Bubble wrap: Social media, public relations, culture and society
This chapter seeks to identify and understand the various ways public relations is working through the internet, particularly ‘social media’, exploring a range of associated social and cultural developments. Relevant to this discussion are two divergent views about its character. The ﬁrst is a utopian ideal that came to prominence in Howard Rheingold’s The Virtual Community (1995). It promoted a key assumption about the internet’s open accessibility and potential to create a digital democracy where new forms of ‘community’ could ﬂourish. The second view is somewhat bleaker and undermines this. Castells (2001) argued that even in early and emerging internet cultures, it is likely that entrenched relations of power were ﬁrmly in place, providing important techno-economic and social advantages to big business and their instruments. Contextualised by this dichotomy, I explore online cultures and theorise how they have provided oxygen to the rather tarnished occupation of public relations. In the late twentieth century, the public relations industry was derided for its ruthless promotion of organisational self-interest, resulting in ‘spin’ or the degradation of ‘truth’ in public debates, (L’Etang, 2008; Breit, 2007). Moreover it was lampooned when rafts of clever but unethical practices linked to big business were exposed, examples are greenwashing (the pretence of being environmentally responsible) and astroturﬁng (phoney front groups) (Nelson, 1989; Stauber & Rampton, 1995; Burton, 2007). Therefore public relations’ expansion and hybridisation through social media is of interest, not only to those within the industry concerned with its ethics, but more broadly in society, as these developments could have consequences for the creation of conditions where people can think for themselves. Questions I explore are the eﬀects of this increased activity – and its characteristics – and if they pose new threats for the agency and the political development of citizens, as well as challenges for ethical practice within the occupation of public relations. Technologically transformative, seductively narcissistic and detraditionalised, the inter-
net in its many forms has colonised social and economic life in the twenty-ﬁrst century.
It has brought into being a social space in which people can express themselves, search for information, buy goods and services, and importantly have inter-relations. The advantage of ﬂexible and adaptable communication in a networked world is no more evident than in the second wave of internet usage ‘Web 2.0’ which gained prominence in 2004. According to Brown (2009: 1) this development enabled the easy addition of ‘words, pictures, sounds and video’ into web sites. These ‘DIY’ aﬀordances have given rise to the burgeoning use of social media (or networking) sites as a form of direct publishing. Examples are blogs or online journals set up by individuals and accessed by other users who comment on the e-diary entries; and wikis, where users collaboratively ‘open edit’ material by consensus. They now provide for new forms of social relations, but signiﬁcantly mark a shift in power from technocrats to ordinary users (Brown, 2009: 2). In tandem with these developments, enterprises, such as Second Life, Twitter and Facebook, have proliferated. Now the term ‘social media’ is used interchangeably with ‘Web 2.0’ (Safko & Brake, 2009: ix). On ﬁrst appearance the rise of social media – free thinking, inventive and bold –
may seem like a pessimistic development for an occupation like public relations. Indeed PR began as a way for an organisation to generate positive publicity that might oﬀset public pressures to regulate big business’ (McElreath, 1997: 6). Typically, in the twentieth century, much of its activity was identiﬁed with media that could reach mass audiences such as newspapers, radio and television; and consequently, power was neatly concentrated in the hands of media gatekeepers, such as editors, who could be cultivated and inﬂuenced (Ryan, 1991). Therefore developments that facilitate ‘publics’ producing and distributing content to mass audiences, in a cost eﬀective way, might seem highly unfavourable for an occupation focused on controlling and managing their behaviour and attitudes. Hence for PR theorist Rob Brown, the shift in power relations could be regarded as alarming: