Archive for May, 2009

Is there a place for produsage in the future of PR?

Dr Axel Bruns (2008) discusses the potential for produsage to evolve the practice of marketing; he comments that produsage communities do and could have further potential to engage in the produsage of knowledge about commercial products, but in addition to this core function, they also produse advertising and marketing for many of the products they discuss. 

I feel it would be of benefit to explore how this same concept could be applied to the practice of public relations.  According to Cutlip, Centre and Broom (2009) public relations is the management function that establishes and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and the publics on whom its success or failure depends.  For many organisations, the relatively new introduction of new media has created challenges and opened up opportunities in regards to communicating and establishing relationships with publics.

Firstly, it is important to explore the primary challenge being faced by public relations practitioners in the wake of the produsage phenomenon – citizen journalism.  As I previously discussed, citizen journalism opens up communication lines for citizens a.k.a. the organisation’s publics to voice their opinions about an organisation or its actions, in the public sphere.  Depending on what these opinions are, the reputation of the organisation could very well be left in tatters particularly if the opinion is shared by others or worse still, found to be fact.  It is worth mentioning also, that this could just as easily go the other way should the opinions and information being disseminated via citizen journalism be positive for the organisation.

That leads me to the idea that public relations practitioners could in fact harness the concept of produsage to reinforce positive relationships with its publics.  Bruns talks about the potential to get produsage communities, many of which are made up of Pro-Ams, to actively participate in the concept and design stages of a product.  What if publics were able, via produsage communities, to contribute to the design and concept planning behind public relations campaigns and programs?

Imagine the depth of the collective pool of intelligence that could be harvested in relation to what people feel would be the most effective ways of reaching them.  For example, whilst an organisation may feel that the best way to reach a target public is to create a television campaign, that public may feel that an event would be a more effective way to get the message across.  This harnessing of produsage could be seen as a contemporary model for community engagement.  It’s all about getting the affected communities involved in dealing with the issue, but rather than keeping it on a traditional informational level, new media could potentially enable publics to become more involved on a strategic level.

I believe that by engaging publics, via produsage communities, organisations could potentially be able to enhance its public relations campaigns and strategies to better reach its publics.  I understand that this is not something that will happen overnight, nor will it always be appropriate, however, I believe that practitioners would be foolish not to consider it as produsage becomes more prominent in the future.

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What is an expert?

It’s a simple enough question.  “An expert is someone widely recognized as a reliable source of technique or skill whose faculty for judging or deciding rightly, justly, or wisely is accorded authority and status by their peers or the public in a specific well distinguished domain”.  Ironically, this definition comes from one of the largest institutions of amateur contributors – Wikipedia.  Keeping this in mind, it is somewhat amusing to consider whether it was an expert or a group of experts that contributed to this definition, or just someone who felt they had something to say on the topic.  

Dr Axel Bruns explains that the struggle between experts and amateurs is not a matter of hierarchy against anarchy but rather “a struggle between two different systems of representing knowledge.”  The expert paradigm aims to “develop well-behaved, universally accepted, and internally consistent understandings of the world.”  Alternatively, the amateur paradigm “allows for multiplicity, conflicts of interpretation, and the existence of a number of alternative representations of extant knowledge which are accepted only by subset of the entire community…but are based on an interpretation of available evidence.”

So which is correct?  Given that we are moving into an age where produsage is being established as a credible model for content creation, is it really that important that experts are clearly distinguished from amateurs?  Perhaps it is.  One could argue that we don’t want just anyone to be producing content and passing it off as professional opinion. 

Alternatively, Charles Leadbeater explains, “for Pro-Ams, leisure is not passive consumerism but active and participatory, it involves the deployment of publicly accredited knowledge and skills, often built up over a long career, which has involved sacrifices and frustrations.”   With this in mind, I think it is fair to say that there is a place in society for this Pro-Am culture – particularly online.  I believe the co-contributions of experts, Pro-Ams to content makes for a healthy online culture.  On that note, it is also worth remembering that through diversity of contributors comes diversity in perspective and points-of-view.  This is highly important for the development and evolution of any culture.

Often we talk about produsage as being the gateway for people to become involved in the collating and publishing of knowledge – a way for Joe Public to contribute to collective pools of intelligence.  Surely, the Pro-Am culture is simply a side effect of produsage? 

Of course there is always the question of the reliability of information.  This is an issue that often gets raised around Wikipedia.  How do we, as laypeople, know when we are looking at the work of an expert, a Pro-Am, an amateur or someone who has no idea what they are talking about?  It is not always easy ascertain the credibility of online contributors.  However, is it not commonsense to always double check information?  What’s to say that the information being published by an apparent expert is any more or less correct than that being written by a self-titled Pro-Am?

I guess at the end of the day, my point is that society and particularly online culture is more than big enough for the both of them.  There always has been and always will be a place for professionals and increasingly, Pro-Ams and amateurs are finding their place in online culture.  This change in dynamics can only serve to better the collective pool of intelligence for everyone. 

Wikipedia: Help or hindrance?

I remember even when I was in high school, my teachers used to say that Wikipedia was NOT a reliable source to reference in any academic work.  Universities won’t accept it either.  So what exactly is Wikipedia good for?  Personally, I find it to be an invaluable source for grasping a basic understanding of just about anything.  Want to know who Joseph Smith, Jr is?  Look it up on Wikipedia.  I bet you couldn’t find out that sort of information in a hard copy of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in less than 20 seconds?

What is Wikipedia? According to academic, Dr Axel Bruns in his book Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life and Beyond: From production to produsage, ‘Wikis enable their users to create a network of knowledge that is structured ad hoc through multiple interlinkages between individual pieces of information in the knowledge base’.  Bruns explains, that Wikipedia is an online encyclopaedia that endeavours not to ‘present representations of knowledge, but to encapsulate the current state of accepted knowledge itself.’ 

In layman’s terms Wikipedia is an editable space for the compilation and aggregation of knowledge and encourages online enthusiast communities to facilitate discussion around topics of interest. 

Wikipedia is not simply an archive of information.  It is a live application that is constantly updated and subject to gatewatching.  By nature it is effective in its coverage of unfolding events.  Bruns points out that that this coverage is not intended to highlight and analyse events, but rather to chronically document history as it is made.

As with many other new media applications, Wikipedia has had, is having, and will have an impact on public relations.

Wikipedia has the potential to be a hindrance to public relations practitioners.  In an ideal world, the fact that people are able to contribute to and edit content on Wikipedia, would mean that content would be monitored and information would therefore be accurate.  This is not always the case.  As my teachers said, information on Wikipedia cannot always be relied on.  So what’s to say that people wouldn’t use Wikipedia to air grievances about an organisation?  If this happens, it doesn’t matter how quickly the edit is rectified, chances are, someone else has already seen it. Having said that, it is also quite possible that public relations practitioners would use Wikipedia to generate their own spin.  In his blog Tricky Wiki, Peter Dizikes gives the example of ExxonMobile employees changing their Wikipedia entry to glamorise the organisation’s environmental record.  

On a slightly more ethical note, Wikipedia functions allow organisations to monitor their entry and ensure that inaccurate information is mediated.  It also allows them to promote their organisation and provide detailed information to the public that could not be easily distributed elsewhere.  Additionally, Wikipedia gives organisations the opportunity to report the truth.  For example, people know that ExxonMobile has not got a shiny environmental record, so it would be far more beneficial for them to own up to this and instead report on the changes they are making now to rectify the wrongs.

Having said all that, is it ethical for public relations to interfere with Wikipedia at all?  Does it go against the very concept of WikipediaPeter Dzikes believes this is the case.  Perhaps it is.  However, I am of the view that organisations should be able to defend themselves.  The gatewatchers aren’t always able to pick everything up and it is only fair that organisations should be able to right the wrong.    

Citizen Journalism: friend or foe in public relations?

It is well-known that journalists and public relations practitioners have a love-hate relationship.  They need each other to survive in the cut-throat world they work in, yet neither is willing to openly acknowledge this and instead go on pretending they are adversaries.  But what happens if we throw a new player into the game?  Or more accurately, players.

With the lessening of the digital divide, citizen journalism is reaching new heights.  Differing from conventional journalism, citizen journalism is providing the public with an alternative.  The public has gained access to the communication tools of the 21st century and has promptly altered the traditional, dated mass media outlets as we know them.  As opposed to this traditional mass media, where it is held that journalists should report on what people need to know rather than what they want to know, citizen journalism is by the people for the people.

The relationship between public relations practitioners and journalists is based on the public relations practitioner feeding the journalist information about an organisation or event for a story, and in return the journalist gives them media exposure.

So with an understanding of the traditional relationship between media and public relations and an understanding of what is citizen journalism, naturally the question arises – is citizen journalism a friend or foe in public relations?

Friend? The beauty of citizen journalism, is that people can comment on and discuss issues that matter to them.  This provides a great insight to public relations practitioners trying to gauge the feelings and perceptions of their target publics

Citizen journalists also have the inclination to cover themes and places often ignored or forgotten by mainstream media.  This is called hyperlocal coverage.  Once again a benefit for organisations trying to reach narrowly defined target publics.

In addition, citizen journalism is often described as a watchdog for journalists.  They report either the other side of the story or the inaccuracies presented in the media.  This is a fantastic tool for public relations to tap into to ensure their publics are getting the full story and not just what the media sees fit to report.

Foe?  On the flip-side of the above arguments, there is of course a negative.  Although comment and discussion is enabled, the reporting can be fragmented and inconclusive.  This could mean that a message is either missed, misunderstood or lost in cyberspace and therefore of no benefit whatsoever to public relations as no-one is going to receive the message. Also, as a watchdog, citizen journalism can work against an organisation even when, or perhaps particularly when, traditional media are in support. 

Pacific Brands found this out the hard way when they were slammed in numerous blogs over cutting jobs in Australia and moving manufacturung overseas.  Whilst the organisation’s public relations practitioners worked over time to try and project key messages and mitigate negative publicity, citizen journalists all over Australia were writing about the realities of the organisation’s move.  In this case citizen journalists and traditional media were united and no stone was left unturned as they lashed out at the organisation.  Was it warrented?  Were there strategies that could have been implemented to lessen the attacks?  Maybe.  Maybe the organisation should have been more proactive and used citizen journalism to aid their cause.  I’m not sure that it would have been effective, but it’s a thought…

Perhaps it is not as easy as classifying citizen journalism as either a friend or foe.  Perhaps there is more to it than that.  Perhaps, as Dr Axel Bruns suggests,  citizen journalism can enhance traditional journalism – not replace it.  As such should public relations take advantage of both mediums?  Should it exploit the diversity of citizen journalism as deliberative journalism with hyperlocal coverage?  And also still rely on traditional journalism to get the organisation in the view of the general public?  I think so.  I believe that there is a happy medium and public relations stands to benefit greatly from both.  It’s all about knowing who the publics are and where they source their news from.  Once that’s sorted, the rest is up to them anyway!