Neil Martinson: environmental activists demonstrate the power of digital

There can be little doubt that digital has changed the game in communications. In business it has radically changed the nature of the trading models, in the public sector it is starting to drive down the costs of transactional relationships and opening up data to wider audiences. In PR we have seen some terrific campaigns, like RAF recruitment and T-mobile, where it is completely integrated into campaigns.

Neil Martinson: digital skills
Neil Martinson: digital skills

But there is also an element of the wild-west about digital. Snake oil salesmen promise that their digital gizmo will be the new Holy Grail that will lead us to unique insights that no one else can deliver. Hundreds of digital companies, with suitably quirky names, are bringing new offers to market as quickly as old communications companies are reinventing themselves for the new world disorder. Digital is, to state the obvious, not a static form of technology or relationships. Its evolution continues to surprise even the most accurately prophetic soothsayers.

The numbers are so big that they overwhelm. Every hour more than 50 days worth of video is uploaded to YouTube, every day around 3-5m photo’s go on to Flickr, there are around 300m bloggers in the world and the numbers using Facebook would make it the fourth largest country in the world. Web enabled television will bring thousands of sites into our front-rooms on what is still the most popular platform for most of us. So how do we maximise the power of the web and its limitless choices?

Some of the most interesting lessons come from outside the mainstream. With little money, a lot of people and powerful beliefs, environmental activists have been demonstrating the power of digital as a collaborative tool, a broadcaster, an aggregator of information and organisational tool that challenges many models.

During their action against the coal-fired power station at Ratcliff-on-Soar Nottingham, I logged on to http://climatecamp.org.uk/actions/climate-swoop-2009 to follow the day’s events.

SMS and Facebook were used as mobilising tools, Twitter to provide up to the minute feeds on where the action was alongside an interactive map. Videos and photographs were uploaded in near to real-time, but not live, to provide unmediated reports on what was taking place. In short, it was close to being an alternative news supplier blurring the lines even further between citizen journalism and reportage. User generated content has already changed the nature of newsgathering in providing first-hand accounts into mediated mainstream news providers. But what operations like climate.camp.org does is to provide an alternative news source that is, by definition, authentic but, as in common on the web, without any checks of accuracy and verification. And it ticks more than one box. The content is relevant for its audiences, it provides a means of engagement, it is updated and some of the related videos can be chilling or hilarious. Check out http://www.planestupid.com/polarbears and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f3_CYdYDDpk.

Making the most of digital in public sector PR is an issue I will return to in future articles. In particular, how we need to rethink and reversion our content and its production and the relationship between digital PR and other platforms.

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