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The Harvard Business Review’s list of breakthrough ideas for 2007 includes a contribution from Duncan J. Watts of Columbia University. It details research he and colleague Peter Dodds carried out into the impact that influentials – “a tiny minority of special individuals…who are unusually informed, persuasive or well connected” – have in driving the actions of larger communities.

The pair used computer simulations of populations, manipulating variables relating to people’s ability to influence others and their tendency to be influenced. In contrast to beliefs held by many marketers, the best recipe for spreading influence wasn’t through a small group of influential people. The key factors were the availability and connectedness of many easily influenced people, “just as the size of a forest fire often has little to do with the spark that started it and lots to do with the state of the forest”.

It’s difficult to draw broad conclusions on influencers, as every market where these dynamics are at play has different characteristics. While the study confronts the stereotype of popular kids influencing the clothing brand choices of their peers, it ignores market-specific factors such as the influence that a respected product review blogger has over the purchasing decisions of regular readers.

The author recognises this, asserting that the real value of the study is that it clarifies the point that while “it is almost impossible to generalise from one situation to another…such generalisations are difficult not because of insufficient data but because any focus on individual attributes alone overlooks the importance of network effects”.

All of which makes me glad to be in PR. Understanding influencers means understanding relationships – an attribute that has always been at the heart of the discipline.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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On Constantin Basturea’s recommendation, I’ve belatedly read through ‘The Cultural Tribes of Public Relations’ by Greg Leichty of the University of Louisville’s Department of Communication.

Through the liberal application of cultural theory, Leichty posits that there are five main viewpoints within discussion about public relations. These can be summarised as:

  1. Fatalist (a.k.a. Marvin the robot from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) – “PR’s rubbish and doesn’t really have an impact, either on the publics it seeks to influence or within the organisations that it’s part of. It’s just fluff really. Let’s all call it a day and go and find something worthwhile to do with our lives.”
  2. Egalitarian (idle, cynical and representing a depressingly large segment of the general population) – “PR’s evil, man. They’re trying to mess with our brains.”
  3. Hierarchical (the strongest viewpoint in the industry in the UK, coming through particularly loudly from representative bodies like the IPR and the PRCA) – “PR’s an established business discipline that needs to be taken more seriously by senior decision-makers in organisations. The way to get there’s through demonstrating our value with lots of charts and graphs.”
  4. Autonomous Individualist (the information provider, and potentially a journalist’s ideal PR person) – “I’m a helpful PR person, providing updates to journalists when we have product or company news, I’m not too pushy, and try to help out where I can.”
  5. Competitive Individualist (the schmoozer/bluffer) – “Sorry I’m late. I was out last night with Bob, a reporter on XYZ magazine. PR’s all about who you know, not what you know.  That coverage report you were after? Um…”

Ok, so maybe I’ve lost some of the nuances, but it’s still a nice framework to use when looking at blogging on PR.

Most industry blogs tend to come from a hierarchical viewpoint, sometimes with a smattering of the competitive individualist. I guess that’s not surprising, as the fatalists and autonomous individualists wouldn’t be making the effort to blog, and if you’re an egalitarian you’re not too likely to be inside the industry in the first place.

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