The rise of social media, facilitated by the widespread uptake of new technologies and social networking sites, is forcing a shift in the skill set, strategic and tactical approaches undertaken by those working in communications professions. In this article I will draw a link between community managers as cultural intermediaries operating across social media and how this is impacting the established view of public relations best practice theory.
Evolving facilitation of cultural production
For centuries organisations and institutions have sought to engage with their different stakeholder groups in a meaningful way so as to secure their ongoing prosperity and survival. This has given rise to a suite of communications professions that seek to build a bridge of understanding and engagement between the organisation and the target audience, in this sense acting as intermediaries. Intermediaries can be described as “the individual responsible for the mediation of ideology through cultural production and consumption” (Hutchinson, 2014).
Over time there has been a shift away from unidirectional or transmission models of cultural production (Negus, 2002) towards Hall’s (1973) concept of encoding and decoding, where meaning is not fixed, but rather exists in a more fluid state, open for interpretation and reinterpretation by the consumer (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013), easily evidenced by fandom around Star Trek.
Symbolic production is central to the work of cultural intermediaries in providing this point of connection (Bourdieu, 1984) and often comprises of advertising imagery, promotional material and marketing techniques (Negus, 2002).
People engaged in these professions range from gallery curators and television producers to public relations professionals and marketers, all of whom act as cultural intermediaries between creative artists or commercial enterprises and consumers. As outlined by Negus (2002), cultural intermediaries form a point of connection or articulation in the gap between production and consumption.
For example the development of a series of apps for the Natural History Museum in New York, which help visitors explore the museum and engage with displays aided by GPS technology:
Studies have shown that marketing and public relations cultural intermediaries can play a pivotal role in “connecting production to consumption in such a way that their practices can shape the product and, in some significant way, feed the practices of the public back into the design and marketing process as a form of social knowledge” (du Gay et. al. (1997) in Negus, 2002). However, Negus goes on to argue that this is not always the case and far more often there is neither enduring ‘articulation’ nor substantive dynamic linking production with consumption.
This was written at a time when the widespread use of the internet and WEB 2.0 were still relatively new. Since then, technological advancements, including the advent of the smartphone, have supported the global rise and mass adoption of social networking sites (SNSs). These changes have expanded the gambit of work undertaken by cultural intermediaries.
Social media has become an integral part of everyday life and influences how we reflect and engage with family, friends, colleagues and wider society (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013). What is so striking is that it places social interactions and cultural representation on display via platforms that are designed to invite further engagement. What may once have been private personal interactions or content sharing is now open.
In this way social media “provides new avenues for dissemination and engagement” (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013); and as Hutchinson (2013) points out, “the technological affordances and benefits of participatory cultures provide the rationale for organisations to engage in production activities with institutional online communities”. As a consequence, social media community managers can be considered cultural intermediaries, operating across a wide range of SNSs and networked publics.
A recent successfully employed example is Friskies cat food in the US, which launched a series of humorous ads that tap into what people find appealing about celebrity internet cats such as Lil Bub, Grumpy Cat and Colonel Meow. The first video in the series has been viewed over 21 million times:
Before delving into role and responsibilities of community managers as cultural intermediaries, it is important to acknowledge the complexities of the social and societal operating environment and the emerging tension between empowerment and control (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013).
The user or the user?
Livingstone (2005) states that “the signs are growing that the once-anarchic, perhaps emancipatory internet is subject to increasing attempts to privatise, commercialise, control and profit from the activities of consumers online”. For example, the leveraging of non-celebrity talent by professional musicians.
Hinton & Hjorth (2013) point out the dual connotations of the term ‘user’ as the controller and the controlled.
Drawing on Jenkins (2006) and Burns (2005) Hinton & Hjorth (2013) describe how social media reflects the rise of participatory culture, which empowers users to create their own content and become producers – both producers and users of content.
It is worth noting the distinction between user created content (UCC), created by users for other users; and user generated content (UGC), a broader term that encompasses sharing or forwarding of content. Regardless of the high culture – low culture debate described by the Frankfurt School that may arise at its mention, possibly the most successful example of UCC is Fifty Shades of Grey, which was created as fan fiction for the Twilight Saga.
The duality of social media and the internet more broadly as a “democratic revolution”, providing a mechanism that places the ability to control of production in the hands of the many, and a “commodifier” of personal information, creative and cultural labour, requires facilitation and a careful balance to be managed by the cultural intermediary.
Community management and a changing model for public relations theory
The ability to do this successfully requires a sound understanding of the audience, how it consumes content and what materials resonate and engage. This allows the agent to plan and deliver content that builds a vibrant and valuable online community.
For cultural institutions, Hutchinson (2014) outlines the role of intermediaries in aligning the perspective of the contributing authors with the regulatory frameworks of the hosting institutions.
In his foundation work, Grunig (2001) explains his Excellence Theory for public relations and the symmetrical two-way model as being the most effective form of communication between an organisation and its target audience.
It could be argued that social media, facilitated by SNSs, enable a model that is neither two-way nor fully symmetrical in the way Grunig described it, but could, through effective mediation, build a more robust and effective mutually beneficial relationship.
Some may argue that this ‘ideal’ exists in theory alone. I would suggest that through a deep understanding of the audience, organisation and environments where they interact, the cultural intermediary or community manager could play a pivotal role in building a model that comes close.
It should be noted that this is not and should not be a utopian ideal, points of difference and conflict are inevitable. It is how these are managed that is important. A good example is George Takei who has built a personal brand and Facebook following of 9.6 million people. His success lies in his ability to deliver new, funny and thought provoking content that the audience wants, and manage robust community interactions via established community guidelines.
In recent years I believe there’s been an evolution in how organisations view social media and the role they can and should play at the interface between their brand and an online community.
The 2011 #QantasLuxury Twitter competition was described as “perhaps Australia’s greatest public relations failure and a classic example of the dangers of unpredictable social media” (Taylor, 2011). The campaign was not in touch with customer sentiment at the time and people across the country used the hashtag to air their personal travel grievances. @Kiwi_Kali summed up what many people thought was happening in Qantas Head Office as the company tried and failed to stem the flow of criticism: #Qantasluxury Somewhere inside Qantas HQ a middle aged manager is yelling at a Gen Y social media “expert” to make it stop.
There was a strongly held view at the time, particularly in more risk averse organisations that if social media and online communities could not be controlled, then the risk was too high for the organisation to have a presence on SNSs.
In reality, where a common interest or other driver exists, users form networked communities, networked publics and intimate publics. Conversations, UCC and UGC will form and flow around an organisation, brand or subject matter area regardless. Organisations can choose to be part of the conversation, or not. Thinking has evolved on this point and it is now more widely accepted that the real longer term risk lies in not having a presence.
The challenge then becomes for a “corporate organisation incorporating online participation within its production activities is to create a governance system that encourages the skills of its staff and online users, while developing an open governance model rigorous enough to promote user-led innovation while maintaining the organisation’s focus” (Hutchinson, 2013).
Where social media may once have been seen as the domain of more junior employees given they were more likely to be ‘part of the younger generation’ that ‘gets social media’. In reality social media should be a key consideration in public relations strategies, with significant attention placed on defining the target audience and methods for developing and encouraging content generation.
As Hutchinson (2013) goes on to say, “the cultural intermediaries must understand and negotiate the needs and requirements of all the stakeholders engaging in cultural artefact production”.
This being said, as much as social media and SNSs can be viewed as a brave new world; in reality the fundamentals remain remarkably unchanged.
Hinton & Hjorth (2013) make the point that it is easy to see social media as a technology that is changing society, however the relationship between technology and society is always complex and social media is particularly so because it crosses through some of the most fundamental parts of our societies. In this way, “social media is both changing society as well as responding to and reflecting changes in the society” (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013).
What is interesting for public relations is whether social media creates an environment that forces a re-evaluation of accepted best practice theory. It would seem that symmetrical two-way communications as described by Grunig (2001) may be superseded by a-symmetrical multi-directional communications, where cultural production is facilitated by cultural intermediaries.
Bourdieu, P. (1984). A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. London: Routledge.
Grunig, J. E. (2001). Two-way symmetrical public relations: Past, present, and future. In R. L. Heath, Handbook of Public Relations (pp. 11-30). Thousand Oaks , CA: Sage.
Hall, S. (1973). Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse. Birmingham: Centre for Cultural Studies, University of Birmingham.
Hinton, S., & Hjorth, L. (2013). Understanding Social Media. London: Sage Publications Ltd.
Hutchinson, J. (2013, October). Communication Models of Institutional Online Communities: the Role of the ABC Cultural Intermediary. Journal of Media and Communication, 5(1), 73-85.
Hutchinson, J. (2014, April). I Can Haz Likes: Cultural Intermediation to Facilitate “Petworking”. M/C Journal, 17(2).
Kiwi_Kali. (2011). Hashtag Highjack – Lessons from the #Qantasluxury Fiasco. Retrieved May 29, 2015, from Ignite: http://ignitepr.com.au/hashtag-highjack-lessons-from-the-qantasluxury-fiasco/
Livingstone, S. (2005). Critical Debates in Internet Studies: Reflections on an Emerging Field [online]. Retrieved from London: LSE Research Online: http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/1011
Negus, K. (2002). The worl of cultural intermediaries and the enduring distance between production and consumption. Cultural Studies, 16(4), 501-515.
Taylor, R. (2011, November 22). Reuters. Retrieved May 28, 2015, from Epic Fail for Qantas Twitter Competition: http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/11/22/us-qantas-idUSTRE7AL0HB20111122
Posted by: Justine Mackay