A few weeks ago I was asked by one of our affiliate agencies to write about some of the trends we see in communications, much of which is tied up with web 2.0 and social media. For the blogging literate, some of what I said is too obvious for words, so please bear in mind it was written for a more general marketing and communications audience that reads magazines. Again, it’s a long one and will take more than the promised sixty seconds to wade through.

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THE DEMOCRATISATION OF EVERYTHING

When I was asked to write this piece on trends in PR and communications I was reminded of a David Ogilvy quotation; “It’s easier to write a great a speech about advertising than it is to write a great ad”. He was right on that as on so many things.

I was also aware that I’ve heard many people speak or write as if the world we have all happily lived in for years is about to change completely at that very moment and everything we have always done is wrong and whatever brand of communications snake-oil the writer or the speaker is offering is our only hope of salvation. And it can be really annoying and patronising. So with these two little grains of self awareness out of the way, let me clear my throat and claim with gleaming eye and foaming mouth that; “this is the most exciting and challenging time I have witnessed in our business for the 22 years I have been in it and the changes that have just begun will fundamentally alter what we do and the role that PR plays”.

If this was a speech and not an article there would now be an embarrassed silence and the sound of polite coughing.

Bear with me. Take a look at www.ihatedell.net when you get a chance. A little over a year ago a blogger named Jeff Jarvis complained on his blog about a Dell pc he had bought and the service he had received. Within minutes hundreds responded and within days there were thousands agreeing and weighing in with their own stories. In Jeff’s words he had set off a “raging mob with pitchforks” and they were determined to storm ‘Castle Dell’. They came together on the www.ihatedell.net site and a strange thing happened. After they got over complaining a number of them began helping each other, technically in terms of fixing faults mainly, but also on how to get the best out of their machines. Dell did nothing. Well officially, Dell did nothing. Unofficially Dell employees started responding and as you can see from the site they chipped in with advice and comments, totally separately to the official help-lines (many of which were outsourced, which added some spice). And another odd thing happened. When people ‘Googled’ Dell they discovered pretty high up the results table the www.ihatedell.net site and if you look at it now you can see conversations between employees and people that are about to be interviewed for a job at Dell. And journalists went there, and business partners and families of employees and, of course, customers. It became a landing site for anybody disaffected with Dell and very soon after that, a site for anyone interested in anything to do with Dell – - only Dell had nothing to do with it themselves. The whole incident became totemic for the company’s corporate and product brand and was related and re-told in many news stories.

Ihatedell.net

So what does it mean? It means I think that the days of trying to control corporate message from the top down are gone. Spokespeople in this new age are increasingly customers, employees, interviewees and, occasionally also senior management. Dell’s corporate reputation was turned inside out by some angry customers and their own employees. It was democratised.

Photo from 7/7

Another example. This picture above is from the London Tube on July 7th last year after the bombs went off. It is a scene of passengers walking along the track to safety and is shot on a mobile phone camera. Interestingly, the person in front of the photographer is also taking a picture with a mobile phone. This image and many others like it was run on news outlets around the world and it highlighted that people armed with digital devices can now bring us personal views of big news events that the traditional news organisations can’t get to or don’t have the resources to deliver. Check these sites out for an on-the-ground perspective of what is happening in Lebanon and Iraq at the moment: http://www.aliveinbaghdad.org/, http://colddesert.blogspot.com/, http://lebanesebloggers.blogspot.com/ and if you can’t be bothered than let me tell you that they include very personal views of what it is like on the ground in those conflicts; views you will not and cannot really get on TV or mainstream media. The point of all this? People can tell the news and with no more than a mobile phone and pc connected to the web, they can broadcast the news. To each other via social network media and to traditional news organisations who are now very happy to take their footage and comments. News is being democratized too.

And it’s not just the sources of news; it’s the editorial decision-making as well. The BBC is tracked by 13 different blogs (last time I looked) each of which analyse the TV news bulletins within minutes for perceived bias and wrong facts. Any journalist will tell you that they take pride in getting facts and tone right, and these sites which track many major news outlets in Europe and around the world now, do have an affect on editorial decision-making. BBC editors now blog daily on their own news policy and editorial decision-making. News is also much more democratic than it used to be. Richard Sambrook of the BBC said “the crowd are now well and truly on the pitch” (see my interview with Kevin Bakhurst of BBC news 24 on sixtysecondview.colin) for his view on this.

Entertainment is becoming democratized too. Look at Rocketboom and YouTube (www.rocketboom.com and www.YouTube.com) which have become global phenomena and have massive viewing figures eclipsing those of many national broadcasters. People making shows and broadcasting themselves with equipment that can be bought for a couple of hundred euros. And if you do get onto YouTube, take a look at the footage by combatants in Iran, Afghanistan and Lebanon . . . soldiers (on all sides) filming themselves fighting and making that film available to everyone with a pc and a broadband connection and an interest in the issue. The coverage of war has also become democratized.

Your friends these days do not have to be restricted to the people that live near you or you met at school or work. My Space (www.myspace.com) has getting on for 70 million subscribers, most of whom have not physically met, but who would tell you that they have (in some cases) long and rich relationships with each other.

Ebay democratized commerce . . . we don’t need shops or middlemen any more; we can just trade with each other. Ask any author and he or she will tell you that the reviews they crave most are positive ones on Amazon, not from a newspaper art critic writing for a tiny and highly informed audience. The same goes for the reviews of music on iTunes. The democratization of opinion?

Personal blogs are increasing at a rate of 70,000 a day (doubling every five months). They are mad, bad, brilliant and indifferent but they are being written and they are being read. . . . some by thousands of people. They are of course ‘just’ conversations and we have always talked to each other, but we have never had the potential for so many to listen to us if we really are engaged in a particular issue or have a perspective that is interesting to others. Who knew that conversation needed democratizing too?

Ask any doctor about the main difference between their patients today and just a few years ago and the answer is; “information”. Patients enter surgeries all over the world now clutching printouts from the net and have often tried not only to diagnose themselves, but have views on the their treatment or prescription. Does this mean they are qualified to diagnose and prescribe? No, but it does mean that doctors and health professionals have now to engage patients in the process and make them understand their decisions. The democratization of healthcare is arguably one of the most important of these changes for every country in the world.

And I know I have focused on the on-line world but it’s not just there. Many countries in Europe have their version of the TV show Big Brother where we are fascinated to witness normal people being elevated to celebrity status; and sometimes in Celebrity Big Brother, celebrities being reduced to citizen level. More people voted for the winner of the last American Idol than did for George Bush. Celebrity too has been democratised.

And all this at a time when participation in the traditional field of democracy (i.e. politics and voting) is at record lows pretty much everywhere. Established authority in the form of government’s, politicians and business leaders score badly in terms of trust. According to the Edelman annual Trust Barometer, a CEO is trusted to “do the right thing” by only 29 per cent of people in Europe. However, a ‘regular’ employee of a company is trusted by 33 per cent. But a ‘person like myself’ is trusted by a huge 61 per cent of people in Europe.

So what? So in communications and in the way brands and companies deport themselves to their customers and to their stakeholders the game is changing fast. The new model citizen who is increasingly participating and demanding a say and respect and, even a relationship, is not the person we used to know. They don’t believe us in the way the way they used to (just like they don’t believe a doctor enough not to check the net before visiting the surgery) and the change required is not just about a new media buying strategy it is fundamental for most companies, brands, PR people and communicators.

We used to drive brand preference through awareness vehicles like advertising. But advertising can’t reach people like it used to and it is one-way and it is not trusted or believed as it used to be anywhere in Europe. And we used to drive corporate preference through the idea of a few messages, strictly controlled and repeated as often as possible through top down opinion forming media most often by the CEO themselves.

For the new model citizens increasingly used to taking more and more decisions for themselves (or at least having a say) being shouted at in traditional forms of static bought media is often a jarring experience. They don’t want to hear from the CEO about his product or his latest CSR initiative because “he would say that wouldn’t he” (for most CEOs for most of the time, in today’s world, formal communication should be restricted to financial results, company strategy announcement and crisis – - though informally they can say much more as I’ll discuss later).

Much more effective in driving corporate or brand preference are the techniques of dialogue, loyalty and involvement. And that brings me to the re-emergence of an old friend. Word of mouth marketing.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point, some years ago illustrated the power of word of mouth in moving markets and changing behaviour on a mass scale. It was a book before it’s time, because in a world populated by these new model citizens, who trust each other’s opinions and are very happy to say what they think, word of mouth is more powerful than ever.

Jeff Bezos the founder of Amazon said; “Word of mouth has been incredibly important to us, and ultimately that’s what a brand is; the things people say about you when you are not there”. The net (but not the net alone) gives a powerful boost to word of mouth (through viral techniques and the blogosphere), but more importantly, people seem more willing to make up their own view on brands and companies and much more willing to tell other people (and again the increasing availability of the net and broadband access boost this affect).

Word of mouth now influences around 80% of purchase decisions according to NOP and has an impact on 67% of the US economy according to McKinsey.

And of course, PR has always been about this. In the corporate, business-to-business, tech, health and brand areas, the power of what we do is related to how successful we are at getting third parties to speak on our behalf. But there is a mass dimension to this now which is different. And many of the new web-based social media mean for the first time that we can directly communicate and have relationships with customers, end users or the people we want to influence. That is new and brings fresh challenges and some issues to deal with – - PR is out of the back-room and onto the front line.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating according to my mum (who I trust in all things by the way). Does all this change anything in how we do what we do for our companies and clients? Demonstrably yes I believe. Take a look at some of the Edelman case studies on Edelman movies on www.edelmanfilms.com and especially the Microsoft Xbox and Halo 2 cases where anticipation, massive awareness and then sales were created through word-of-mouth. In the most successful of these for brands, there are some common elements:

  • Make use of people’s most trusted source of information – other people
  • Identify the most influential and active and get them to act as catalysts (the Halo 2 case is a good example of that)
  • Give them reasons to talk on your behalf

This last point is often the most difficult. Increasingly this is about having content that is either interesting and useful or just plain entertaining. People pass things on verbally or virally on-line if they are invested enough in it; if it makes them look “in the know”; if they think they can do a service to other people; if they think they have something funny or amazing that will get that second or two of amazement from the person they are addressing it to. Or if they believe it and are passionate about it.

The band the Arctic Monkeys became huge in the US (they are British) because they were adopted by a few people on MySpace who then passed them on to others and they quickly became a phenomena, without the formal and traditional backing of a big record label. There is some debate about how accidental or not this viral affect was for them, but the principle remains the same whether planned or accidental.

In the more traditional media realm, Dove’s Real Beauty campaign worked because he PR and advertising created a real ‘talk factor’ and gave the brand a hero role in that . . . again, great case on Edelman movies on www.edelmanfilms.com.

Much of what we do on PR is about this obviously, but the impact we can now have in all areas of our business is far greater. In the corporate realm blogs are having a huge affect in many sectors. Dell shows how this can be a challenge but look at how some companies through blogging of staff and CEO can be a huge asset for corporate reputation. Robert Scoble (http://scobleizer.wordpress.com)who until recently blogged about his then employer Microsoft is credited with a lot of that firm’s improved corporate image. CEO bloggers like Federico at Ducati in Italy and Bob Lutz at General Motors have succeeded in putting a very human face on some of the heavy corporate challenges that face them and their firms (CEOs seem to be better believed on bloggs, possibly because of their frequent and informal conversational style and so have a better chance of being “trusted”).

And around any major corporate event now like an IPO or merger or acquisition, check out the blogs that are putting investors together with management (on both sides) with employees with political groups and media.

These are some of the reasons why I think that we are living through the era of greatest change our industry has seen. It’s not just as the old monolithic broadcasting and publishing blocs are crumbling and that the channels that have principally served them (advertising) are struggling to find new ways of targeting people . . .it is more a fundamental shift in who people are believing and how they want to be treated. The agencies and companies that figure this out and begin to listen and enter conversations with customers and stakeholders will be the winners.