September 28, 2022

Helping PR pros make smarter decisions

Shiny Objects Are Still Just Communications Tools

Shiny Objects Are Still Just Communications Tools

For my inaugural column I thought I would give a bit of an explanation as to why I chose the “New Tools, Old Rules” theme. I’m hardly alone in spouting the opinion that a lot of what we celebrate in social and “new” media is not new, but is just good old communications, with the new tools expanding reach, compressing time, and giving soapboxes to new voices. The thing is, people need constant reminding of that; not because they are getting carried away with “new media” as some magic cure-all for marketing and PR (though if you think you might be guilty of that you probably are), but because people should not be afraid of new media as some sort of alien development.

The development of communications technology is littered with vibrations that run the engine of much of today’s new media. Here are a few examples of “been there, done that” in the communications world, which I will try to do without quoting Marshall McLuhan:

Social media democratizes communication

15th Century: The printing press spreads the power of the written word and with it education, beyond the empowered clergy and noble classes. Similarly, social media lowers the bar of entry to create and distribute content. Still, mass attention favors the few, usually the first, best and/or biggest.

Social media allows instant communications?

19th Century: the electric telegraph gives the world instant spread of news, ending tragedies such as battles that took place after wars had officially ended. Then, the telephone introduces instant communications to the home.

Social media gives us the world in our home?

1940: Three words from CBS Radio’s Edward R. Murrow: “This is London.” Live broadcasts during the blitz in World War II are probably the best representation of an innovation that has been with us for more than 70 years.

Social media entertains us?

1930s-1940s: Radio gives us the original soap operas, then television gives us moving pictures and threatens the Hollywood film industry in one stroke. Not only is mass entertainment in the home not new, but paranoia and paralysis by the entertainment industry in the face of new technology is at least 60 years old. By the way, the PC is not taking over the TV as the home entertainment hub. We want our 46-inch HDTVs for that, but that’s another topic.


1990s: The Internet gave us the world we already had, but made it on-demand (Amazon! Weather! Maps! Hamster Dance!) Forums and chat? Usenet isn’t exactly new.

And… Social media will dumb down the media we consume

“People to People” (Edward R. Murrow again, in a show that could be the inspiration for “MTV Cribs,” and the general denuding of the Tiffany Network (CBS) from the gem of journalism to the purveyors of Mr. Ed, The Beverly Hillbillies and Gilligan’s Island in the 1960s. That still sets the standard for numbing our culture that no amount of Lolcats can top.

It’s all communications; shouting about shiny new tools is great, but that sort of rush is short-lived. It’s what we do with these new tools, applying the “old rules” of communications to make them work, that matters. I will use this space to point out specific ways in which new media echoes long-standing rules of communications, with historical perspective and hopefully some common sense. One last thing: I don’t know any more than you do, and I expect people to come down on me hard if I pretend that I do. You can start by telling me in the comments what I missed above.

Doug Haslam is an Account Director at Boston’s SHIFT Communications, and blogs at

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