Digital PR and the Advent of the Amateur Professional

Members of the media are facing a growing issue, should they choose to conceive of it that way. This isn’t a hyper-specific concept either—it impacts us all: Journalists, PR’s and marketers, TV and radio broadcasters, and even bloggers.

I’m talking about the growing segment of the population who are quickly becoming amateur professionals—those people whose passion, or hobby for that matter, has become something more.  Whether it’s been monetized or just done excellently enough to garner an audience, media at large is under constant scrutiny from the eyes of a public asking an unsettling question: Will we always need media professionals?

To answer that question, it may help to track the rise of the citizen media member, and then do our utmost to establish a baseline for what actually makes a media professional.  Perhaps the biggest question of all is also the most looming: How blurry can the lines stand to become?

The Rise of Citizen Journalism

Modern media’s initial public offering began with the wide use of the term citizen journalism.  It engendered mixed reactions at its genesis, and it continues to do so today.  In the face of declining ad revenue and rapidly decreasing circulation, print journalism was asked to contend with something entirely new: Twitter.

Though no longer the social media powerhouse it once was, Twitter may have had one of the most immediate roles to play in normalizing a term that turned some citizens into newspeopleovernight.

But the question at hand has to do with what constitutes a professional anything in media, and whether any of us can sleep soundly knowing our jobs are safe.  Twitter provides a great springboard for trying to answer that very question, and it begins somewhere you may not expect: In Tunisia.

The Arab Spring sent citizen journalism to the forefront in a never-before-seen way, producing a mass of content that the mainstream media was unable to capture.  As trained, professional journalists labored inside locked hotel rooms, stuck behind firewalls, citizens who had taken to the streets to protest powerful and oppressive regimes became one of the only means of genuine, raw transmission of information.  It will someday be widely recognized as a turning point in the history of media—and it happened just ten years ago.

So is a journalist just anyone who is transmitting information? Does it have to get used, or run on a website, or appear in print? And what about the classic concepts of gatekeeping, and the Fourth Estate? Can citizens be members? Gatekeepers? Journalists?

The Power of Influencer Marketing

The world of public relations and marketing has taken more time to see an influx of citizen performers, and the discussion surrounding them certainly emerged with less force than it did in regards to journalists.

The discussion around citizen marketers was a slow burn, and unsurprisingly, nothing stoked the embers more than social media. Enter Instagram.

As traditional television ad spots stayed expensive, and audiences migrated online, individuals began to realize something: They were as effective, if not more so, than any agency.  As ‘normal’ people took up the social media mantle, they began to strike deals with brands, something no platform made easier than Instagram.

Rooted in the power of beauty in all its forms, the picture-sharing application that launched in 2010 wasn’t the origin of influencer marketing, but it was certainly its harbinger. Through the ‘Gram, people amassed enormous followings on the strength of their skills as makeup artists, their capacity to ride a bike, the perfect symmetry of their face, the frequency with which they travel, or any other number of things.

Influencers existed long before Instagram, sure, but they were at the will of television stations, media planners, and Don Draper. The ‘Gram freed influencers, and under that freedom, they multiplied.

“Citizen marketers” doesn’t have the same ring as citizen journalists, or at least it doesn’t immediately make me cringe, but it does have some serious staying power. Of interest is that the industry at large reacted really well.

Instead of doubling down on the value of trained professionals, savvy marketers took a step back and asked an incredibly important question before the internet’s capacity to cascade overtook them. “How can we get in on this?”

With that question, marketers re-entered the game, and the lines between professional and personal got more blurry than in perhaps any other profession out there.

There’s a cool concept in the social sciences called a ‘priming effect.’ Media priming, specifically, suggests that short- or long-term exposure to media messages can have subliminal and occasionally unintended impact on the people who take it in. Priming theories are often used to back conversations about topics like unintentional racial biases in media, or whether or not your kids will want to kill someone after playing Grand Theft Auto.

But the concept has a softer tone too, in situations where individual agents are capable of priming reactions to products in viewers and users—a huge part of why influencer marketing is so successful. At its beginning, people didn’t think they were being advertised to. They were primed towards products because they cared about people, not because they were looking for a new eyeliner. But that time is long past.

What makes a marketer a professional? Where are the lines between doing it for the ‘Gram and doing it for personal profit? And should the standards that apply to truth in advertising, product usage, and more always impact individuals? The brands they wear online? The bikes they ride?

Podcasting and Probability

We wrote recently about the continuing dominance of radio, one of the nation’s oldest and most pervasive forms of media. In a move that print journalism may have stood to learn from, radio went wide scope early on, with the introduction of satellite radio programs in 2002 that migrated to online options in 2006.

Satellite radio was a testament to people’s willingness to pay for premium, as the medium’s unbridled (read: no FCC regulations) delivery allowed uncensored music, the option for explicit content, and little or no commercials. It was a model that worked, and continues to do so.

But it also faces a threat, once again from normal people making an extraordinary variety of content. In the same way as Instagram changed the face of marketing, and the internet at large allowed anyone with a keyboard to call himself a journalist, so too has the internet fundamentally altered the audio landscape. Enter podcasting.

Podcasting may be the purest form of amateur professionalism yet expressed, because the barrier for entry is so low and the opportunity to gain listeners is so high. Anyone can upload a podcast to the myriad hosting apps, and what’s more is that there’s nearly no oversight. That’s why podcasts can be hyper-specific, and also very, very poorly done. But the flip side is that specificity, when aimed at a subculture or group and hosted by someone with a great personality, can translate into massive listeners and extraordinary programming.

A report from the Pew Research Center shows that podcasting has teeth. Popular podcasts gained almost 2 million listeners year over year from 2016 to 2017, and average weekly unique listeners also continues to grow. But as those listeners rise, classical media take notice, and then what happens?

Podcasting, like all these innovations before it, becomes a business.  Doesn’t it? I mean, if brands start buying ad space, do you move from the realm of amateur professional to genuine professional? And what’s your role as a disseminator of information? Should you be held to standards of accuracy, accountability or truth in information? Because none of those things are ever guaranteed. And when you can download NPR at the same time as Joe Schmoe’s News Show at the same time as Alex Jones, it should probably leave you wondering: Who here has standards?

Blurred Lines

I’ve posed a great deal of questions in this piece, and I have answered nearly none of them. But that’s because they’re huge, industry-defining questions. Put most simply, what makes a media professional in 2018?

I guarantee a blog post exists on the internet that seeks to answer the same questions I am raising. And I am also willing to guarantee that at least one of those wasn’t written by a PR professional, but a citizen media member with an interest in what separates a craft from a profession.  I don’t think the fact that I’m in this well-lit office with a nice succulent makes me more of a media member than anyone else. And I also don’t think the fact that I get paid is the only thing that should make me a professional.

If there’s a line to be had, it needs to exist in the standards that surround our content—not the mere fact that we’re making it.  Everyone doesn’t need to belong to a professional society, or even own an AP Stylebook (though everyone really should own an AP Stylebook, it’s an amazing resource).

Making media needs to have an assumed element of truthfulness to it—and that’s disappearing every single day—an erosion that’s cutting to the core of public trust, and making it difficult for people to come to the table with any kind of a baseline for fact. And that’s not just in journalism. Every subhead has its issues, and reasons for doubt.

Professionals will always have their place as those with an eye toward truth in reporting, and the mindset that learning is the base of advancement. There’s only one line that we should really draw, and it begins and ends at intent: Inform, engage, and do it with a mind toward truthfully bettering your public, whomever, or whatever, that may be.

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