The Social Media Debate: Fake My Ride

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Has social media helped put the public back into public relations? Have two way conversations and content sharing replaced one-way publicity driven communications and media manipulation?

Content sharing, Facebook comments and Twitter conversations can be seen as the very incarnation of Grunig’s idea of symmetry in PR.

On the other hand, organisations and governments are not always interested in starting a debate with their audiences and sometimes even manipulate the content, the conversations and the free flow of information online.

In this brief reflection on the topic, I will share my thoughts on the problem of faking comments or numbers on social media. Click here for my take on Wikipedia editing and conflict of interest.

I was reminded of the practice of posting fake comments on social media by my Chinese classmates during a debate in contemporary PR theory and issues. They spoke about the many examples of government or corporate employees and state media allegedly faking comments or followers numbers on Weibo. Their goal? To support the party line or generate publicity.

It resonated painfully with my own experience of reading inflammatory comments under articles in Bulgaria’s leading news sites (such as vesti.bg and dnevnik.bg), which are so mindbogglingly outrageous, they can only be written by chronic maniacs or paid provocateurs.

In the western world, there have been recent revelations about fake reviews of products and services by The Guardian and NY Times. Even more frighteningly, it would appear that as much as 70% of President Obama’s own Twitter followers are comprised of fake accounts. In fact, the fake Twitter followers phenomenon has become a business in its own right.

So what does that mean for PR professionals? I would argue that, theoretically speaking, this is simply a case of supporting organisational goals, which is in turn, the main function of communication. After all, who do you think gave the idea to Sina to fake their Weibo fans numbers, or to Mitt Romney to boost his Twitter followers in the midst of an election campaign? Much like the story of the altered BP Wikipedia page, PR practitioners were merely doing their job.

Is it ethical? Of course not. Should it be done? Not a smart idea.

However, for the sake of the argument, it must be said that these cases only reinforce the notion of media manipulation and dysfunctional, asymmetric communication practice. While the bright side of social media has provided us with unseen levels of genuine publicity, the press will jump at any chance to expose the maliciousness of PR as long as it exists.

And something tells me it will always do.

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The Social Media Debate: Wikipedia

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Social media has the whole world excited and that is especially the case with Communication professionals. The endless possibilities of web 2.0 applications puts the boundaries on communication where one’s own creativity ends.

But what are the implications for PR in particular? Has social media helped put the public back into public relations? Have two way conversations and content sharing replaced one-way publicity driven communications and media manipulation?

That was the subject of an early Spring debate during one of my last visits to Westminster’s Harrow campus as part of the university’s postgraduate course in PR. Optimism did not, however, spring from everybody in the classroom.

Content sharing, Facebook comments and Twitter conversations – one side argued, is the very incarnation of Grunig’s idea of symmetry in PR.

On the other hand, organisations and governments are not always interested in starting a debate with their audiences and sometimes even manipulate the content, the conversations and the free flow of information online – the others claimed.

And while I tend to agree that social media is the best thing that happened to Communication since man walked out of the cave, I must admit that I was swayed into backing the more cynical of my classmates.

They reminded me of two very good examples of Internet manipulation – Wikipedia and fake comments.

Wikipedia is free to edit by anyone. This means that any intern can fire up his Chrome, log into their Wikipedia account and omit embarrassing information in the article discussing his or her host organisation. More often than not, this will be done by someone with more responsibilities than making coffee and printing daily agendas, but the principle remains the same.

Of course, Wikipedia is not a social media network, but does that mean that we should close our eyes for the obvious and ignore the ugly just for the sake of the argument? Wikipedia is as much an icon of the Internet revolution, as is Facebook and Twitter, and if content there could be so easily manipulated, does that mean that it should be tolerated just because it’s anonymous, and doesn’t lead to arrests?

The premise that the Internet is the ultimate source for freely available, freely circulating information, does not counteract the fact that said information can be untruthful or manipulated. And when PR professionals do it, it jeopardises the entire industry’s integrity, not to mention that it drives the argument for two-way communication into a brick wall and only reinforces the notion of media manipulation, because if Wikipedia is not social media, it most definitely is media.

Read an interesting blog post by Philip Morgan from CIPR on the subject of Wikipedia conflict of interest editing here.

Theory Junkie: International Public Relations

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I’m a sucker for theories and I love talking about them.

In today’s episode of the Theory Junkie, we talk about International Public Relations.

Is global PR possible? What does it mean? Is it different than international PR?

These questions were the last to be posed during our Theory & Issues class. And what a great way to finish off the MA PR course at Westminster!

First off, we were introduced to the differences between global PR (GPR) and international PR (IPR). Global PR is a term that refers to the internationalisation of the profession, whereas International PR deals with planning and conducting communication in a foreign country.

As the lecture went on, I was fascinated to learn about the following model used to plan international PR activities:

IPR

As we were going through the various factors influencing IPR in a foreign country, I started to see a pattern that bore a striking resemblance to another model – the PEST analysis:

PEST

 

PEST is a marketing model that serves a similar function: to discern macro-environmental factors and penetrate a foreign market.

The similarities between the two models is evident. Not only do their main components refer to the same factors, but they are also both used as a strategic management tool aimed at analysing and planning for activities in an alien environment.

Of course the nuances are there for a reason. Technology becomes Media Technology and Economy becomes Marketplace. These slight alterations serve to facilitate the fact that PR deals mainly with media, and a free and mature marketplace, as well as media consumption habits are the key factors specific to communication activities. Finally, Culture takes central position because communication is perceived very differently around the world.

As these revelations sent nerd chills up my spine, I began to wonder: “Which one is the principal model”?

“It must be PEST”, I thought. “PR is but a part of the Maketing Mix’s Promotion branch.”

Does it really matter in the context of anything but an academic debate? Likely not.

But then I remembered about a list of trends in PR for 2012 by the PRSA and specifically the Convergence trend.

As boundaries between marketing and PR continue to blur, perhaps in 10 years time, the difference between the origins of these models will be nothing but a footnote in some academic’s PhD dissertation, and all that will be taught in educational institutions will simply be “Communication”.

Information Management Gone Wrong: Sex & Politics

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Information Management is an integral part of communication. What is being revealed to the public can mean the difference between a politician’s successful career and an untimely resignation or the climb to Fortune 500 and filing for bankruptcy.

History knows many examples of poor information management, but I’d like to focus on the more recent ones and especially those involving politicians and facilitated by the Internet.

The Internet was nowhere near as powerful in 1998 when Monicagate broke out in the States, leading to the impeachment of President Clinton, and social media was just gaining momentum in 2008 when NY governor Eliot Spitzer resigned in the wake of a prostitution scandal. What those 2 cases have in common is that both politicians were being investigated by federal agencies before being charged, which essentially means that they were way past any hopes of using information management to save their careers. Of course, when their wrongdoings became public, both stories received wide media coverage.

But what do New Jersey Democrat Louis Magazzu, and Congressmen Chris Lee and Anthony Weiner have in common? Their careers ended in the wake of sex revelations on the Internet, and in Weiner’s case – the scandal was made public by a blogger.

Weinergate, as it came to be known, has become somewhat of a case study when it comes to unintelligent use of social media. The former New York representative posted nude pictures on Twitter of all places, and was subsequently forced out of office by Conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart.

Lee was also alleged by a blog-like site – Gawker.com – for attempting to seduce a woman on Craiglist by posting shirtless pictures.

And finally, Magazzu lost his job when a rival GOP activist site published naked pictures that he sent to a woman via email.

Now, some would argue that these cases are not representative of information management per se, but in an age when image is increasingly becoming as, if not more, important as policies, perhaps it is worth discussing whether these scandals could have been prevented if more care was taken when these pictures were being disseminated via the Internet. Moreover, what is a conservative blogger and a GOP activist site exposing Democrat politicians if not information management used by a rival political organisation to discredit an opponent?

There is no doubt in my mind that these politicians deserved what they got, but is there something that a PR practitioner could have done to “spin” them out of trouble? The answer is probably “No”, although virtuosos like Alistair Campbell will likely disagree.

Unfortunately, that would only mean that people care more about who slept with whom, rather than the wrongful invasion of a sovereign country.

Happy End

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MA PR Class of 2012 – 2013 – University of Westminster – London. March 2013.

Lectures are over. Presentations are done. Essays have all been submitted. We are committed. Only the dissertation lurks in the dark, no doubt it’s got to be stark!

~ Anton Zhelev, 2013

28 March was the last day of school for me. I came to London on 13 September 2012 with not much besides a lot of hope and excitement. I spent 2 months living like a nomad from place to place, staying at friends, relatives, ex-boyfriends of relatives, weirdos and psychos.

I started my academic journey at Westminster on 20 September and a mere 6 months later, I have finished everything but the dissertation required to graduate with a Master’s degree in PR.

I have learnt a great deal during the course.

How to write press releases and design newsletters during the Media Relations course.

What are the latest trends and age-old issues in PR during the Understanding PR course.

How to plan, design and run a PR campaign during the PR Campaigns course.

How to write a PR brief, manage reputation and analyse stakeholders during the Corporate  Communications course.

How to carry out social media monitoring and design a social media campaign during the New Media course.

What are the key theories, concepts and debates in PR and communication during the Theory & Issues course.

I learnt knowledge and I learnt practice.

I was introduced to concepts by honourable guest lecturers with decades of experience and careers that I can, sadly, only dream about.

My head dazzled with ideas and my brain desperately hungered for patterns as I listened to Pam Williams and Michaela O’Brien explain elaborate theories and push our minds to their limits with “inceptions” that even Leonardo DiCaprio would struggle to depict.

But above all, I grew to cherish my classmates. The Chinese who would always surprise us with unbelievable stories about PR and communication in China, the trendy Norwegians who would always  greet me with smile and talk to me about Content Creation and Content Curation as I met them in the library, the English ever so elusive and intricate to me and my indelicate ways, the Spanish who fascinated me with their straightforwardness and ambitious temper. And of course the guys – Stefan and Lucas – with whom I spent countless hours laughing away at Internet memes and dissecting the world from angles worthy of TED talks.

The biggest treasure I found in London during a course on PR, was ironically or not, the communication with these wonderful talented people with whom I will hopefully soon share the title Master of Arts in Public Relations.

Nudges

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Something that really grabbed my attention during our Theory & Issues class was the concept of Nudges. In a nutshell, it is the idea that we are preconditioned to take certain decisions when external factors are present and align in the right direction. Now, those factors are not guaranteed to always lead to some kind of change in behaviour, but they can potentially “nudge” us into thinking and eventually acting in a desired manner.

A classic example often given in marketing classes is the positioning of goods in a store:

Need eggs? Why not pick up that discounted lamp on your way to the back of the store?

Necessities are at the back of the store, forcing you to go all the way through the entire shop to reach for them. And what about those Snickers bars and Orbit chewing gums at the counter? Surely, you don’t need more chocolate. You just bought a whole box on your way to the eggs shelf! It must have been that nice music playing in the background that kept you in for so long. Now your wallet is £10 lighter and if you keep going like this, you’ll become fat.

Speaking of becoming fat, the concept of loss aversion is probably my favorite one. Saving money, time, effort and your body from becoming abnormally shaped is always a good idea, and whose job is it, if not that of a communication professional to shape that message? It’s always better to let your audience know that they’re saving on something – nobody likes to lose, and if you fail to let them know, chances are, another factor will nudge them in the opposite direction. Those can be as varied as following the crowd or boosting your own ego because, you know, if everyone starts running for the tube exit, it’s probably for a reason, and it’s a good idea to do the same, and if donating to that environmental charity makes you feel better about your lack of recycling habits, then why not?

Here is the full table of Nudges. It must be said, they do make sense.

Of course, not everything as as simple as it seems, and critics of the Nudge school question whether the kind of manipulation that a Nudge suggests, implies a mistrust for people to make the right decisions. What if enough people get nudged, will the rest of us also do the same because everyone does it and we’re simply following the pack? Wouldn’t that just mean that originally, we got influenced by someone who can’t even make a good decision? Can we truly say that behavioural change is so easily achieved?

My take on Nudges is neither critical, nor positive, but rather practical. If you get the chance to insert a nudge in your message, do it anyway. You can’t know for certain whether you will win, but I can’t see how you could lose <wink> <wink>

I’m sure you can find your way around Google if you want to read more on the topic, but I suggest a recent blogpost by Andrew Barratt from Hill & Knowlton.

In the meantime, try not to pee all over the floor.

Corporate Communications Course at Westminster

The dream workplace of every yuppie

The dream workplace of every yuppie

If the keywords for PR are third party endorsement and media relations, then the ones for Corporate Communication are reputation and stakeholders. Every discipline has its own rules of engagement, and Corporate Comms fascinates me with its structured, stakeholder-centric approach to communication.

During my BA course in Amsterdam, I took an optional module called Reputation Management which was based on Corporate Communication theory and focused heavily on the Reputation Quotient model by famed author Charles Fombrun. However, the nature of that education was such that communication was taught with marketing in mind, whereas the MA in PR that I’m doing at Westminster, focuses…well on PR.

At Westminster, I once again chose to follow a course in Corporate Communication, and to my delight, I was met with a brilliant mix of guest lectures, field trips, course lectures and student presentations. I can honestly say that this was the most pleasant course to attend, and the one that I was most excited about while joggling about for an hour in the bus on my way to the Marylebone campus. We were visited by a variety of professionals working in all kinds of corporate communication spheres, such as Lobbying, Internal Affairs, CSR and Risk Management. Kicking it off with a modern look on the issues of risk and reputation in an online environment by Jessica Frost from Regester Larkin, we were then graced with a brilliant lecture on internal communication by veteran academic and professional Kevin Ruck from the PR Academy. Moving on, we were visited by an eloquently spoken American from Glasshouse Partnership called Michael Hoevel who talked to us about the advances in Corporate Social Responsibility and in particular the shifting paradigms in the Accountability Structure and the CSR Framework. Finally, we listened to lobbying stories about influencing the Entertainment legislation of the UK and altering the fate of entire sectors by Chris Lowe from College Public Policy.

The highlight of the course for me was the final assignment. We assumed the role of an in-house communication director tasked with recruiting an external PR agency to tackle an organisational challenge. We got to write an actual brief on a preset communication problem and pitch it to a board of directors occupied by fellow students in order to secure funding for the project. My choice of case study was a potential campaign by the Lib Dems  aimed at re-asserting their identity after working in coalition with the Conservative party through fresh ideas for a new brand identity. I chose to focus the brief on shifting stakeholders along the power-influence matrix, as I thought that could maximise the potential for publicity and capture untapped masses of voters at the next election. I then strapped a humble £100,000 figure to my remuneration offer and boldly marched into the board room to present my ideas.

Thinking about the ensuing rather stressful episode in class, all the guest lectures, the visit to the British Library, the presentations by our fellow Chinese students about the often absurd world of communications in their country, and the discussions about the Pope’s inauguration at 10 in the morning never fails to put a smile on my face.