Tuesday, March 27, 2012

PR and Collective Action

Photo from What Culture
Many of us are too young to remember when snail mail was the primary method of communication. Many of us remember, but would rather forget, when mobile phones were not ubiquitous and we could only reach our friends when they were at home. None of us wants to think about how hard  it would have been to make plans or as is inevitable, change plans.We struggle to remember how we survived before the internet was so widely available, and soon, we'll find it hard to imagine a world without a Facebook or Twitter-like platform.

This is because one of the benefits of digital media is that they make communication, collaboration and collective action easier. Never before has it been less time consuming or costly to spread the word about anything ranging from  a bake sale to a flash mob or protest. Not only can people and groups organize without formal organizations but they can also do so without an intermediary.
While this would be welcomed by civil society or protest groups, it can cause some problems for companies and organizations who are still trying to get the hang of social media.

Photo from engadget
As Anthony Bradley and Mark McDonald write in this Harvard Business Review article "using social media to accomplish a meaningful purpose involves more than providing new technology and praying for success. Successful mass collaboration places new requirements on an organization, particularly its managers". They note that while many organizations are technically ready for social media,  managers may not yet be ready to embrace new ways of working collaboratively to achieve social success. Managers usually rely on control and .the assertion of authority while social media-based collaboration is most effective when there is no single individual in charge.

Ordinary people, however, seem to understand more fully just how radically digital media have changed the game. According to Clay Shirky in Here Comes Everybody  new tools give life to new forms of action which challenge existing institutions by "eroding the institutional monopoly on large-scale coordination". Shirky notes that geographical location is no longer a hindrance to collaboration  and organizations which saw geography as a core organizing principle are now facing challenges.

Importantly, like the writers mentioned above, Shirky stresses that social tools don't create collective action but simply remove obstacles to it. "Revolution doesn't happen when society adopts new technologies - it happens when society adopts new behaviours," he says.

For me this poses two main questions for PR practitioners: 1. How do we plan strategically for the collective action of consumers or publics when protests/boycotts can be organized so quickly  via social media and 2. How do we get managers to relinquish some of their control in order to fully take advantage of new collaborative technologies?


  1. I think you've raised some very interesting points, Natasha. There is soon going to be an even larger divide between those organizations who are embracing new tech whole-heartedly and those who are not yet willing to change. In order to assist senior leaders in trusting new collaborative technologies, I feel the best way is likely to show the benefit by example. Sometimes it takes actually using or seeing a tool used properly to grasp its intent and how it can help. Doing so in small, but meaningful and strategic measures could be a way to ease the transition. Integrating social media in strategic planning could also lead to its normalization. Autocratic control is going to seem like an antiquated idea as we move further into the future and the workplace is democratized further through the megaphones of social media. There certainly will be a rude awakening if leadership is not prepared to learn about and use the new technology intelligently.

  2. I really like this article as it raises some very interesting points. Digital media is here to stay and utilised in the correct manor is extremely effective. However to answer the question I think we have to go back a stage. The answer for me is at least in theory quiet simple, alignment. In some ways this is the buzz word of the moment, being bandied around by everyone and although people have learned the term they may not really embrace the concept with real understanding. In terms of PR this about our role facilitating a culture for the product rather than just communicating information regarding it. That means genuinely letting your public be involved with the development. That not an excuse not to have a vision, If you have a strong image, brand and a clear vision before you start your emerging publics will already be persuaded to your company thinking and ethos. Their options will strengthen your brand rather than dilute or redirect it. This is easy in a company wear a degree of alignment exits and or when your company is ethical. Less easy in a company that want you to manage the issues rather than resolve them. Company’s such a as red bull who are my favourite example have excellent alignment in the image product and employment. Not only have they grown their own culture they have grown that of the sports they have sponsored. Bringing brand loyalty from customers and the athletes and sports which they sponcer.
    In my experience when a company and the people who work within them struggle over control is usually for two reason power and or accountability. Alignment resolves these issues or at least dilutes them.
    As Blanchard explains, “We’ve been exploring extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation and what we’ve found is that holding people accountable pales in comparison to creating conditions in an organization where people are intrinsically motivated. You cannot crack the whip enough, or hold someone accountable enough, to achieve the kind of results you can if people understand the vision, care about it desperately, and see themselves as a part of it.
    From http://leaderchat.org/2012/04/02/accountability-issues-poor-alignment-might-be-the-real-issue/
    He further states
    “When people understand where their organization is going—including the role they play in it—they step up, work less selfishly and they tend to make better business decisions on behalf of the company. That’s because they can see the impact of every decision and how it impacts overall results.”
    So to summarise
    1 –Culture - building a culture for the product so people genuinely care or feel part of company
    2 – Alignment – if every strand is working together towards the same goal. Their won’t be conflict their will only be progress
    Digital media helps us to grow participants for our company’s culture. It can act like glue or thread linking sections together. At least this is what I would like my role to be achieving. Without alignment we can’t create a culture, we will always be fire fighting and reacting to the company needs rather than strategically manoeuvring forward.