Interview Audio: Steve Rubel, Public Relations Blogger, MicroPersuasion.com

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Listen to the Interview with Steve Rubel, Public Relations Blogger, MicroPersuasion.com (Length: 13:26)

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FULL TRANSCRIPT IS BELOW
October 5th, 2005

STEVE RUBEL: The public interest is important, but I think that that's more important to a journalist than it is to the PR professional. PR professional is less concerned with public interest, and more concerned with doing results that are going to get paid for. And where the journalists and the folks in this room where I stand here, they're definitely worrying about the public interest. And ultimately, they're going to decide what's best for the public, not us.

PROMO: The making of a documentary about the pre-war performance of the mainstream media that uses the latest technologies for collaboration and citizen journalism.

KENT BYE: Hello. This is Kent Bye of The Echo Chamber Project. This is an interview with Steve Rubel of MicroPersusasion.com, and Steve is on the forefront of merging the public relations world with the new media technologies. And his blog is read by a lot of people within journalism as well as the marketing industry. And so I grilled Steve a little bit about the difference between public relations and propaganda. And to be honest, I really wasn't satisfied with his response that he gave me.
But I think there's two very interesting aspects to this interview. One is the authenticity that Steve brings to the question. He's very honest. He's very transparent. As transparent as he can be by saying that, "No job is wine and roses." And that we all make these types of decisions.
That brings me to the second point, which is that Steve is really trapped within a social dilemma -- that is to say that individual rational decisions can lead to collective disaster. In this particular case, it's very rational for him to take money from these corporations to communicate their message, but the larger impacts socially, culturally, economically, environmentally and even within the context of the public interest -- Where does that fit into the equation? It's still a big open question, and I'd highly recommend checking into Howard Rheingold's lecture series that he gave at Stanford talking about Cooperation and the challenges for these types of social dilemmas. Now the challenge that I'd give to Steve and the rest of the communications industry is to find a way that you can incorporate the public interest -- to be socially responsible and to be authentic and transparent about these things. And so the issue of political propaganda and political public relations is still a huge issue of reducing issues down to very simplistic "Black and White," "Good/Evil," "Right/Wrong." The field of public relations has traditionally propagated these oversimplifications of these complex issues. But when I see Steve Rubel and what he's doing from the inside out within the public relations industry, it actually gives me some hope that there could be changed on the road. So with that, here's an interview with Stevel Rubel.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: So why don't you just go ahead and introduce yourself and where you fit in with blogging in the PR world.
STEVE RUBEL:Sure -- My name is Steve Rubel. I'm a public relations professional for 15 years. I work as vice-president at CooperKatz & Company. I'm also a blogger at micropersuasion.com, and over the last two years or so I've been one of many people who are pushing out our industry into the blog world.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: Okay. So why don't you talk a little bit about -- How is persuasion changing now with participatory -- What is the old way, and how is it different?
RUBEL: Well the old way was one way, and it was very unidirectional. We would go through mass channels to reach a large audience of people through as many impressions as we could. And I think a number of things have happened. For one, people have got the power of the pen. They can now write in ways and get noticed in ways that they couldn't do before. But more importantly, Google I think is kind of the rising tide that's lifting all boats. Because what it's doing is that bloggers can write about a topic and get indexed into Google very quickly, and that gets them noticed. Also I think RSS is changing persuasion in the fact that it's making it easier now to consume many more sources of content from whoever you want -- not just mainstream outlets. And so will all of these different changes, I think that there is this rise of the little guy. And with that, that means changes for the PR community.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: And so how -- Are people embracing this change? Or how much of the old way -- are they still wanting to grasp onto the existing business models that are still working to some extent?

RUBEL: I don't think that it's a situation where it's old versus new. I think that it's a mix. I think it's just making sure that the new is a part of the old. I don't think -- You know, there's always this notion that TV replaces radio, and radio replaces this -- or online replaces newspapers. I mean, it's not an "Either/Or" -- I think it's just -- It's an "And." And I think that communicators -- a lot of them are afraid, because it's the end of a controlled message. We predicate our industry on controlled messages -- on what we want to say, when we want to say it, how's it communicated, how it gets out, how many times. And the new world of MicroPersuasion is not really that. It's not -- It's more about conversations and almost like how you and I are talking right now. And I mean -- Obviously -- Look at how we're talking. You're here with a video camera that probably didn't cost you that much money -- at least relative to what you certainly could buy. And it's effective, and you're going to create a whole documentary. That's citizen's media. And I think that if that's citizen's media, then we need to -- and our job is getting into the media, we need to think about how to work that. And I think that people over time -- There's certainly a lot of curiosity about it. And I think that people are slowly beginning to integrate it, but it's more of the trendsetters. It's more of the people who are willing to take chances -- Right now. I think that -- You know, talk to me in a year and I think I would feel very different.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: So -- When you look at the political culture, and how public relations works within the political culture. Is there a distinction between the sort of tactics that political entities are using versus corporate entities. Or are you trying to -- What is the overlap? And what do you want to distance yourself from?
RUBEL: Well, political -- The political environment for PR is much more about spin & influence, and the message of the day, and "How do you get it out?" It's very reactive. It's trying to take what's already coming at you -- and issues -- and then making sure that you shape your position on it. Corporations, I think, are in a little bit different boat. They're trying to just make sure their message is even heard. Where politicians, I think, know that their message will be heard. They just want to make sure that it's interpreted the right way. And I think in either way, the channels can certainly be used for that. I mean, the political climate in the blogosphere is huge. Where the corporate climate -- There's a lot of people blogging on an issue -- I can guarantee that there is always people blogging on politics every day, but Corporation X, people may not be blogging about the topics you care about. And so I think that for a corporation, they have to go out and seek the conversations that they want to get involved with. Whereas the politics, they just have to find it. And find a way to integrate themselves.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: And so -- When you talk about PR and propaganda, how do you discern between -- the difference between PR and propaganda?
RUBEL: It's -- A lot of people don't discern that. I think that PR -- The best PR is invisible. Propaganda is not invisible. It's very visible. So that's how I define it. That propaganda is more blatant. Also it tends to be associated more with the government, than -- Although sometimes you hear the phrase "corporate propaganda." It's kind of like corporate -- "corporate religion" and proselytizing. And so -- it's a fine line. I think that a lot of people don't draw a line between them.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: So it's just a transparency issue then? Or is it a fundamental -- spin? Or --
RUBEL: I think it's different. I mean I think that PR is not always spin. I think PR could be trying to communicate a benefit to the community. I mean, the Red Cross tried to get out there -- "Here's where you can donate money during Hurricane Katrina." That's PR. Is that propaganda? No. I think propaganda, as I see it, is spinning for gain where some corporations definitely do that, and others don't. I think it all depends on the campaign. Every campaign is different.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: So have you ever engaged in any propaganda?
RUBEL: (Laughs) I have. Yeah. Sure I have. I mean, that's part of my job, and I'd be -- you know, I think I'd be lying if I said I wasn't. I haven't worked on the political side. So I haven't done any corporate [sic] propaganda. I've done -- We've worked with clients on damage control where there was something that was happening, and we wanted to make sure we changed the message, and we put our message out there. And to try to deflate that -- or steer that in a new direction. That's part of my job, and that's what I got into. But not -- you know, no job is wine and roses.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: So how do you morally resolve that with the larger public interest?
RUBEL: I don't go to sleep worrying about that. I mean -- And here's how I view that. I don't --
ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: View what? I'm sorry.
RUBEL: Sorry.
ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: I'm going to be editing out my questions --
RUBEL: -- Oh Okay --
ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT:The public interest.
RUBEL: The public interest is important, but I think that that's more important to a journalist than it is to the PR professional. PR professional is less concerned with public interest, and more concerned with doing results that are going to get paid for. And where the journalists and the folks in this room where I stand here, they're definitely worrying about the public interest. And ultimately, they're going to decide what's best for the public, not us. The bloggers, of course, create a whole new wrinkle to that because they have their own interest -- their own self-interest, and they look through that lens and not just through the public interest.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: And so when you look at the relationship between the media and the corporate world, the interface is you, basically -- the public relations entities or --
RUBEL: Correct. At least it has been, although I think that that's now changing.
ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: Okay. So when you look at -- How -- Just from your observations of the state of journalism, what are your evaluations of where journalism is at -- You know should they be doing more sophisticated things to prevent propaganda?
RUBEL: Should journalists be doing that? Or the PR community?
ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: Both.
RUBEL: The PR community, I don't know if they're going to change there because it changes the whole economics of it. I think that what the bloggers and the media -- What the bloggers in particular is that they keep us honest. They're able much more freely to call us out if we're going something wrong whether it be on an individual one-to-one basis -- In other words, this PR professional wronged me or is out there doing X, Y or Z. Or it's actual corporate-led initiative. And so I think that there's more transparency there to the process, and I think that everyone's going to be more on their toes than have ever before because of the power of the Internet.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: And so do you -- Is it difficult to press transparency for some of your corporate clients?
RUBEL: It all depends. For the most part, I'm fortunate that most of them are willing to be completely transparent -- or very transparent. I don't work in the nuclear power industry. I don't work with tobacco companies. Or I don't work with pharmaceutical companies where they may not want to be that transparent. And so I'm fortunate they're willing to get their message out and be as transparent as they need to do to that. Other folks are not. And I think -- You know, we can't expect that every industry is going to be transparent. I think that's kind of utopian. But maybe the ones -- the folks -- the companies that are more transparent, than the ones who aren't will be the ones who in the end win out.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: And so -- You sort of want to distance yourself from these other PR people who are interacting with these types of institutions. And some people -- like even me sometimes -- will lump them all together. So how do you discern?
RUBEL: Well, I don't distance myself from them. I think that they have a job to do, and I have a job to do. And I just think that who I work with and who they work with is different. It's not because I choose to work with one over the other. It's just -- There's a very different -- There's different types of PR. So I think that -- But I think that everybody is impacted by the same issues that is the democratization of media. So we're all in the same boat together in that regard even though we all walk different -- we all have different lines of work in PR.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: So five years out, just make some -- final question -- What do you see?
RUBEL: Five years out I see a -- basically the real free agent economy that we've been waiting for all of these years. I think that we have it in the media world. I think we're seeing journalists leave and start blogs and be individual publishers. I think we're seeing -- There was a lot of conglomeration -- There was a lot of consolidation in the PR agency world and big, big agencies. And I think we're going to see that fracture. I think we're going to see a lot of solo specialists. And I think that eventually, we're going to end up in this true one-to-one future where you have really PR people focus on these individual niches, and media -- and "media" being broad -- you know, citizens and professional media focusing on specific topics. And those -- And almost all of these little ecosystems living together. And so it's an exciting time. I think it's going to be "The one message for many people"-day is over.

STEVE RUBEL : An impressive personality

I am quite impressed by this interview of Steve. He is really a gem. His talent is limitless. One gets spell bound while listening to him.

Nobody gets to live life backward. Look ahead, that is where your future lies.