Adrian Monck links to a piece by Eli Noam 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. David Phillips 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.