Eight for Demos

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In an age where social media seems ubiquitous, there becomes a lot of interest in acquiring the expertise on how to navigate the great network it provides. Yet, to classify Deirdre Breakenbridge’s Social Media and Public Relations: Eight New Practices for the PR Professional as simply a guide to social media would be an oversimplification. The eight new practices for the “PR Professional” are explored in separate chapters (with an additional two chapters discussing their implications), each one demonstrating a nuanced approach in understanding how social media has impacted not only the PR world, but the level to which individuals are able to communicate with brands and one another. Namely, companies must consider social media in their policies, strategies, management and daily operations in order to effectively capture today’s more socialized customers.

D2i collectively understood that this book is catered to the PR professional, with Alexis Donitz classifying Breakenbridge’s intended audience as “outdated [PR professionals] who need to change their strategies and techniques in order to be more successful.” However, it is important to acknowledge that through her eight practices, Breakenbridge is able to teach her readers digital literacy regardless of their background, which is an essential skill set as labor and information becomes digitized. By being digitally literate, users and communication professionals alike are able to engage in Zizi Papacharissi‘s notion of performativity, where users draw upon “conventions and customs that reflect and established ways of doing things” to self-brand. Therefore, in understanding that users participate in “networked individualism” — a concept explored by Michael Wesch in “An Anthropological Introduction to Youtube,” which demonstrates that users are simultaneously expressing individuality and connectivity — Breakenbridge creates eight practices for demos (the people), enacting “a new mindset, as well as knowledge and skills outside of the PR silo.” 

Yet, while this book equips readers with the tools to become their respective organizations’ “social media champion” it is presumptuous to assume that all readers are able to accomplish such a feat for multiple reasons. Chiefly, in turning a blind eye to the digital divide, Breakenbridge assumes that the reader is privileged enough to have access to the technologies and tools that are mentioned. As  highlights, success often “depend[s] on companies’ access to and ability to afford sophisticated social monitoring tools.” Secondly, d2i concluded in discussion that the reality is that most companies are not structured in a way that would allow low-ranked employees to determine a company’s digital presence. Consequently, this means that the success of this book does not derive from allowing a company being able to achieve visibility on various social media platforms, but rather, through its ability to enlighten individual readers about the affordances of existing technologies and their impact.

In addition to taking into account the intended audience, it is important to consider the different interpretations that will be made by varying readership. Reading through the lens of a digital native, in which social media technologies are secondhand, as the majority of d2i exemplified, it is natural to assume Breakenbridge’s eight practices act as forms of social shaping, championed by Nancy Baym in Personal Connections in the Digital Age. Arguably, Public Relations and social media “influence [each other] in both directions” as traditional PR practices become integrated with the affordances of various social media technologies. On the contrary, as Melisa Demaestri points out, for those without prior social media experience it seems like Breakenbridge is arguing for technological determinism in implying that “social media [was invented and] now we have to change our methods.“By stating that companies must “adapt or die trying” Breakenbridge argues that, as Antonia Iragorri phrases it, “technology is inevitable for use in order to be successful.” However, I would argue that it is inconsequential that companies have “no control over social media” (Stephanie Diggles) — consumers are no longer positioned under a broadcast medium, they have more agency, more say in what a brand’s voice and persona will be. Thus, in promoting PR 2.0 as “required” of communication professionals, Breakenbridge is able to meet the needs of the Web 2.0 user.

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From Mary Meeker’s 2013 KPCB Internet Trends 

However, although Breakenbridge understands the ability for the Web 2.0 user to shape a brand’s voice, d2i concurred that her heavy emphasis on surveillance problematizes their newfound agency. As stated in “New Practice #2: The Internal Collaboration Generator,” it is important to “set up a Monitor/Listen/Respond strategy ” in which employees pay attention to the conversations between consumers, competing brands, as well as each other. This form of “reputation management on steroids” exemplifies Lee Humphrey’s notion of “lateral surveillance”, where the asymmetrical power relations and lack of transparency afforded by lateral surveillance threatens the ability for users to attain any form of privacy and anonymity. The book’s focus on audience management becomes particularly problematic when companies forfeit what Patrick Domingo words as “a personal way of impression management.” This is evidenced by Ryan Elsman‘s note that “the text seems to be geared towards an organization, company, or department as opposed to an individual.” Thus, the desire to be present for every conversation about the brand can also be viewed as an attempt to position companies back into a top-down paradigm.

Moreover, d2i affirmed that any form of data aggregation allows for companies and brands to profit off of free labor, turning the Internet into what Tiziana Terronova’s terms as a “24-7 electronic sweatshops.” As Caity Gray further postulates “crowdsourcing information [is] throwing [a] problem out to [the] community and letting them solve it,” demonstrating that the free labor produced through social network sites is “enjoyed and exploited.” This type of digital exploitation brings up an economic and moral issue as companies are able to engage Oscar H. Ghandy’s notion of “corrupt segmentation,” in which consumer groups are lumped together based on generalizations, and targeted by companies in hopes of generating some sort of profit or influence over them.

social network concept

In contrast, Breakenbridge’s view that “collaboration and idea sharing is fundamental for innovation” evokes the notion brought up by Tom Standage’s “Social Networking in the 1600s,” that the level of discourse afforded by the Internet leads to new ideas and thoughts. While social media practices currently seem to bring about various issues of free speech, free labor, privacy concerns, and racial and gender profiling, Breakenbridge asserts that “new ways to collaborate have faced challenges throughout the years.” In doing so, Breakenbridge not only accounts for the way things are, but the way things have been and the way things are going to be. As articulated by Caity, Breakenbridge “constantly look[s] for ways to communicate, not just waiting for the opportunity to arise,” acknowledging that technologies are in what Nicole Ellison and Danah Boyd term as perpetual beta in “Sociality through Social Network Sites.” Thus, in a world where technology is ever-changing, it becomes increasingly important to provide a means of education. While d2i agreed that Breakenbridge’s book might seem intuitive to the communication scholar or the young digital native, I believe that it plays a key function in educating and imparting a new digital fluency, expanding the participants in the “Internet’s global coffee house.”   

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