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August 20, 2014
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April 23, 2012

Closing the Door On the Gatekeeper Role in PR

Posted on the PR Conversations blog on April 19th by Heather Yaxley

At a Sustainable Conversations event earlier this week (organised by Kantar Media), I started to think about the impact on both public relations and journalism of ongoing communications changes. In particular, it is clear neither occupation can maintain their traditionally exclusive roles as 'gatekeepers' in filtering and controlling the flow of information that is communicated to publics.

With anyone and everyone potentially able to express an opinion and be listened to, many of the taken-for-granted aspects of the PR-media relationship are challenged, opening the gate with some interesting outcomes.

To those of us who have been engaged in digital communications for some time, this is nothing new. But it was clear at this event that for mainstream media and many of those working in strategic organisational communications, the implications of the disruption to the normal modus operandi have only just hit home. Here are a few points from the debate on the day that I would like to explore in conversation here.

The world is complicated and messy

It was fascinating to finally hear researchers acknowledge this fact. This is important because dominant communications theories, and research perspectives, tend to present the world in a positivist way where linear processes and quantitative data help simplify people and trends. As a result, decisions are made in organizations and by individuals on the basis of information that does not really describe how the world works.

As an example, much of the communications activity by journalists and PR practitioners in relation to car purchasing is based on data which presents an average of 2-3 months between someone becoming aware of a need and closing the deal. The familiar, hierarchy of effects type of model that shows a nice, orderly flow of cognition to behaviour over a predictable period of time. Well, in reality, that only applies to very few people, even if the average still comes out at this length. There are a significant group of people today making their car purchasing decisions in 1-2 weeks, with another major grouping getting caught in a decision loop that extends their buying period into many months. Digital communications help both of these groups – although the latter are perhaps none the wiser despite, or maybe because, of the amount of information they can access.

The analogy of a game of snakes and ladders was used by Andy Turton – Global Development Director, TNS Global Automotive Practice. If you're not familiar with the game, the idea is that communications can offer a ladder up the decision making process, or serve to set you back several steps as you slip back down a snake. So what does this mean for PR communications? It reinforces the need to be personal and avoid making general assumptions, that rely on data if it doesn't allow you to look for nuances, variations, differences and most importantly, the meaning of information. It's about intelligence not simply statistics.

People think in pictures

Today's journalists and PR practitioners are primarily verbal communicators. We like words and writing things down. But, as the rise of Pinterest has shown – aided by our mobile devices all being equipped with cameras – people are increasingly able to capture their thoughts and express themselves using imagery. TNS had used this in research that asked people to diarise their car buying decision making by taking photographs – which revealed how much visual impressions affect our thinking and behavioural patterns.

It was also interesting to hear from Chas Hallett, editor-in-chief of What Car? magazine (owned by Haymarket), who talked about how good photographs drive interest in editorial coverage. Indeed, data shared at another event a few weeks ago by Newspress, which manages the media websites for most UK based car companies, revealed that press releases supported by a greater number of images get more attention and greater usage. Again, perhaps not a new observation – but I'm surprised at the number of PR practitioners and organisations which are only just looking at infographics and other visual devices as part of their communications. I believe there is huge potential here to shift corporate communications much more into the visual – including video – and this requires PR practitioners and journalists to gain new skills sets. As Chas said, when recruiting motoring journalists, he is looking for those who are comfortable in front of a camera, and behind it, not just at a keyboard.

Digital is driving future communications

Here the thinking relates to how new platforms (including tablets) are influencing how information is communicated from the outset, not as an afterthought. With more and more ways of accessing information (and at another event I attended recently, there was heated debate about adapting to mobile trends), content can't be clunky. The more traditional means of communicating are being affected by the design and other changes that are necessary to make the most of multi-media and transmedia opportunities. In part, this indicates the death of long-form journalism (and certainly the 100 page new car press pack of my early career is no more). There is more information available, but it has to be presented increasingly in bite-sized means. Those of us who like to write long, need to consider if our passion is sustainable. But the good news is that the skills we require in writing punchy headlines, quotes and so on reflect a strength that is welcomed in social media communications. Brevity is important – but equally, the dominance of digital makes words critically valuable. Journalists – like PR practitioners – need to be aware of how search engines operate and balance the tricks required with quality writing. This extends into the earlier point also about imagery as people increasingly find YouTube and other visual stimuli are presented in Google searches, often above text summaries. Tagging and emerging visual search technologies demand our attention.

The personal is public and vice versa

Again not a new topic for us at PR Conversations, but something that many professional communicators are just realising. How do you balance the needs of maintaining trusted brand status (either personally or for an organisation) in an always on, open gate world? Are you prepared to work 24/7/365 and how are issues such as flaming attacks being handled by organisations to protect their employees? Too many issues to explore here, but definitely relevant when you act as a gatekeeper in an environment when anyone and everyone can be talking about you.

People today are different – but the same

Looking at trends in modern living, and expectations of younger people, challenges the metaphors that professional communicators have successfully ingrained in the promotional society. Henry Tucker, Director, The Future Company, explained how car companies in the last century used their marketing communications (including public relations) to influence societal and individual expectations that they could be free and independent in their lives. Although the open road of the car advert is less like our experience than urban gridlock and increasing cost of ownership (UK petrol panic anyone?), these promotional messages underpin the way we interact online. He said that individuals view their social media networks as an extension of their personal space and presence in society. We are looking at technology, brands, products and services as needing to fulfill such needs and fit into our lifestyles – we're not keen on compromise and want freedom in how we do things (even if our wants are complicated, messy and contradictory).

In countries where people are becoming more affluent, there is no linear progression up a social scale, but expectations that reflect how personal lifestyles are being affected. Likewise, the 'lost generation' of young people have found the world is not how they were promised it would be – and respond with decreased loyalty to the old ways of doing things. Or do they? At the same time as this distrust is often expressed about brands, governments and so on, people are turning to others as trusted sources of information. That is less and less likely to be the traditional gatekeeper, but it was interesting to hear that Rogers' diffusion of innovation may still have some relevance. Discussing the launch of the Toyota Prius and other issues relating to communicating complex issues (environment, technology, etc), there were evidently still innovators and early adopters who pave the way – and increasingly influence – those who are more cautious and likely to follow.

Tying up all these points, it is clear that as communicators we are faced with many challenges and opportunities – that people are thinking more personally, but trust those they let within their complicated and messy worlds – that they are able to express themselves more and more in visual terms and this is done on a global platform (reaching out to personal networks) at potentially any time of day or night.

So whether you are a quick decider or need someone to help you through your decision process, the chances are, you are no longer reliant on the traditional PR/journalist gatekeeper. Whether or not this closes the door on these occupations is debatable. So what do you think?

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