Social Media Happened.

When my group, D2i, was to choose one book on social media out of a collection of some best-sellers, we were very eager to read something that would help us in our pursuit of a possible career in public relations, something that we would learn from and find useful. After finding a book that reduced this task into eight simple steps we were sure we made the right choice when we chose to read Social Media and Public Relations: Eight New Practices for the PR Professional by Dierdre Breakenridge. Unfortunately, this proved less successful than we imagined as we were not the most relevant audience this book should be intended toward, and we do not know who this should be.

Social Media and Public Relations is meant to teach PR professionals the way public relations in its entire strategy has changed due to the emergence of social media in the communications industry. Its main purpose is to teach the reader how to effectively adapt to this change in order to have success in a company. We realized, though, that the audience was meant for a more particular audience, one that is has had a lot of experience in PR but who has not yet been introduced to social media or does not yet understand it. As Stephanie Diggles says, it is unclear then how this can be of use to any other PR professional as a younger generation of professionals are already aware of most of what is introduced in this book.

I believe that this book, as any other product that can be purchased, has the simple main goal of being sold. And while there could be more space used to form a more clear and consistent intended audience, there is an unnecessary amount of repetition as well as interpretation of what the implications of social media are in order to give the audience more of a reason to buy the book. Breakenridge turns toward technological determinism in doing so and talks about social media as if it just happened and is now in full control of the way we should and shouldn’t communicate our brands to our consumers.

I also believe that in her discussion of division of labor and responsibilities in the company, she leaves a lot of room for explanation as to why we should consider certain tasks as fair and necessary labor.

From the beginning to the very end, Breakenridge’s approach to social media is very clearly technologically deterministic. Nancy Baym defines technological determinism, in her book Personal Connections in the Digital Age as a technology that demands change in social behavior (as opposed to “social construction” which implies that social behavior is what changes and influences technology or “social shaping” which means both define and shape each other). She first of all avoids the fact that we ourselves are the producers of social media in her argument as to why a social media strategy and the ability to adapt to social media are necessary for success. She writes, for example, “When social media became a part of your PR world, you had one choice: to open your frame of reference to learn and embrace new communications practices, as well as the knowledge and skills that came with the territory. You did not have the option to step back and say, “This is just a trend…I don’t really have to dig in” (149). Kaitlin Gu agrees that Breakenridge is telling us to “adapt or die trying.” Social media became of a part of the PR world. Not, the PR world/the human world created social media to further evolve in our own communication.

She also has others support her approach that we have no choice but to adapt, through interviews that she includes at the end of every chapter. In PR Practice #7: The Reputation Task Force Member, Breakenridge interviews Mark Ragan, the CEO of Ragan Communication, who claims on p. 116, “There is no other option than to be proactive” about reputation monitoring and measurement when it comes to social media. This technological deterministic approach, in my opinion, seems like a simple marketing strategy: telling the consumers, “Social media happened. Now we have to adapt or we will have no success. Buy my book if you want to succeed.” Although I personally find it very hard to see any way Breakenridge has another one of Baym’s approaches to technology, Antonia Iragorri, Alexis Donitz, and Anna Dutkowsky would disagree. Antonia claimed, for example, that “the argument is shaped around the idea that in order to become a successful PR champion one must incorporate the traditional practices of PR communications into the new social media landscape.”

Besides Breakenridge’s technologically deterministic approach, she also discusses certain responsibilities everyone in the company has due to the inevitable mechanisms of social media. She claims the PR professional, at any level or position in the company, must learn to be a “brand reputation champion” (123).  This position involves the tasks of what Breakenridge calls “listening” and “doing intelligence”, meaning learning to constantly be aware of every conversation that is made about your brand in order to assure that this is a positive conversation. We can understand the notion of “listening” as either a form of surveillance or lurking, two similar concepts with different goals. Lee Humphreys, in his paper “Who’s Watching Whom? A Study of Interactive Technology and Surveillance”, defines as the collecting of information about a person with the aim of managing them in some way.” Caity Gray agrees that Breakenridge is claiming that “surveillance is key” when it comest to social media and public relations.

On the other hand, “lurking” another concept introduced by Nancy Baym in her book, means to look over conversations that occur online without taking part in it. While the possible reasons for this are personal ones, we may also apply this concept to what Breakenridge considers necessary for every PR professional to do.  Besides the “brand police”, everyone in the company must proactively monitor what consumers are saying and feeling about the brand, whether this be to avoid any bad image of the brand to spread out quickly on the Internet or simply to learn more about the consumers themselves.

This brings me to my last argument and possible point of contention in Social Media and Public Relations. These conversations and the monitoring of them can both be considered free and immaterial labor, something that I find very hard to find fair. In Tiziana Terranova’s “Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy”, both of these terms are discussed with great concern. Breakenridge claims, “Every employee who partakes in social media technically becomes a part of customer service” (123). The responsibility of reading everything that is said about the brand is a job that must be done in and out of work, in every aspect of your life and involvement with the media, personal or professional. It is unclear to me how it is that employees are paid for this labor of constantly “listening” to every conversation made about a brand, if they are paid at all. How is this responsibility measured? Is this really necessary for the company’s success?  Could we consider this free labor at all? These questions only consider the employee’s job to watch over activity on social media, but what if we ALSO consider those who are partaking in the conversations? Those saying good things about the brand aren’t rewarded are they? While Breakenridge explains this action as “sharing content because they’re compelled to do so” (125), are we still allowed to consider the encouragement and sometimes obligation of conversation about the brand to be had fair?

Perhaps that is the basic idea of advertising: tricking consumers into helping the product be sold, instead of selling a product to benefit the consumer. If we choose to consider buying a product and talking about it as in the same level of decision, then we can’t really expect to be paid to buy things can we? Oh if only…

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