PR and the Information Insurgency

20 Oct ’06

I hope readers will take the reference to insurgency here in context – I use the analogy because it strikes me that the changing nature of media, information and PR in the age of blogging is similar in some respects to the struggle between control and subversion that one sees in an insurgency. And the issue comes to mind because of the continuing controversy over Walmart’s blogging campaign.

The issue is covered in some detail by my friend Mathew, so I won’t dwell on the detail here. But it strikes me as I watch this event unfold that the PR industry still has some learnin’ to do. And I’m not thinking of the specifics of the Walmart case so much as the fundamental relationship between information and control. Social media has essentially atomized information control – that much is obvious now, and if anything the process is accelerating. But PR is invariably about centrally controlling or influencing the meaning and flow of information. Invariably, it seems to me, this has to confront the subversive and insurgent nature of social media.

At least for now, social media is still being seen as the great hope for information and collaboration. Revolutionary, democratizing, egalitarian and so on. While these values have been questioned, even by people other than Nick Carr, for now the politics of media are such that they are the mantra of the day. An insurgency, therefore, that is loved by the people, heralded by the traditional media, and unquestionably virtuous.

Faced with this, PR has no choice. Surrender now, or retreat, lick your wounds, and come back with a new strategy. Because these guys take no prisoners.

Update: When I first wrote this it occurred to me that the best strategy for dealing with an insurgency is often to challenge it subversively – essentially, as its own insurgency. Not to get all “Heart of Darkness” on this, but it does strike me as an effective approach – putting aside issues of ethics or propriety. Deep Jive Interests notices an example in AdAge from Ketchum of exactly that approach: “In explaining how such a mistake [Ed: the Walmart example] could happen, Mr. Rand of Ketchum noted that in recent interviews with candidates for Ketchum’s new media public-relations practice, many “are boastful about how they go into blogs and post anonymously and have great success. These are thoughtful, smart people, but they thought this was OK.””

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