February 10, 2016
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The PR power of now


In some quarters, it has become almost tediously fashionable to bash Twitter. Some say it is downright doomed, and so-called ‘purists’ have been fretting about rumoured changes to the service.

Twitter does seem to have plateaued with respect to new user acquisition, and as a suffering TWTR shareholder, I wish that weren’t so. But wearing my other hat as an avid Twitter user, I’m not convinced that go-go growth to satisfy the stock markets is everything it’s cracked up to be. I think it’s more important to consider the character and quality of the Twitter experience, both of which are far from perfect, but they are unique and important — especially in the public affairs and public relations spheres.

In this, my ninth year with an account, I have actually never seen Twitter more powerful than it is today as the place to be for what’s happening now. At least where I live my professional life (primarily in the ‘Anglosphere’ world of marketing and media), Twitter has never been more consequential and essential.

To start with, Twitter is a channel of choice for leaders who have something to say. Most politicians are there, and so are most celebrities from a wide range of domains. More and more journalists are active (for a variety of reasons, from crowdsourcing story ideas to job anxiety and the need to be ‘seen’ in a social media frame). Just about every public relations professional worth their salt has a Twitter account. As for CEOs, they do seem more comfortable on carefully controlled company websites, but the select few who use Twitter to communicate continuously and orchestrate the connectivity and emotions of their communities are awarded the coveted ‘social CEO’ reputation badge.

I find a leader’s mastery of Twitter the real ‘acid test’ of whether or not they are a ‘social’ leader. Even in the PR world, where Twitter is the industry’s medium of record, some of the most senior agency leaders seem to do pretty well as publishers on LinkedIn (where they can basically blog as they have been doing for years), but then when it comes to Facebook, they look more awkward and on Twitter they struggle and languish. Fortunately their employees ‘get it’ and they are using Twitter with aplomb for their own thought leadership, as a contact manager, as a trending news and media monitoring system, and as a complete crisis communications suite for their clients.

I have also noticed the addressing anchor which Twitter provides information workers. As fax numbers on business cards have been going the way of the dodo bird, the @name moniker has often taken its place over the years. Then there is Google, with searchable Tweets. Of course, when you want to find out about somebody, their Twitter page is among the first results that appear at the top of the page when you search for their name.

These observations are all fine and good (if unoriginal in some cases), but nowhere is Twitter’s continuing importance more apparent than its role driving the news cycle. It used to be that newspapers were at the top of the food chain, where broadcast media would follow their lead and interview the people they already quoted. Then 24×7 cable TV news was where people turned for breaking news. While many still do, often it’s with one eye on Twitter, which is usually the first with pictures and videos and the inside dope from the front lines of what’s really going on. TV news can often be too ‘corporate’ and overproduced, too polished and slick. Twitter stands in contrast as a ferment of authentic voices from diverse sources and divergent polarities on the spectrum.

The 2016 American presidential race offers a compelling case study. Every campaign’s present moment is being lived on Twitter, and there is a real-time cross-pollenization of ideas and developments with the mainstream media. For political junkies like me, Twitter has become a de rigeur part of the election experience. If you believe in democracy, then there is something exhilarating about voters and candidates and journalists interacting around events and issues plus sharing major milestone moments together.

Because a career in PR is so much like working on political campaigns, maybe that helps explain Twitter’s appeal as a tool of my trade. Instead of party leaders, we have CEOs. Rather than pledges and policies, we have corporate missions and visions. We are not championing candidates every few years, but we are promoting products and services where every day seems like election day, and Twitter is tailor-made for that kind of dynamic.

Yes, Facebook looms larger all the time and Instagram is getting more popular. Messaging apps like WeChat are going places. Snapchat has a lot to offer. There is a role for all these platforms, and I’m on all of them. But I have a special fondness for Twitter and I feel enough of a stakeholder in its continued success to spend a few minutes writing this personal take.

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