Mark Lowe, Third City: Consumer PR must refocus

The social media revolution has overreached itself and we have lost focus on the consumer.

Nowadays, I find it hard to have a conversation where I don't talk about 'having a conversation'. Where we once had audiences, we now have 'communities' and I reckon there must be ten different words for 'engagement'. That's why I smile whenever I read a survey saying the industry is not 'engaging' with social media. Most of us cannot un-engage with it - or at least, we can't stop talking about it.

I am not immune to this myself, but it has reached the point where we have hammered the social media buzz words so much they're starting to lose their meaning. Neuroscientists call this behaviour 'semantic satiation'. It's something that marketers are particularly prone to when a shiny new thing comes along. There's a good reason for this - the marketing zeitgeist sells. Forget for a moment whether or not we feel that social technology is a game-changer. Right now the 'social media' package is what clients want to buy. And that's why agencies of every discipline want a piece of it.

So why shouldn't agencies talk about social media like they are going out of fashion, if that's what clients want to hear? Well, partly because as a result of this behaviour, they are. Read the marketing press and you can whiff a backlash in the air. People are starting to say that the 'power of the social network' was all talk. Where once Old Spice was the future, now Pepsi Refresh proves that the social media revolution has over-reached itself.

You can sense the same frustration in Dell's Stuart Handley when he complains that the media treat 'Dell Hell' as if it were the 'starting point for everything'. In truth, it was an unfortunate episode that enabled the company to re-engage with the thing that made it successful in the first place - listening to its customers and giving them what they wanted. Technology played a role in that realisation, for sure, but Dell's problem was more a tired product and message than it was a new medium, social or not.

As Handley rightly says, listening did not start with the advent of the social web. Listening has been going on for as long as we've had ears. Social technology may well have increased the speed and reach of our interactions, but in many ways it takes us back, rather than forward; back to a simpler time when information was communicated from person to person, unmediated by newspapers or TV.

That's why it is dangerous for us to get too fixated on the 'technology' in 'social'. Of course, it is important to understand how platforms work, but sometimes their very 'newness' can force consumer PR to lose what should be its central focus - the consumer. If we're going to get obsessed with something, it should be with how people think and behave, not least because if the 'social age' has done anything, it is to elevate the importance of individual over mass communication.

That's why consumer PR needs to refocus. We need to move away from a 'media-centric' approach to communication, where the means of transmission becomes more important than the message being transmitted. New technology should be recognised for what it is - an amazing tool that enables us to facilitate connections as old as humanity itself.

And we should not assume that, just because the technology exists, we need to retro-fit it to every campaign we create.

Our strength as PR practitioners has always been in understanding a message - not just how it begins under controlled circumstances, but how it evolves when it enters the public sphere. If you get the message bit wrong, then you're really in trouble. If you want to see how, just take a look at Nick Clegg's Facebook page.


Which consumer trends (social, economic or political) are having the greatest influence on your current campaigns?

The two key issues of the moment are declining trust in brands and institutions and increasing concern about personal privacy. To a degree, the two things tie together, not least because they are both being driven by advances in technology. Interestingly, technology and the openness it brings also gives us the best opportunity to address and eventually overcome them.

To which three consumer brands are you most personally loyal?

The Economist, Apple and APC.

Mark Lowe is a co-founder at Third City

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