Memetic Turn, 6.11.2011:

Public relations after the memetic turn

von Benedikt Koehler.

I don’t like the term PR 2.0. It suggests an improved version of something that has been around a long time. Some bugs have been removed, some new features have been added. But all in all, it’s still public relations as we know it. I think this is not the case.

Why? Because we went through something that can be called the “memetic turn” or “memetic revolution”. The concept of course refers to Richard Dawkins memetic theory in his “Selfish Gene”. Basically, memes are bits of information (images, metaphors, jokes), that are spreading through a network. Originally, Dawkinsian memes are encoded in genetic material, but here I will not refer to the evolution of behavior or species, but to the evolution of media. In a nutshell: Memetic communication is destroying society – mass society to be precise. This is because the meaning of memes seldom can be decoded by everyone, but is only available to members of one distinctive community. Think of a picture of a LOLcat “I iz eating your GTD folder”) in comparison to a headline such as “USA declares war on Germany”. The first is memetic, the second isn’t.

Usually we think media evolution interdependent with social evolution. Mass society created mass media and so on. But it is exactly the other way around. When we look at the origin of the nation state, media such as national newspapers, national traditions, national novelists came first. With Benedict Anderson, we can argue that national newspapers created the first nations.

At the beginning of the 21. century, we can clearly see the demise of the national newspaper, national Television or national politics (e.g. the Volksparteien in Germany). At the same time, there is a distinctly non-national medium on the rise: the Internet. In the beginning, we framed this medium in terms of the ascent of the global age and the first iconic representations of the Web always has been the globe.

But the more we look at the Web, the more we discover that it is no global medium, but a tribal one. Ideas travel through the various social graphs not the way global mass media would do, but their path resembles the way information was distributed in the various accounts of classic ethnologists. A large part of online communication is memetic – using strong icons for communications, that can only be deciphered by relatively small tribes, and no longer considered newsworthy for the general public.

And finally, I come to the role of public relations. The bad news is that one of the first casualities of the memetic revolution has been the general public. This is a quirky situation for an industry that has been mostly about telling stories to the general public or to journalists (that in turn translated the stories for the general public).

The good news for public relations is, that after understanding the implications of the memetic turn, there are not fewer but more opportunities to tell your stories. A lot more. But the skills are changing. Public relations is no longer about writing press releases that are attractive to the general public or some vague sociodemographic audiences (e.g. “Entscheider”).

The work of a PR professional resembles more and more traveling shamans wandering from tribe to tribe and delivering their highly special and individualized services to different communities.

The skills include:

– getting to know the relevant tribal audiences and identifying the locations and communal boundaries of the tribes with the help of tools such as social media monitoring

– learning their dialects, rituals, social structure by participant observation at community gatherings online as well as offline (netnography)

– translating the story to be told for the lifeworld of the community

At the moment, the first memetic PR shamans are already mingling with their relevant communities. They are mostly self-taught practitioners, but I am very optimistic, that the skills will be sooner or later be part of the regular curriculum for public relations professionals.

As matter of fact, the memetic turn can also be understood as an appeal to practitioners to return to the forgotten task and original promise of public relations: Go and create relations! Today, one should add: And let them be sustainable relations.



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