"But could the public relations business itself be transformed by the sharing economy? Clients seeking creative ideas can already get pitches directly from 160,000 freelancers through Crowdspring, rather than consulting a traditional PR agency."
Twitter was only for twits, I used to think, even after I reluctantly signed up for the service seven years ago. Despite being an editor and communicator, I had no desire to be “always on” or glued to my smartphone.
But today, social media apps are winning the affection of Luddites, including myself, not just because they help us keep up with the news or get in touch with friends. Now, they have spawned a new virtual economy, known as the “sharing economy” or the “peer economy”, which provides access to all sorts of cut-price goods and services like hotel rooms, car rides and even jobs.
If you need a room in Dubai, you can get one at about half the cost of a budget hotel on Airbnb. Need a limo? Try Uber. How about a graphic designer? Download Nabbesh.
The sharing economy offers cheaper services and almost infinite choice to the consumer. But the effects of this communication revolution do not stop there. More profoundly, it puts the individual, rather than the corporation, at the centre of the economy.
“Everyone should be able to participate in the economy like a corporation,” Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb, told the Colbert Report last month. “What the sharing economy really means is that now people in 60 seconds can be micro-entrepreneurs.”
Airbnb was the single largest supplier of rooms to World Cup fans in Brazil this summer, serving one quarter of the 600,000 visiting fans, according to Mr Chesky.
So, how is this revolution changing the communications business itself? On one level, it has prompted PR agencies and corporates to hire digital experts to cater for new conversations about brands on social media.
Coca Cola, for example, declared the website “dead” last year, and spurned the press release in favor of an interactive “journey”. It has transformed its communications department into a brand newsroom, marketing content with target audiences live.
“The key is in the title – social,” says Nigel Hammersley, head of digital at Edelman, the PR agency. “Organisations used to just push out messaging, but now consumers are looking for two-way interactions, and along with that, honesty, transparency, relevance and timeliness.”
“If you just push out messaging today, you are just talking to yourself. The consumer wants to know what’s in it for me.”
User generated content, another child of social media, is now at the heart of progressive media brands. This, too, has spawned an ecosystem of new outfits that understand how to add value in this new virtual space. Storyful, for example, acts as a news agency for user generated content. Helpareporterout has made finding sources a lot easier for journalists.
But could the public relations business itself be transformed by the sharing economy?
Clients seeking creative ideas can already get pitches directly from 160,000 freelancers through Crowdspring, rather than consulting a traditional PR agency. Designcrowd now boasts more than 400,000 graphic designers. Nabbesh has set up a similar site for the Arabic market in Dubai.
“In the peer economy, there is lots of space for winners, because there is room for specialisation,” said David Haddad, a Dubai-based technology entrepreneur who founded Publiseek, a tool that connects journalists to public relations officers.
“For companies, it is great because you get cheaper services. For agencies, it is more difficult.”
Some services provided by agencies, such as creative design for a new logo or a piece of content, can be farmed out through the sharing economy quite easily, as long as they can be described and priced very precisely. Incumbent PR firms will progressively become less able to sell a broad range of services without a clear pricing structure.
“Incumbents could survive, but they will have to start doing things differently,” says Mr Haddad. “They will have to learn from the sharing economy by being more transparent about the services they provide and the price.”
Like signing up for Twitter, using the sharing economy for the first time requires a leap of faith. Brand loyalty is replaced by individual reputation and trust. But it is already making big changes to our lives as consumers and professionals – even for old twits like me.