On being disintermediated

There’s been a lot of discussion and thinking in the mediasphere lately about the tectonic shift in journalism, marketing, PR, etc., that for the purposes of this post I’ll lump into the broad category of communications. A common thread that unites many of these discussions I’ve been reading and partaking in has to do with the concept of disintermediation.

That’s a big word, disintermediation. An ugly word, too. And as much as I hate to toss big words around, I ask you to bear with me on this one. Disintermediation is the only word I know that fits the circumstance.

In economic jargon, disintermediation refers to the removal of intermediaries in the supply chain for delivering goods and services. Take the travel industry. Once upon a time, when you wanted to go on vacation or take a business trip, you would typically contact a travel agent to book your flight and make your hotel reservations. These days, you log on to Travelocity, Orbitz, Priceline or one of many other services and do all your booking yourself. The travel agency business has been disintermediated. The “middleman” (your local travel agent) is no longer necessary.

The same thing has happened in financial services (think Ditech and LendingTree), entertainment (Netflix, iTunes, Amazon) and many other industries.

But all of these examples pertain to the buying and selling of goods. What about the sharing of information?

Barbarians at the gate

What we think of as traditional media organizations — newspapers, broadcast news, magazines and the like — have been the mediators of information for a long time. They grew accustomed to being the authorities, the sources of information. They were the gatekeepers. It was one-way, top-down communication from hierarchical organizations. Similarly, companies used the same sort of hierarchical structure to advertise their goods and services in one-way communications channels. By the time colleges and universities figured out how to do marketing, promotion and PR, they followed the same path.

These are the “old-school” techniques Karlyn Morissette discusses in a recent post about new-school vs. old-school marketing methods. Karlyn summarizes the differences between the two schools like this:

It’s control vs. engagement

It’s spin vs. authenticity

It’s about textbook marketing vs. what works in the real world.

It’s about treating the audience as the enemy vs. embracing them

It’s sticking your fingers in your ears, singing “lalala” vs. accepting reality

As much as our communications challenges have to do with this struggle between the traditional old-school methods and the new-school approaches, it’s also about understanding and acknowledging the communications sphere as it now exists. We communicators are trying to shoehorn mediated communications into a disintermediated world.

Face it: we, the institutions — the companies, the marketers, the brand managers, the journalists, the editors, the educators — we no longer control the message (if we ever really did). Technology has enabled anyone to create and spread news about our organizations.

The hordes have stormed the gates of our institutions and are running amok, blogging, tweeting, Flickring, vlogging and blabbing about us without our consent.

What it means for news and media relations

Disintermediation, coupled with the democratization of news gathering and reporting and the bad economy, are converging to wreak havoc on the news business. Soon after CNN announced they were cutting their science unit, Jason Gorss posted a thoughtful entry about the demise of science journalism. In his piece, he pondered its impact on media relations for a university like the one where he works (which is similar to the one where I work, so you can see why I’m interested).

Summarizing comments he’s heard from fellow media relations folks, Jason sees two issues bubble to the surface:

  1. “As solid science reporting becomes less available to the public, we PIOs have an even greater responsibility to produce our own accurate, spin-free coverage of research at our institutions,” and
  2. “All of us — PIOs and journalists alike — need to take advantage of new media tools to develop creative ways of engaging the public, not simply bombarding them with scientific information.”

But there’s a third point many PIOs and journalists overlook, Jason says. He points to Jeff Jarvis‘s post A complete ecology of news to make the point. “He [Jarvis] tends to focus on bloggers, citizen journalists, and the like, but I think he raises some points that should be of particular interest to PIOs at scientific institutions. We have a unique relationship with sources–primarily faculty members–and it would behoove us to keep thinking about how we can best get their expert commentary in front of the people who want (and need) it.”

Much of the discussion that informed Jason’s post (and this one) stems from a listserv called “PIOnet,” which was created by Roger Johnson, founder of Newswise. Discussions there have led to Roger expanding the party to another venue — a LinkedIn group called PRwise — which is starting to catch on. Meanwhile, Roger continues to maintain the PIOnet listserv, and probably will for some time, since it includes plenty of media relations people who aren’t comfortable wading out into social networks (even one as narrowly focused as this LinkedIn group). And as we all know by now, no new forum ever replaces an old one — the best of them do enrich the experience for users, however.

We’ll see how it goes.

Finally, there’s the discussion I’ve been monitoring on a listserv made up of graduates of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Many of the participants are journalists who are looking for ways to hone their skills for the new media world. A recent post took the group to task for focusing on the technology rather than the core issues:

The technical expertise needed to publish on the web, even to create interactive features, is falling rapidly. Just think about what Soundslides did for the production of simple slideshows that use to require knowledge of Flash. More and more, online journalism is going to reflect a plug-and-play world which won’t require a technical class to accomplish day-to-day production. Another example: Today with little programing ability, one can create (for FREE!) a robust content management system in Drupal (and other platforms), which rivals what many of publishers have spent thousands upon thousands of dollars on.

You’re not going to learn to think critically and creatively about the future of the industry, multimedia publishing, new business models, digital culture, etc., by taking a computer class (ore almost any other skills class). Theory-based classes are more important than ever to give students analytical and critical thinking skills, but that’s exactly what is being cut from journalism curriculum to teach more skills that are going to be outdated within a couple of years of graduating. But if we give students — and mid-career professionals —- the intellectual skills to be innovative in their approach to the questions facing journalism, they’ll be well positioned for years to come.

Obviously, though, it’s much easier to retool our skill set than our intellectual approach, which is exactly why we’re in a crisis from which journalism may not fully recover.

Now, to tie these threads together:

What does disintermediation mean for those of us who work with media, and as intermediaries, delivering marketing messages and so forth?

I see our role as moving to two-way communication. We will become facilitators of discussion and conversation as much as we are communicators. We will become listeners, hosts and moderators of discussion — online and elsewhere — as much as the talkers (or shouters) and sales force.

That’s something we’ve been trying to do with our blogs at S&T. With spacebook, the blog we created as a forum for our alumna-astronaut Sandra Magnus to use to talk with the people of earth, we are facilitating a conversation. Yes, we initiated it, but it is more than a one-way announcement or shoutfest. It is a forum and a virtual third place where people of all ages are coming to learn about space and stay up-to-date on her life on the International Space Station.

That’s just one example of how we are trying to adapt to this disintermediated world. I know that many other schools are doing many other worthwhile things. It’s up to us to help those who are not yet walking this path to show them the way.

Now I’m sounding like a preacher, which means it’s time to stop.

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Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

6 thoughts on “On being disintermediated”

  1. Excellent post, Andrew, and something I’ve been thinking about myself as someone who has been a PIO in higher education for almost 20 years and who is trying to see what the “death” of MSM means to higher ed and my job.

    I also teach an intro PR course in which I work VERY HARD to persuade my students that PR and marketing are not the same beast (though one may help the other), and that the really good PR people (and PIO people) facilitate communication between and among various interest groups. As I see it, PIOs and PR professionals should embrace all that disambiguation offers. (Persuading top management that the age of “controlling the message” is a challenge!)

  2. Thanks for pulling all of these strands together. It’s interesting to see the way everything affects everything else. I have heard some folks (maybe you?) Refer to the need for a “community manager,” especially in higher ed communities. It does seem that our role is evolving in that direction.

  3. Andrew, Thanks for the thought provoking post. There’s a lot here to chew on and consider.

    I was referred to your post by @amacisaac on twitter, who had been following a thread on my blog, propr.ca, about the evolution of the relationship between mainstream media and social media. Just another example of the power of social media to connect us with the voices and expertise in our areas of interest. Tough for mainstream media to cope with that unless they link. And don’t most MSM websites still refrain from linking to content on competitor sites?

  4. Andrew,

    Excellent and thoughtful post.

    I think it comes down to this: in the past, PIOs and everybody else needed to work with a journalist to “get the message out.”

    That doesn’t stop, of course, but now, we’re all potential journalists. Every one of us with a keyboard and a net connection can report the news, can convene a discussion, can shoot, edit and post a video. And if we’re good at what we do, we’ll connect with the people we used to call the audience. Who, themselves, are also now content creators, building their own circles of followers and fans.

    It’s a whole lot messier than it used to be, but flowering democracy usually is!

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