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A World Without Authoritative Physical Media

If “the Medium is the Message,” Then What Level of Authority Does it Convey?

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A version of this post originally appeared on LinkedIn.

My colleague Harlan Loeb, global chair of the firm’s Crisis and Risk practice, has long talked about “the negotiability of truth in the digital age.” This viewpoint reflects the fact that digital content is infinitely malleable and fluid, with intellectually insular “echo chambers” all-too-easy to fall into. (Stephen Colbert called it “wikiality,” a cousin of his more famous neologism “truthiness.”) In the simplest terms, you and I may form different opinions by consuming vastly different media and, even when we read the same media, the context or content may be altered.

But do different physical media convey different levels of presumed authority? Any PR professional who has ever had an executive ask “…but is it in the print edition?” knows that, at least generationally, there’s a vestigial preference for paper as a means to convey a level of importance or permanence.

Taking this concept to perhaps its most provocative level, filmmakers have taken an excellent short story from Technology Review’s science fiction anthology and adapted it as Scattered. io9.com called the subject of this haunting short film “the worst crime you never imagined.”

Sound dramatic? Well, before I get into what this means for communicators (and inevitably convey spoilers), take a short break in your day and watch the eleven-minute film:

Are you back? Good.

The spoilers follow.

There’s little that would be able to save us from a global disintegration of paper as described in Scattered. (If you ask many publishers, a paperpocalypse has already occurred, at least in the ways that count most to them.) The importance of original documents passionately conveyed in the film — they curiously omit passports, deeds and birth certificates alongside books and photographs — is therefore tough to overstate.

I’m not one to pile onto the “print is dead” bandwagon. However, given that “authoritative” paper is declining as a medium and assuming that media consumers will continue to exhibit a strong preference for digital, it’s not crazy to think that a company should behave as if a paperpocalypse has already taken place.

What does this mean in practice? One could (ahem) write a book on such a topic but, in the meantime, consider the following three areas of potential focus:

  • Move from presence to participation: An organization needs to be a long-term, widely-endorsed contributor within the communities it most wants to influence, providing content of mutual and objective value. It’s not enough to be on the latest, hottest social network. Ask yourself: how you can help that community do what it does better and in a way that simultaneously supports your communications goals and the goals of that community?
  • Show that you make the most complete case for your point of view: So much of communication is focused on repeating message points without acknowledging the strengths and deficiencies of an opposing point of view. At most, this too often stops at unsustainable feature-benefit mudslinging or “specsmanship” (e.g., “We offer four microprocessor cores; the other guy has two”). While people have been generally trained that to acknowledge an opposing viewpoint is to endorse it, audiences will come across that viewpoint just as easily as your own anyway. Making the complete case shows that your organization is above the fray.
  • Provide a canonical source: Yesterdecade’s pundits have long been running around saying that “the home page is dead.” Some believe that a “mobile strategy” can be solely executed on Facebook and Twitter. That’s fine advice if you’re comfortable with a social network’s executives and shareholders dictating the sole terms of your communications with your desired audiences. Owned media will necessarily grow in importance relative to earned and paid, putting pressure on organizations to deliver experiences that parallel education, news, information and entertainment.

Today’s communicators need to be very comfortable with high levels of uncertainty and be able to prepare their respective organizations with an analysis of risks, solutions and tradeoffs. While a fungus-borne paperpocalypse is highly unlikely, communicators would do well to consider how their jobs might change if it were to happen anyway.

Based in Chicago, Phil Gomes is a senior vice president in Edelman’s Digital practice. His undergrad thesis was on Cold-War-era science fiction film and television. Please try to conceal your surprise. Thanks.

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