Digital Essays: Waggener Edstrom - The perils of the digital sea

Integration is the key to the digital age. But new media resemble the Titanic - surrounded by dangerous icebergs.

The explosion of channels available in our digital age seems to engender enthusiasm and panic in equal measure in PR circles. Both reactions are understandable, but the latter less so.

What happens again and again after the formulation of a traditional media campaign is that somebody says 'we'd better do something online, too'.

Then panic sets in. Someone is bound to suggest blogging, someone else brings up viral elements and yet another mentions mobile phone channels. The brief is then dumped as a fait accompli on a digital services team that is asked to add the latest digital PR buzzwords. Any guess what's wrong with this picture?

A campaign that addresses new media near the end of the creative process is rather like building a boat and wondering if it is watertight as it rolls down the slipway. Failing to establish the best use of these channels is also a terrible waste of their true potential. I'm not saying that online methods are better or worse than offline. I'm questioning why so many agencies choose to differentiate between them. Neglecting digital solutions at the outset of campaign planning smacks of Luddism.

The truth is that the cosy old-media oligopoly doesn't exist anymore. In the 'good old days,' a campaign was a one-way process. Then along came technologies that allowed interactivity; consumers could respond and campaigns became two-way. Now interactivity (and democracy) has proliferated with technology and campaigns can take on a life of their own as consumers pick up product stories and take action. We shouldn't see this as a threat, or even as an inconvenience. We should see it as a massive opportunity.

Digital solutions such as web search, social media, RSS and other aids offer the opportunity to interact with consumers at the exact moment of interest, while consumers get the information they need when they want it.

But the multidirectional, multidimensional nature of the new media space means agencies must engage with consumers as equals rather than as subjects. The keys are honesty, transparency, accountability and availability. Stonewalling, silence or disengagement are no longer options: if you don't join in the debate, you can be drowned by it. Business news this summer has shown how a company's reputation can disintegrate if it tries to ride out a media storm by battening down the hatches.

In embracing these tools, however, we must recognise they aren't toys. Start a blog that lacks sincerity and awareness of your objectives - and consumers will smell a rat. Give up the blog when your interest wanes - and your credibility sinks. A cautionary tale for those wishing to use digital media: Tom Coates, one of the UK's most prominent bloggers, has recently launched a blistering attack on those who try to exploit the space. Influential bloggers are just that - influential - so we must treat them with respect.

We need to go back to the basics of PR 101: what are we trying to achieve? Our first task is to identify our audience; then we can tailor effective messages. Only after that should we look at the tools available. If the channel doesn't work for the message, throw it out. Before a company agonises over its blog, it should ask if it really needs one.

There are an estimated one billion internet users and 2.4 billion mobile phone users worldwide, 60 per cent of them in the developing world. That is one big marketplace - and not one to be dealt with by bolting on ad hoc solutions.

The online revolution should make us refocus on what we do. Look at any definition of PR and you'll not find any mention of 'marketing'. Marketing is an outcome, not a component, of PR; our first duty is to engage and earn the trust of consumers. Digital integration can help us develop coherent campaigns and mutually beneficial relationships.

But a word of caution: traditional media can be seen as the part of an iceberg that is visible above the water. But the bulk of the modern media iceberg, new media, lies beneath the surface - and it can do the real damage. Just ask the captain of the Titanic.

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