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Then and Now – PR for the Ages

Have you ever wondered what Alexander Graham Bell would think of smartphones, or what Henry Ford would feel about riding in a Lamborghini?

Taking a moment to look back, it’s no secret that our name draws inspiration from the father of modern PR, Edward Bernays, who proposed that employing the power of news, and even propaganda, was integral to business communication. Bernays believed in the ‘mass distribution of ideas’, and this was way back in the early 20th century. What would he think of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube today? I think he might say, ‘Finally! Now we can really get things going!’

So here’s an ode to the father of spin, taking a look at his ideas and how they apply to PR today.

‘Mass distribution of ideas’
Bernays’ ‘mass distribution of ideas’ is just another way of ‘going viral’. Today, you can’t take a step without bumping into a ‘tweet’, a ‘poke’ or watching a viral video. That is, of course, because social media has taken over our lives, or more accurately, framed our very existence within a virtual environment, bounded by urls, hash tags and status updates. Seeing the value of social media, more businesses are trying to integrate PR into the existing portals, taking advantage of the highly connected communities that make it up. The truth is social media and PR are a match made in heaven.

Social media, in my view, is the convergence of social interaction and user generated content. Essentially, sites like Twitter and Facebook allow us to share what we create, or share what others have created, with unparalleled immediacy. As a business tool, it provides the ability to act and respond to corporate communication needs in real time. Not only that, but it allows corporations to communicate on exactly the same level as the individual consumer, and to simultaneously share that intimate communication with a massive audience.

The phenomenon of social media has all but accomplished Bernays’ dream of ‘mass distribution of ideas’, and at a speed he couldn’t have foreseen. Millions have literally congregated together in monolithic virtual communities that can spread ideas far and fast, like never before.

Facebook has topped some 750 million users, and YouTube reportedly has some 490 million active users where some, ‘150 years worth of videos are watched every single day’. We can understand the mad rush to appropriate the power of social media. And some have done so with varying degrees of success.

‘Engineering Consent’
In the late 1920s, Bernays embarked on one of the most successful PR campaigns ever devised, when he launched Torches of Freedom, an effort to win female smokers in a society that had branded the practice inappropriate for women. He pitched smoking as an act of liberation and empowerment for women – it worked amazingly, given the times and context of the approach.

If Bernays were around to witness the advent of social media, he may have started a Facebook page, created a few YouTube videos and tweeted the power of ‘Torches’ to the masses, planting ideas strategically across the social media landscape just so they would spread like wildfire through ‘retweets’, ‘sharing’ and ‘digging’. Indeed, many have tried to replicate the natural evolution of trends, and artificially create a pattern of thinking only to make it appear organic through the use of social media. If the origin of the idea seems to be the society itself, rather than a sales pitch, then society is more likely to buy into it.

‘Third Party Authority’
‘If you can influence the leaders, either with or without their conscious cooperation, you automatically influence the group which they sway.’ In order to promote the sale of bacon, Bernays conducted surveys with physicians and reported their recommendation that people eat hearty breakfasts. He then sent the results to 5,000 physicians, along with publicity touting bacon and eggs as a hearty breakfast. Authority and credibility put weight to words.

The potentially useful thing about social media is that the numbers are fairly transparent – or at the least provide a sample population and a captive audience. One can almost quantify the influence of a product or personality by the number of ‘hits’, ‘likes’, or ‘followers’. That people are strongly influenced by their idols, the wealthy and well-known has always been true, but with social media, a tweet could see a spike in sales of a certain brand in short order. Celebrities make thousands per tweet in product endorsements; with over 5 million followers on Twitter, celebrity socialite, Kim Kardashian, has a ready market of eager ears that any PR or marketing team would love to get their hands on. Where Bernays thought PR specialists had to think for and manipulate the masses, today the masses are telling each other what to think when they tweet, update, and post.

Publicity, in general, has always aimed to meld into the consumer’s daily exchanges, either by standing out so much it can’t be ignored, or blending in to the point that the seduction goes undetected. But PR has always evolved alongside technology and developments in communication. If printed word was the first mass market medium – giving birth to the press release among other things, then television and radio have come along to provide a space for strategies like sponsorship and product placement. The Digital Age arose with widespread access to the Internet, and that is where social media was created, along with media like the blog, and the ability for consumers to challenge, create or pass on content. With each new medium we have found innovative ways to apply or create PR strategy, but social media has only been around a few years – have we seen its full manifestation yet? That remains to be seen.

So is social media right for everyone? It depends on the nature and goals of the enterprise. I do think it is wise for any business to have a presence within, or at least an understanding of, the social media milieu. The wisdom in keeping a foot in social media is that no one knows where it will go next. The fluid nature of the digital space and the rapid pace of its development means new opportunities can materialise where there were none before. The question is; where are the opportunities? Is it all just hit-and-miss and about the luck of the draw? Was Zuckerberg merely in the right place at the right time, or is there really a strategy we can employ to guarantee a modicum of success using social media?