It's a story as old as innovation itself: Change is evolutionary, not revolutionary, at first.
The first cars went where horses did, only quicker. The first word processors did what typewriters did, only easier. And the first wave of digital communications technology did what print and broadcast media had done - share information - only faster and farther.
At first, in other words, new technologies usually enhance the performance of existing tasks - no small feat, but not revolutionary, either. The real revolution comes when people use the new technologies not to improve existing tasks, but to create new possibilities.
PR caught the first wave, the adoption of new technology to spread information. We showed how it no longer makes sense to send a message to the many to persuade the few. But that first wave, sharing information with more segmented audiences, is cresting. A new one, a fundamental transformation of communication from information to advocacy, is rising.
Individuals looking for news, information, and cues are relying less on institutions and more on one another. The technology may accelerate, but the human scale transforms. And personal interaction is a place where values - and responsibility - matter more. Three game-changers show why:
First, news media aren't dictating the "news" anymore. Instead of merely accepting traditional media from conventional sources, people are turning to one another for information and validation.
Forrester used a Google search on the world's 20 largest brands to prove the point: Less than 20% of search results were linked to the companies themselves. About half were related to experts, the media, and other sources. The remaining - and growing - 26% came from consumer-generated sources, such as blogs and product reviews.
As individuals take control, they are demanding more, which brings us to the second game-changer: "Pull" now trumps "push." Amid information overload, pushing messages is not enough. We need to pull people toward the ideas we want to convey in a true exchange. What's required is engagement.
As consumers, individuals are looking for deeper total experiences delivered by companies that share their values. And values are something only personal engagement can convey.
The need for personal engagement helps explain the third game-changer: the law of the few. Initial forecasts said new media would produce isolation, not interaction. As it turns out, people may not have as many close acquaintances, but they have multiple core ties to others they turn to and confide in. In this networked society, individuals don't take their cues from centralized, institutionalized experts. They come from influencers, connectors, bloggers, activists, and simply anyone willing to stand on top of a soapbox to voice their opinion, virtually or otherwise.
As the game changes, so must the PR profession. Rather than pushing information for our clients, we need to engage individuals as advocates. In its strongest form, advocacy forges emotional bonds and higher levels of involvement.
PR's new mission must be to move people faster to this highest form of loyalty - advocacy - and at Weber Shandwick, we've adopted this goal. We are researching how best to mobilize advocates early on in the decision process. We are investing in new ways to sustain and build advocates as the core foundation of any client's ongoing marketing communications program.
The world's strongest brands have grasped this potential. The PR industry must, too. The first technological wave has crested. The second, the use of information to transform individuals into advocates, is rising. We can catch it, or it can crash over us. That is, of course, no choice at all. It's a necessity - and, more important, an opportunity - to lead. That's why advocacy must start here.
Jack Leslie is chairman of Weber Shandwick.