The Bottom-up Future of PR

There’s very little that’s funny about the BP oil spill, but one of the few sources of genuine humor is the BPGlobalPR Twitter account, a satirical PR representative for the oil giant. The New York Times ponders the significance of a world in which anyone can skewer a famous brand from the comfort of their homes. But I prefer Dan Rothchild’s take:

Bursting the bubble of a pompous company is nothing new; being able to do it and have 11 times as many followers (that is, market share) as the object of your derision is what’s new. Blogs, social media, Twitter, et cetera provide myriad ways for normal folks to, if not comfort the afflicted, at least afflict the comfortable. And there are few better ways to hold power — whether in the form of political leaders, firms, or self-appointed social saviors — to account. No longer can a powerful, politically connected company like BP attempt to spin and manage its way out of wrecking hundreds of miles of coastline. This is changing brand management in a way we don’t, I think, fully understand.

It’s not that the facts are getting out. It’s that the Zeitgeist is being established independent of any entity with which BP can directly plead, cajole, or threaten. We are crowdsourcing the establishment of the snarky, ironic conventional wisdom. And in many ways, this is a much more powerful thing than the rise of mere fact-reporting bloggers.

It’s not just about reporting, which is how Web 2.0 (for lack of a better term) has largely been discussed. This isn’t the democratization of information. It’s the democratization of the takedown, the skewering, the needling. This is not the news media being disintermediated — it’s the professional satirists in the vein of Mencken and Rogers and Jon Stewart being replaced by amateurs, and lots of them. It makes it harder for any big entity or brand to remain hallowed and righteous for very long.

This is another facet of an argument I made last fall. Newpaper partisans like to tout the size and resources of newspapers as a key benefit in producing hard-hitting news. But in many ways size and resources are a handicap if what you want is really no-holds-barred coverage. The New York Times would never produce something as funny or as outrageous as BPGlobalPR, for both legal and structural reasons.

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