April 8, 2008

The Challenge of Communicopia

Every time I hear my fellow business communicators struggling to come to terms with social media, it reminds me of an article I wrote in the first weeks of my new life as a public relations consultant, my MSc in Public Relations still shiny in my pocket, for the journal of the UK Chartered Institute of Public Relations in 1995.

Although, at that this (practically pre-email!) time it was the wonders of interactive CD-Roms and other such 'advanced' multimedia communications tools I was discussing, the message still holds true in the social media era:

"Public relations practitioners have little choice but to rise to the multimedia challenge if we are to compete in an increasingly dynamic communication industry, to flourish rather than survive. Ultimate success is better founded on adapting our current strengths to the ever-widening communicopia - through a highly developed understanding of clients' business, an appreciation of corporate and brand positioning, and the ability to reach specific audiences, rather than jumping on the techno-junkie bandwagon."
Please forgive a few stray allusions to 'control' and 'message' - it was a simpler time. Writing it today, my behavioural studies training would have come more to the fore ....

Greetings to all my old Citigate colleagues, now Citigate Dewe Rogerson.

The Challenge of Communicopia

First there's the baffling 'techno-babble' to contend with. Then comes the hype - never in the field of human endeavour have there been such breakthroughs, say the evangelists. Finally, you hit a fear of the unknown, the incomprehensible. It will result in a technophobic paralysis.

Despite this, few professionals can afford to ignore multimedia - the convergence of broadcasting, telecommunications and computing - which will bring a multitude of market opportunities and affect virtually every sector. This is poignantly true for the public relations industry as a contender in an increasingly high-tech communications arena, where our competitors range from computer programmers to advertising agencies. Will multimedia fundamentally change our business, or simply offer new mills for our grist? And can we survive it?

As with most issues in public relations, it depends on your definition. If the central role of public relations is to provide a network and a context for distributing information - whether through the press, speaker platforms, brochures or whatever - adapting our expertise to include the sea of new high-tech communications will fundamentally change what we do. What's more, our technology-led competitors will have a real advantage.

Alternatively, if public relations is the definer of corporate and brand messages, the multimedia challenge is more attainable: we shall be applying a well-developed core skill to the exciting new 'communicopia.' An appreciation of what is technically posible and the relative cost feasibility and advantages of a variety of communications vehicles continues to be vital. However, the difference is that technical know-how can be rightly commissioned from the technical experts, allowing public relations to concentrate on developing the 'creative software' and controlling the effective communication of messages through a medium which reaches an identified target audience.

With a solid foundation of skills on corporate and brand positioning, the Citigate Group is monitoring developments in multimedia to expand and add value to the service it offers clients. According to Reginald Watts, deputy chairman of the Citigate Group, its forays into multimedia fall into three distinct areas: "Our first is to offer clients informed advice on the use of multimedia as a business and communication tool and to develop in-house expertise to support the design and development of products for clients.

"Next, we are concerned to understand how wider multimedia industry issues will affect our business and that of our clients, in real terms over the coming months and years. Lastly, we plan to use multimedia and new technologies to improve our service and efficiency.

Specialised projects
A key task in public relations is to identify the most effective, cost-feasible communication medium to suit a situation. With an increasing complexity and number of media on offer, will we still be able to advise on a comprehensive range of options, or too easily fall back on traditional methods?

To guard against such complacency and to build on their creative design services, Lloyd Northover Citigate set up a new media unit in May 1994. Projects include the deign of multimedia presentations, interactive multimedia projects on CD-Rom and on-line communications for clients. One project is developing the brand identity and graphics for a multimedia shopping kiosk, where the graphic designers will work hand-in-hand with the software designers and hardware manufacturers to integrate the brand's image throughout.

The wider issues
Monitoring the possible impact that wider multimedia issues could have on our business and that of clients - in industries ranging from utilities through pharmaceuticals to automotive components manufacture - is important. As advisers to senior management, public relations practitioners must be able to offer counsel. What effect, for example, could multimedia have on a development corporation?

As part of a full-service public relations programme for the Cardiff Bay development on the South Wales coastline, Citigate Corporate is working with the corporation to develop a solid 'product offering' attractive to the media sector. Based on an understanding of the business needs and resulting property requirements of such companies - developed through focus group discussions with experts - Citigate Corporate is helping Cardiff Bay to promot itself as a European centre of multimedia excellence.

Within consultancies
How to use new technologies to improve our internal working methods and communications? Susy Frith, managing director of Northampton-based Citigate Technology, warns against the dangers of investing in technology for technology's sake. "There should always be a demonstrable benefit to our customers." she says. "Does it make us faster, promote accuracy or improve accessibility? The new systems must also be user-friendly, otherwise what would turn 'filing time' into 'thinking time' is instead a technological nightmare.

Public relations practitioners have little choice but to rise to the multimedia challenge if we are to compete in an increasingly dynamic communication industry, to flourish rather than survive. Ultimate success is, however, better founded on adapting our current strengths to the ever-widening communicopia - through a highly developed understanding of clients' business, an appreciation of corporate and brand positioning and the ability to reach specific audiences, rather than jumping on the techno-junkie bandwagon.



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