At the annual Victorian Women in PR lunch last week, one of the speakers mentioned that Ashton Kutcher was the No.1 Twitterer in the world.

For a moment I pondered whether that was significant and, if so, why? I also wondered who Ashton Kutcher was (he is apparently, according to my son, a celebrity married to Demi Moore of whom I had heard) and whether it was significant that the name was unfamiliar to me? Then some of the other speakers raised other doubts in my mind.

The Women in PR lunch is attended by 200-plus female PR practitioners and a few males. It raises money for the Merle Howard Prize for RMIT PR students and a different charity each year. The charity this year was the Lighthouse Foundation,  which supports the homeless and the speakers were Swinburne researcher Mandy Salomon; Google ANZ PR manager Ann Baxter; and Hill & Knowlton social media manager Gay Flashman.

Baxter talked about corporate blogs and online communications mentioning in passing that one of Google’s most successful PR launches actually used mainstream media — a TV program. Flashman talked about various blogging and social media strategies and talked about how much damage Nestle’s reputation had suffered as a result of poor use of the space. Salomon talked about Twitter and the role of gaming, virtual life and virtual currency.

Obviously social media is important because it taps into humans’ curiosity and desire to be connected to others. It is the ultimate development of the most powerful communication tool yet — word-of-mouth communication.

But is it quite as revolutionary as some PR people think? Does it matter whether Kutcher is the No.1 Twitterer or the 1001st? Does it matter that I have no idea who he is? His position with Twitter may say something about society, fame and celebrity but does it say much about communications or the important factors influencing PR practice?

The blogosphere is important but when Google, which I would hate to lose, finds mainstream media more powerful than its corporate blogs, what does that say about communication tactics? And it is difficult, after watching Nestle survive the 1970s boycott over infant milk formula in the Third World and other problems, to believe that the latest problem is going to destroy Nestle’s rather resilient reputation.

Google is invaluable, mobile phones has profoundly changed economies in the Third World, disintermediation has altered the ways in which PR consultancies make money, and the speed and range of communications has exploded — but just how revolutionary has it all been?

Having been influenced by the Zhou Enlai reply to Henry Kissinger’s question about the significance of the French Revolution (too early to tell, Zhou allegedly said) I am hesitant to use the term too freely. In the past two millennia, water technology and Gutenberg were revolutionary because they brought about fundamental changes in how economies functioned and what we thought and believed. In the past century the (birth control) pill had a revolutionary impact on society.

But, whenever we are told that something is “revolutionary” or the “next big thing” it is almost always a PR person who has decided to used the word or phrase in a release or a speech. PR consultancies, for instance, are notorious for announcing the “next big thing” when all they mean is that they have a few staff with expertise in the field.

We all underestimate the extent to which humans shape technology rather than being shaped by it — an argument developed in some detail in the book Beyond Engineering (1997) by Robert Poole. We also underestimate the (probably evolutionary) constraints on our capacity to communicate with, or maintain close relationships with, large numbers of people.

Plumbers have changed the way they work over millennia — moving through stone, ceramics, lead, iron, steel, plastic and other materials to channel water and waste. But the job they do today is still fundamentally the same as in Babylonian and Roman times although admittedly, the records show that the death rate in the suburb in which I live dropped dramatically from the day the trunk sewer was connected.

PR hasn’t changed that much either.  The revolutionary hyperbole is no more over the top than that used by Louis XIV’s courtiers to promote him to his subjects. NGOs today use tactics similar to those used more than 200 years ago in the British anti-slavery campaigns. Technical changes make PR easier and harder. For every gain in ease of communication there is an equivalent loss in terms of increasing difficulty in being heard and heeded. But it’s all still about changing the way people think or behave.

A footnote on Anzac Day: After writing last week’s column on Anzac Day I happened to stumble across two thoughts that seem to sum up the competing views of the day and its meaning, which the column provoked. First was Nietzsche’s comment that “without myth every culture loses the healthy natural power of its creativity”. Second was from the gay military historian and Military Cross winner, Michael Howard, who said that the job of historians was to challenge and explode national myths because “such disillusion is a necessary part of growing up in, and belonging, to an adult society”.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey