What open code developers can teach PR

by Doc Searls

Is the real challenge for PR just "influence"? Or is it something bigger thatn that? If so, are there ways we can help PR move past its history of spinnage and into a future of usefulness?

Those are the questions raised for me by "Distributed influence: quantifying the impact of social media", an Edelman paper posted several days ago by Jonny Bentwood on his blog. It's a worthy effort, with good people involved. It is also a work in progress. Says Jonny, "It is not written as a fait accompli but rather as a contribution to the conversation", adding "I welcome your thoughts and comments about this document. My aim when writing this was to continue the debate that the original post sparked". That would be Measuring Online Influence, posted by Jonny last September.

So, toward that conversation, a few of my thoughts.

First, What is the influence for? Is it to sell stuff? To build or substantiate a "brand"? Or for something deeper and broader than both? Public Relations since its beginnings has had a difficult split between the real and the ideal — the real being demand by clients for spin and sales, and the ideal being "relations" with "publics" that include but are not limited to spin and sales. I visited that split in The Problem with PR, a piece I wrote for the late Upside in 1992. It begins,

There is no Pulitzer Prize for public relations. No Peabody. No Heismann. No Oscar, Emmy or Eddy. Not even a Most Valuable Flacker award. Sure, like many misunderstood professions, public relations has its official bodies, and even its degrees, awards and titles. Do you know what they are? Neither do most people who practice the profession.

The call of the flack is not a grateful one. Almost all casual references to public relations are negative. Between the last sentence and this one, I sought to confirm this by looking through a Time magazine. It took me about seven seconds to find an example: a Lance Morrow essay in which he says Serbia has "the biggest public relations problem since Pol Pot went into politics." Since genocide is the problem in question, the public relations solution can only range from lying to cosmetics. Morrow's remark suggests this is the full range of PR's work. Few, I suspect, would disagree.

So PR has the biggest PR problem of all: people use it as a synonym for BS. It seems only fair to defend the profession, but there is no point to it. Common usage is impossible to correct. And frankly, there is a much smaller market for telling the truth than for shading it.

In 1999 David Weinberger and I leveraged much of that essay in the Markets are Conversations chapter of The Cluetrain Manifesto, with one big difference: We saw hope for PR where seven years earlier I saw gloom:

But, of course, the best of the people in PR are not PR Types at all. They understand that they aren't censors, they’re the company's best conversationalists. Their job — their craft — is to discern stories the market actually wants to hear, to help journalists write stories that tell the truth, to bring people into conversation rather than protect them from it. Indeed, already some companies are building sites that give journalists comprehensive, unfiltered information about the industry, including unedited material from their competitors. In the age of the Web where hype blows up in your face and spin gets taken as an insult, the real work of PR will be more important than ever.

And that's what we have going on here. The Edelman folks, with help from their friends, are scaffolding a new understanding of what PR is, built around the ideals of real conversation. The purpose of real conversation is not (or not only) to provide the verbal cosmetics that characterized too much of PR in the past; but rather to serve the need for businesses to employ good people, to provide customers with good products and services, and in general to contribute to society in useful and positive ways. In other words, to humanize companies by helping those inside relate to those outside, in constructive ways.

The question is how.

In various ways from the late 70s to the early 90s I was in the PR business. But in equally various ways I've been a journalist from the '60s to the present, and it's in that capacity that I want very much for PR to create a new market for itself: one that acquires and applies expertise in conversation and relationship, which are frontiers for business mentality here in the Developed World. On a persoinal level, I want PR to stop treating me as an "influencer" and to start respecting my real purpose as a journalist, which is to help drive better understandings of the topics I write about. The difference is an essential one.

Some of the best feedback we got after Cluetrain came out was from people in what we used to call the Third World. They told us we were on the right track when we said "markets are conversations", but that our job with that had just begun. We not only needed to understand more about how conversation work, but how to value and build relationships. They told us that both conversation and relationship are hugely important in markets of the literal sort, where villages gather not only to do business but to make culture. And that it is essential to understand two things: 1) that culture includes but is not limited to business; and 2) that business cannot be viewed only through the prism of transaction. In other words, in both culture and business, "bottom lines" are not all monetary.

So PR is in a good position to help drive this understanding, for the simple reason that PR has cared about conversation and relationship for the duration. Is it time for PR to take a lead in exploring those things and developing the required values and practices around them? I hope so.

But I'm not sure focusing on "influence" is the only way to do that. Focusing on influence alone suggests that PR is just looking to expand the spin business from old media to new, and from old targets to new ones. There are other corners of the prism, other angles to come at the problems and opportunities in around conversation and relationship.

The challenge here that is bracketed by two quotes. The first is from Richard Edelman himself, first in his blog and then in the Distributed Influence paper:: "...corporations can't buy reputation or brand loyalty any more. These are earned through performance over the long-term". The other is from Don Marti, who says, "Becoming a blog-friendly company by chattering on blogs is like becoming a cat person by clawing your own couch and crapping in a litter box. You have to give the bloggers something to chat about."

Obviously the performance Richard talks about can't take the form of faking conversation on blogs. In fact it requires a deeper characterization of blogs, and bloggers, than as "media" that happen to include "influential" writers. Unfortunately, that's a harder job than it was a few years ago when blogging was mostly an amateur affair. A friend in the PR biz, whose own blogging is an on-and-off affair, recently said this in an email: "...most of the blogosphere has become a full-on commercial wankfest now. The world is positively lousy with self-styled 'social media consultants' (including, it has to be said ... me) spewing such tortured constructs as 'finding the voice that will resonate with your consumers' (I'm not making that up, by the way - that's a verbatim quote from one particular 'B-Blogging Consultant' I ran into a couple of months ago...)"

To me the best of blogging isn't measured by influence, popularity, traffic or the money that measurement of those bring in the from advertising. In fact, I'm not sure what makes blogging good is measurable at all. That's because what makes makes blogging good is nothing more than being interesting, useful or both.

Case in point. Back in 2003, when the "social media" (a term I can't stand... more about that later) was not yet a buzzphrase, I wrote that "Blogging is about making and changing minds". Jay Rosen ran with that, adding "weblogging is an inconclusive act — and that’s attractive, part of the fun." So did others at the time. A couple years later, I added some thoughts about the 'snowball effect', adding "...if you start with an idea, whether partly formed or whole, whether yours or somebody else's, and push it in the downhill direction that all blogging (thanks to links and RSS) essentially goes, it's bound to have some impact once it grows large enough. And as long as it keeps going."

What makes a snowball roll is not influence. It's participation. Barns are not raised by neighbors in thrall of "A-list" farmers. They are raised by people who know how to build barns, and who know and work with the farmer who needs the barn. Which brings me to why I'm bringing this up here in Linux Journal.

Software development has been going through a huge and important change over the last fifteen years, during which the bulk of it has moved out of the corporate sphere and into the social one. Today there are over 500,000 open source code bases, and that doesn't even count ones that are essentially open but not happening inside SourceForge or other familiar venues. Those code bases have grown around use value rather than sale value — a critical distinction that Eric S. Raymond described eloquently in The Cathedral and the Bazaar.

Most or all of those half-million development efforts are the code equivalents of barns. Some are raised by single developers. Others are raised by groups. Few are happening exclusively inside companies. Where companies "own" a development effort — such as we now find with Sun, which made news this past week by announcing that it was buying MySQL — they find themselves needing to comply with the methods and values of the development community, rather than vice versa. Meaning that if Sun wants to muscle MySQL's developers, it's Sun that will find itself in trouble, rather than the reverse. (I don't think Sun will do that, by the way, but that's a whole 'nuther thread.)

It's important to know that the virtues of open source code development are primarily utilitarian and meritocratic, rather than convivial. A code maintainer may be good buddies with a programmer who wants to help raise the barn of maintained code, but if the programmer buddy doesn't have useful code to contribute, that code won't get in. This is why "show me the code" is the most important — and selective — phrase in any open source development project.

This is a huge lesson for PR. What PR needs to do is not just look for influence, but to contribute to the development project we call understanding. When PR people weigh in on a topic, they need to contribute in useful ways. They need to help grow the snowball of useful knowledge about a topic. This is a hugely different challenge than, say, creating buzz. While buzz may be interesting, and measurable, at its best it is more effect than cause.

The real frontier here is a simple one: to develop a new and better understanding of how PR can be useful. That means the real questions are — to mix metaphors — What barns do we need to raise? And, What snowballs do we need to roll toward positive purposes?

The Distributed Influence paper, and the highly engaged way Jonny, Richard and others are going about creating and improving it, are all constructive efforts, and deserve support. Looking for whom to influence, however, and how to measure that, is at best necessary but insufficient to the larger purposes of contribution and usefulness. And the hard part with both is that you can't just measure them with money. In fact, I'm not even sure they're measurable in any terms other than built-out results. Even those must go on the customary metrics of "message delivery" and the like.

If the results, like the methods, are "social", they also have to exceed the boundaries of the cilent companies' own immediate interests. As for the new boundaries, well... those require some fresh new conversations.