Bettina von Arnim – communications expert


This is for you who love cultural history. If you can relate to the impressive modernism of the Romantic era, you might want to come out to beautiful Schloss Wiepersdorf 80 km south of Berlin and attend a public symposium on Bettina v. Arnim as communications expert on October 23rd and 24th (meeting language: German).

Bettina v. Arnim was not only a great networker but also a fan of direct communication, even trying to engage her king in a direct dialogue  sending him letters on her political views. Part of the symposium will explore how some of Bettina v. Arnim’s communication habits are echoed in the age of the social web. I will contribute a talk on how today’s German citizen’s are directly communicating with their Chancellor on a platform operated by us at straightto.

Some thoughts on the future of PR


Social Web World in Germany did a series of interviews on the future of PR. Here is an English summary of my bit:

What is the main task of PR chiefs today? What will it be in five years?

Let me just make a preliminary note on questions regarding the future of communications. Back in 2004, “blog” was the term most searched on the US online dictionary Merriam Webster. Five years later, 15.8 % of Fortune 500 enterprises had a corporate blog. In 2004, at the peak of the blog hype in the US, many would have expected a higher rate than this, but from a long term perspective it can still be seen as a remarkably fast adoption. In other words, at the peak of a hype – as currently is the case with social media in Germany – it’s easy to fall into one of two traps: you either underestimate the change (“it’s all hype, nothing will change”) or you overestimate it (“everything will change”). The truth is generally somewhere in between, and that’s where my attempts to touch on the future will go, more like a compass than exact directions.

Today, the main task of PR chiefs is to build and protect the reputation of their companies or organisations, with the perception by traditional media being the major focus, considering the company as a whole, its products, its economic situation and – not the least – its leadership. A significant part of the attention is also dedicated to planning, resource management and leading the own team or external service providers PR chiefs are working with. I do believe that all this won’t change over the next five years, but I also do expect an extension of duties and considerable shifts in focus:

  • More direct communication: With the advent of social media, everyone with internet access potentially has a public voice. As a result, the one public determined by traditional media is complemented by many new publics influencing the perception of companies. These new publics expect to be addressed directly. As a result, PR as a whole is getting more interactive and more holistic. It again has to deal with all publics, not just the media. And in addition to the publics of the old school of PR, new, virtual publics are emerging that didn’t exist before. This results into two important questions for the PR organisation: 1) Which online voices are at all relevant for the company? 2) How is efficient communication in this environment of potentially thousands of voices possible with limited ressources?
  • More technology: In the future, PR chiefs don’t have to be nerds or software developers, but they need to know on which platforms new publics emerge, which of those are relevant to the organisation,  and how they can be used for efficient communication. Being familiar with communication technologies will be of growing importance for PR chiefs both for daily work and for education. This development is fostered by communication technology more and more becoming a life style, not only for the young.
  • More integration: More direct communication also entails more integraton. If companies increasingly communicate with all publics directly and interactively, there is more coordination needed between the departments involved, in particular between PR, marketing, and customer relations. This will also change the organisational line-up. Large enterprises such as IBM and Bosch have already integrated PR and marketing, with former PR chiefs being in the lead. I expect this to see more often.
  • More governance: More direct communication – this has been pointed out time and again – results in loss of control. I’d like to distinguish that a bit. If corporate communication is not just a one-way street of press releases, advertisements and brochures, you will certainly lose a part of the control over the content, because suddenly many can chime in, be it employees, customers, partner or other stakeholders. However, such a democratisation of communication doesn’t necessarily lead to anarchy. We will need a communicative constitution allowing for civilised interaction with relevant results for all, a communications governance all employees have to adhere to.  It will probably be coordinated by communications chiefs working with HR, Legal, and IT. With the number of participants communicating demand for communication trainings will increase, too, not only for spokespersons, but for all employees. So the loss of control over content will be counterbalanced by increased control over the framework of communication. We can observe first signs of this development in “social media policies”.
  • More internal communication: Employees have always had an impact on the reputation of a company, but with the advent of social media their influence has grown massively. They are becoming brand ambassadors, good or bad. In addition, companies are under increasing pressure to change as fast as their markets. Employees have to support these transformations, if their company is to stay successful. That’s only possible, if the demand for communication generated by transformations is addressed in an interactive way, otherwise employees will only be affected by the change rather than actively engaged in its success.
  • More internationality: The globalisation of the economy results in a globalisation of communication. Even small companies are joining internationalisation earlier and earlier. However, the different publics you have to deal with are rather getting smaller than larger, since it’s easier to reflect and organise special interests online. With the expansion of total reach comes a fragmentation of the parts. The PR organisation and its chief will face demands that won’t be met with previous habits. Without going into details, I would argue that tomorrow’s communication department needs to be ready for decentralisation, virtualisation and cultural adaptability.
  • More value: I expect requirements for evaluation and controlling of communication to increase even more. That will be good for our discipline, because its value beyond media reach will become visible. Increased cost pressure concurs with some of the other change factors mentioned above. E.g. the impact of communication can be better derived from direct communication than from indirect communication via traditional media. At the same time, everything happening online can be better documented. And the integration of PR, marketing, and customer relations will allow for significant synergy effects.

Is the press release dead? What will be the tools of the future?

No, the press release isn’t dead. To some degree we are even seeing a renaissance of the press release. It’s easier to distribute than ever before, both online and offline. Offline, editorial offices are being more and more centralised, so that local media can’t produce much content anymore. Online, there are more spaces for press releases than ever before, and despite an early social media myth many blogs are happy to accept them. In terms of its format, the press release as we know it, will stay mostly the same in regulated environments such as financial communications. In less regulated environments the press release will get shorter, multimedia-based, and modular, as we can already see with today’s social media releases.

We will also see new communication platforms. I can’t foresee which ones will have survived in five years from now. Let’s just consider: Facebook is around since 2004, YouTube since 2005, Twitter since 2006. I believe we will see new players we don’t know yet, in particular in the mobile space. Real-time communication will certainly play an important role for news creation. But there will also be continued demand for reflexive communication providing backgrounds and context, I actually believe this demand will increase, so as to offer orientation in an ever growing information glut. Regarding particular tools, I expect the use of images and moving images to go up dramatically, since their cost of production and publishing has gone down dramatically.

Traditional PR is built on a story. Will that still be the case in the future?

Yes, the story will always be the driver of organisational communication. I expect, though, that stories will have to be less narcissistic and more audience focused, because the audience doesn’t have to suffer in silence anymore what’s been thrown at it. The recipients are able to express their opinion and they do it. The story development will have to revolve around connecting company stories to topics audiences care about. Theoretically this has always been the case, but the practical necessity to make it happen has increased significantly. In particular in product communications I expect less feature talk and more meaning to users’ life.

PS: If someone needs a good read on the future of PR, I do still recommend the “Authentic Enterprise” report of  the Arthur W. Page Society. It’s three years old, but still worth reading.

Georg Kolb

Meet me at conferences


“Social Media – corporate ready?” is the question of a talk I will give at the next Social Media Breakfast in Berlin on August 24. The question is international, the talk will be in German, though. With apologies to my Anglophone friends I’m happy to announce another presentation that will be in English:

At the international Quadriga Conference on Internal Communication I will have the honor to deliver the first presentation at the conference on September 30 in Berlin. It’s entitled “The Renaissance of Direct Communication” and will provide views on how new publics shape opinion and trust in a disintermediated way on the Internet much like they did at the birth of European culture 2,500 years ago. And how coporations can benefit from this rebirth, in particular in internal communication.

Hope to meet some of you there!

Georg Kolb

Many-to-one – a web 3.0 principle?


The first generation of the internet was all about access to information. The second generation –web 2.0 – is all about participation making the web social, since any user can create content and share it with other users. However, as I pointed out in my last post, there are only very few users actively contributing to the social web. Most users are just consuming content, not creating it. This kind of participation inequality presents a huge challenge for the corporate use of social media, since it impacts the meaning of content created by participants. Without enough people participating, it’s hard to tell how relevant the content actually is. Web 3.0, sometimes also called semantic web, holds the promise to increase relevance and meaning for users. As far as I can see, there are currently three different approaches to deliver on this promise.

Wolfram Alpha LogoThe first is relying on technology, the second is more relying on humans, and the third is combining both. The technology approach is focused on the improvement of search technologies. Next generation search engines such as Wolfram Alpha promise to pull up more relevant search results based on more intelligent search mechanisms. Information portals such as Alltop leverage human content curators to make sure the content they present or recommend is valuable, so that users come to their place when looking for relevant content.

Alltop LogoBoth of these approaches help to some extent when it comes to extracting meaning from content that already exists, but they don’t help with the challenge of participation inequality. How do we know that the content we find on the web is representing the opinions or beliefs of more than a random selection of users? I don’t believe that – for the foreseeable future –a purely technology based or a mainly human based approach will suffice to crack this. A smart combination of man and machine looks more promising to me.

straightto logostraightto, a German software firm,  does exactly that to create what they call  many-to-one communication. Leveraging both technology and the intelligence of users, straightto communication platforms enable any large number of people to have an organised dialogue with one addressee, e.g. citizens with a politician or employees with their CEO. So, many-to-one means that a multitude of participants can get straight through to someone they otherwise would hardly have access to. But there is more to it. Many-to-one also means that  opinions, questions or requests of participants are being bundled and ranked. As a result, the addressee can see what’s most important to people and focus on those issues. Equally important, this approach opens a solution to the problem of participation inequality: you just need few people actually expressing their opinion. The only thing others have to do is to vote on these opinions. Since this is a much lower barrier for participation, it is a powerful way to activate the silent majority. And it works! German Chancellor Angela Merkel and a whole bunch of other politicians are using it to find out what citizens are interested in, and CEOs of large enterprises use it to find out what’s important to their employees. Pretty compelling, don’t you think? Surely compelling enough for me. I recently joined the company.

Georg Kolb