The theme of EuroBlog 2008 held in Brussels in March was ‘Social media and the future of PR’. Helena Makhotlova reports on the conference and the tensions exposed between theory and practice.
There were so many challenging issues raised. How to teach digital natives; the question of anonymity and accountability when blogging; the openness and transparency of public relations; how far can we trust Wikipedia.
One key theme was authenticity, introduced by David Weinberger. How do you assess authenticity in the world of social media? These questions and many more were raised and debated across three days.
Yet the main question remained, as always, unanswered. Where do we go from here? What does social media in the form of blogging, wikis, twittering, social networking, podcasting etc mean for the future of public relations?
I agree with those who argue that public relations is on the brink of a paradigm shift. It’s time to reconsider the Grunigian paradigm in the light of social media and its global usage. After all, the excellence theory has failed to become widely implemented in practice in over 15 years, however appealing it seems to the academics.
If public relations is about building relationships (the definition which prevailed at the conference), then it should be focused on the very relationships, rather then their symmetry. It should focus on culture rather than management, and therefore abandon general rules in favour of an individual approach. If, as Stuart Hall puts it, ‘communication is culture’, it is to culture we should look in seeking clues for future PR strategies.
Social media and mobile technology present a great opportunity for public relations practitioners to foster relationships with their publics through potentially interactive and, most importantly, informal and intimate dialogue. Dialogue doesn’t have to be equal (‘symmetrical’) in order for it to bring mutual benefits. It is this aspect of public relations we should embrace and nurture.
I’m not suggesting we should abandon the past in favour of the hype of the moment. It’s just that when theory starts holding us back, it’s time for some new theory.