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Toni Muzi Falconi: The ability to create virtual communities is great professional challenge for PRs worldwide « CIPR Students Blog
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Toni Muzi Falconi: The ability to create virtual communities is great professional challenge for PRs worldwide

July 1st 2009
Тази статия част от Interview

Interview with Toni Muzi Falconi for CIPR Student’s Blogmuzifalconi Toni Muzi Falconi: The ability to create virtual communities is great professional challenge for PRs worldwide

by Nelly Benova

Apeiron Blog met Toni Muzi Falconi at the 50th General Assembly of the European PR Confederation (CERP) in Vienna. We dedicated more than an hour in a nice Austrian coffee bar discussing and sharing insights about how social media (Wiki, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) had changed our professional lives. The conversation focused on different aspects of the new media - how they have developed in the recent years, what new abilities should PR people have in order to keep pace with the new technological developments,  have we adapted or adopted the changes, etc. If you are tempted to go further in this professional chat Apeiron Blog gives you the opportunity to spare some minutes and read the very essence of T.M. Falconi’s thoughts on these issues.

Do you think social media have been effectively integrated into the PR practice?

The answer is very simple – no. I do not think that social media have been successfully integrated into current and mainstream PR practice. Social media is a new and changing phenomenon and therefore to be able to integrate it into the PR practice one needs, first of all, to understand what it is all about. In my view, more than 50% of the professionals involved in the public relations practice have not yet understood what social media is about. Just to give you an example: if you asked me this question only two years ago there would have been about 2 or 3 social media tools. Now we have at least 6 and maybe in 2 years we will have 18 and they are different one from the other. Therefore it is very difficult to consider social media as a construct to integrate into the PR profession. I mean there is no comparison you can make between for example Wiki and Twitter: two completely different things. For us, to understand what television was about when it came in our profession took a long time. And we still have difficulties understanding it today.

How do PR people adapt to new challenges?

Of course, all this has changed the profession very much. How do we PR people adapt to new challenges? Well, when we are forced to adapt as in this case we tend to have more a reactive rather than proactive approach. This is not a phenomenon that we have created and therefore we have not been proactive and creative. We just try to deal with the consequences that it delivers to our profession. Most of all we have in mind the threatening part of social media to our established view of the PR profession. Corporations and large organizations in general are much more worried about the consequences of social media rather than interested in the opportunities. Some of my colleagues are more optimistic and believe that PR owns social media. I don’t think so. I think that PR is a servant of social media and we tend to be late adopters rather than early adopters.

Do you agree with Michael Murphy¹ who said that the PR practitioners are better positioned regarding the advertising specialists in exploiting the opportunities that provide social media?

You know, it’s one of those things that you can always see as two sides of a coin. The advertising community has reacted negatively to the internet for many years. However, the ad industry has now been so much hit in real terms by the internet and social media that it is very quickly adapting in sense that there is an enormous change in the ad industry which is, in a way, faster than the PR industry. So I think that Michael Murphy might be right. But only because we have less to lose. But from this to say that PR profession has understood and adopted rather than only adapted social media I would say is not true.

How Social media relations should be taught - separately from the traditional media relations courses or integrated into these programs?

Well this is a very important question. Let’s see what the situation is today - in Europe today there are about 30-35 universities which have begun specific courses dedicated to social media in their curriculum. In the United States it’s probably more or less the same number. And this gives you a good idea of how Europe is catching up. I fear that the reason why we have these special courses is that mainstream media professors haven’t a clue of what social media are about and don’t don’t know how to teach it, while the younger educators who have more familiarity with social media consider this an opportunity for them to advance in their professional carrier. So, they are advocating and pushing for specialized courses in social media. There are some risks in this division/separation. The first is that the younger students are presumably more attracted to social media than to mainstream media and therefore they will, if they see that these are separated in the curriculum, they will tend to consider mainstream media as an older thing and social media – as a new thing. This is not true because what is now happening is that mainstream media is very quickly integrating social media, to the point that is itself becoming mainstream. Of course I realize that this is a problem because if we put social media under the mainstream media hat and mainstream media professors know nothing about social media students will not study social media. So it is an open question….

As you mentioned, mainstream media has integrated social media very quickly. So we cannot say that social media jeopardize mainstream media?

Mainstream media is fundamental for democratic institutions and we know that we prefer to practice our profession in democratic countries rather than nondemocratic ones. We must advocate reinforce support and consolidate mainstream media; we must do everything we can so that mainstream media continue to exist and flourish and integrate completely in social media. Social media in itself is not democratic by definition. If you take 100% of the contents in social media, the democratic part of this content is much lower than 50%. Terrible things are happening out there in social media. Of course, I’m not judging if this is right or wrong, but this is a fact.  I have nothing against social media or internet, being used by individual and groups who have nondemocratic aspirations. I believe every individual is a medium and therefore can do whatever he or she wants. I’m totally against any form of regulation. But I think the more it becomes mainstream, the less it will be negative. There always will be negative sides. I think the educational institutions – universities, professors and all the activist of all educational processes should be interested in maintaining democratic institutions and therefore I think that they should integrate social media into mainstream media courses.

What new abilities PR experts should develop in order to keep pace with the new technological developments?

We have a professional practice and body of knowledge that have some very interesting pillars. One of these pillars is called, ever since the end of the 19th century, organizational events. And this is still one of the fundamental roles of the PR profession. In other words, on behalf of any interest - whether it is social, public or private  - we organize events to attract the interest of specific publics and the organization attempts to argue or to advocate or to present products, processes, ideas, policies, etc. The arrival of social media has enormously enlarged this opportunity. Social media not only allows you to create many events but it allows you also to create spaces in which these events take place. So, instead of the traditional event in which you find the right hotel, place or location, we will need to learn how to create continuous events also in the virtual environment. So we are changing our profession and we are becoming architects and we need to create spaces in which publics not only to listen to us, which is the traditional way of organizing events, but also  speak with each other and therefore there is a horizontal conversation going on amongst our publics. Our role as PR specialists is not only to create a space but also to make it attractive because there are so many other competing spaces. Therefore the creation of virtual communities is by far the biggest challenge that we have in this arena. Today a physical event has little sense if it’s not tied to a virtual event and every virtual event has very little sense if it is not tied to any physical event. For example, you are creating a conference. There is a ‘before’, ‘during’ and ‘after’. The “before” and the “after” as well as the ‘during’ are well to be helped and facilitated by virtual communication. You can have questions coming in from outside, through Twitter, through emails, through chat-text, sms, whatever you like. You can have video streaming of your contents. And you can segment your publics according to their interest so that they can create their own virtual communities inside that space you organize for them. So they can interact among each other. This implies that we are not only working on contents, we are also working on forms. That’s very important. We have never been very good in creating forms. We’ve always let that skill to graphic designers, architects. We need to integrate this, not to be good in everything but we need to know how to govern the process. This is where the competition has moved.

So from this perspective, the competitions will become stronger than we know?

This is absolutely true. Not only there is more competition amongst professionals in PR but there is more competition with many other professions too because, clearly, we do not own social media - there are many others that are strongly oriented to social media and every single individual is entitled and actually uses social media and therefore is a medium. The traditional paradigm of our profession - you’re the gate keeper, you’re the spokesperson…these are all shattered, they don’t exist anymore. Everybody can interact and you don’t own anything anymore.  And if you want to keep up to it, you have to be very attempting to what’s going on, you have to know about technology and that’s other skill which is important. You cannot leave the technology only in the hands of the technologist. Of course you will always need a technologist. But if you’re the public relator you need to a have complete grasp of the situation.

Should we engage with the more technical aspects of the new style of communication or we are just engaged with the content writing?

I would like just to expand on one point. It is not only the technological aspect and it is not only the content aspect. Very important is also the form aspect. Of course, we can argue about the separation between content and form, philosophers have been doing this for ages, and I would agree if in content you also include form. But if you think of content in the traditional public relations interpretation, then we have to think also very much about form. would like just to expand on one point. It is not only the technological aspect and it is not only the content aspect. Very important is also the form aspect. Of course, we can argue and I would agree if in content you also mean form. But if you think of content only as content as public relator’s thing, than we have to think also very much about form.

In this regard, what are the future challenges that the PR profession should be able to address in the next few years?

I just want to cite one which is normally not very argued and I take it as the most important of all challenges. Ever since the PR profession was consolidating, the added value which we brought to the table is the skills and capabilities, the capacity to modify opinions of publics so that this opinion will turn into behavior. The client, whether a government or politician, or political party, or soap producer or public sector organization, or NGO, will pay you to change opinions because he is stereotyped , and this stereotype is that public opinions will eventually turn into behaviors. I don’t think this is true anymore. I think there is a growing gap between opinion and behavior. The reasons for this are many but I will just cite one or two. One reason is that publics are fragmenting continuously and there are no longer ‘public’ publics, there are many segments, infinite segments of publics. All these publics change during the day: the same individual is a member of different publics every day and the reason is that he changes opinions on the same issues according to the profile he is interpreting at that moment, and this because there are no more points of references. Let me explain. If I decide to walk on the street and then after 1 hour I take an automobile and drive for another hour and then I decide to go into the subway and take public transport; and then after 1 hour I take a motorbike…and if somebody comes and asks my opinion about mobility in urban area, I will give four different answers to the same question. As I changed my behavior because I walk, drive, take the subway, I use a motorbike; I change my own opinion on what the situation should be. So opinions are of course very important but they are not necessarily the ones that drive behaviors anymore. Now, what are the implications - you can extend to voting behaviors, consumer behaviors, etc.? If this is true, of course you have to demonstrate it. 15 years ago if I had a client who said ‘We will give so much money and adequate human resources’, I would have been able to change the opinion of x politicians, or y consumers. On the basis of my professional experience I would have said yes or no, I will or I won’t do it. Today you cannot say and guarantee anymore. So what are the implications for us? Certainly not to forget about opinions, I would never say anything like that, but we should very much more concentrate on behaviors rather than opinions. Because in the moment our clients start understanding that there is a growing disconnect between opinions and behaviors they will not pay us anymore to change opinions. We have to concentrate our attention on behaviors. There are many ways this can be done and of course this is not only a concern for the public relations community but also and even more so the research industry. There are ways you can observe and learn from behaviors much more than you can observe and learn from opinions.

How should we research or observe behaviors?

There are many ways to do this – consumer products usually have mystery shopping, you have data, you know scan codes – how many people have bought your product at the end of the day. You have a number of tools you can use to observe behaviors. But this is passive. Participant observation.There are also active ways to observe behaviors. If you take the tradition of PR – we have opinion leaders. So why don’t we recruit voluntary third party endorsers or third party listeners and observers and get them out there on the market place to observe the behaviors of publics? So, instead of using third party for spokesperson, you use third party to listen? That is one way, you can practice it. This costs a lot of money. It may be so, but also opinion research costs a lot of money and you should know that opinion research is not that useful anymore. Why don’t you transfer part of the money to participant observation, to voluntary and militant participant observation? This is typical PR ability.

- - - - - - -

¹ - CEO, Trimedia International

About Toni Muzi Falconi

It is impossible to present Toni with just a few words.

Since the inception of his career in 1961, Toni Muzi Falconi has operated in the fields of public relations and public affairs. At the moment, he is Senior Counsel of Methodos spa, the Italian change-knowledge management consultancy, which operates in Milano and Rome.

Apart from his reach professional background, he also has outstanding contributions to the PR community in Italy and worldwide. Mr. Muzi Falconi was President of Ferpi, the Italian Federation of Public Relations from June 2000 to June 2003, and in July 2002 was elected founding Chair of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management until December 2003. The Global Alliance, initially formed by 24 national associations, now has 65 members which represent in excess of 150,000 professionals. In June 2005 he received the Alan Campbell Johnson Medal for outstanding contribution to international public relations. Furthermore, he was granted Honorary Fellowship of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations.

Mr. Muzi Falconi held the undergraduate chair of Public Relations Theory at IULM University of Milano from 1999 to 2002. He taught the postgraduate course in public relations at the University of Udine in Gorizia and the master’s degree program in CSR at the University of Bologna in Forli , as well as the master’s degree in public relations at IULM University in Milano. Since 2003 he regularly teaches ethics and deontology of public relations in IULM’s Master in Corporate Public Relations course and in LUMSA’s Master in Event Marketing and Management. He taught public affairs and public relations at LUMSA University in the Vatican. He is a professor in Global Relations and Intercultural Communication at NYU’s Master of Science in Public Relations and Corporate Communication.

Toni Muzi Falconi is author of four books on communication and public relations issues.

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  1. Bruno Amaral каза:

    Regarding the idea that social media is not integrated into PR, I have to agree that for most part it is not. And I say this because in Portugal agencies still need to abandon the broadcast model.

    There are no set methodologies and sometimes not even clear services in the digital realm. And we even managed to lose ownership of areas that are PR in nature, such as Search engine Optimization.

    But PR’s goals was always to understand the public or the various number of publics. This means understanding the way we all communicate in society. So I think things will look up when the most of us get pass the initial learning curve and come up with clear methodologies and areas of service.

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