Friday, 23 March 2012

Is this the Writing on the Wall for Traditional PR?

Johannes Gutenburg
In his book, ‘Here Comes Everybody: How change happens when people come together,’ Clay Shirky recounts the paradox behind Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press which literally ushered in the revolutionary technology of reproducing the written work. To much astonishment, the new technology was ill-embraced by the scribes of the day; a ‘rare populace’, whose work entailed the copying of new editions of old manuscripts, word for word, by hand. ‘For the first time in history a copy of a book could be created faster than it could be read,’ notes Shirky of the invention. However, almost half a century after the introduction of the moveable type press, the scribes who had lived to promote literacy came out in fervent defense of the much-revered scribal tradition and regretted its edging out by the new technology. Shirky makes some interesting observations from these events that would make instructive learnings for the Public Relations Practitioner, in this age of digital  media.

Medieval scribe Jean Miélot (AKA Jehan), sitting at a
desk, making a copy of another book, ca. mid 1400s.
Image published: 1885.Credit: Eon Images

Before the invention of the moveable type, the scribes were an ‘indispensable and irreplaceable’ group who had earned a special place in society as custodians of cultural memory by using their rare ability to copy and reproduce old manuscripts. Thus, the entry of Gutenberg’s technology in the late 1400s turned the tables by enabling mass printing and subsequently increasing literacy. Reading and writing was no longer a preserve of the scribes. It had become ubiquitous. ‘If everyone can do something, it is no longer rare enough to pay for, even if it is vital,’ notes Shirky. Under ordinary circumstances, he observes, the scribes function - that of making copies of books - would have been accomplished by ignoring the scribal tradition, than by embracing it.

Moveable type printer
In the same way that the printing technology made a massive reduction in the difficulties involved in reproducing books and helped to embed literacy in society, so has the new media diminished the old limitations of traditional media and transferred much of its power to publics to the chagrin of many PR Practitioners and their organisations. Much PR practice today still hinges on the predominant traditional public relations which emphasizes messaging, publicity, informational, and media relations function (Grunig, 2009). Like the scribes who specialized and excelled in the handwritten copy-making function, many PR practitioners are accomplished ‘conveyors of messages through traditional media - about decisions usually made by other managers,’ (Grunig, 2009).

The challenge with this PR paradigm is that in this age of new media, people are less constrained by the information that PR Practitioners and, or journalists choose to make available to them directly or through the media. Members of publics now, as well as journalists, can seek information from millions of sources, anywhere in the world. ‘People have many more sources of information available to them than journalistically mediated sources,’ (Grunig, 2009; Shirky, 2008, p.73).

In the wake of the usurping of the traditional PR practitioner's message-conveyor function by digital media technology, Grunig re-emphasises the ‘re-institutionalisation of PR as a behavioural, strategic management paradigm in place of the predominant symbolic interpretive paradigm. It is only then, he argues that Public Relations can reap the full benefits of digital media.

‘The new digital media have dialogical, interactive, relational, and global properties that make them perfectly suited for a strategic management paradigm of public relations—properties that one would think would force Public Relations Practitioners to abandon their traditional one-way, message-oriented, asymmetrical and ethnocentric paradigm of practice,’ (Grunig 2009).

As a strategic management function, PR Practitioners can adopt the wide range of digital media tools available for PR planning and programming - whether it is environmental scanning, segmenting stakeholders and publics, anticipating and dealing with issues and crises, measuring relationships and reputation, and evaluating communication programmes.

Digital media offers a variety of tools for scanning the cyberspace for problems, publics, and issues. The Practitioner can set up Google alerts for example, and use her organisation’s name as a key word. Similarly, by entering key words that describe potential problems and issues that relate to the organization, or decisions and behaviours the organization might be contemplating, it is possible to scan the organisation’s environment, (Grunig, 2009). Further, analysis of online media can go beyond segmenting stakeholders and publics to search for, and categorise the issues publics might raise and the crises that might result from these issues. Tweetlevel can help to evaluate the conversation trend around a given campaign topic (Patel, 2012). Digital media such as websites and blogs also can be used for issues and crisis communication programmes (Coombs, 2008). It is also possible to use cyberspace as a database for measuring the type and quality of relationships developed with publics.

On the backdrop of these fast technological changes and the associated ramifications for the PR practice, the wide range of new media can seem like a convolution ready to upset the traditional Practitioner’s status quo. As is evident in the case of the scribes, when a better, non-scribal way of accomplishing increase in literacy levels came along, they stepped in to argue that preserving the scribes’ way of life was more important than fulfilling their mission in a non-scribal means, (Shirky, 2008, p. 69).

This, is the kind of predicament that Shirky warns us against, when he observes that professional self-conception and self-defense, so valuable in ordinary times, becomes a disadvantage in revolutionary ones, because professionals are always concerned with threats to the profession, (Shirky, 2008, p. 69) than threats to the society they serve in the first place. Is this the writing on the wall for traditional PR practitioners?


  1. Although Shirky didn't say it outright, I feel that he was inferring a similarity between the situation faced by the ancient scribes and today's journalists / PR professionals. Your point (and Shirky's) in your last paragraph is a good one - it can be limiting and perhaps harmful to focus too closely on what are perceived as 'threats' to a profession during times of great change as it prevents adaptation. The ability to evolve with the change is what enables people and professions to sustain themselves. The difficulty, however, is in thinking beyond the here and now. How does one not only stay on top of the convergent curve, but even ahead of it? In this article from the Harvard Business Review's online magazine social media trends for 2012 are discussed -
    At times I find it is valuable to look at these types of commentaries/articles for groupings or categorizations of the convergent media tools available, but perhaps only in the long-term will we see what truly sticks as the preferred method of interaction / cooperation.

  2. The point you raise about how to stay ahead of the advancements in convergent media is valid considering the multitude of technological inventions and the resultant new social tools being launched daily. With a billion plus people today counting as internet users, and more coming, my view is that the role of Public Relations Practitioners as the organisations' conscience is more important today than before. Organisations and brands will be forced to behave more responsibly and responsively before individuals and, or groups rise up to blow the whistle against their actions or lack of it. Shirky well notes that it is the people with more at stake who are making more use of these tools. Notwithstanding, with the power and freedom occasioned by the new media lying in the hands of the masses, Public Relations Practitioners and the organisations we represent will sometimes not escape the notoriety of society. Whether the case of
    'Domino's Disgusting People' ( was a prank amplified on YouTube or a case of irresponsible behaviour on the part of Domino's kitchen staff is difficult to say. The Restaurant's agency, Crispin Porter and Bogusky however did a fabulous job at facing-off the damage done, using both new and traditional media.