We Know Nothing

Boy Raising Hand in ClassroomWe all like to go after the “Social Media Experts” claiming there’s no way anyone can a) be an expert in such a new field or b) such a quickly changing field.  Beyond the semantics (“expert” vs. “experience” (as much as one can get), “guru,” “knowledgeable in,” “has an instinctive grasp of,” or my favorite undefinable (but likely true in some cases) “just gets”) there’s certainly something to be said for being able to use labels professionally which make us appear to have some higher level of comprehension in our field (and in many cases this is true).

Here’s the kick in the pants — PR pros, and other professionals in the related communications fields, don’t really “know” anything either when it comes to this stuff that a first or second year wouldn’t.Can an experienced professional craft a story better – very likely. Do they have more sector contacts from years of practice – probably.  But at the end of the day, when you’re expecting the hit, it’s completely out of our control – whether that’s from someone who has 2 years of practice or 20, attended an ivy-league school or their local 4-year unaccredited university, has an APR or not.

Knowledge, at its basic, is probably best defined as a “justified true belief” of something.  A justified opinion or justified belief (“I’ve sold similar stories that have made it to the cover of top trades so I believe I can do it again”) is one thing.  We don’t know if the “true” part will happen until afterwards.

At best, the field we work in is a social science, as opposed to a hard science where you can remove all variables and get the same results time after time, year after year.  Public opinion and interest can be fickle, editors and editorial direction change, etc.  The introduction of new platforms (and SM isn’t the first – I’d bet the introduction of radio, television, “glossies,” etc. all had similar disruptive effects on the biz) adds new uncontrollable variables to our business that we can’t predict – ever.  Even putting aside public interest and opinion there’s simply no way to predict whether a larger, breaking story will bump yours from the date you expect it to run.

The point – anytime you’re in a comms meeting and hear someone use the word “know” (when referring to an end-game and not “I know Bob at the Times” or “I know the ad rates for that publication” – and even then, things change), put down your pen and start listening – it’s likely you’re being sold (or selling if you find yourself saying it) a bridge.

(And yes, sometimes we have to say it to portray confidence during a new business pitch — but be careful…)

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  • So true. I was very insecure when I first started out in PR that I didn’t know the magic formula – and then I realized no one does. Not my manager, not her manager, no one. It really helped me express my opinion more confidently, knowing that ultimately, well all know the same things. Which is pretty much nothing except for precedents, types of strategies and tactics, and how to write persuasively. (So, marketable skills and knowledge, but no “secret formula”.)

  • jeffespo

    I am glad you didn't sum this up with just three words, although you could have. The points on experience vs. new are spot on. No matter what an executive might think, it is really luck at the end of the day.

  • Great post. You are right that there is no formulaic response to media relations or really any other aspects of a sound communications strategy. While tactics, relationships, and outreach to all audiences will always be important, it is the combination of skill and luck that deliver results. I especially like your social science analogy. Professional communicators will always evolve (hopefully) to learn how to effectively reach stakeholders across the ever-evolving media landscape.

  • SaraKate

    For me, this was the best part: “At best, the field we work in is a social science, as opposed to a hard science where you can remove all variables and get the same results time after time, year after year. Public opinion and interest can be fickle, editors and editorial direction change, etc.”

    It's easy to think you know a lot when you've done the job, had the experience, read the material, prepared for interviews and future assignments, but – as you said – it is at best a soft science and it changes with societal shift. And that word “know” is a tricky one. Thanks for the reminder. 😉

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  • First off, thanks for mentioning the semantics behind the term expert. PR pros make too big a deal about that term in my opinion. Many clients say they are looking for a social media expert and in turn, what they want is someone with PR experience who gets strategy. Part of our job is selling ourselves to clients.

    Which leads me to my second thought…the difference between a 20-year and a 2-year PR pro is understanding strategy and relationships. There are so many variables in conducting a pitch correctly — knowing the best audiences across mediums to focus on, knowing the right people to share it with who might take the story on because of who it's coming from just as much as what it is.

    That's why networking is so important. Relationships do impact our ability to have success as PR pros. And in an industry where so much of it is a “social science” as you say, we still stand to benefit by focusing on the things — in this case relationships — that we can control.


  • Hey Justin –

    Thanks so much for your comment. I definitely agree there is a certain savvy and social/part-social part-professional structure or network that develops over time with members of the media and there's certainly no replacement for that.

    Unfortunately with our journalist cousins going through rounds of layoff, more becoming freelancers, or changing beats because of these cuts even these networks, among the things we can control, are quickly changing and what once may have been low hanging fruit (even if a very nice placement) has become increasingly difficult or required more spin :).

    One of my clients at my prior firm had a large presence in the mid-west. While pitching the smaller local papers out there we'd find a journalist whose beats were healthcare, banking and tech — at the same time, with the remainder of the stories in those fields coming in off the wire services.

    So, yes there's certainly things we can control and we should do our darndest to do so but it seems we're increasingly softer terrain as the years go on.


  • Marie Wise

    It's true, PR Professionals are most likely not experts at social media because it is such a new field. But what they are experts at is putting to best use the tools available to them, of which social media is one. Depending upon the campaign or goals involved, social media can enhance a PR effort, and PR Professionals can deterine the best way to do this. So in that respect, they are experts!