Marketing and PR colleagues around the world, are we disrespecting the crowd?
This week I had the chance to address that charged question, and more, with author and media provocateur, Douglas Rushkoff. Speaking at an event attended by global chief marketing and communications officers, we covered a range of ways real-time tech continues to upend conventional wisdom. We sorted through things such as the fallacy of long-term competitive advantage, erosion of brand as an image-builder, dealing with perpetual crisis management, and more. All provocative themes you would typically hear from a conference stage.
There was a more subtle subject mentioned – one that warrants as much discussion as the other macro trends presented: The continued, misguided belief that marketing and PR teams are smarter than people they are trying to reach.
In his latest book, Present Shock, Rushkoff writes that early media elites believed the public did not have the sophistication to grasp the real, messy issues of the day – that scale and complexity of issues warranted news to be crafted into simple, palatable stories.
He suggests this mindset also helped build modern-day mass marketing and public relations, driven by pioneers like Walter Lippman, Edward Bernays and their proteges in the 1920s. “This is an industry fathered by a man — Ed Bernays — who believed that people were too stupid to run their own lives,” said Rushkoff. “That’s an interesting legacy to come from.”
Mass media storytelling formats born from this mindset – 30 minute news segments, press releases, 30 second spots – are still the dominant formats today. The same goes for at times unchecked belief that execs around conference room tables confidently know what the “public” needs, or corporate messages to be consumed by a wanting audience. In Rushkoff’s words, “we continue to apply industrial age thinking to an information age operating system.”
This dissonance can have destructive effects. The latest case this week: JP Morgan’s #askjpm Twitter chat with James B. Lee Jr., its vice chairman. Overlooking potential backlash from the crowd, their programme and hashtag was hijacked, resulting in an unrelenting stream of crude, comical questions and hostile comments.
The public and media producers (companies included) have switched seats on the sophistication spectrum. Communities are getting faster and more expert at adopting new communications platforms. Aided by search engines, social networks and personalised news feeds, they are better at organising around shared interests. They are also potentially more powerful at creating movements intended to change discourse on issues of the day.
On the flip side, organisational legacies prohibit the speed required for most institutions to identify, analyse and adapt to what’s happening around them. According to Rushkoff, the “feedback loops between organisations, their communications, and the public have become so tight that it’s impossible for them to parse cause and effect.” As a result, organisations must adapt to a new reality in which the quality of their own actions are the only controllable element.
Adapting to these new realities, of course, is easier said than done.
If you’re accountable for communications, start by respecting the crowd, bringing a healthy dose of humility, modesty and even a little fear to the table. Take time to understand key relationship dynamics already in place. Use data to identify if there are information voids where you can add value. And as part, offer intelligence and relationship-building platforms where you have an authoritative, yet respectful, voice.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was famous early on for always bringing “an empty chair” to meetings, asking people to imagine it as the seat of the customer and what they might be thinking about the discussion. Today, imagine it’s the crowd, the community, the world at large.
PR that works makes smart markets, smarter.
Chris Perry is president, Digital, at Weber Shandwick
This article first appeared at Forbes.com