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?

24 thoughts on “The Conservatism of Mumbrella?”

  1. Great post, Glen. I think those of us in the business of marketing revolutions are likely to be your chorus, but in fact these questions are still floating around for me as well in my new role as President of CAPA. In short, the blurring of personal and professional has never really worried me, and I believe in spite of my occasional Twitter rants I am sufficiently self-censoring to be able to stand behind anything I post, which I think we should all aim to do anyway as a general ethical engagement with the world. (I also sometimes fail, though usually down the pub, not in writing.)

    The aspect of this that’s been niggling at me re: Twitter is about communities of interest – those collective enthusiasms you understand so well. 🙂 Do postgrad reps around Oz really want to hear about my cooking obsessions? Does it matter? Do my food followers want to hear about the #RIOT we’re trying to start? If the answer is no, I guess they’ll unfollow, and I have to decide whether it’s a sufficient loss to momentum/enthusiasm building/sharing to split identities. I keep hanging in there with the attitude that ‘if you want a piece of me, you’ll have to take all of me’, but does this best serve those I represent? They’re not my ‘clients’ per say, but I am beholden to them as their elected rep.

    I’d love your thoughts on this dilemma… in the meanwhile I’m going to keep my multiple identities wrapped up in one account, just as they are in my one mind/body. I reckon most of my followers are pretty orsm anyway, so maybe I’m onto something as per your parting rhetorical question. 🙂

  2. I think most sophisticated users of social media appreciate that people are complex and will express various passions. The question I think is less one of personal versus professional but the practical balance between relations between actual people and one’s own personal relation to one’s professional persona. So a meta-relation between relations, ha!

    Social networks are meant to be exactly that, social, which means that online relations assume the burdens of any actual social relation. Does anyone have the exact same passions as another? Of course not. We afford people the space to explore their esoteric passions because it is what makes the relation ‘social’ and what makes us ‘people’. We recognise that this freedom to pursue one’s passions enriches the person’s life.

    The satisfaction of rising to a challenge as an enthusiast of whatever pursuit (be it car dudes, committed environmentalists, ethical consumers, staunch communists, etc.) actually provides life skills that can be translated into one’s professional life. A better worker is a better person not because work informs the conditions of possibility for one’s personal life, but because a person is living a better life — what they regard as a rewarding life — which then informs their professional practice.

  3. Blimey, Glen: “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.”

    Not sure exactly what that means, but it sounds like I’d better get some help, pronto.

    To address your main point though, I think you’re confusing cause and effect, particularly in the case of Hill & Knowlton which is the story with the more serious repercussions.

    Remember, this all happened weeks before we wrote about it – the GM of the PR agency tweeted several times dissing one of his clients; the client saw it; the relationship was damaged; he changed his Twitter profile from one that proclaimed his work profile to that of a personal profile.

    This circulated within the industry, at which point we heard about it and wrote about what had happened. We write about the PR and marketing industry.

    I’m not sure that makes us conservative. Would your argument be that we should not have reported these events?

    In the other case, you argue: “In the first case the Twitterer had no professional connection whatsoever to Devine.”

    I disagree – she was tweeting about a columnist working for Fairfax, a company with which her own agency of course has a professional relationship. Otherwise, why do you think she either chose or was required to delete her tweet? That occurred before we wrote about it.

    I do think there’s an interesting debate to be had about personal/ professional profiles though. And none of us know where that will end.
    We may or may not like it, but the one does impact on the other. To pretend it doesn’t is indeed naive.

    By the way, you make a couple of references to clients. Just to be clear, I don’t have any – I don’t have a day job in marketing. Like you I’m a journalist, trying to make sense of what it a fast moving new social environment with rapidly changing rules.

    When we report these stories, we’re not trying to make an argument for what these rules should be, we’re trying to reflect what’s occurring in the industry we write about.

    (Oh, and as an aside as I’m probably just being dense, I wondered if you could explain the difference between a “self-proclaimed” and non-self-proclaimed blog?)

    Cheers,

    Tim – Mumbrella

  4. This is exactly the kind of awesome that makes you a person worth knowing, and worth reading. You make a great case as to why critical/cultural theory ought to be taught… everywhere.

    Do you think what you’ve identified here is alienation in the traditional Marxist sense? Or something different/extra?

  5. Thanks Kristian! No, this alienation is something different, I suggest.

    Alienation in the traditional marxist sense was organised around the relation between the worker and the worker’s creative output, with the assumption that the the worker becomes dehumanised in relation to the machinery he or she is working (bad case) or at least alienated from the creative labour as a skilled tradesperson (good case).

    This is more to do with the complex temporal relations around the notion of ‘expectation’ as I discussed in my previous post on loyalty. I am trying to use Negri and Hardt’s observation (in Empire) that politics is concerned with the passage from the virtual to the actual through the possible. An ‘expectation’ literally colonises the future and modulates the conditions of possibility. It is therefore a political act as it directly affects what we apprehend as ‘possible’ in the world. (That is why you have post-structuralists rallying around the May 68 catch-cry ‘Demand the Impossible!’.)

    The irony is that marketing is concerned with conditioning the expectations of consumers. You expect your cars to be fast, therefore you buy a fast car. You expect your service to be efficient, therefore you look for efficient service. It is a more sophistcated appreciation of the work of the advertising and media industries beyond simplistic Cultural Studies 1.0 versions of semiotics (ie What does it ‘mean’?).

  6. Hi Tim,

    Yeah, apologies for my dense academic writing style. I can get into some pretty hardcore stuff on this blog sometimes and my readers would think something was wrong otherwise!

    Let me clarify by what I meant by ‘professional relationship’ in this context. The Sensis/Telstra fiasco involved someone in an agency tweeting directly about a client’s business practice and advocating a boycott. The Devine fiasco involved someone expressing an emotion about a column that is explicitly designed to be provocative. The Devine tweet actually fulfilled the function of the column: to be talked about, to generate controversy. The Sensis/Telstra tweet was not about how to use the print version of the Yellow pages more effectively. If anything, Fairfax and the agency in the Devine example should be rewarding the Tweeter for her efforts, they generated SMH hits.

    In terms of cause and effect, I am not accusing you of setting the PR and marketing agenda! The Sensis/Telstra thing happened, sure, but the Devine thing was unfolding and only received attention because of your story. Otherwise it would’ve been a non-issue of bully-girl Miranda flexing her SMH muscles.

    Hmmm, whether or not they should be reported is a different issue. I will never advocate censorship, but this means that everyone should be given a voice and invited, if not encouraged, to use the right of reply. If a reply would harm the person (by bringing more attention to it, for example) then the ethical problem is whether there realistically can be a right of reply or not. Hence, it is up to the publisher (/journalist) whether the ethical act is to modify the story enough so it doesn’t produce harm, not publish the story or publish the story because of its newsworthiness.

    My use of ‘clients’ was perhaps confusing. I was describing a general relation between a professional and his or her clients that employ him or her to carry out some work. What I was suggesting is that your posts on this issue implicitly assume a certain kind of general professional-client relationship, and the repurcussions of this general relationship on how (you perceive) one should separate their personal and professional personae. My comments were about this assumed general relationship.

  7. I’m beginning to think the ‘naïvity defence’ is essentially the commercial version of Godwin’s Law.

    I don’t suggest that anyone working in a public role can say as s/he pleases with impunity, but the notion that we allow the diktats of our employers / clients to creep into our private lives – which includes our ability to express our views, whether on Speakers’ Corner or on Twitter – is a pernicious one.

    This is an exciting and dynamic space, and of course we’re going to make mistakes as we learn to use it better, but a blanket insistence that one’s tweets represent one’s boss, so either toe the line or be silent is simply intellectually lazy.
    What is needed is open debate (and a lack of sensationalist reportage..?) to enable us to collectively reach a fair and reasonable code of conduct.

  8. Cathie, I should have mentioned in the original post that i really appreciated your comments on this in your tublr blog post (linked to above as ‘another blog’)!!

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head regarding the affordance of mistake making. I want to actually live in a society where we can make mistakes that are relatively harmless as this allows us the freedom to take risks and rise to various challenges.

    As a sidenote, at my father’s 60 birthday celebrations a few years ago I gave a speech where I basically thanked him for allowing my siblings and I to make our own mistakes. If media reporting is going to be paternalistic, then it needs to allow its children/readers the freedom to make mistakes and not revell in punitive example-making. Sensationalist reportage can be problematic 😉

    Having a good sense of one’s public/personal (rather than professional/personal) personae is important. I use Facebook for personal broadcasts, while Twitter is my public broadcast medium.

    My blog is something different again. It is a think space, rather than a broadcast space. I have it open to the public to make sure I am worthy of my thoughts and my thinking, which is something else entirely, and I think this is what you mean about (not) being lazy (or, I’d add, robust) intellectually (and ethically).

  9. @Glen Okay, excellent, I think I see your point with respect to the Act. “Nixon in China” as an event that changed what was considered to be politically possible, permitted all kinds of new political/social/economic encounters? etc

    @Tim “I’m not sure that makes us conservative. Would your argument be that we should not have reported these events?”

    I think the conservativism that comes into this is the privileging of the “professional” over the “personal”, particularly where the two conflict.

    For example, we tend to ask “How can we prevent our personal opinions from damaging our professional standing?”, why not ask the reverse? How can we ensure our personal ethics/beliefs are performed throughout our professional lives. Indeed, is it even possible to be “ethical” if one suspends the ethical for business purposes?

    I’m not sufficiently familiar with Mumbrella (though I do visit fairly often) but it seems this is how the debate is broadly framed.

    @Cathie “I don’t suggest that anyone working in a public role can say as s/he pleases with impunity”

    If possible, could you expand on why you wouldn’t suggest this? Is it specific to PR/Marketing?

  10. I now have four Twitter accounts:

    1. Personal, locked account, where I hang out with peers, talk about my feelings and bitch about work, co-workers and clients
    2. Account associated with my fashion blog, where I talk about style & aesthetics
    3. Account associated with my online magazine, which is self-consciously situated in the media/culture industry
    4. Personal account for me as a professional freelancer, which is probably the most ‘sterile’. It’s linked to my LinkedIn profile, which I similarly see as a sterile professional space. I wanted to have my Facebook status updates feed through to this account, as I similarly keep them quite sterile, but Facebook is a cunt and refuses to allow this as it sees it as an infringement of its IP.

    When I talk about ‘sterility’ in social media, I talk about keeping a space ‘clean’ of strongly expressed opinions on controversial topics, which have historically got me into trouble at work. That’s not to say that it’s an impersonal space; it’s simply an uncontroversial space.

  11. @Kristian I don’t think it’s confined to PR/ Marketing – the visibility of the social web means you have to be mindful of the possibility that your comments will not only be seen by their intended recipients.
    That means no matter what industry you work in, making comments that could be detrimental to your employer’s business is uncool.
    The only reason it’s seen as a PR/marketing issue is that this industry is already monitoring the web in a way that a firm of plumbers, for example, may not be.
    But that’s only a matter of time…
    Personally I think it’s unfortunate that because there’s a lack of parity in terms of social web use we’re all going to have to toe the reactionary line – I do believe in the future notions of private and public space will shift radically, but meanwhile, I think we need to moderate what we say, or at least how we say it – or better yet, work somewhere that presents no conflict between your personal ethics and those of your employer.

    This debate has left me somewhat chastened, and I’m sad to say I think we are not as free to be the digital pioneers as I’d like. But I would also hate to see self-expression only be accepted under the guise of anonymity, and that’s what the Tim’s view (to cite one example) will ultimately force us to – undoing all the progress re. cyberspace as new frontier…so it’s a debate worth continuing,

  12. This continues to be a fascinating thread, thanks to Glen for the original post! Thanks, Cathie, for bringing me back to it via the Twitters.

    Kristian said it for me: “How can we ensure our personal ethics/beliefs are performed throughout our professional lives. Indeed, is it even possible to be “ethical” if one suspends the ethical for business purposes?”

    I think the commercial imperative to be moderate is unconvincing as an ethic, though sometimes we all compromise (nobody wants to lose their job, right?). The real imperative, IMHO, should be to speak respectfully, which still leaves room for critically. (Btw, I’m not claiming I’m actually a successful practitioner of my own advice, given my propensity for a full on #ffs rant, but it is an aspiration!)

    If you take Academic Freedom as an example, it is generally enshrined as an important right and responsibility to speak out on matters of concern, even if the matter of concern is the University one serves. Of course, one has to speak without defamation or libel, but that seems a reasonable limitation.

    As someone who hasn’t really worked in the commercial world for awhile, I know I can be accused of ivory tower syndrome, but I really believe in the importance of participatory democracy, which includes being able to speak out against corporations (so, clients) if one doesn’t agree with their practices. Having a casual go at an employee there mightn’t go so well, but then wouldn’t fall under the rubric of respect, would it?

    @Mel I take your point about the distinct identities to serve different purposes, protect your right/desire to just rant sometimes. I’m still conflicted about my choice to leave them wrapped up in one, and fully expect to have it bite me someday. But it’s a risk I’m still willing to take, aspirationally. 😉

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