Thursday, 10 November 2011

Platforms, channels & Internet Agency

The radical change in the digital landscape brings a new approach to PR - where once organisations "had the impression that they had control of what was said and believed about their activities" (Phillips, D. and Young, P. 2009, p7) the very advent of the World Wide Web means information can not only be taken out of context, but can, and will, be interpreted in new ways. Hours of carefully crafted statements and slogans are being turned on their heads as they appear alongside the very item the statement was trying to deflect attention from. In this sense, the Internet can be considered as an 'agent' - the idea that it facilitates the changing of information as it it passed from one person to another. The role becomes two-fold, as we can also consider that Internet agency allows us to find things out - your dream employer's email address, for example. Before, it would have taken more than a person's lifetime to make a pencil from scratch, but with Internet agency, you can share knowledge instantly, and so that pencil becomes a more viable option.

If the Internet is an agent, then there must be platforms and channels to enable its existence. A platform can be defined as the device on which we employ Internet agency; in the late 90's, the only platform available would have been your vintage box-looking computer, but fast forward to today and the list is endless - internet-enabled mobile phones, laptops, tablets, games consoles, sat navs, digitally-empowered TVs and MP3 players. Almost half of the UK population own a smartphone, according to Kantar Worldpanel ComTech (2011). Platforms are important for the simple reason that people use them to communicate. The idea of going to a library to research something becomes obselete when you have the power of Google in your pocket.
If the platforms are the hardware, then the channels become the software; the websites you visit, the blogs you visit, the emails you send and the social networks you use. If we consider just one channel alone, social networking, we can already note how PR has had to adapt to the rise in this becoming, for many, the preferred form of communication. And it's changing still - mobile phones that vibrate is a recent adaptation of vibration for communication, Kinect uses movement as language and avatars collect information and play it back to us. As David Phillips point outs, the only thing that holds PR back is "the need to understand these things, see the opportunity and adopt this different way of using PR creativity."

To explore internet agency further, we can consider the four elements that drive online public relations: transparency, porosity, richness and reach.

Internet Agency alone has a direct impact on transparency; if the possibility exists to interpret messages in a variety of different ways, then there is added pressure for organisations to be transparent (for more on transparency, see my previous post). 'Digital natives', or those who have grown up with and are most familiar with the online world, have become accustomed to a new level of transparency, and operate "under the assumption that everything they do will eventually be known online." (Brogan, C. and Smith, J. 2010).

Transparency itself comes about because of porosity - that is to say, that organisations are giving away information that they wouldn't have given away in the past. For example, we tell competitors the benefits of our products (though it is worth noting the exact recipe of Coca-Cola is still a highly-guarded secret). This information is spread about and made available to all, and 'leaks' out of organisations at a rapid rate, in the same way that 'gossip', be it emails, Instant Messaging and other online transactions, find their way into the public sphere. Porosity has seen the emergence of codes of conduct that dictate what is acceptable for those using these internal channels, and are a vital part of an organisation's PR toolkit.

Richness is the idea of adding value to your product or service, and making it niche; it is a PR practitioner's role to create rich content through words, pictures, videos, diagrams, voice and music. Through Internet agency, and utilising its main characteristic, its reach, organisation's can add richness through online communities. This may be in the form of blogs, wikis and forums. In addition, SEO will make such content transparently available, and can also increase reach in the same way that hyperlinks and offline advertising can.

So, what's the link? The Internet changes an organisation, forcing it to be more transparent and porous, and acts as an agent of change. This allows for rich content that will reach many, who will access these messages using channels on their platforms.

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