Categories: CSR reality check / PR issues

14 October 2009

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Future trends in PR? Look East!

I’ve got that post-holiday feeling (seven days by Lake Lugano, thanks). You’ll know it. Suddenly I think I understand lots of stuff … So here’s what I think is going wrong in a good deal of PR thought.

Beyond cool white wine and lapping waves, my thoughts are also inspired by TPPR – As It Happens’ remarks on the recent Echo Research 2009 Summit. Here goes.

There’s no doubt that the recession, the near-recovery and social media are changing the PR world. Weber Shandwick’s Colin Byrne in his post Emerging from recession, provides an insightful vision of where our trade is headed that I recommend. But before I add my insights to his, let’s take a swipe at some hype.

Here’s Andrew Keen at his most pessimistic expressing views on the blob many hip PRs lunch out on:

[Clay] Shirky is, of course, absolutely correct. The core reality of the Internet is its absence of a centre. The distributed Internet, all edge and no heart, has done away with the centralised structures of power of the old industrial world. And without a core, the news can’t be controlled by a central power. It can no longer be owned.

The Internet is like a blob, a centreless yet all powerful monster, impossible to destroy and yet able to devour everything in its path

I don’t question the fact that the action on the internet is at the edge of the Web. But I do question that it devours everything in its path. Where’s my evidence? Asia, that’s where. And in particular South Korea. Consider these facts:

  • South Korea is the most wired and advanced wireless nation on earth with 95% of households possessing broadband connectivity;
  • According to Wired magazine, US broadband speeds average 5.1Mbps, compared with 20.4Mbps in South Korea.
  • The three other countries that lead in broadband and mobile communication take-up are Japan, Hong Kong and my place of residence, Switzerland.

So, if we want to see a vision of new media and PR’s future, we should look at these countries. The trends that we see, however, are not the ones most PRs are forecasting. For instance:

  • In South Korea regional newspapers are growing in circulation alongside digital media. (Overall circulation of newspaper fell by around just 1% in 2008, which is hardly a meltdown in a country with one of the biggest appetites in the world for traditional print media.)
  • Highly-wired and wireless Japan remains the world’s second-largest consumer, after China, of newspapers at 70 million copies per day.
  • Moreover, circulation of Switzerland’s leading national dailies – Blick, NZZ and Tages Anzeizer – are once again creeping back up.

Then there’s the question of commerce. The social networking phenomenon CyWorld in South Korea has signed up around half the population and 90 percent of 20 to 29 year-olds, and most of the country’s businesses (including Nike, Pizza Hut and Coca Cola). Unlike Twitter, MySpace and Facebook, it has long been profitable, as has QQ in China.

CyWorld’s business model based on micro payments is hardly revolutionary. It’s drafted straight from the “old-fashioned” Theodore Levitt and Abraham Maslow school of marketing: providing customer-focused solutions that promote self-realization.

Norman Lewis, chief strategy officer and VP at Wireless Grids Corporation, USA, explains it here beautifully:

“Personalised applications and tools are in demand across the globe because they are indispensable for the construction of individual stories. Customisation, demarcation and self-expression are the requirements of a generation that regards self-expression as itself a form of communication.

“In Asia, in countries like China, Korea and Japan, this takes the form of social networking and the buying and selling of digital goods. The only thing that is distinctly ‘Asian’ about this is the fact that service providers in Asia have developed business models and technologies that can monetise these impulses directly rather than indirectly through advertising.”

Yes, my friends, advertising will not chase social networking dead ends for much longer. It will return to its old haunts. Moreover, we are going to have to learn to pay for the digital goods we receive online just like they do out East.

Now let’s turn to some of the other issues raised at the Echo Summit and highlighted by TPPR’s blog.

Radical connectivity? Internet penetration worldwide is approaching 25%, many (most?) of whom are not connected via broadband. Hence, well over 75% of the world’s population are not “connected” and play little to no role in the world of digitally-linked consumers.

Here’re two push backs. The role of the internet in securing President Barack Obama’s election has been much exaggerated and his online presence since has been top down rather than bottom up or flat. In the UK, the biggest innovation at the forthcoming general election will not be the use of the Web as a campaign tool, but the introduction of TV debates between the leaders of the three major parties.

PR and democracy?
Perhaps Paul Holmes, who chaired the Echo Summit, had insight that I lack when he linked social media penetration and PR to democracy as if they were intertwined. For start, in some cultures, social media may not be mostly political, let alone democratic, or dissident or insurgent. Anyway, over the next decades some of the most dynamic economies in the world are going to be the least democratic. (They’ve got educated, disciplined cheap labour – you can’t dismiss that combination.)

Put it another way: as globalization is driven East to West rather than West to East there will be no automatic link between Holmes’ – rightly forecasted – Golden Age of PR and democracy. We should also not forget that social media was pioneered in the East, rather than in Silicon Valley, in the first place.

PRs are going to have to manage its Asian clients in the West without advocating revolution in, or getting overly political about, the East.

Active citizen consumers and voters?
CyWorld dwarfs the likes of eBay, iTunes Facebook as a source of commercial, social and political interaction. But South Korea still ranks at number 40 in terms of economic freedom in the world. And, as it gets more digitally connected it slips further back in the pack of nations on The Heritage Foundation & WSJ list.

highlighted in an earlier post how Japan’s long-term recession has resulted in a more robust confrontational PR environment that might well resemble the one we are heading toward.

Consumer choice?
We should not forget how adaptive capitalism and its corporations were when they took account of the likes of Jerry Rubin’s 1960s revolutionary Yippies, who proclaimed “never trust anyone over 30”. However modern brands, customized to coincide with their every lifestyle choice, went on to target them profitably beyond their contented retirement.

China, India, Indonesia, perhaps even Russia and Saudi Arabia, will also be able to understand modern networked consumers, tribes and affinity groups and all. They have already shown how they can fathom their underlying motivations to invent services and business models with the same gusto that made Che Guevara an unlikely capitalist marketing icon for Jerry Rubin’s generation (inversion and redefinition are underused terms in PR).

Of course the world is being transformed. But it strikes me that it is not being transformed in quite the way some of the commentators at the Echo Summit suppose.

There’s going to be no return to business as usual. The future in the West will be shaken – and maybe shaped – by South Korea, Japan and China’s robust tough turbulent version of capitalism, from where much of the next round of worldwide economic growth will be generated.

Given the complexity, segmentation and new driving forces in the world, PRs are going to have to be more sensitive than ever to market intelligence and much better at understanding the often hidden shifts (let’s stop taking opinion surveys at face value) in consumer motivations, behaviour, cultures and consciousness.

In short, I’d say, PRs need a lot less hippy, leftie, dreamy, wired-radical 1970s flower shirt studentism. They need more alertness and realism.

There’s going to be more and sharper differentiated messages to manage and tougher reputational issues than ever to handle. Hold on to your hats!

One response to “Future trends in PR? Look East!”

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