Internet, democracy and public relations

links to a piece by  regarding the Internet and democracy.  This raises some very interesting points, including the observation that because such new media benefits individuals or groups, does not mean it has value to society as a whole.

At present, the ease and low cost of “user generated content” appears to open up the public sphere for wider debate.   claims that much of PR practice is being replaced by a “massive ‘Citizen Public Relations’ (CPR) sector”.

New media has also challenged the traditional role of public relations as “command and control”, but supports its role in managing relationships in a more equal society (a two-way symmetric approach).

But Eli Noam questions whether more sophisticated video and multimedia messaging will replace low-budget efforts.  This would support the more “marketing” oriented side of communications where resources can out-power citizen journalism/PR.

Also, Noam observes the current online audience is not actually reflective of wider society and attention is being directed towards this sector comes at the expense of others, whose voices still remain excluded from the debate.  

As most public relations practitioners already know when looking at online media, the volume of informatoin available is unmanageable.  Noam argues this means messages will need to be louder to get attention, leading to increasing distortion and simplistic communications rather than informed debate.  Again, this panders to those in public relations who engage in superficial “creative” press agentry or propaganda.

Noam also questions the benefits of the elimination of “gatekeepers” in the communication process, arguing that:

“screening and organising information also helps audiences. When information comes unfiltered, it overwhelms and leads to the creation of rumour, disinformation and last-minute political ambush.” 

For public relations practitioners, it might seem attractive to avoid the filter of journalists – but can we cope with the resulting cacophony and won’t other “influencers” emerge?  Does it suit us to have an audience that is overwhelmed by communication clutter?  How will we communicate with people who can select whatever informaiton they like to support their viewpoint?

Any belief that audiences can communicate direct with those in power is also questioned by Noam who observes that few messages will get through to officials and the flood of messages will actually increase the power of those who can provide access.  That could mean a role for public relations as powerbrokers – with another role in manipulating “public opinion”:

“Not to mention the fact that apparent outpourings of public opinion can be mass-produced. Instead of grass roots, technology can end up creating political astroturf.”

It is useful to consider whether technology does actually deliver a more open society – it certainly has potential to enable more voices to be heard.  Whether this potential can be realised is another question – and an important one at this stage in the digital age. 

Critical perspective theorists believe public relations has predominantly worked to maintain the existing framework of power and control in society.  From this viewpoint, public relations practitioners will undoubtedly seek to adapt the new media to suit their own purposes and those of their clients.

But that doesn’t support a more ethical reputation for public relations.  David Phillips argues that to address such concerns, public relations practitioners need to be empowered to “change the very nature (and values) of organisations.”

There seems a real tension here between those who will seek to control the new communication channels and others who believe there is a real opportunity here to change society. 

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

3 thoughts on “Internet, democracy and public relations”

  1. Wonderful… Critical perspective theorists will keep trying. I think that the issue of filters is interesting. Jonathan Ziffran thinks we are already doing it with things like spam filters and security software on computers as well as firewalls etc. In a way he is right. People and companies block out much that we do not like and pretend it’s not there. The reality is different. It is there and it does not go away. The brand and corporate values continues to be in play among interested actors except those command and controll people face away from the fact.

    Then there are the filters that allow the BIG GUNS of marketing to continue to scream their ‘messages’. Yes, consumer block them out too when they get in the way of the Cluetrain conversation.

    Is there too much information. Only for those people who take a superficial view. The actualitie is that people remain inside quite small groups and information cocoons online and listen to the few they trust. The filter is the network at work. The Internet is not a mass medium, it is a network of networks. The nexus of the network is not the ‘A’ lister, it is the individual at the center of the group (a person/organisation with most convergent values among observers and actors) at a moment in time. A very hard concept for marketing theorists to understand.

    The audience does not need help. They already are helping themselves. The presumption is interesting. I hear the voices offering an entity which claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of Internet force … very Weber.

    The other point is that if the message is worthy it will have ‘pullability’ and if not its just hype, bling or spin and 1 billion people will act as a filter. The penalty for astroturf is not a CIPR code of conduct, it is cyber-bloodletting when a truth is revealed.

    The transition is well underweigh and has been progressive for about 8 years. What most corporate people do not want to see is that traditional web sites are of declining interest and compared to social media dreary.

    I think we should also be wary of believing that this is two-way symmetric approach. Just being allowed into the multi-directional conversation is a win in itself. The conversations go on with or without despite and inspite of ‘dominant coalition’ involvement.

    This is not about communication, it is about relationships which use communication. PR is lost if it thinks its about communication. Today everyone can communicate – most choose not to – big deal huh!

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