Roughly once a year, The Economist manages to enrage the PR profession.
Last week's screed on the "reputation management industry" provoked a response from Bjorn Edlund on the Page Society's Page Turner blog. Edlund is Edelman's EMEA chairman, formerly EVP of communications at Royal Dutch Shell, and one of my all-time favorite industry commentators. Not only is he a marvelous writer (check out Page's archived columns on Davos 2011 for a truly entertaining read), but he also resists the low-hanging outrage that is the default for some PR blogs.
"The Economist didn't do a very good job with this analysis," Edlund wrote. "Which reminds me of what a renowned expert in macroeconomics recently said to me about the magazine: 'Like many other deep experts who have spent decades in a field, I read The Economist with great admiration until it writes about my subject. Then I cringe at how superficial it really is - albeit perhaps at a higher level than most other publications.'
The Economist will survive and thrive, no doubt, but the commentary resonates beyond its intended target. The problem with talking about superficiality is it eats at your own fears. Many of us, toiling in the hyper-content, 140-character world, worry that we are compromising by increments every day.
Communicators have for many years struck a balance between the fast-paced, global 24/hour news cycle and the priority for companies to investigate, authenticate, and verify facts and position. Though no organization is perfect, control of at least outgoing information is critical, and many companies are well-equipped to respond to blabbermouths, opinionators, and whistleblowers with authority, if not always perfect transparency. They manage corporate news and product launches within the full-range of checks and balances.
But a new, critical layer has emerged in the PR mix that has different demands. As previously noted in this blog, content creation is giving communicators new leverage in organizations and the marketing mix. As channels and topics proliferate, and content strategy grows even more sophisticated, organizations may be lured into areas of seemingly great reward, without the qualifying expertise to make an impact.
We already see how even the most prestigious media brands can bow to the lowest common denominator for the sake of online traffic and buzz. For organizations becoming media companies in their own right, the expected ROI is even greater. The pressures to deliver for sales, HR, customer service, and other functions in a literal and tangible way could lead to more results-oriented content that doesn't serve the organization, and could even do damage to the reputation that The Economist is so skeptical of.
This is not to cast doubt on the future of PR and content, but rather an acknowledgement that no revolution comes without adjustment and some painful lessons. Content continues to be a most compelling focus for the future of the profession. But communicators must not, in the heat of its growth, lose that noble and necessary trait of probing, verifying, and challenging. The question mark is probably the least-used punctuation in media today, social and otherwise. PR leaders should never forget where it is on the keyboard.