Friday, February 27, 2009

Managing the Unknown Internet

Public relations is a management discipline and as such has to apply management techniques to what it does. So far we have shown a number of such techniques when used to optimise campaigning. All too often we have also mentioned the need for risk management.

Even today, many management teams are wary of the internet and many see it as a threat. For some there is no doubt that it is a threat and needs management.

New channels for communication emerge and often with great speed, the internet is driven by many people and there is much presence that is not controlled by the organisation. Much of internet activity does not follow the usual linear models for management. The sequence of events can be as easily disrupted by the online community as the marketing of finance departments.

The lesson is obvious: plans have to be fluid. We need to be able to master the unknown. We have to grasp opportunities quickly and we need tools to help us make judgments – often at short notice.

The solution is to adopt practices from other disciplines in which “management of the unknown” is common. Some of the greatest benefits to modern living have become possible because we know how to manage where there is uncertainty.

There is a great deal of useful experience in this field, and for example, De Meyer, Loch and Pich[1] offer insights that can be used by relationship management practitioners. One can adapt these ideas for use in online public relations.

So what does uncertainty look like in the fast moving online environment? De Meyer et al offer four uncertainty types — variation, foreseen uncertainty, unforeseen uncertainty and chaos.

Internet traffic data, displayed in time series (a sequence of events, measured typically at successive times, spaced at (often uniform) time intervals such as daily or monthly), has a number of characteristic properties, widely known as "stylised facts", which are different to other kinds of time series:

· They tend to be long-tailed, i.e. there is a higher frequency of very extreme events than have a long life and tail off slowly.

· They tend to show long-range dependence, e.g. search engines will find content that is old and present it today, people will remember and bring content to the fore long after it was news to another group and so forth (the Internet has a 'long memory' and 'time shifts' information – and reputation).

· They exhibit volatility, i.e. the apparent variance (from the plan or anticipated outcome) is not a constant but tends to fluctuate irregularly, something the internet has in common with traditional media that can bring back old news to support a new story.

These are challenging concepts, but can be visualized by thinking about books or recordings sold through an outlet such as Amazon. Traditionally, a band might release a single, which was bought contemporaneously by a lot of people, making it a ‘hit’, before it slipped out fashion. Traditional record shops stocked the big sellers and knew it was not cost effective to maintain stocks when the song dropped out the charts. But the economies of scale offered by Amazon, allied by the infinite amount of virtual shelf space it commands, means that songs that most have forgotten are still available. Ok, they will sell very small quantities but, they are sales nonetheless and cost of storage and display is minimal on the website. This is the well noted ‘Long Tail’ effect[2].

The same long tail effect can be applied to news stories. Whereas once most people would read a story when it was splashed across the front page of a print newspaper and then discard it, such stories are now part of digital archive, quickly accessible to search engines. Each individual story may not be read by a huge volume of people on any one day, but its readership stretches down the long tail (the 'value of the story has a very long 'shelf life'). This too has implications for PR in that today the news never quite goes away. It may be forgotten by most readers, but Google has a long memory and is always ready to serve up scraps organisations might imagine had long vanished.

In other words we are not quite sure where and when our online programme will pop up or in which platform or channel.

The practitioner can use some well known techniques to second guess what will be fashionable or will work (and those that won’t) using risk and opportunity techniques well established in other disciplines[3].

One thing we know is that risk and opportunities changes are dependent on complexity. If a programme is very complicated there is more to go wrong and online PR, with its range of platforms channels and contexts, is quite complicated. But as we now know the opportunities for considerable incremental success is greater.

[1] Pich, M.T., Loch, C.H. and De Meyer, A. (2002) "On uncertainty, ambiguity and complexity in project management." Management Science, 48(8): 1008-1024

[2] Anderson, C. 2006 The Long Tail, Hyperion

[3] Risk Management literature include: (C. Chapman and S.Ward, “Project Risk Management” (Chichester, United Kingdom: Wiley, 1997), 7. R.L. Kliem and I.S. Ludin, “Reducing Project Risk” (Hampshire, United Kingdom: Gower, 1997), 10-25. Chapman, “Project Risk Management,” 10, 241.).