As we get ready to meet at the end of the month in New York for the Digital Impact Conference, I thought I’d share with you my thoughts on what I think is the biggest challenge for public relations professionals regarding digital communications today. Of course, this naming of “biggest” is a judgment call at best, and therefore open to debate, but I’ll take a stab at it anyway!
I have been active in the world of digital communications for years, focusing most recently on how organizations can successfully use emerging social media tools such as blogs, social networks, communities and so on. I guess you could call me fluent in the language of digital communications. And yet, I often feel as if I am drowning in that selfsame world. There are so many tools, and so many ways of using them, that the complexities of it all can be overwhelming. And this is what leads me to claim that the biggest challenge facing us in digital communications is simply keeping up with it all.
The challenge I am describing here is many-layered.
First, we must teach ourselves about the tools themselves: what they are and how they work. But it goes much further than that. It has become common for the various social media platforms to interact with each other, giving us the ability to aggregate all of our different digital personas, activities, etc., into one “lifestream,” visible to all, should we choose to make it so. This is also true for brands. So not only do we need to understand each of the tools themselves, we need to understand what happens at the intersection points of the tools. With new tools being introduced all the time, simply keeping up with the technology is a major challenge.
Second, these new tools don’t usually come with instructions on how to use them appropriately. The behaviors, the norms and the (eventually) written rules are created by the users of the tools as they use them. I have seen the same pattern again and again. A new tool is introduced and early adopters jump in. If it is useful and interesting, more and more users come onboard, attracting brands. Then the brands get involved, frequently in a clumsy, overbearing manner as they themselves try to figure out what their own behaviors should be, and often in the face of hostility as the original community of users deplores the invasion of commercialism into their little fiefdoms. Some brands adopt the tool successfully and receive positive press. The mainstream arrives and the early adopters, finding a new place to play, move on. This learning-by-experimentation, often in the face of skepticism and outright distrust, is another major challenge.
In addition, while we are figuring out the tools, and the appropriate ways to use them, we also have to be keeping up-to-date on how our target audiences — our stakeholders — are participating online. To put it in the terms of the book Groundswell, we have to understand the social technographics of our audiences, as well as the usual demographics and psychographics. Furthermore, people’s behaviors don’t remain static, but are also evolving, often more rapidly than we can imagine. Digital communications gives us the ability to forge new kinds of relationships with our publics, but those publics, and the very nature of the relationships themselves, are moving targets.
Even the meanings of the various terms we use are changing in the face of digital communications. What is a relationship? How can we enter, nurture, sustain them? What is loyalty? Can it be measured? Can a brand be authentic? How much transparency is too much? We have to go back to the beginning and rethink everything in order to be successful in developing digital communications strategies. But this must be a dynamic rethinking, always contingent in the face of continuous change.
Today, professional communicators need to be be theorists and scholars, technicians and designers, strategists and tactical whizzes. We must be open-minded, humble, at ease with change and enthusiastic about the future (with a healthy dose of skepticism thrown in). And these paragons that we wish we were — that we strive to be — must always fight against this sinking feeling of being overwhelmed. Because, of course, we can’t keep up with it all. We cannot control this vast ocean of communicative possibility we swim in. All we can do is seek that elusive state of flow that allows us to make the judgment calls we need to make, to make the decisions required of us in an ethical manner. All we can do is do the best we can, and try to enjoy the process!
Control is gone. (If, indeed, we ever had it.) Today we need a new paradigm of thinking about communications. This paradigm is in the process of being created by us via our actions, our sharing, our community. I look forward to continuing the conversation in New York!
By Elizabeth Albrycht is a 17-year veteran of high technology public relations practice, with an expertise in participatory communications and social media garnered over the past several years as an independent consultant for European and U.S.-based clients. She is a founding advisory board member and member of the research, best practices and education committees for the Society for New Communications Research, and a co-founder of the New Communications Forum, a conference series designed to bring journalists and marketing and public relations professionals together to learn how to use participatory communications tools. She has authored multiple articles on blogging, RSS and other new tools for industry trade publications, and has presented teleseminars and in-person seminars on new communications tools for PRSA and other organizations. She blogs about public relations and corporate communications at CorporatePR and twitters at www.twitter.com/ealbrycht. Elizabeth is currently lecturing at the Institut Supérieur de Communication (ISCOM) and the Paris Business School in Paris, France, and is a doctoral student at the European Graduate School.
Join Albrycht at the Digital Impact Conference: Social Media PR Strategies / Build Your Business and Brand, Thursday, April 30–Friday, May 1, 2009, in New York, NY!