The timeframe of online PR

Just a short article to share some considerations, as I saw that also in my country of birth (Italy) communicating via Internet is becoming an alternative direct-to-the-people-and-bypass-the-media channel.

Certainly inspired by the recent live broadcast and open letter during the discussion of the health reform in the US Congress.

If you are not Italian: I am obviously referring to the press release issued by the Italian President of the Republic, defending his choice to sign the Government decree allowing some politicians from the same political side of the current government to be candidates, despite having failed to present the appropriate documentation in due time.

But I saw a similar issue few elections ago: each Italian political party posted online a detailed program- I will let you judge if they did what they had promised (see http://www.dirittodivoto.com).

If you want- it all boils down to your definition of “audience”- and your understanding of they communication dynamics in each channel.

What is an audience?

Let’s make it simple: a group of people assembling to listen to somebody else.

Usually, between the one(s) communicating and the one(s) receiving the message there is a communication medium- be it air (face-to-face communication), some form of broadcasting (radio, TV, YouTube), paper, or any other medium yet to be invented.

You would not expect to communicate on paper the same way you communicate on TV, don’t you?

And, usually, people are getting used to the idea that YouTube is not TV-on-the-Net (as you can see comments, associated video rebuttals, votes, and so on- instantaneously and unfiltered).

And Twitter is not your usual one-liner, as it stays on forever- and, again, can be twisted and morphed and referenced in ways that you would never expect.

And Facebook is not just a XXI poster- mismanage your wall, join the wrong groups, allow the wrong people to post comments on your comments, and part of your audience will assume that you share views that you do not share.

Is this Web 2.0? Yes- but while most professional communicators that came to the Internet from old media (paper, TV, radio) learn the differences, they keep the same “static” or “controlled environment” approach to communication.

I do not mean PR companies (albeit some seem stuck in 1950s when it comes to media planning).

I mean visible people who “monetize” their visibility- from politicians, to CEOs, to whoever needs to be visible.

It is funny to see the band-wagon effect, with everybody jumping online not with a communication plan, but with “initiatives”- uncoordinated bursts of communication, followed by silence or, sometimes, frantic attempts at detracting, diverting, influencing unexpected and undesired feed-back.

Usually- with the same crisis management strategies used pre-Internet.

Why? Because they focus on the “technical” aspect of online PR: get a Facebook fan page, create a twitter, a website, a ning community, and so on.

And while the “technical” side knows that communication online is a continuum, not a series of events, often the people setting up the communication strategy see Internet channels as just one more channel to be planned.

I wrote channels- because each of the sites that I listed has a different communication approach- and timeframe for communication.

Therefore, Internet is not a single channel- but a “cloud” of channels reinforcing each other, where the communication density increases in geometric progression.

If you are a politician using TV, you have somebody in your staff, or in your PR agency, who knows how to manage and communicate via that channel- ditto for newspapers.

“Media planning” works fine with “static” channels, that are controlled and monitored by professionals who have a vested interest in keeping good relationships with all the parties involved, and work on a scheduled allocation of the available broadcasting time (or printing space).

The online audience has endless time and infinite resources- and the planning evolves as a consensus building effort.

Unfortunately, this implies that the more negative the response, the more people will add their own resources (see http://www.tell3000.com/ ).

If you decide to go online- then, you have to understand the basics of the medium, as you understand the basics of writing a “contribution” for a newspaper, or looking in the camera when on TV, avoiding to jumps up and down or move as you could freely do on radio.

On the Internet, my provocation is: you should rather stay off than go on with “old” approaches.

If you recognize that you cannot go online and communicate following the timeframe of each channel, it is probably better to find fans who go online on your behalf, and have access to your “traditional” communication staff.

Why? Because they will eventually write something that is not exactly what you wanted- but chasing them would only alienate them- and get a negative snow-ball effect.

Moreover- if you get them on your staff, they will naturally try to have the communication fill their timeframe, and you will risk diverting resources as if you were communicating in a controlled environment.

Instead, keeping them inside but outside will allow them the freedom to communicate according to the communication format of their own channel.

And this is not really something new.

If you want- football clubs have been working with their fun clubs in the same way for ages.

The approach? Separating the forming of the message from the distribution.

And considering that with some channels probably the way to deliver the message cannot and should not be controlled- and therefore cannot be “outsourced” to professional, but should be “franchised” to enthusiasts.

Will the professional communicators be marginalized? Actually, their role would be reinforced.

To Monitor the channels and spot new trends, and to help you shape and evolve the communication strategy.

While resisting the temptation to bring into their corporate fold the operation of each new channel.

Usually, they hire two years later somebody for something (s)he did before… on a channel that has already evolved beyond recognition.

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