Marshall McLuhan is Still Wrong

by Dan Ward

Another day, another article discussing how social media makes traditional PR less relevant.   The latest comes from Chris Hogg at Digital Journal, who opines that “social media relations is more important than good PR.”

Chris’ article, which continues to advance the stereotype of public relations as a “let’s pitch the news media” business, suffers from a serious disconnect.

He correctly notes that “forward-thinking companies should have conversations with their audience and customers rather than talking at them,” but seems to believe that this is somehow separate from “good PR.”

Connecting with the audiences that are important to your success is the essence of good public relations.

Almost daily, I see similar posts and tweets declaring that social media makes public relations less important than ever, but as my colleague Roger Pynn wrote on this blog more than a year ago, the opposite is true.

Sure, social media allows companies to talk instantly and interactively with their customers and communities.  But does that mean they know what to say, when to say it and how to say it effectively in order to drive action?  Access to a medium of communication does not guarantee understanding of its use.

And yes, traditional publicity has become less important as the media landscape changes.  But “good” PR pros have been advising clients for years to look beyond publicity to connect with their audiences.  We advocated such strategies long before Facebook and Twitter were invented, and will continue to advise clients to pursue a multi-pronged approach to communication.

Social media has changed everything, but Marshall McLuhan’s famous statement is still wrong.  The medium is NOT the message.  Message must always come first, no matter whether the medium is a hand-written letter or a 140-character tweet.  Crafting the right message and choosing the right medium to influence opinion and motivate action (and sometimes deciding when not to speak at all) … that’s “good PR.”

9 Responses to Marshall McLuhan is Still Wrong

  1. I think your confusing long term messages from short term messages. McLuhan never meant that the content or message of a medium was unimportant. Certainly the words “Give me liberty or give me death!” will have an impact with the right audience regardless of the communication medium. What McLuhan meant was that the structure of a medium contains hidden biases that change our assumptions, manage our behaviors and manipulate our beliefs — over the long term — that have far more importance than the momentary call to arms.

  2. Of course that should be “you’re”!

  3. Roger Pynn says:

    Oh, contraire, Mr. Blechman. Where did McLuhan ever correct the widely held perception that he was, in fact, predicting the day when the shiny balls on the table would attract more attention than the game of marbles?

    McLuhan was all about the wrapping rather than the git.

  4. avoidingthevoid says:

    The marbles example doesn’t quite work. In a game of marbles, the message of the game is not the marbles but the actions, positions and possibilities of the marbles during a game. The marbles and the table are the medium as they are the ground against the message of moving marbles. The ground is also the rules of the game, which when in full swing, recedes into the background as the focus is placed on figures at play. Thus the message or content of the game itself is arbitrary (who wins or loses, the thrills and spills). The point is that people are engaged in an inter-subjective mode of activity demanded by the medium of the game which pulls the players and audience into a mode of abstraction towards each other and their environment. The only time the marble itself is in view is when it breaks, preventing the game being played, thus bringing the hidden ground of the marble into view as figure.

    McLuhan wanted us to be aware of the ground not by itself but as constituted by figures (thus the medium is the message), how these heat up and cool down, enhance, obsolesce, reverse into and retrieve other figure/ground relationships by their use and abuse.

    You emphasis a “multi-pronged approach to communication”, which means that you have focus across multiple mediums, where your message can be presented in the context of the medium you select and, more tellingly, from those you don’t select (I’m not sure how your message would impact people if it was delivered by carrier pigeon, town crier, or barber shop quartet).

    I really do recommend reading ‘Laws of Media’, it’s quite short, and could be shorter, but it’s full of some fascinating ideas. If you disagree with my analysis, don’t hesitate to correct me. I’m fairly new to McLuhan but I can see how easy it is to put his catchphrase into the wrong context.

    NB – Your metaphor of the gift is also mistaken. As the medium is the gift-as-social gesture, of social recognition, debt and obligatory reciprocity. The message is the gift-as-specific thing which could be a car or a teddy bear. Were you never told: “it’s the thought that counts”? It would be more accurate to say, McLuhan was all about the gift-as-social gesture rather than the gift-as-specific thing.

  5. […] While this move seems to contradict every prior move from the Church to remain as traditional as possible, I applaud them for embracing new media and recognizing, as my partner Dan Ward put so eloquently, the Medium is NOT the message. […]

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