Opinion

Everything is PR

Where is the public industry sector headed to? Here Faris Yakob argues there is a paradigm shift in which everything is shifting towards PR.

Let’s start with the obvious but something that’s never stated: this is PR.

I’m writing this article in order to convince you to come to CommsCon because I’m giving the opening keynote. However, this isn’t an advertisement. I didn’t buy my way into your attention through an interruption in other content you wanted to consume. This isn’t a forced exposure so I can’t just say “Come to CommsCon!” (ideally in a clever way with some interesting design concept, a list of speakers and a web address call to action.) I have to earn your attention, hook you with a headline, and then write something that is both worth reading in and of itself and makes you believe that you would be interested in what I’m going to say at the conference. Interested enough that some of you buy tickets to come and find out.

 

I’m going to talk about what I believe is truly a paradigm shift in the world of communications, one that pivots towards public relations. I hesitated to use the term “paradigm shift” because in PR we must choose our words and terms carefully. We want phrases that fly, worm into your ear, stick in your mind, until you find yourself saying them yourself, spreading our message. Homer called these “winged words”. Thomas Kuhn’s “paradigm shift” concept got colonised, bleated by every wannabe TED talker, transformed into buzzshit, used for everything and thus seems to mean nothing. But. We have seen a genuine discontinuity in the past couple of years, the last year even — one that requires us to fundamentally rethink our underlying communication assumptions, which is what Kuhn was talking about. It’s the result of many elements we’ve been talking about for too many years for people to listen. Yes the digital thing changed and keeps changing everything. Media are suddenly digital and infinite.

How am I doing so far? Still paying attention?

In a few short years the mediascape completely flipped, from scarcity to abundance. I remember listening to the radio and once a song was over, it was gone. Three television channels and all that. Previously, to make something public – that is, to publish – was a privileged act. Only the media industrial complex could do it. Publishers had great power because they had exclusive access to the audience that advertisers and politicians needed. Then suddenly anyone could make anything public. The media we used to call ‘social’ let anyone have a voice and swallowed everything into its stream.

We didn’t understand what this meant at first. In the stream everything looks the same. Its normalisation effect meant that suddenly things that weren’t really news looked just like news. Anything and everyone became media, shouting endlessly into the void, millions of words and thoughts screaming for attention, which became suddenly scarce and increasingly valuable.

Attention spans didn’t really get shorter. Ask anyone who says we have shorter attention spans than a goldfish to explain why, every year, in a cyber cafe in Asia, a young person dies from playing online games without eating or sleeping for too long. Or to explain why movies are getting longer. Or to explain what an ‘attention span’ actually even is.

Rather, there is so much stuff, clamouring for that precious attention, which is the fuel that powers the great companies of our time. The company building self driving cars, that gives us free instant access to the world’s information, email, maps – it does it all with a single revenue model: selling our attention to advertisers.

But in this morass, in the noise of everyone shouting over everyone else, certain ideas are percolating. Simple fragments of language, endlessly repeated, nicknames and soundbites, even when they were demonstrably false, got someone the most powerful job in the world. Now we can’t even agree on what is false. All is narrative, everything is up for grabs, the story of humanity is in flux. Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia is a book about the Russian media world and much more.

“Over the last twenty years we’ve lived through a communism we never believed in, democracy and defaults and mafia state and oligarchy, and we’ve realised they are illusions, that everything is PR.

“‘Everything is PR’ has become the favourite phrase of the new Russia,” writes Peter Pomerantsev.

Every action a company takes, every tax avoidance manoeuvre, every word spoken by the CEO, every Tweet he [and, sadly, it’s still almost always a he] sends: Everything is PR. George Orwell said it first; you’ve likely seen this all over the stream: “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is public relations.”

Except Orwell didn’t say it. It’s what I call a ‘fauxtation’, a quote that manifests in culture and gets appended to the most likely famous progenitor. (Many quotes you see online are the same.)

Everything is PR. If we can learn how to navigate through this new environment, see how things are working and see why things have gone so wrong, so quickly, for some brands making offhand comments that ricochet at the speed of Tweets and rebound, reducing share price and sales, and help clients do the same…well. The public is now the media and relating to it is the most important job. Welcome to the new paradigm of public relations.

Faris Yakob [@faris] is the author of Paid Attention and co-founder, with his wife Rosie, of the nomadic creative consultancy Genius/Steals. Subscribe to their newsletter – Strands of [stolen] Genius for brief blasts of inspiration in your inbox [because no one reads long emails] – it was named one of 7 essential newsletters for creatives [Hubspot] and you’ll get a discount code for the conference. [Shhh!]

Faris Yakob is opening Mumbrella’s CommsCon on March 30 in Sydney. To get your tickets or to look at the program click on the banner above.

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