Friday, February 23, 2007

Convergence of Media and Communications

I went to an Arthur Page Society event in New York this week at which the discussion focused on whether or not there was a difference between PR and advertising in the digital age. No conclusion was reached, but several interesting issues were raised. First, there continues to be a conflict between the interests and perspectives of corporate communications and marketing public relations. The former is focused on protecting the reputation of the firm, while the latter is focused on selling products. Second, there is a continuing concern about the loss of truth in the media because blogs have no editorial scrutiny. Third, there is an increase in the number of chief marketing officers and/or closer work between PR and advertising.

The digital age has not created the conflict between corporate PR and marketing PR. There has always been a strain between the broad interests of the corporation as a whole and the more narrowly focused interests of product groups. Corporate communications needs to worry about a larger number of stakeholders than does marketing PR, and thus there is often a need to provide a more cautious approach.

In terms of less truth in the media, this one is a bit troubling to me. There is an old cliche that truth in the news was what Walter Cronkite used to say it was. People may have judged Cronkite as being truthful. We need to understand that truth is and always has been in the mind of the receiver. Cronkite might have been the real source of truth, or it may have been that there were fewer sources of information at the time.

Bias has always been present in the news media. As David Brinkley once said, "bias is anything I don't agree with". Today, we have Fox News, which many people would consider conservatively biased, claiming that it is the only source of unbiased news available. To those who share Fox's biases, they are indeed unbiased and more truthful than the major news outlets.

What do we say to those who look to blogs for their sources of information and believe them to be more truthful than traditional media? Do we tell them that they are not receiving truthful information? There are totally biased, untruthful blogs, just as there have been totally untruthful newspapers in U.S. history. Pravda, the famous Russian newspaper, means "truth" in Russian. It could make that claim because it controlled information available to the citizens of the former Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union collapsed, so did control of information.

We have lost control of information and the license to publish. These used to be in a few hands. The Internet has put them in the hands of anyone and everyone. The rule now is "caveat emptor", but has it not always been the case?

I am less worried about where we will find the truth than I am with the growing lack of information and perspective many people are getting in the digital era. Newspaper readership is down and so too is network news viewership. People are turning to the Internet in increasing numbers for their information. As we see more and more "Fox News type" blogs, we run the risk of people paying attention only to those media that share their biases and not getting the perspective of what others think. It is difficult to have democracy when people do not have the information to make decisions.

Finally, the issue of chief marketing officer (CMO) is an interesting and somewhat troubling event for PR. Most of the CMOs are marketing-types, with responsibility for PR. This has happened because business schools have tended to view PR as part of the marketing mix. Remember my comments about the conflicts between corporate communications and marketing PR. By putting corporate communications under marketing, companies erode the necessarily perspective that corporate communications brings and limits the understanding of multiple stakeholders, focusing primarily on customers. What is needed is for more PR to work more closely with marketing or, in companies, to assume responsibility as CMO. But, whether it is working more closely with marketing or becoming CMO will require a new type of PR person who understands business and marketing.