Unboxing reality? – PR in the digital platform economy

It sounds like an echo from our distant past – a long-forgotten, largely analog world: “He who describes the world as it is also changes it.” Klaus Bresser, editor-in-chief of ZDF, a German public-service television broadcaster, from 1988 to 2000, is talking about journalists, and you might call it his motto for the profession. Back in the age of fewer media resources and distribution channels, communications roles were clearly defined. Journalists, who saw themselves as the “fourth estate” – in reference to the title of Wolfgang Bergsdorf’s (1982) relevant and (self-)awareness-raising book Die 4. Gewalt – followed public events as critical chroniclers. Meanwhile, media spokespersons, public relations professionals and later communications directors in both the public and private sectors were focused on their own interests and public image. Georg-Volkmar Graf Zedtwitz-Arnim, who was PR director of Friedrich Krupp GmbH in the 1960s, was responsible for coining the motto for conventional PR in Germany: “Do good and talk about it.” (Tu Gutes und rede darüber).

Since then journalists and PR professionals have dominated the scene, sometimes battling head to head – and all the while trading no shortage of accusations and insinuations. Journalists have faced charges that they don’t simply report the news but also become active players themselves in the economic and political debate with often readily apparent political positions. Highly controversial books have been written on the subject, such as Uwe Krüger’s (2013) Meinungsmacht [Power of Opinion-making] and Udo Ulfkotte’s (2014) Journalists for Hire. And more and more voices are calling for “solutions journalism” – an approach to news reporting that goes beyond the critical to include constructive solutions similar to Ulrik Haagerup (2015) thesis in his book Constructive News. On the flip side, PR directors and corporate communicators are often equated with spin doctors who don’t simply provide the facts but will do anything to put their employer in a positive light. This led Klaus Kocks (1992) to twist Zedtwitz-Arnim’s motto into: “Just pretend and talk about it” (Tue nur so und rede darüber).

In the second decade of the 21st century, it seems circumstances have fundamentally changed. And consequently role models for journalism and PR are changing. Apple, Facebook and Google have turned human interaction into big business, and in the process they’re filling the human need for “resonance” (in online media at least) in our ever-accelerating and dematerializing world (Hartmut Rosa, 2016). We are no longer connected via a few communications or media channels. Instead, we’re meeting on digital platforms, where we share wisdom, every-day adventures and of course our opinions. Journalists and PR people are no longer shaping public discourse alone but are essentially competing with their next-door neighbors.

If you think of social media users as purely a numerical aggregate that randomly leans one way or the other when it comes to products or political positions, think again. A new player has joined the journalists and communicators who have shaped and molded public opinion since the analog age of mass media: influencers. For the sake of their followers, they put world events into perspective, assess the latest trends, serve up fashion and lifestyle tips and share with the world what used to be solitary moments of joy: opening a package. Yes, unboxing videos, which feature influencers unpacking new products, have become online click magnets.

Influencer marketing has been a buzzword in the communications business for quite some time now. Communicators are even working on ways to find digital influencers within their own ranks. “Network beats content!” is the battle cry we’re hearing in the hallways. Occasionally we also marvel at how much and indeed how frequently large companies and their executives dole out information. In fact, the new motto for influencers could be this variation of the New York Times slogan: “All the news that’s fit to tweet.”

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