This statement is the 26th theses in the Cluetrain Manifesto, published a decade ago and the subject of the celebratory cluetrainplus10 project, which involves 95 bloggers conversing on the anniversary: 28 April 2009.
The heart of this ground-breaking text is the idea of the Internet enabling human conversations and promoting a market of “fabulous stories” told by authentic voices. That sounds like the natural home of PR to me – so why is this thesis the only one that references public relations, and even then, in critical terms?
Like many pioneers of the social development of online communications, one of the authors of Cluetrain Manifesto had poor experiences of PR as “hucksterism”; pitching journalists in the hunt for free editorial. And, as a result of this perspective, he stated:
That’s how I discovered PR doesn’t work and that markets are conversations
My own experience of public relations is not one of command and control, and indeed, I always understood the role of the PR team to be about having conversations and building personal relationships.
Even if you believe PR is solely about press relations, the clue is in the name – which is a useful reminder that generating media coverage is a partnership and not a right.
I started teaching public relations around the same time that Cluetrain was published, which was when I first began to think about the other word – public. It is evident to me that public relations must relate to the public – or publics to be accurate.
The term, public, has many interesting dimensions:
- the community or wider public, as understood by “the public good”
- open to scrutiny, that is the opposite to private
- the consequence of discussion and feedback, evidenced in public opinion
- a group of people with a common interest, such as the reading public
Within the PR literature, the term publics is also used specifically, notably by Grunig, who back in 1978, drew on the work of Dewey, Blumer and other early 20th century writers, to identify how publics organise around problems that affect them.
As such, it is imperative that an organisation communicates with not at people who can affect or who are affected by its operations. This presents a clear societal context for public relations to ensure that organisations understand their responsibilities and how they need to engage with publics to achieve strategic aims.
That may be achieved by generating relevant media coverage – but that editorial needs to relate to the public.
Sadly, too often what we see of PR, ironically more so in this age of social networks, is a failure to relate to the public. There is far too much hucksterism and pitching of pretty poor ideas that seek only to achieve coverage (online or offline) regardless of whether or not this is relevant to a public.
So does this prove that “companies are deeply afraid of their markets”?
David McKie and colleagues believe the PR field has not explicitly met the challenges presented by the 26th thesis. Alex Hillman sums up the fear as companies being “petrified” by what others have to say about them.
Ged Carroll criticises the reluctance of PR professionals to engage with research and measurement. Indeed, not engaging with the data, implies that PR practitioners are not interested in hearing what others say and that any efforts at influencing are predicated entirely on shouting at the other party.
Yes, a lot of PR folk seem stuck in the press agentry rut of spamming out one-sided messages and unfortunately, these practitioners only see social media as another “channel” open to corporate manipulation.
But this type of spinning is increasingly revealed as pointless and stuck on the spot instead of progressing the aims of organisations, through genuine relationships.
Over the last decade, the ideas of Cluetrain Manifesto and strategic public relations have begun to be proven in practice. I’ve seen this in my own 10 years of teaching where ideas that students used to find idealised are now thought of as common sense.
It is only by public relations relating to the public that companies can move beyond being deeply afraid of their markets. Instead of acting as a gate-keeper, PR must open the door and facilitate the human conversations and “fabulous stories” that it, above all other functions, is able to discuss in authentic voices.