PR COG'S GEAR GRINDINGS

September 7, 2009

Too long for a comment…

This post is, in its entirety a response to a blog comment over at PRBreakfastClub.com.   Per my usual m.o. I chase down the points in the discussion to their conclusions so the answer got a bit long.  Rather than blow up the comment system at PRBC I posted the response here, with a link at the other page.  Any direct responses that might develop the conversation should be posted there.

Hi JR —

Welcome to the blog. I hope we can expect to see you around in the future as well.

All evidence to the contrary I don’t like to disagree with people but I’m intrigued by your comments. And so…..

Skipping your comment regarding the tech boom of the last decade and half, since I’m not convinced it has been driven by young people, it seems (from a number of your assertions) that we’re working with different definitions of “expert.”

Multiple definitions of expert include some mention of ‘expert’ status deriving from knowledge (through education/training) or experience in a particular area (wikipedia (whose page on this is actually quite good) and dictionary.com). Taking that into consideration it would appear that the ‘expert’ claim should only apply to a small piece (or multiple individual pieces) of the puzzle not the puzzle as a whole, likely because the puzzle is normally too broad of a landscape for any one person to be an expert in all of it.

Now, of course a significant part of this is semantics (and this is not an issue w/ your post but rather the definition and how we frame the question). Someone can claim to be a ‘computer expert’ but to use that term implies they know enough of what there is to know about every hardware and software option from mainframe and distributed computing systems to my iPhone (which is essentially a computer with a phone thrown in).

If we pare this down to ‘expert in desktop systems’ then we’re approaching something that is actually possible. I’ve had colleagues who are well versed in the three major desktop platforms and can be called upon to express an informed opinion based on education and experience. That being said, even they were not experts at each aspect of each system — they may have known the software platform but when it came to suggesting specific hardware or applications would occasionally fall flat. Part of the question when trying to call upon an expert is finding what expert you need.

Similar to researching a doctor, attorney, accountant, or flack….errr PR Pro — what area of the field do they know about — I wouldn’t approach an OB/GYN with questions about the rash on my arm, a litigator to form a company, a personal accountant to do the books for my Fortune 500 company or a book publicist to handle a new consumer electronic launch. Unless they’ve got true ‘mad skillz’ they don’t have the knowledge or experience in my necesssary small piece of the puzzle.

Anyway —

Regarding your mention of Netscape and Napster – taking a more macro view of technology – yes people still do use Netscape and Napster. Netscape introduced at least four technology revolutions (the company made the web practical for e-commerce by developing SSL, was one side of the 1st browser war, spawned the Mozilla Foundation (one of the major players in the open source revolution) and through Firefox is a player in the 2nd browser war). There’s still Netscape code on a significant number of desktop PCs in use today. Napster spawned the entire peer-to-peer file transfer system which kicked (and continues to kick) the MPAA/RIAA’s tush for the last 10 years. So while these two individual companies may have not had business savvy, to say they (or their users/developers) weren’t experts in their respective fields may be off the mark.

I am though intrigued as to the business savvy requirement / expertise connection you mention. I’m not aware of any claim that experts be profitable (consider all the sheer-genius absent minded professors we all know who are certainly experts but couldn’t balance a checkbook with an accountant and triple beam scale). And, while we’re on the topic, Netscape was purchased by AOL for the stock equivalent of 4.2 billion. Not too shabby.

I’m also of the opinion that examining twitter as the area of expertise these youngin’s can excel at might be under-inclusive.  Any PR Pro relying on twitter as the only aspect to a social media presence has not only missed the boat but is likely not anywhere near the shore. Social media is not just about a single platform but using the appropriate platform for the appropriate audience.   A photographer on twitter — great…I hope they’re also using flickr (or other photo site). A musical performer – they need to also be using a platform to distribute their files. A really long-winded PR Pro (*ahem*) that likes to analyze and discuss everything ad nauseam must have a blog to handle the volume of the writing because comment boxes can explode and Twitter’s just too short.

And to say Social Media hasn’t rewritten the ‘book’ (though I’m not sure which book we’re referring to exactly) would be, IMHO, a tad late as SM, in one form or another, has been around for approximately 2 decades and has rewritten many books. We didn’t call it social media back then — but AOL chatrooms, BBS systems, message boards, etc. were all early social media platforms.

Podcasting’s dead? Don’t tell the folks at the Wall Street Journal, Wired, or the other podcasters (especially the piles of music blogs). Same question regarding direct mail (I still get tonnes of it) and billboards (which I saw plenty of this weekend). As far as today’s “experts” being replaced — that’ll be the true test of expertise — whether today’s crop can adapt and move with the technology. I have faith that they can.

Plenty of ‘old skool’ flacks have joined the twitter revolution — it doesn’t mean they don’t pick up pen and paper (some literally — thanks Heather) and write a long form press release before announcing its presence to the twitterverse and flacking the dead horse there.

I don’t think we’re going to find piles of ‘underqualified for anything other than social media flacks’ anytime in the future, at least not the good ones (the bad ones will weed themselves out at some point no matter how much we try to help them). There’s plenty of hours in the day and days in the year for everyone to pick up a new skill to help them excel. In fact, the highly talented Valerie Simon has an excellent guest blog post on this topic at the Journalistics.com blog.  [Shameless plug — Valerie will be guest posting at PRBreakfastClub.com on Wednesday]

For comparison in another field Consider Marc Andreessen – one of the Netscape founders (an example of your choosing). Following the AOL acquisition of Netscape he went on to form Loudcloud (later Opsware) which was acquired by HP for 1.6 Billion and has recently formed Ning. If memory serves he’s one of the few silicon valley guys to have 2 billion-dollar (plus) companies acquired (Thanks @sarahcuda).

He co-founded Netscape in 1994, when he was 23. Opsware 5 years later, so he would’ve been 28. Ning in 2005 making him 34 at the time. He’s currently an investor in Digg, Netvibes and Twitter and sits on the board of Facebook, eBay, the Open Media Network as well founding his own VC firm, which (literally) days ago acquired a majority stake in Skype. At the age of 38. While we can’t all be Andreessens there are plenty like him who evolve and move with their markets. Learn the new tools when they become worthwhile and discard them when not.

That’s what life is all about – taking in the new, experiencing things, getting the most out of them, seeing how they work for you and then picking and choosing which parts you choose to retain and which you choose to not hold onto, carrying on and repeating.

Simple fact is there are still people using AOL notwithstanding how horrible it is. There are still people using non-smartphones even though there are plenty of options out there now for smartphones that do so much more. But their chosen tech works for them and their purposes. The same applies to direct mail, billboards and podcasts. If they didn’t fit the needs of the person or company using them they’d stop, but they do continue to work.

Given our prior discussion on what makes an expert I’m not sure how one can call oneself an expert when we can lead “a team working on technology we don’t even understand,” when one of the requirements of being an expert is knowledge or training in the field. Further I’m mystified where any kind of leadership requirement comes in. Is being able to lead a team a valuable skill — of course.

Can people who are not experts lead a team — yes: usually to failure unless that leader surrounds themselves with others who are experts in that area. Good leadership without specific expertise is done all the time with great success — Politicians lead their constituency without knowing everything there is to know about business, education, environmental issues, healthcare, etc. of their designated regions. Military leaders don’t know everything there is to know about the local population, geography/terrain, politics, climate, etc. of the region they’re working in. Rather they are successful because they know how (and when) to call upon the experts in the areas of knowledge in which they’re lacking.

“Technology changes, the basics do not.” I certainly agree with you here. I certainly hope the basics are still being taught. For flacks – proper sentence structure, persuasive writing, client and journalist relations, all that fun stuff. From the high skill level I’ve seen among the youngin’s around me it would appear we’re secure in the basics.

Though I am mystified by “only years of experience can give us the foundation that is needed to be truly effective with the twitters of the world.” Based on your own comment Twitter will be replaced in short order and no textbooks re-written because of it. When do these “years of experience” come in and why would you want “the foundation that is needed to be to be truly effective with the twitters of the world.” The great thing about “emerging technologies” is that those on top of their game will continue to learn the technology and stay at the front line of the tech revolution.

Since it seems from the lack of profile attached to your comment (and a quick google search) you’re not a Twitter user yourself, though I could certainly be wrong on that (I’m skipping the Facebook possibility because I know a number of people, myself included, prefer not to attach their professional work to a personal Facebook profile).  I am curious what “fancy computer witchcraft” you prefer/endorse for your professional activities.

I’m also a bit perplexed that you can’t do the jobs of the the ‘pen & paper generation,’ specifically if the basics do not change. Shouldn’t their skill set be an integral part of your own formal or on-the-job education? Perhaps you wouldn’t be able to do it with the same speed, flair or success rate, but certainly I’d expect you’d be able to do the work, even as the most jaded SM-worshipping PR Pro can still put together a press release that conveys the important information in some manner that is engaging.

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