Every serious student of social media must read the Cluetrain Manifesto. If you haven’t, it’s available free online. Many consider Cluetrain the seminal work about social media as they relate to business.
For a good many 30something PR and marketing bloggers, Cluetrain was the great “aha!” It described a new open system of communication that shifts the locus of commerce from persuasion and selling to relationships and conversations.
True believers in social media have worshiped at the Cluetrain altar for almost a decade now. Most books on SM marketing and PR that followed took their direction from Cluetrain authors Weinberger, Searles, Locke and Levine. The book has stood the test of time, whether or not you agree with its premise.
Have social media altered the communication landscape? Of course. But while Cluetrain broke new ground in describing business-consumer relationships in a digital world, it wasn’t all that “new” — at least not for the more serious students of public relations. (I won’t speak for the marketing types, as PR and marketing are distinct disciplines.)
If you’ve kicked around the PR world as long as I have — as practitioner and educator — the central concepts of the Cluetrian Manifesto don’t surprise you. Fact is, PR began focusing on a “two-way symmetrical model” (2WS) more than 50 years ago — long before scholars Jim Grunig and Todd Hunt defined 2WS in 1983, and way, way before the Cluetrain arrived.
Nope. That’s not a typo. Fifty friggin’ years. It was Ed Bernays in 1955 who suggested, in The Engineering of Consent, that organizations use research to listen to their constituents, then adapt policies and operations to align them with public expectations. In other words, manage your organization to earn the “consent” of the public by operating in the public interest. Seems like more of a “duh” than an “aha,” doesn’t it?
A decade after Bernays, Albert Sullivan advanced the symmetrical idea (along with ethics) in his essay “Values of Public Relations,” published in the book, Information, Influence & Communication: A Reader in Public Relations. (Sorry, but these essays and old texts aren’t available on line. Try an academic library. Both books are on the shelves at Kent State in that big tall building with all those bound paper volumes.)
Some 28 years after Bernays’ promoted “adaptation,” Grunig and Hunt proposed their definitive model: 2WS. It’s has been the reigning paradigm since. (For a more detailed description of Grunig and Hunt’s “4 Models,” see my essay of August 10, and be sure to read the comments, which include input from Dr. Grunig himself.)
As a headstrong practitioner back in ’83, I didn’t read many any textbooks or academic journals. Not until I met Pat Jackson, the guy who introduced me to 2WS. I read his weekly newsletter religiously, and I attended his seminars at every opportunity. Pat was the bridge between PR “academe” and PR “real world,” and not coincidentally, he was a friend of Jim Grunig’s. Pat died in 2001.
Pat presented theories and research developed by others and showed us how we could use that knowledge to become more effective and more ethical professionals. It was Pat who convinced me that “relationships,” not communication, are the core of PR practice. He stressed constant listening to understand the needs of publics, constant environmental monitoring to spot trends and issues that might affect those publics. Pat insisted on including key publics in organizational decisions that would impact them. He insisted that organizations adapt to meet public needs.
Pat preached a good bit of the Cluetrain Manifesto 10 years before the World Wide Web and 20 years before Cluetrain became a best seller. We didn’t have the Web in the early 80s, let alone Web 2.0. But the philosophy of inclusion, listening and adaptation that Pat espoused was central to PR discussions of the times. It changed the way I practiced PR, and it made me more effective as a counselor and communicator.
Web 2.0 takes 2WS to a new level. It enables our publics — or anyone else for that matter — to participate in discussions with or without our involvement. In 1983, this participation was smart, cutting-edge public relations. Today it’s an imperative to business success, and the central point of the Cluetrain Manifesto.
To support my premise that 2WS rolled into the station long before the Cluetrain, let me compare 4 of the most critical statements from the Manifesto with the teachings of Pat Jackson (that were based on 2WS). I’m not quoting Pat directly, but paraphrasing his approach to 2WS as I came to understand it.
Maybe my argument will help you see why I get so impatient with certain 30something PR and marketing types who act as though they discovered “the conversation,” and who think we old farts just don’t get it. We do get it, and we have for a long time (he said defensively).
I first presented this lesson last March at the “You Too” social media conference at Kent State. The first slide reviews my summary of the concepts embodied in TWS.
The 4 slides that follow compare specific points of the Cluetrain Manifesto (taken word-for-word from the book) to the teachings of Pat Jackson that are embedded in my teaching and practice philosophies. (Sadly, there is no online repository of Pat’s writings and lectures. Maybe someday.)
Key point on 2WS and Cluetrain: Participation, not persuasion is what builds relationships. I’ve argued this with learned friends who insist the essence of PR is presentation. While presentation of the message is important, it is also asymmetrical (i.e, “Here’s my position and why you should agree with it.” One-way communication at its finest!). I moved on from that view 25 years ago, and thanks to Web 2.0, we all will.
To sum it up:
If you prefer a more intellectual discussion on PR practice models, read Heather Yaxley’s outstanding essay at PR Conversations and the discussion that follows it. I should have jumped in on that thread, but I was paddling a kayak in Maine at the time and my social connection was limited to my wife, a few harbor seals and this loon.
Slides from the plenary session at Kent State’s “You Too” social media conference are available here on SlideShare. For the record, I shared that presentation with Kent State’s Michele Ewing and Vincena’s Dino Baskovic (the man most responsible for making me a Web 2.0 loon).