously triumphant cry: PR IS DEAD! Something appears to be dead — but the former PR types mis-identified the body.  The corpse appears to be advertising.

This is why. Everyone’s a PR person now. Influential mommies are blogging for Wal-Mart, though only if the products rate a happy emoticon. Your granddaughter has broken 100 twitter followers. Your boss is getting retweeted and recommended for Follow Friday.

Why buy a cow when the milk is free?  Advertising is the cow fewer folks care to buy. PR is free — which makes it a perfect fit for the web.

NPR’s “On Point” devoted a segment (Thursday, October 8, 2009) to a close examination of advertising’s corpse.

It would seem that reports of the death of public relations are, to cite Mark Twain, greatly exaggerated. They got the wrong body — which, I believe, was one of Twain’s plot twists.

Here’s the thing about public relations: It can’t die because it’s wired into our very beings. We hunt, we gather, we do the fight-or-flight, we opine, we seek, we want, we need — and we promote. Ourselves. Just read Erving Goffman on the subject — The Presentation of Everyday Life. (And I suspect the great sociologist disdained PR, politics and advertising, except to the extent that they provided him with the material for an extraordinary and influential career as the innovator of “dramaturgy” theory: Life is theater.)

We humans are unendingly theatrical, with our self-promotions, our apologies (“Sorry!”), our ingratiations (“Lovely scarf!”), our phatic relationship creation on the fly (“Hey — yo!”), our Linked In requests for recommendations, our Trumpian dreams, our romantic sales pitches and come-on lines, our bad-news spins (“It’s not what it looks like”), our “civil inattention” (a Goffman term for looking away from the guy with the awful limp). Humans are relentless dramatic.

So it shouldn’t be any wonder that we’re wired for PR. Only now, with the 75,000 iPhone apps and the few dozen social media “tools,” our dramaturgical theatricality — our craving for love and attention — has been (Choose One: enabled; unleashed) by the 24/7, free web.

What underlies the FREEDOM! cries of the early adopters and web innovators is surely a matter of economics. But it’s also a matter of public relations.  Not only isn’t PR dead — it’s roaming wildly across the landscape, a crazed but generally happy monster looking for love and fame and the chance to go viral. PR has become marketing’s sentinel, its lieutenant. Sometimes it’s the other way around.

Advertising? It’s a delicious and ridiculous and corny and fabulous and sometimes stylishly fashionable thing of the past. I’m a fan of “Mad Men,” whose popularity seems to me like the kind of love we have for treasures of the past — like the Orient Express or the Charleston. Only advertising isn’t coming back any time soon — that is, until some genius exhumes the body.


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Twitter and the Age of Crisis

“I am Married to a Crowd”

Boston Globe, Friday, April 11,2009, A-15.

My wife (Twitter handle: @GirlsSentAway) was the muse for this article and its star.

According to Boston Globe statistics, of 5,200 Globe articles tracked, the humor piece about my wife’s tweeting was among the top 25 most frequently emailed. (Lots of twittering birds out on those limbs.)

Not that everyone approved — of Twitter, my article, the Globe’s decision to publish it,or what HBX, an anonymous commenter on the Globe site, said was a “puff piece”. Mr “X” also lambasted my twittering spouse and me for being a couple of shameless, fame-hunting “celebrities,” which got a giggle from the Twitter Queen and me. (Stand aside, Lindsay, Britney, Justin and A-Rod!)

At grad school in Eng Lit, we read Chaucer’s “House of Fame”.  The author of The Canterbury Tales had no more respect for fame than HBX. Whether Chaucer would have retweeted (RT) my article to excoriate it, however, is a matter I shall leave to literary historians.


While all this seem utterly unrelated, it has a more than a whiff of crisis communication, a specialty of general management and public relations, which I teach. What is fame, after, all, but a perception of reputation? In the era of constant communication, reputation — a public figure’s, a private person’s, a politician’s, an organization’s — is subject to the kinds of violent swings we associate with the stock market. Crisis has been described as a circumstance in which someone (or some organization) faces a significantly damaging blow to reputation, and has hardly any time to react. The usual examples: Monica’s impact on Bill Clinton’s presidency. The Valdez’s impact on Exxon. Abu Ghraib’s impact on foreign opinion of the U.S

It’s no secret that ours is an age of crisis. While poet W. H. Auden nailed the post-W.W.II era as the “age of anxiety,” the digital revolution has upped the ante considerably by speeding up, spreading out and constantly enabling  communication. For this reason, perhaps, even the most trivial matter can feel like a crisis and appear like one. As a result, persons and organizations may well be even more anxious than Auden thought they were in the early years of the A-bomb era.

Thus, to be a celebrity today is to be stalked by gawker, and one misstep away from a humiliating gotcha in The Smoking Gun. It’s enough to make even faux celebrities install alarms and surveillance cams in their underwater-mortgage homes.

But while I regard Auden’s anxiety-tagging of the nuclear era as insightful, I am unpersuaded by HBX’s of the world the sky is falling because of Twitter. Those sorts of perceptions are right out of the Chicken Little playbook — just plain silly.

What is not so silly or trivial is the way in which communications revolutions like the one we’re experiencing has a way of making us feel even more anxious and insecure and neurotic than ever.

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What’s Behind Public Diplomacy’s Uncritical Dismissal of Public Relations?

It’s hard to think of a more despised social institution than public relations.

So it’s not at all surprising to see the explicit rejection of public relations by some prominent public diplomats. Joseph Duffey, the director of the USIA (United States Information Agency) under Bill Clinton, dismissed the idea that public diplomacy had anything to do with with public relations:

Let me just say a word about public diplomacy. It is not public relations. It is not flakking for a Government agency or even flakking for America. It Is trying to relate beyond government-to-government relationships the private Institutions, the individuals, the long-term contact, the accurate understanding, the full range of perceptions of America to the rest of the world. (Quoted in N. Snow, Routledge Handbook of Public Diplomacy. London & NY: Routledge, 2009.

Mr. Duffey is not the first or most virulent critic of public relations. Noam Chomsky, one of the most widely read critics of public relations and U.S. foreign policy, has written reams about “media control” and “the engineering of consent,” a term coined by Edward Bernays, a pioneer of modern public relations. In l961, Daniel Boorstin, Librarian of Congress during the Ford, Carter and Reagan administrations, wrote a withering deconstruction of public relations as the dark art of staging “pseudo events”. But perhaps the most effective critics of PR do so unwittingly. They’re the public relations scholars and professors who continue to report that public relations began with P.T. Barnum, the charlatan and circus showman whose summed up his philosophy with the oft-quoted line that there’s a sucker born every minute.

At the risk of going overboard with an apologia for public relations, I should point out that its theorists, scholars and practitioners have included Aristotle, St. Paul and the popes who created the Congregation de Propaganda fide (Organization to propagate the faith) during the Catholic Reformation, when the new-new thing was insurgent Protestantism. In truth, it is impossible to sever public relations from Aristotelian rhetoric, Pauline Christianity, the papal patronage of Michelangelo and Bernini, the ecstacy of St Teresa, the fugues of Bach, and the architecture of the Sistine Chapel. Whatever other associations public relations has, it is most certainly in league with the beautiful and the visceral.

Of course, it is also impossible to sever public relations from the propaganda machines of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, not to mention the propaganda techniques of their enemies. In this sense, then, public relations must be regarded as paradoxical as well as amoral. Paradoxical because it is so closely allied not only with what we may approve of — argument, debate and persuasion, all of which has been shown to flourish in in democracies but perish under tyranny. Public relations is amoral because it can and has been used for good and evil, which motivated Hiter’s Josef Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda, to make an unsuccessful attempt to hire Bernays, a founder of modern public relations, to help engineer consent for Nazism among the German masses of the l920s. Despite Bernays changing the name of his agency from a propaganda bureau to a public relations counsel at the end of the l920s, he was never able to rebrand PR as some sort of pro-democratic, innovative engineering. And during the decades that followed, PR’s propaganda problem grew immeasurably worse with the blood-soaked propaganda of twentieth century totalitarian regimes. But what of public diplomacy?

Even a cursory examination of the history of public diplomacy reveals that it, too, has a propaganda problem, although some public diplomats prefer to frame it as a public relations problem. Are they then not sisters under the skin, PR and public diplomacy? They do appear to share a common problem: They’re misunderstood. But why should this be?

History – even fairly recent history –  furnishes a clue. For one thing, both public relations and public diplomacy claim to have “evolved,” which means both PR and public diplomacy claims to have shed their dark side and improved upon themselves. In the case of public relations, its so-called “evolution” is reported in PR textbooks to have “evolved” not only beyond fakery, but even persuasion. (I prefer to call the apparent changes in public relations “adjustments,” a more common sensical, less pretentiously pseudo-scientific term.)

For the previous generation, the dominant theory of public relations, propounded by its leading scholars, is that “excellent” public relations is “ethical” public relations. Numerous quantitative studies have been published in peer-reviewed journals, which purport to demonstrate the statistical reliability of this dubious equation. A score of PR textbooks advances this dubious correlation of excellence and ethics, despite its seriously flawed historiography and its soothing reassurance that, like some single-celled creature, public relations has managed to “evolve” from something bad to something good —  from an unethical morass to a sophisticated, pro-social institution. The term for PR’s evolved, enlightened ethical condition is “symmetrical,” an attempt to apply an anciently rooted theory of ethics mentioned by Epicurus and Cicero. The uncritical belief of academic PR is that it has “evolved” from a-symmetrical to symmetrical. It isn’t a scientifically testable proposition,but rather a political belief akin to liberal progressivism, the notion common in nineteenth century America that mankind and society were moving ever forward, like the stunning innovations of the industrial revolution.

Not everyone agrees with that assessment of PR’s history, me included. (See Jacquie L’etang, Public Relations. Los Angeles, London: 2008, Sage, p. 257). For one thing, the theory of symmetry is rooted in a strangely unhistorical concept of history – one which argues that public relations sprang into existence in mid-nineteenth century America. It just isn’t so. Even PR pioneer Ed Bernays traced PR’s roots back to antiquity. And the defense of that argument – that what is meant by “public relations” is only modern public relations – is simply unpersuasive on many levels. What is “modern” and why should modernity begin in the American Midwest with a circus showman named Barnum? However, if you felt ambivalent about public relations and were attempting to construct  a straw man in order to knock him down in the name of “symmetry”, then you could do worse than tap that old rogue, P.T. Barnum.

Among the legions who dismiss the symmetry theory of public relations are pragmatic, results-driven practitioners of public relations whose job it is to launch campaigns that influence, persuade and motivate.

Little wonder, then, that public relations has been characterized by critically minded historians such as Ray Hiebert, the biographer of Ivy Lee, a twentieth century “father” of public relations,  as a divided institution.

Lately, however, something has happened to shake up the stale PR argument over ethics vs. manipulation: the explosion of social media. The digital age has utterly altered the shape of the argument. What matters most in the era of Facebook and Twitter is now not so much persuasion, excellence or ethics. What counts now is what is commonly called “the conversation” that digitization permits to occur  between anyone and everyone. In the l920s, the model of influence ran downhill from the elite cognoscenti to the ignorant masses. Today, it appears that this model has been turned on its head: In the age of user-generated content, influence, unlike water, can run uphill. Public Relations has entered the age of Me. Traditional tactics of influence — broadcasting, pitching and selling — are increasingly scorned as hopelessly Old School by the new gurus of public relations such as Brian Solis, author of a popular blog called PR 2.0

The literati are dead! Long live the technorati!

At least, that is the newly emerged paradigm of public relations in the age of digital influence. IBM has launched a TV campaign whose theme is Stop talking!

Listening and looking have achieved hegemony with iPod, Google, Photoshop and YouTube. We have entered a new Visual Age, an era which tallies up “eyeballs” and  seduces us with video streams.  And while in some quarters, the word has gone out that PR is dead, I would have to disagree. PR isn’t dead — it’s in love. In love with unique views and links, and it can’t wait to unwrap Web 3.0.

PR has done what it has always done, since long before P.T. Barnum and America and the Catholic propagandio and the persuasive letters of St Paul to the first century Ephesians.  PR has has adjusted and emerged as PR 2.0.  So much for public relations as a simple matter of flakking and spinmeisters. Those days are waning, if not ended. The U.S. has elected its first digitally sophisticated president, addicted to his Blackberry and proud of his l3 million Facebook friends.

But what of public diplomacy? Has it undergone its own adjustment? Apparently so.

Not only has public diplomacy changed, it has adjusted in ways that bear a striking similarity to the adjustments of public relations. For one thing, public diplomacy and public relations are, in the words of the apostle of “soft power,” Joseph Nye, “linked to power”. Soft power – among the most quoted phrases in contemporary diplomacy – is “based on intangible or indirect influences such as culture, values, and ideology,” according to Nye. (http: http://www.wordspy.com; quoted in Snow (2009), p. 3). Those attributes could describe much of the soft power of public relations. For another thing, public diplomacy – like public relations – is beset by a fundamental disagreement about how to frame its definition, strategies and purpose. One side holds that the whole point of public diplomacy has always been, and should always be, to sell the story of the U.S. to foreign allies and adversaries. This was the philosophy of Charlotte Beers, undersecretary of public diplomacy and public affairs in the G.W. Bush administration during the period immediately follow 9-11. An apostle of Old School advertising and marketing, Beers’ claim to fame included success as the brand manager of Uncle Ben’s Rice. She had much less success selling America to the Muslim world.

Following Beers’ brief tenure in public diplomacy came Karen Hughes, a fierce partisan of then-President G.W. Bush. Hughes’ strategy was widely was reported as “listening,” an apparently softer sell than the Beers approach, but nevertheless, a sell. Hughes launched a series of “listening tours” throughout the Middle East, where the reputation of the United States had plunged to perilously low levels after the Bush administration’s engagement in preemptive war, prisoner torture and adamant bellicosity. For Nancy Snow, once a professional public diplomat and now a scholar of public diplomacy, the U.S. must shift public diplomacy from “telling America’s story to the world” to “sharing values, hopes, dreams, and comment respect.” (Snow, p. 5).

And yet, “shared values” was the term used to describe the strategy of brand-conscious Charlotte Beers. It would appear that no matter whether the approach was framed as “listening” or “sharing values,” it was generally perceived as propaganda. It is worth noting that one of the oldest adages in public relations is that perception is reality – a supremely asymmetrical concept.

Today, there’s a sharp division of opinion in the public diplomacy community, according to Snow. She identifies two schools, reminiscent of William James’ taxonomy of people as either “tender minded” or “tough minded”. In public diplomacy, tender minded public diplomacy focuses on “people 2 people” and “government 2 people”. The tough minded strategy emphasizes “insight and influence, anywhere, anytime” (Snow, p. 9).

Just as the public relations world has been divided by the tough and tender minds of persuasion and symmetrical fairness, so the public diplomacy universe is riven by a similar clash of sensibilities. Yet few public diplomats on either side of the divide would openly embrace public relations. “Public diplomacy is not PR,” wrote Price Floyd, a public diplomacy specialist with the U.S. State Department. (Quoted by Snow, Los Angeles Times, op ed, Nov. l7, 2007).

But is that really so? Is public diplomacy all that different from public relations? After all, strategically speaking, both are historically and philosophically traceable to rhetorical foundations. Both are concerned with power.

Snow lands on the slippery slope of the PR symmetry theorists when she argues that “poor public diplomacy sells more than tells”.  Her distinction begs the question of public diplomacy, as it  frames public diplomacy as PR symmetry theorists have framed: as progressive and evolutionary. It is difficult not to see such a conclusion as self-serving.

From the perspective of a critical-thinking intellectual historian, public relations and public diplomacy appear to have a lot more in common than they have differences. Furthermore, while their similarities are substantial, their differences are more stylistic, if not trivial. In the endm, what makes for effective public relations is, after all, what makes for effective public diplomacy: a finely tuned ear to public opinion and the communication skills to frame issues so clearly, cogently and sensitively that it results in a significant shift in public opinion.

rbrown@salemstate.edu; rebrown@fas.harvard.edu Member, Editorial Board, Public Relations Review (Elsevier Publishers)


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Top 40

As a digital immigrant (“What a country!”), the vast space of the blogosphere can also be sliced and diced into the Top 40, or Top 10. The fastest growing blogs run the gamut from cool cartoons and random rants (aided by in-your-face cartoons) to racier stuff.

Rather humbling, really. It reminds me of when I was a kid in summer camp and there was this big slab of rock we’d sit on sometimes late at night and look up at the utterly black and starry starry night sky so far from the light-polluted city. In August, there’d be shooting stars.

Not surprisingly, celebrity bloggers draw 100,000 views. My blog stats look like one of those New Yorker cartoons where the goofy CEO is holding a pointer to a downhill-racing profit chart. Which, come to think of it, is pretty much the stuff of everyday news now.

My wife (www.girlssentaway.com) has stimulus fatigue. It’s got to be going around. All those bearded economists — Krugman, Reich, Bernanke. Enough. Good, God: Shave, already!

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