A day before Santa’s visit, an elf just told me this important story of the past, present and future of public relations and corporate reputation!
Once upon a time, communicators of all countries told their story in industry jargon to an elite of intermediaries called the media in the hope these would relay it in common terms to the good people of the public. In graph theory terms, this one to few to many message propagation model is represented by a tree.
A tree structure
This situation lasted up to the first half of the noughties and the rise of the Web 2.0 and its citizen-empowering cortege of social media. This publishing revolution brought with it the age of the clique. In graph theory terms, a clique is a structure in which every vertex is connected to every other (to be precise, that’s a maximum clique, but you get my drift) and it corresponds to the widely spread idea that social media, blogs and other forms of user-generated contents make it possible for anyone to reach every one else. Consequently, individuals could potentially make their voice heard by industry experts, members of parliament and other essential stakeholders of business organisations, and vice versa, without the need for an intermediate level. A corollary was the CEO’s bedside horror bestseller The angry customer who destroyed an industrial empire. Another was (still is) that the larger the network in this global clique, the more important it had to be for businesses (what, you still don’t have a Facebook page?)
The clique structure
While certainly possible, the operative word here is potentlially. As Reputation Management master Jedi Leslie Gaines Ross puts it, a great majority of reputation wounds are self-inflicted, and seminal cases such as Jeff Jarvis’ Dell Hell were certainly not the act of an isolated individual (but a tightly wound network of blogs) and mainly revealed existing shortcomings (at the time) in Dell’s customer service.
For the true Force that fuels Reputation Management and Public Relations, the force that ended the perceived age of the clique is Influence. The dark side of the Force lies within the hands of those trading briefcases for the impunity of nefarious bidding. Masters of the bright side are those who understand the true nature of the communication landscape and use it to match business activity to stakeholder expectations.
Which brings us to the present. A present in which groups of like-minded people gather in physical or cyber places under the influence of one or more thought leaders. Each group (a Facebook support group, a patient association, an NGO and its followers, your customers …) is similar to a little tree with its leader(s), its relays and its ordinary members. Together, throughout countries, demographics and media types, these constitute a vast planetary forest.
Creative Commons picture by lrargerich
Your organisation is one of these trees, and the forest is enchanted. Because the trees, or maybe they are Ents, communicate with one another. Not each member of each tree with every other, as suggested by the clique model, but some members with some others. NGOs can influence laws, journalists read blogs, bloggers read newspapers, student associations have bent corporate will and PR campaigns can be used to help PA.
At the end of the story, the elf gave me some glimpses of the future of public relations: he told me that, in 2011 PR professionals would have to deal with more channels than ever before. He added that efficiency and ROI would take center stage and that, in order to be successful, it would be necessary to focus their attention not on the zillion members of the forest, but on the important trees for their organisations. And in those trees, on the members with influence. Not the purely algorithmic influence based on follower counts, but those whose words change outcomes and make others act. Those who lead the trees and those who create bridges between them.
What do you think?
Ho! Ho! Ho!