PR and the Gray Zone

Make your ownUpdate: companion piece posted at Strumpette.

Time for another Moment of Venn:


  • Transparent
  • Advocate
  • Professional

New PR Challenge Venn

Transparent + Professional + Advocate = Social Media PR Pro

Now – a little explanation about why the guys in gray are facing an uphill battle. The communities that “P.R. 2.0” is so eager to “engage” and “influence” does not want them around.

It’s okay to go in as a reviewer with no financial ties to the outcome. It’s even better to be that amateur with a great love for a product or service. You can try to cultivate those, but you have to watch out that you don’t violate the rules of Word of Mouth marketing. It goes without saying that the Astroturf crowd is just a PR backlash waiting to happen. So why would anyone have a problem with someone who sits squarely in the center of the diagram? A clearly-identified professional advocate, there to share possibly valuable and fun information?

Now we’re getting to another anomaly regarding the Wisdom of Crowds.

Buy this poster:  Meetings - None of us are as dumb as all of us

Even though we can rationally understand that it is in our best interest for advocates to identify themselves, crowds respond in a different manner. The decisions we would make as individuals to encourage a certain class of behaviors go through a sociological wringer, and we end up with unintended consequences.

I’m no behavioral scientist, but the proof is out there. Look at the PR people who have been kicked out of Second Life, and those warned not to violate the sanctity of the almighty Wikipedia. Some little switch flips when a crowd is involved, and the priorities change. I fear it is more than an isolated phenomenon – maybe influencers within a group or meritocracy don’t want their hard-won position threatened by an outsider, particularly one with a suspect agenda. I’m not one to say – just one to observe.

The danger PR faces as a profession is that the thought leaders are pinning their hopes on getting into the gray on my graph. They can be as effective as advertisers and marketers, but with more return on investment. Classic little-brother syndrome. What the self-described thought-leaders haven’t addressed is the reality that the very communities they want to engage see their incursions as hostile. The Gray Zone is preferable to the radioactive glow of the Astroturf Zone, but each is presently uninhabitable for a sustainable campaign.

This explains why P.R. has been conducting a P.R. campaign for P.R., but how do you preach influence and the triumph of the individual when it’s not the individual who is the enemy – it is the crowd!

Again – I don’t know. I’m just articulating a problem that no one else has defined. Isolating individuals one-on-one, you can reason with them. Getting them into one-on-one dialogue is impossible when they traffic in flocks and communities. You’re already locked out before you ever get in, because the group-brain trumps the me-brain. It’s a delicious irony that the very people who have been liberated with technology, and are free to create and choose their own channels – those very individuals are unaware that they have become possessive of the groups they own. They don’t want P.R. around precisely because they treasure the time and energy they have invested in their community. The me-brain wants the attention. The group-brain wants you out of their parents’ basement.

This strikes an even bigger blow for P.R. as it tries to gain relevance in the corporate hierarchy. It was still fairly cost effective to reach groups when they all subscribed to limited channels. If you have five options, nothing is personal enough to warrant getting really worked up over it. That’s why ads were tolerated for so long on television. Now you can’t get away with that, because the consumer gets something closer to their wants, when they want it, preferably without interruption. And how dare you intrude!

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  1. Great post, Ike. I think you are right on… Of course, this means I am a thin ice skater, but the challenges facing social media and PR pros are very steep.

  2. Thanks Geoff – the question nobody has addressed is a complex one: Can PR crack the mystery of the individual and these ephemeral groups? Because it is obvious that “groupthink” derails ordinary logic. Individuals who think rationally about what would be in their best interests start behaving a different way in the hive.

    How do we measure that? How do we hold on to the Utopian ideal of “real one-to-one communication” when the individual doesn’t act like one?

  3. That’s a great Q (I came back to bookamrk this in I think the only way around this is for RP people to be brutally honest. I’m pitching you.

    When we reach out to other bloggers, we tell them what we do, provide the supposedly valuable info and shut up. They’re intelligent enough to figure out that we want them to write. If the info is valuable, then they will. And if it isn’t then we shouldn’t waste their time.

    We don’t take on anymore ghost-writing blogs unless we can put the person on the client staff part time as a contract employee. The legacy blogs that we maintain we’ve made our clients put out disclaimers in the bio page saying they receive editorial support from Livingston Communications. To be frank, if I didn’t feel obliged, I would release these clients.

    Increasingly our engagements are about monitoring and coaching. To engage on behalf of clients is like eating chicken without any spices.

  4. Good PR is an extension of what the company is trying to do, but more focused on relationship building. Some of the best PR is practised by others in the organization, perhaps with training, planning and support by a PR person.

    If PR folks don’t fit into a particular social media milieu, maybe they can equip others who can perform that role as a more natural part of their job.

    Just because public relations person CAN do something, doesn’t mean they’re the right one for that particular function.

  5. Eric – I totally agree… the best internal advocate is usually NOT the “face.”

    The larger issue is how does “PR” stand on all three pillars it holds so dear? Communities are rejecting PR reflexively with no opportunity to demonstrate good citizenship.

    At some point, we may have to recognize that certain groups are genetically allergic to the idea of being spun or manipulated. If “PR” can’t quantify and define those specific indicators and attributes, then it is less science, more alchemy, and far less convincing about the value of its metrics.

  6. great post and cool insights.. as an advertising evangelist i found an unseen or unacknowledged wisdom here..thanks !!!

  7. Ike; Just came by and read this. As a PR advocate, I have always seen myself as a resource, versus a mouthpiece. I approach social media in the same way, putting out resources for content creators and communities to use as they please. The trouble starts when you try to spin this, but I have always been well received when offering resources.

    As for the Second Life rejection of PR, I want to correct your perception a bit. PRs were not rejected out of hand, only ones that made spurious claims (we were the first to XYZ) and didn’t apologize for those claims. For instance, as an avowed PR person, I was always welcome in SL. So, it was more of an individual problem. Same goes for Wikipedia, it was the actions of one person that caused the total backlash. I have found that many Wikipedians were happy to work with me on my concerns.

    In the end, groupthink is always a concern, not just for PRs, but also in other contexts, firememes for example that spread discontent for a particular person or company. I hardly think that it is reserved just for PR.

  8. Kami – your point is duly noted. There always have been ethical PR people who do things the right way, and there are those who valid the very stereoytype that is our current albatross.

    Your idea about being “a resource instead of a mouthpiece” actually fits within my graph. Your wanting to be a resource connecting the client with its client√®le fits too. I think you’ll see the best cases of this at work within the Cyan Zone, where the customer evangelist niche resides.

    I still hold to the original point, which is conversation works one-to-one – but we’re failing to account for the differences in behavior when that “one” is part of a group or a community. Individuals use a different form of reasoning from the safety and security of their mobs – and they are quick to distrust the outsider, particularly one who wants to sell them something.

  9. If you work as a resource you will be welcomed. I think the mob problem occurs when you try and grab attention: PR pros who try and become the face or grab headlines with their blogs. If you remain within the conversation as a participant, you may still remain within the mob, but it’s a crapshoot. I think we may never reach the ‘gray zone’ 100% of the time, but it’s fun trying. Perhaps those lucky enough to do that will share their insights. BTW, how do I add a photo?

  10. The photos are pulled from your (free) account at


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