Imagine Marcus Welby, MD, the avuncular 70s TV doctor with the kind bedside manner, being invited after 40 years in solo practice to run a hospital with the revolutionary Dr. Gregory House, his modern day TV counterpart. My guess: Philosophies clash, tempers flare, patients either die tragically or sue over mistakes borne from the doctors’ personal biases.
This pairing from hell mirrors the polarization in today’s public relations environment, where the power of the written word has an equally valid partner in the visual.
On one side sits Dr. Welby, a longtime power in the field, revered and trusted, making rounds with his traditional stethoscope and bag. (He’s the proverbial “power of the written word.”) On the other, Dr. House, driven, according to Wikipedia, by “radical therapeutic motives.” (He’s the symbol of nouveau social and visual communications.)
How did we get here? The long answer is that newspapers, books and magazines begat radio, changing the way stories are told and news is absorbed. Radio begat TV. Ditto massive changes in stories and style. Next came the Internet (or Web, really) not exactly from the womb of TV, but more a hybrid of print, sound and pictures with storytelling potential all its own. Text stories run shorter on the Web because lengthy reading online is uncomfortable; It’s a browser after all, not a reader. Online videos, in turn, are shorter than TV shows, partly because of bandwidth limits but also because our modern taste for brevity carries over from text. And, it turns out, we like to make our own videos too -- short ones, mostly.
Finally (at least for now), the Web begat Mobile. It’s every bit the revolutionary change as its ancestors. Mobile transforms everything in its path -- news, entertainment, relationships, commerce – and how we share experience in each. And that experience is fundamentally visual, making “writing for smartphones” a virtual non-sequitur. That’s perhaps less true for tablets but even with them words are secondary to endless, miraculous rearranging of pixels you can touch.
So visuals, never entirely in the wings, now occupy center-stage in the Age of Mobile Communications. Dr. House has triumphed, even as the constant pace of innovation in visuals challenges everyone in the field. The dominance of TV, the Web and Mobile clearly show us that visual news and information today is consumed and shared first, and text second.
But the insightful, warm Dr. Welby hasn’t been booted off the island, er, hospital. While we Welbyians (including me) must adapt rapidly and redefine our concept of news and what it means to do public relations, we still have much to offer our Housian social and visual media counterparts.
It’s not as if old, rigorous standards are going away, but they are being matched by new ones in social and visual media. PR professionals who gained entry to the field by passing a rigorous writing test and who still know the AP Style Guide by heart are learning they also need a facility with rapidly changing social media and an in-depth understanding of visuals and graphics.
Still, as the industry demands ever more, many of us in the Old Guard wonder: Who are we?
Answer: Communicators in the most exciting time we’ve seen since Gutenberg – if we can lay down our arms and join our visual colleagues in the same effort. Good writers will always be an imperative, but the big change is our recognition that visual and social communicators are equally necessary. With its components in harmony, the PR industry will be exponentially more effective. Absent that cooperation, people are destined to falter.
We all needn’t master Photoshop and Final Cut to be viable in PR. Visual communications is a specialized discipline, requiring a four-year college degree. Visual and verbal aptitudes are distinct from having a knack for writing. Expecting dual mastery would be like looking for Dr. Marcus House. But it’s high time for those who see themselves as writers to develop a deeper understanding of the growing role of visuals in our work. They aren’t decoration or an afterthought. They are powerful, shareable communications vehicles that drive our industry today.
Keeping with our metaphor, few would be comfortable seeing a proudly change-resistant Marcus Welby, despite his courtly bedside manner. An ABC News interview with a Pennsylvania doctor captures it this way:
"Early in practice," said Dr. John Messmer, associate professor at the Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey, "if I had a clinical question to research, I had to go to the library, pull out multiple years of the Index Medicus, look up the topic, write down the references, go to the stacks and pull the volumes of journals, find the article, read the article, go to the copy machine and make a copy. ... If I were lucky, I would have my answer in about four hours."
"Now I can be on rounds and in five minutes have more information on the topic than I need," Messner said. "On my iPod Touch, I can look up a medication, check the formulary to see if it's covered, check for interactions with a patient's other meds and double check details of the pharmacology of the med, plus quickly review the problem I am treating. And I don't even have to go online."
We would never take our child to a doctor who is 10 years behind in medical advancements. We hold them accountable to know the latest proven methods and technologies as we place our lives in their hands. How can we expect any less accountability for PR professionals in their sphere?
Of course, it takes more than Google or the online version of Index Medicus to make a proper diagnosis. A seasoned doctor brings immeasurable insight from the experience of seeing streams of patients daily for years.
The same holds in PR. We who are a little gray around the temples should be able to offer the benefit of years of experience that people in their first years on the job can’t match, try as they might. For that matter, I repeat, the written word still has immense value; the ability to write effectively will be a talent and skill that brings value to our profession and our world until the end of time. However, today, there ought to be a spirit of mutual admiration in our field. But I see a lot more friction than admiration or mutual teaching going on. I hear visual communicators marginalized as “decorators” and traditionalists who don’t know Foursquare belittled as hopelessly outdated. Social media strategists are dismissed as “gurus” in their niche, implicitly blind in other areas.
These vital and interdependent disciplines must blend in a communications framework that embraces all the elements needed today for a successful campaign – social, visual and text. This framework places at the center the issue that always mattered most, and still does – The Story; a story that advances the brand or business goals. A story can focus on an organization’s work in AIDS relief in Africa, on earnings, the CEO’s personality, hall chatter at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, hiring trends. It can be about 12 guys in an office growing moustaches for Movember, raising funds for prostate cancer research. The key change today is the imperative to stretch, to find and perform on ways to leverage that story across all media (text, images, photography, audio and video.). Failure to go beyond the written word or other basic outreach strategies is to ignore the profound changes in the media marketplace – in our world, for that matter.
An example of a traditional “white paper” may be illustrative. Ever since the advent of the Web, companies have been putting thought-leadership tomes on their websites – lengthy and often valuable pdfs. There is great value in putting that white paper on your website. Today, however, there is far greater value in unlocking the information from within the whitepaper, and breaking it out reconstituted as videos, interviews, images, graphics, photography. Think story first, format second. If your white paper is about your organization’s research in vaccines, why limit all that knowledge to a solitary format on a lone destination? Create intelligent data visualizations of the story and place them on your site, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Scribd, Slideshare. “Film” a few of the key scientists and put the video on your site, YouTube, Facebook … Put the audio version on iTunes and elsewhere. If you have the resources, “film” the actual research as it’s being done to amplify and extend the value of the research itself. Footage from within the lab can infuse the process with humanity, making more tangible and memorable the claim to thought-leadership.
It all seems simple enough, and it is. It’s what PR has been doing since it began to “improve the relationship between an organization and its publics.” Today, those publics use more tools with distinct powers, have different expectations and learn in different ways than even a few short years ago. To meet this change, we must expand what is meant by a PR professional and welcome the integral elements of social and visual into every effort. Avoid disciplinary biases at all costs. Without that integration, no one will be watching our clients’ news on their newspapers, or listening to stories about them in a magazine. Instead, Dr. Welby will be sharing a room with Dr. House in the same mental ward, both made crazy by the other.
David Krejci is executive vice president, digital communications, at Weber Shandwick