New media causes asymmetric PR

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Do you remember the term ‘asymmetric war’? It’s been around a while but entered our popular lexicon when describing the capabilities of insurgents to resist the efforts of the West in its ‘War on Terror’. In so doing it encapsulates how a militarily disadvantaged yet widespread and interconnected population can employ successful tactics against large, centralised agents bristling with sophisticated weapons and techniques.

Earlier this year I touched on blogging and the war, reporting on the phenomenon of soldiers in Iraq giving often graphic first-hand accounts of their daily lives in a way which the (often necessarily) sanitised mainstream media simply does not. As a counterpart to citizen journalism I coined the phrase martial journalism to describe it, and indicated that no one else had used it at the time (although it now pops up twice – once from me, and once from a strange Russian website, so it looks like I narrowly missed out on being a Googlewhack) . But then no one reads this blog so you all missed out.

Blogs and war. They share properties. Which is why it occurs to me that isn’t our current situation with regards to PR – that we represent or elevate opinions on behalf of our often large corporate clients while coping with a huge weight of opinion distributed among many thousands of bloggers – another example of asymmetry? In which case are we not in an environment of asymmetric PR? This phrase does seem to have been invented already but not exactly in this context.

In directly substituting one term for the other I’m not implying that ‘PR is war’. What I am saying is that the two situations seem to me to be analogous. We’re trying to put out one viewpoint when it is then interpreted, and reacted to, by many separate agents.

If this is the case then can one shed light on the other? It is to be hoped that the US – and the UK – will eventually realise that the conventional military solution just isn’t working, and that they will eventually engage rather than wage (Professor Jeffrey Sachs touches on this subject in the latest of his current brilliant Reith lectures series). Fortunately it seems PR people are a little more sophisticated in their thinking than George W Bush, and so while we haven’t declared a ‘War on Blogging’, we certainly haven’t had the courage to engage yet.

The way forward is to realise and respect the ideas of ‘individuality’ and ‘difference’ – on both our behalfs. While bloggers are largely unaccountable we have to help them understand that they don’t have to constantly criticise and cynicise – there are two sides to every argument and they would do well to realise it. OK, so blogging necessarily, and rightly, involves putting out an often controversial viewpoint but I do think it is almost always negative towards big messages. Sometimes the big messages are valid.

The best way to do this is to join them in dialogue, thereby removing the perceived corporate ‘threat’ that drives the fear that causes this reaction. But dialogue necessarily works both ways. If this is asymmetric PR in action then they must accept the necessity for companies at least to attempt to manage their PR, and that this involves influencing as well as engaging. In turn we must learn that the idea of the big message is being turned on its head: we need to address the many small messages people want to hear.

To complete the war analogy, if Dubya is reading this then the message from PR must be: don’t beat ’em, talk to ’em.


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