Over the past year there has been much talk of war between advertising, PR and digital agencies over the digital space. If there is a war, then it is one that is waiting to be won by PR, but not before it fully embraces some fundamental principles that are being defined by a group that doesn't even know it's involved: the consumer.
Before I go on, let me rewind. Fifteen years ago, when I started my career in interactive media, we were already social on Internet Relay Chat, and we were already sharing on Bulletin Board Systems. With hindsight, it all resonated with a profound desire to define ourselves outside the confines of mass media and to find some deeper identity and authenticity, whether we realised it or not. You can apply the same analysis to the phone phreakers of the 60s and 70s, and all the way back to the printing-press pamphleteers of the 19th century. Give people the tools and they will use them in ways we never anticipated, and in today's exciting and accelerated times, when access to the tools is ubiquitous, this is being demonstrated by a staggering range of phenomena from Justin Bieber to the Arab Spring.
So what is this telling us? That the foundations have been laid for generations, the change has been incremental, but the genie is now well and truly out of the bottle. It's no revelation that consumers are now the curators of their own media. They relentlessly broadcast, remix, rate and share across a dizzying array of platforms. But today's sophisticated consumer is really only driven by one thing: the desire to define Brand ME.
Brand ME is the constructed persona that one projects through the friends that one has, the brands that one likes and the content that one produces. This guiding principle is what is shaping the complex new ecosystems that we must navigate. It's not about technology, which is simply often the facilitator; it isn't about 'digital', a term so generic that it lacks any concrete meaning, and it isn't about 'social media', which have always existed in one form or another.
What does this all mean for the PR industry and the aforementioned war? Without wishing to generalise, there are two types of foot soldiers who are in danger of losing the war for us. There are the 'duck and cover' traditionalists who can't see past the technology and marginalise digital. Then there are the 'shock and awe' gurus who dazzle us with jargon that's entirely focused on the here and now.
But there is a third contingency: the 'keep calm and carry on' system thinkers. They are the ones who can step back and clearly see the patterns, the links and the geometry in this unfolding conundrum, the ones who think in terms of trends, not fads, and in terms of behaviour, not technology.
It may be a bitter pill to swallow for any industry that is built on specialists to accept that it is the generalists who will inherit, but these are the people who need to be identified and nurtured within a PR consultancy. It's a strategy we are adopting at Grayling that is paying dividends as clients increasingly turn to us to handle their entire digital strategy as part of a singular transmedia approach.
There will always be a role for specialists, of course, but the consultancy of tomorrow will be skewed towards system thinkers who understand that, if you look at the bigger picture and if you put the concept of Brand ME at the heart of everything, then all else falls into place, revealing that within the complexity there is actually a calm and reassuring simplicity. Follow their mantra and the war is won.
VIEWS IN BRIEF
Do you see a distinction between your personal and professional use of social media?
The advent of Facebook lists and Google+ Circles means that you can now deliver your multiple personas through one platform, deciding who sees what and building one carefully managed master-brand ME. That's the theory anyway but you won't catch me doing it.
Which film title best sums up the spirit of your agency?
The World Is Not Enough. It sums up our ambition, global outlook and the fact that our approach to digital means we have the world at our fingertips.
From PRWeek's Digital thought leader supplement November 2011