The 21st Century Media (R)EVOLUTION: Emergent Communication Practices
by Jim Macnamara
410 pages, Peter Lang, 2010
This scholarly book is an important – but complex – contribution to the literature on PR and social media. So let’s start by unpicking the book’s title.
Macnamara tries to steer a course between the utopians heralding a major media revolution and the dystopians who see declining standards all around them. Hence the ambivalence over whether new media should be considered revolutionary or evolutionary. Then there’s the concept of emergence: as he explains it, ‘some media and systems of communication are mutating, becoming self-organizing, and evolving into wholly new forms… Emergent media owe as much to chaos theory as to evolutionary systems theory’.
The cited example of emergent media is simple enough: the unanticipated rise of text messaging on mobile phones. Then the author complicates it by saying the trend emerged ‘because of a ground-up bifurcation led by teenagers’. The author is a professor of public communication – and his desire to profess to his academic peers is evidently more powerful than his desire to communicate to the general reader. This book belongs on the media studies shelf in university libraries and will be read with most enthusiasm by research academics.
8 Cs of emergent media
He begins with an analysis of types of media, and a discussion on the appropriateness of such a time-bound term as ‘new media’. The author finds ‘social media’ ambiguous and problematic, but he’s happy with ‘interactive’ and ‘participatory’.
He finds that public communication practices are characterised by: ‘connectivity, communication, community, creativity and co-creativity, collaboration exploiting… collective intelligence and conversation.’
What follows is a sophisticated but indigestible review of the sociology of media consumption and identity before a succession of chapters addressing the future. There’s a chapter on the future of mediated politics (containing a discussion of Habermas’s concept of the public sphere); a chapter on the future of journalism (including analysis of the influence of PR on journalism and of the rise of citizen journalism); one on the future of advertising (including paid search) and another on future media business models.
The future of public relations
In chapter nine, 300 pages in, we reach the chapter on the future of public relations.
While advertising is mostly monologue and is increasingly unable to reach into many emergent media environments, public relations has unparalleled opportunities to help organizations align with the public interest, build relationships, establish goodwill for brands, and ensure sustainability to facilitating conversations and dialogue between organizations and their publics. But there is an urgent need for public relations to rethink its methods and practices and commit to openness, authenticity, and conversations which lead to true dialogue and relationships, rather than distributing packaged imagery.
‘It is time to open the floodgates of information and let it flow both ways and find its level’, he writes. ‘Ethical effective organizations have little to fear and much to gain’.
Macnamara envisages a new paradigm of public relations ‘in which centralized control paradigm ‘gatekeeper’ units are dismantled and replaced by professional communicators acting as advisers, trainers and facilitators of communication’.
In the conclusion, Macnamara offers 10 maxims of modern media. These are good. To pick just two, ‘there is no mass audience and, in reality, there never was’; and ‘networks are people – not technology’.
In such a precise academic book as this, the presence of glaring mistakes is surprising. We’re told that Shel Holtz wrote Twitterville (it was Shel Israel); and that Max Aitkin became Lord Beaverbrook (he was Max Aitken); we’re told, admiringly, that changes can be made to Wikipedia in ‘days if not hours’; the film of the novel becomes meaningless when called ‘Thank You For Not Smoking’.
Yet in admiring Macnamara and applauding his wide reading (this book has 44 pages of references), a question comes to mind. What can explain the strength of public relations and public communication scholarship in Australia (and also New Zealand)? I’ll leave the final word to the author: ‘Australia is an ideal test-bed for research in this field having among the world’s highest per capita usage of computers and broadband internet connection combined with a small population spread over vast distances, which makes electronic communication highly relevant and even essential.’