There's a great discussion going on over at Beth Harte's blog. (Beth is the new gal over at MarketingProfs, although she's hardly a new voice to those of us in the marketing corner of the blogosphere.)
The issue Beth raised, which has brought tons of great comments: Has public relations ever been truly authentic? Beth asks the question from a base of knowledge -- she's worked in marketing communications and she teaches and lectures about p.r.
With the development of social media, "authenticity" in communications has become somewhat of a buzzword. When I first began blogging 2-1/2 years ago, there seemed to be many discussions about the idea of authenticity in conversation (another popular buzzword). Conversation in marketing was between the marketer and its publics and, with the new tools of Web 2.0, there was no longer any excuse for that conversation to be simply a one-way street going from marketer to customers. Web 2.0 made it possible to be truly a two-way dialogue.
My essay in the groundbreaking collaborative book "Age of Conversation" discussed how Web 2.0 simply brings us back to the way business used to be conducted ages ago before the advent of mass media. Sellers did business directly with their customers, one on one, so there was that two-way dialogue. And there was no question of authenticity, because you saw and spoke directly with and shook hands with your vendor or your buyer.
Then, not quite 100 years ago, someone (supposedly Ivy Lee for Ma Bell) had the idea to feed controlled information to the press. He became the first p.r. man. He spoke on behalf of his clients, often putting words in clients' mouths through reporters. That's what he was paid to do.
Was that authentic? Should the CEO of AT&T and Standard Oil and the tobacco companies and countless smaller manufacturers and marketers speak for themselves or, instead, have hired guns to do the talking for them?
Those same questions are now popping up in the dialogue Beth started. Some are saying that today's tools for communication demand that communications be "authentic" and that public relations people shouldn't be speaking for the CEO, but instead should be identified for who they are. Others, including some who obviously work in corporate p.r. departments, are saying most top execs are too busy doing their own work to spend time actually writing their own blogs or Twitter updates. And as one commenter points out, p.r. people get to know, over time, the thinking, positions and even manner of speaking (or writing) of their clients or top executives. The words those p.r. people write or speak can often be considered those of the exec they represent.
Traditional media have been working with p.r. people for decades. Reporters (and their readers) know the quotes in the news releases they get are not necessarily the exact words of the person who is being quoted. Some reporters will clarify that by writing "according to a company news release... or a company spokesperson." The key here is that the words and thoughts, whether directly from the executive being quoted, do represent the company position. They've been cleared, vetted, approved, etc.
Social media and the frequency and immediacy of updates might call for a different set of rules. Actually, the new set of rules might be expected by others using social media. Blogs, Facebook, Twitter are seen by many as more personal -- extensions of the author, a sharing of thoughts and ideas and, unfortunately in the case of Twitter, details of every little thing we are doing or thinking.
The early users of social media have been, for the most part, authentic and have built an atmopshere -- whether real and justified or not -- of authenticity. It is expected that you are who you say you are -- not a ghostwriter or a shill for someone or something else. Some who have been too blatantly commercial have been criticized or even demonized by some of the purists.
My take on all of this in these still early days of this new and developing form of communication?
Public relations has a role to play in social media. If it's done well, it doesn't have to be less than authentic. PR people have been speaking on behalf of their employers for a long long time. Many do it well; some do it terribly.
Just as reporters have come to know which p.r. people they can trust, participants in the social media world will learn which bloggers, Twitterers and whatever else comes along can be trusted to be honest and accurate representers of the companies or organizations they are writing for.
There will be some cheaters and some bad apples along the way, just as in any crowd. Over time, most will be discovered and either outed or ignored.
That's the cool thing about social media. Each of us controls what we see or read. It's not the old days when we were essentally held hostage by the programmers at three networks. We now have immense power in our TV/cable remotes and infintely more in our keyboards or touchpads.