The Conservatism of Mumbrella?

A recent series of posts on the self-proclaimed PR and social marketing blog Mumbrella on the relation between Twitterer’s personal beliefs and their respective professional PR and social marketing personae indicates an interesting way that anxieties around mixing of public and private lives online are still manifest.

The first post was by (whom I assume to be) Tim Burrowes posting on his ‘personal’ section, called Mumbo, of his Mumbrella site on an exchange between a Twitterer, Natalie Swainston, and the SMH trollumnist, Miranda Devine. Burrowes apparently believes the exchange between Swainston and Devine was noteworthy, if not newsworthy, because he perceived that it was an “intriguing insight” into the tensions between “journo-PR relations”.

The second post was in the actual ‘news’ section of Mumbrella, perhaps because the second post was actually about a Twitterer tweeting something of professional consequence (unlike Swainston’s effort): a Twitter employed by a company that has commercial relation with a second company was critical of the environmental impact of the practices of the second company. Again, at stake was Burrowes view that “intemperate tweeting has caused issues for PRs”.

Burrowes makes it even clearer what is at stake in these online exchanges that he perceives trouble public-private lives in a comment to another blog post on the topic:

The problem with that suggested policy [of separate personal and professional online personae] is that it’s naive about how journalists would interpret someone’s personal vs professional persona.

“I’m tweeting in a personal capacity” may be a disclaimer, but it’s not a cloak of invisibility.

If what you say is relevant to your day job and you are identifiable, then you need to treat Twitter as you would any other broadcast medium.

If you don’t want your tweets public, then either protect them, don’t do it in your own name, or don’t tweet stuff that could get you into trouble.

The contradiction of course is that Burrowes is discounting the possibility of separate professional and personal personae for normal Twitterers, but when it comes to Miranda Devine’s trollumnist practice he assumes such a separation, i.e. as suggested by his aside in his first post “(although Dr Mumbo has always considered her to be a satirical creation)”.

So what is going on here? Why is this politically and socially conservative self-disciplined muzzling of one’s online persona being advocated and valorised?

An overly critical perspective would see Burrowes and like-minded PR and marketing types to be prostituting their self-image for the benefit of their clients and their professional interests. The expectations of the ‘self’ are literally collapsed into the expectations of the client. Of course, critical perspectives of marketing and associated industries have long banged-on about how soulless the industry is. This, I think, you could describe as the worst case interpretation.

Support for this interpretation comes from Burrowes treating the two examples above as the same. In the first case the Twitterer had no professional connection whatsoever to Devine. In the second case the Twitterer was actually being critical of a client of his employer. Burrowes has collapsed the two different events into being examples of a general relation between personal and professional Tweet personae. One’s ‘public’ persona must to be disciplined so as to conform to any and all possible expectations of an imaginary client that could potentially be anyone. Therefore, ‘personal’ views – such as those on ‘public’ issues regarding politics or the state of the environment – must be kept under wraps and secret so as not to offend the sensibilities of this potentially-anyone client.

Although there may be some substance to view that marketing professionals are soulless prostitutes, especially when relatively minor skirmishes in the culture wars played out on Twitter are ‘reported’ as noteworthy, if not newsworthy, I prefer to read Burrowes’s anxiety around the public-private distinction as a way to grapple with the pressure of this tendency towards becoming an example of the worse case scenario. Burrowes is actually trying to find a way to maintain a sense of ‘self’ while under pressure to become a mere functionary expression of the imaginary client’s expectation.

It is a very good example of the way that people working within a given profession attempt to grapple with the ethical quandaries of having to satisfy a client’s expectations while maintaining one’s personal political passions. Of course I am not in marketing (the only thing I could market would be the revolution!) but I do know a thing or two about enthusiasm and what it means to mobilise people’s passions. Perhaps a more effective approach rather than a conservative and reactionary separation of personal and professional, to the explicit detriment of the personal, one should seek a better integration of the personal and the professional. Rather than PR and social marketers being disciplined to be worthy of clients, maybe PR and social marketing types should pick and choose clients that are worthy of their talents?