A distinguished UK tech journalist is about to cross over to ‘the dark side’. We spoke yesterday about his decision to move into what used to be called Public Relations (PR) and both agreed he would sorely miss being a writer. The truth though is that the world he is leaving has changed so much that some question the value of his generation’s expert knowledge. These days every IT user is an expert and journalism is being replaced by Word Of Mouth (WOM).
Back in the day, all good hacks were equipped with PR bullshit detectors. More politely called the ‘Editorial Filter’ it was most visible at product launches. When demos resulted in smoke issuing from hardware or PowerPoint slides left out important technical details, the expensively assembled pack of hacks would quite rightly savage the hapless tech vendor in print. This could destroy any chance of sales that quarter (or until the PR team ushered them to the next launch venue). In many ways, PR was a sort of payola for keeping the public uninformed. Some still see it as such, but the worm has turned.
These days it is citizens, mostly unpaid, who create critiques 24 hours a day and there is another ugly acronym for this; UGC (User Generated Content). A dissatisfied customer will fill a user forum with more vitriol than any incensed editor ever could. A recent scan of the online help sections of my mobile operator and internet service provider would make you believe these multi-billion organizations were pyramid schemes run by half-wits – which they clearly are not. While some of the disgruntled punters here are the equivalent of the ‘green ink brigade’, some of this dirt sticks.
Just like a low Amazon rating, Word Of Mouth marketing matters. We marketing professionals are all too aware of this feedback loop, so why do we still see stories like the iPhone4 antenna debacle, the Toyota software/car mat mystery, the BP weeping wound or the Facebook furore over the fanboys and girls of a killer?* The media call these PR disasters, they are, in fact just disasters and PR alone cannot fix them.
Could it be that the successor to PR (social relations or whatever we decide to call it) can help here? Not the old smiley, press junket payola, but a fresher always-on, Google-alerted proactive PR. Looks like my friend (now rival) will, as the latest addition to the PR family, need to pick up some new skills, which are actually very similar to his old ones.
*The Facebook example holds particular interest, because when approached about its first ever European PR hire, I recommended they look for a candidate with crisis management PR experience. They sensibly rejected my candidature, after asking about my work with a well-known sports apparel brand, they (wrongly) assumed I had worked for. Wonder which was the more useful skill?