The roll call of dictatorships falling (or tottering dangerously in the case of Gaddafi today) is exhilarating and continues to dominate the news agenda and front pages (even pushing the NZ earthquake off the front pages which is striking because this event is so tragic and much closer to home with the UK’s ties to New Zealand).
What’s also interesting is watching how commentators are arguing over the real role of social media and social networks in triggering and driving these mass movements that have been so unexpected. Today’s UK Guardianlooks at this issue in depth and makes the point that we are seeing events unfold through ordinary people’s footage posted on Facebook et al. This is a vivid feature of what’s going on and links back to how some many media events now are told through social media (remember the 7/7 tube bombing footage). But is social media running or simply recording the revolution?
We had some inkling that this could happen when Twitter was lauded as enabling last year’s Green Revolution in Iran over the disputed election. What’s different this time is that protests haven’t been extinguished as viciously as they were in Iran. Personally, while I credit the powerful role that social media and the Internet has played recently, it still seems to me that successful protests like these depend on the sheer physical bravery of citizens who are no longer willing to be cruelly oppressed and the willingness of powerful components of the state apparatus – the army, police, national TV media – to not take part in the repression e.g. look at how the departure of Mubarakwas hastened by the reluctance of the army to intervene on his behalf. That latter is probably the most critical factor as has been the case in other popular uprising (e.g. the break up of the Soviet Bloc in the pre-web era)
So what’s this got to do with PR? Other than how a poor response to getting Brits home has been a PR crisis for the first PR man to be prime minster, it is a reality check about what is happening on so many levels. Social media is becoming more woven into people’s lives globally(and not simply in the West) and the influence of publishing personal content online can be powerful when topical and unique. But it also tells us how social media is a tool not a panacea for solving all of our problems. As in revolutions, social media works best in PR when done in conjunction with other tools and disciplines. And when you put in a lot of hard work and slog.