What's the future of PR? Look back to high school...

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Recently, I was asked to write a "big think piece" about how the field of public relations will be different after the world is destroyed in 2012. Okay ... I'm joking about the world being destroyed part (although that would be a great topic for another thought piece). I was actually asked to write about how organizations must totally rethink PR practice to thrive in this brave new interconnected world. Frankly, I feel like I've read a million articles on this topic already. But I hadn't yet taken a stab at the assignment myself, and thought it would be a healthy exercise. Besides, the request came from someone I have lots of respect for: social media guru Brian Reich, author of the best selling Media Rules. He's compiling a new book of essays, in which folks from different industries tackle the issue of organizational best practices for the future. As he presented it to me: "I have this crazy idea that we need to re-think the way we create, support, and sustain ventures.  What does that mean exactly?  ... it means re-building the whole infrastructure of innovation ... from how we teach it, promote it, cover it in the media, what skills we value, who gets to serve as gatekeepers, and more." I dove in, tasked with writing an 800 word piece. My premise was something I've been toying with for years. In a nutshell: there are strong similarities between the social environment of high school, and organizational PR today. By studying the successful students in high school (those with a good reputation, who excelled in activities and rose above the pettiness of cliques), we can learn a great deal about how organizations can succeed with PR and reputation management in a socially connected world. Might sound trite, but the more I dug, the more I was taken by the strength of the comparison. 3 days and 2,400 words later (d'oh!), I finished the essay, which  is set to be released at the WeMedia Conference in Miami in the next few days (it will be posted on the conference blog). If you're interested, I've posted the first 800 words below... just to whet your appetite ;-)

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It’s the human condition to resist change. As familiar systems disappear, we instinctively clamp down on them, making the process of adopting new systems all the more painful and protracted. Welcome to life in the PR industry. 

New media has turned the decades old profession of PR on its head. If you’re like me (old enough to remember the Cold War), you’ve spent many a sleepless night trying to crack the code for advancing ideas, influencing people, and forging reputations amidst the utter madness that is TwitterBook, the Blogosphere, citizen journalism, and an imploding traditional media universe. Not only have the rules changed, it often feels as if there aren’t any rules.

A mere fifteen years ago, things were much easier. Organizations could feed carefully crafted messages through the narrow but powerful media funnel, which in turn would pump messages out to audiences infused with gobs of third-party credibility. Consumers saw the media as their primary source of information, thus the old PR model afforded companies a great deal of control in dictating how they were perceived and gaining an edge over the competition.

But as we know, new media has forever done away with the traditional media filter by exponentially expanding the sources and nature of information flow. At some point in the last five years, every person on the Web was granted amateur media status, meaning an organization’s ideas could no longer be funneled and amplified by traditional media alone. Instead, those carefully crafted messages are being interpreted, dissected, skewed, altered, and then re-broadcast (if you’re lucky) by the masses in a manner that would appeal to literature’s famed chaos-theorist, Ian Malcolm.

So does this mean that PR is losing its relevance? Hardly. In a world where organizations have seemingly little control building and sustaining reputations, it becomes even more important to have a strategy for doing so. Define yourself, lest ye be defined by the masses!  But instead of rethinking the fundamentals of PR to accommodate a brave new world, most PR professionals are desperately clinging to the conventions of yesteryear – churning out press release after press release, and touting utterly uninteresting achievements in the hopes that someone somewhere realizes they are a “leading ______.” So what is the future of PR? How do we once again find our bearings?

As I developed my theory for PR change, I began by asking myself this: Was there ever a time when I personally felt helpless to dictate and affect the way I was perceived by the community around me?  I had to go back a ways…

In fact, I went all the way back to high school; that period of wondrous development and horrid social turbulence, when we struggled to understand who we were and what we believed. A time when we allowed the opinions of others to not only color, but actually dictate our own self-image. In high school, we had not yet formed our own personal mission statements, and thus we experimented with personalities, belief-systems, and actions. Often, we became what we thought our “community” wanted us to be – an athlete, a brainiac, a creative, a rebel. It was a normal process of growth, but an extremely trying process nonetheless. It was also the period when we learned about the importance and implications of having a reputation.

Like the contemporary PR practitioner, hoping to influence audiences in a shifting cultural and technological landscape, high school students are thrust into a new world of social connections where opinions are formed virally and affecting one’s own reputation can be a Herculean labor. Is it surprising that the early adopters of social media were teenagers? It’s a medium that maps perfectly to the complex social dynamics already at play during that stage of life; a dynamic in which gossip, sensationalism, “cool” factors, and popularity are the laws of the land.

As the parallels between my high school social scene and the new realities of organizational reputation management came into focus, I asked myself this: Who were the winners during our high school years and what might be gleaned from them?

To clarify, I didn’t mean “winners” in the sense that we might have meant when we were teenagers. Every high school had the popular kids and the unpopular ones. Back then, a “winner” supposedly ran with the in crowd. That’s not what I was talking about. I also didn’t mean “winner” in the academic sense.

Within every high school ecosystem, there existed a small handful of kids who rose above the frivolity and competitiveness of cliques. These were the students who would simultaneously interact with the jocks and the geeks – yet were ridiculed by neither. The students who would run for Class President, and win. The students who would play varsity sports, lead the school play, and do well academically (think Chris 'Oz' Ostreicher from the American Pie movies). What did they know that we didn’t? What allowed them to transcend the pettiness of their surroundings and succeed to such a high degree?

TO BE CONTINUED...