4 “Present Shock” Trends – and What they Mean for PR

I interviewed author Doug Rushkoff in March ago regarding his book, Present Shock.
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In the book, Doug discusses trends that effect how we live, communicate and soak up and produce info and culture. One of the most startling relates to something he calls Narrative Collapse, i.e. we are living eternally in the present and thus losing the ability to understand complex stories. My interview with Doug focused on what Narrative Collapse means for marketers.

More recently I wrote about how the events and news coverage around the Boston Marathon bombing sounded a lot like some of the realities described in Present Shock. I thought it would be a good time to revisit Doug’s book and get his take on implications of other aspects of Present Shock for marketers and the PR field.

I interviewed him again, and list my questions and his answers under each trend outlined in the book, along with a brief explanation.

it is heady and complex stuff, and hard to do justice to in a brief post, so I suggest that you go out and get his book.

1. Digiphrenia

Digiphrenia is the confusion that results when we divide our attention between the digital world and the real live here-and-now. In this chapter, Doug also discusses recognizing chronos vs. kairos; i.e. chronological time vs. opportunistic timing:

Q: How do we leverage kairos? You advocate taking breaks from the digital world – yet how can a busy reporter or PR person do this without missing something important?

A: Most simply, we have to recognize that not all times are the same. It sounds so crazy and outlandish, I totally get this. But there are better times for some things than others. Monday isn't the same as Wednesday. We kind of get this. A party on Monday night is going to be different than a party on Saturday night. But we don't apply it in our operations and communications, except in the most rudimentary way, like timing things to the news cycle or the work week.

Most companies seem to think of time as generic, and that growth should move smoothly upward no matter what. Markets and audiences can't expand and contract. They have to grow steadily. Well, nothing in nature does that. And humans – particularly networked humans – are moving into increasingly natural relationships to one another. Unlike a mass media world, where we all are timed to the same central clocks and programming, people are now engaging in a lateral fashion, and getting their timing collectively as a culture.

We should begin to respect "timing" over "time." That's what the book teaches people how to do. What's the best time to tell dad you crashed the car? It has nothing to do with the time on the clock. It's more about timing: after he's had his drink, but before he has opened the bills.

On an individual level, this means respecting that you can't be always on. You can be a great, always-on journalist or PR person or Twitter watcher for a few hours. But then you really do get to take time off. That's how the crews on submarines do it. They take shifts off when they are really *off*. That's because when they are on they need to be really on. If we attempt to do our jobs all the time, we end up not doing them very well.

On a company level, it means understanding the timing of your market, consumers, employees and investors. You can't email them calls to action every day, like The Gap does. People grow immune. You have to time these things, http://twitter.com/#!/AllthingsIC that's all. And the way to recognize what's the best time is by appreciating the ebbs and flows of your market.

2. Overwinding

Overwinding means temporal compression… it is what happens when we attempt to ”squish really big timescales into much smaller or nonexistent ones. It’s the effort to make the ‘now’ responsible for the sorts of effects that take real time to occur – just like overwinding a watch in the hope that it will…. run longer than it can.”

Q: Should we run to temporal compression or run from it? Should we feed into overwinding by continuing to urge consumers to Act Now? How do we “spring load appropriately”?

A: What I try to teach in the book is just that. Answering how to spring load appropriately in a single paragraph would be overwinding. Some things really do take more than six seconds to convey. It's really that simple. The way to spring load appropriately is to be able to tell the difference between what should be jammed into tiny time frames, and what needs time to unfold. "Act now" has become increasingly irrelevant in a culture that's always on. We know it's still going to be there. You can't make us feel any more pressured than we do. We don't believe you.

The alternative – the welcome alternative – is for companies and brands to be available to us in *our* time. And you don't figure this out through big data analysis of your consumers, but by becoming a living member of their culture. Your company, your brand, becomes the medium not the message. You are the bed of culture on which we people do what we do.

The other trick to getting out of overwinding is not to be slaves to your shareholders. They really are the enemy of living or operating on appropriate time scales. The smart public companies are going private for a reason.

3. Fractalnoia

Rushkoff explains that fractals “offer us access to the underlying patterns of complex systmes while at the same time tempting us to look for patterns where none exist. This makes them a terrific icon for the sort of pattern recognition associated with present shock – a syndrome we’ll call Fractalnoia.”

Q: How can we use fractals to understand the media landscape? How do we get on the rising wave of the next hot topic? Does screech (i.e. noise from the instant feedback of social media) make online reputation management impossible?

A: Lots of big questions – all best answered with an hour of work reading this chapter! What I try to do in the book is convince people in all sorts of industries to learn how to see the patterns underlying what they do: the landscapes instead of the subjects. So yeah, that means learning how to see the media less in terms of its subjects than its shape – the "standing wave" that actually carries the various subjects and stories that come to us. If you want to put something out there, it's a bit like joining a game of jump rope. You have to learn how to see the patterns and the underlying rhythms.

The screech of instantaneous feedback doesn't make reputation management impossible; it merely changes your high leverage point. You can't go at it as a form of crisis control. Your reputation isn't some external aspect of brand that you manage independently. It is tied to who you are and what you do.

The great PR people have always known this. I've spent time with Howard Rubinstein, the original crisis manager, and he always said that you have to change the story by changing the story – not just by changing the way it's told.

Q: “Just doing all the right things” sounds a lot like the same old social media transparency ethos / advice – we are assuming here that we have good and ethical clients, all who want their slice of attention.

A: Now the "just doing all the right things" advice is a bit old, I admit. But I was the one who started saying it back in the mid-90s with my then-controversial book "Get Back in the Box." I argued that social media would generate transparency and that this transparency would require a return to basic competency. And it was laughed at! This was the era of Jack Welch's General Electric, when Harvard Business School was advising people to sell any productive assets and become more like banks. The idea was that competencies required labor, and labor costs money. And that you can make more money simply lending money than selling real things.

While that might be true, we can't all be banks. The landscape becomes too crowded and then the banks fail. Oh wait – that happened.

So instead we can choose to become deeply competent. Deeply so. But that requires finding and building your culture. It's more than just doing right things. It's doing them in such a way that you attract the best employees, who then attract the best consumers, and so on. It's not easy. It takes more than reading an article to figure out.

Q: Is it a fool’s errand to try to stay ahead of the curve, monitor social media and media, and use this info for planning?

It depends what you are using social media for. It's a fool's errand if you're using it to figure out what you're supposed to be doing. That's reactive and stupid. It's not a fool's errand to use it to learn the rhythms and patterns underlying the culture you mean to serve and be a part of.

And of course you need to have representatives throughout the social media space, because it's become the default public complaint desk.

4. Apocalypto

Rushkoff calls “a belief in the imminent shift of humanity into a different and unrecognizable form” apocalypto.

Q: This chapter contains great advice, for example “find the sweet spot between storage and flow.”  Can you please expand on these ideas?

A: Yeah. A lot of this chapter recaps the call for balance throughout the book. The way out of present shock involves balancing between various poles. Like the need for immediacy and the need for relevancy. Without balance, it's easy to skid – like you're on ice. That's because we don't have the temporal bearings we used to have. Everything becomes a doomsday scenario. We don't take into account all the governing factors along the way. We just spin out into panic.

At the same time, we can't just wave our arms at the change we're undergoing and expect it all to just go away. We have to engage with our enterprises in new ways. But retaining traction requires we make sense, orient ourselves, learn our culture, and do so in real time. This sense-making doesn't happen on the balance sheet, or in the big data. It happens in the real world.

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