Divergent in the World of Social Media

This blog post is a part of the Social Science for Social Media Research Center at the Institute for Public Relations.

tomConvergence
As a public relations scholar researching social media and teaching an introductory communication course at the University of Hawaii more than ten years ago, I found Henry Jenkins’ concept of convergence to be a godsend. In a two-pager in MIT Technology Review, Jenkins wrote that we shouldn’t think of convergence as a single construct, but rather multiple types. I’ve found four types of convergence especially helpful in making sense of social media in public relations:

  1. Technological convergence. “When words, images and sounds are transformed into digital information, we expand the potential relationships between them and enable them to flow across platforms,” wrote Jenkins.[i] This adds all sorts of social media options to the quiver of public relations tactics.
  2. Cultural convergence. According to Jenkins, convergence is “both a top-down corporate-driven process and a bottom-up consumer-driven process.”[ii] Public relations practitioners work where the two meet. They must understand and communicate from the standpoint of their organization’s cultural values while understanding and interpreting their publics’ cultures back to the organization. Participating actively and transparently in social media is an important part of managing these relationships.
  3. Economic convergence is evident in the vast networks of conglomerates like Omnicom, Publicis, WPP and Interpublic. These giants own firms that integrate social media services across the functions of advertising, strategic media planning, digital marketing, direct marketing and, of course, public relations.
  4. Professional convergence is basically integrated communication. From the intern to the manager to the CEO, organizations operate best when everyone has a good sense of how their job fits into the larger mission. Someone who places a hashtag in a TV ad should know what is going to happen when viewers jump to their second screens. Those monitoring the hashtag conversation should be in tune with the management of the organization hosting the exchange. The account executive, the media buyer, the advertising creative, the social media strategist, the online host, and the executives of the organization itself all need to work in concert.

The idea of convergence(s) worked so well for me in that broad communications class that I pitched an idea to Oxford University Press for a new introductory textbook for public relations. They liked the idea. Reviewers liked the prospectus, which included a foundational chapter on convergence and integration. And I was soon underway with what has been the biggest single project of my life. Even the timing was perfect. I was finishing my three-year term as chair and was heading into sabbatical.

Then I became chair of the advertising department at the University of Florida—a totally new job in a totally different institution. Talk about disruption.

Divergence
Aging in academia is a funny thing. If you start teaching young enough, you have the advantage of sharing all the pop cultural references. Then the gap begins to widen. A few years into fatherhood, I accepted the fact that if a student mentioned a current movie that wasn’t rated G or made by Disney/Pixar, I probably hadn’t seen it. Add social media to the mix, and it’s even harder to keep up. You have to depend on Millennials to fill you in. But then you get a second chance to try to be hip as your own kids start to grow up.

Last summer my son read Veronica Roth’s Divergent, and I picked it up after him. I was quickly hooked. In Roth’s dystopian future, society is divided into five factions, “each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue—Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent).” Everyone has a particular role in society. The protagonist is born into Abnegation, but she chooses to join Dauntless at age 16. Beatrice changes her name to Tris. Switching factions is a permanent and profound decision, but that’s only the beginning of the plot. Tris soon learns that she is… [spoiler alert here] …divergent. She will never fit into a single faction because her character cannot be dominated by any one virtue. Being divergent puts her at great risk because it makes her a threat to the social order. But it also helps her foil an epic scheme for world domination.

I won’t go so far as to suggest that Roth’s factions can be mapped onto public relations and advertising! I will, however, say the concept of divergence resonated with me as I wrestled with my academic identity crisis.

Dualisms
Public relations is full of dualisms: symmetry and influence, independence and loyalty, and advocacy and accommodation, to name a few. Social media raised the profile of these theoretical questions and brought us back to some important tactical questions as well. Push or pull? Controlled or uncontrolled? Paid or earned? Owned or shared?

Making sense of today’s trends in branded content, native advertising and the like requires yet another dualism. Theorists, researchers and professionals in both advertising and public relations must be both convergent and divergent. We have to see how everything converges. And at the same time we must stay true to the core virtues of our unique professions.

Recent updates to the Barcelona Principles of measurement illustrate the point well.

“While the Barcelona Principles were intended to provide a foundation for PR programs, the updated Principles recognize that they can also be applied to the larger communication function of any organization, government, company or brand globally. In fact, measurement, evaluation and goal-setting should be holistic across media and paid, earned, owned and shared channels.”

Happily ever after?
My son went on to read two more novels in the Divergent trilogy, and I haven’t been able to keep up with him, so I can’t tell you how this all ends. Once again, I’ll have to look to a Millennial for insight. In any case, the last two lines of the first novel perhaps offer a glimpse into of all of our futures: “I am no longer Tris, the selfless, or Tris, the brave… I suppose that now I must become more than either.”

Tom Kelleher, Ph.D., is professor and chair of the Department of Advertising at the University of Florida.

 

[i] Jenkins, Henry. “Convergence? I diverge.” Technology Review, 104, no. 5 (2001): 93.

[ii] Jenkins, Henry. Convergence culture: Where old and new media collide. NYU press, 2006. p. 18.

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