A few weeks ago, I caught the bug which – based on my unscientific and statistically unsound polling of colleagues, clients, friends, and family – seems to have struck most of the country in late March. Sick in bed for the day, with a fever of 102 and a queasy stomach, I picked up a favorite novel: Jane Austen’s Emma.
I’ve loved the book since first reading it twenty-five years ago, and over time and multiple readings, I’ve come to more fully appreciate the intelligent and patient study the novel makes of the way people communicate – or don’t – with each other.
Today, the alacrity of our communications – which is by turns overwhelming, gratifying, intrusive and astounding – makes it hard to imagine waiting days to learn, for example, when a sister might be coming from London for a visit, or whether a marriage proposal might be accepted.
Which made me wonder, through the haze of my fever, whether the immediacy bred by our connectedness makes for more effective communications, or worse? The psychology and social effects of smartphones, Facebook, Twitter, texts, and emails are the subject of many articles, studies and conversations. Do they help or hurt our productivity? Do they help or hurt our professional and personal relationships? Do they help or hurt the practice of good, thoughtful public relations?
The urgency (and with the exception of crisis communications, I would qualify it as false) presented by immediate communications has the dual effect of making us sharper and making us more distracted. It’s not always easy to remember what the intended outcome of a PR program is, when Hootsuite, Outlook, Facebook, IM (and the iPhone or Blackberry next to the laptop) are all popping with new streams of information, new opportunities to tell a different story to a new audience, or dash off a response to a competitor.
And those engagements are really, truly important. But our most important job as PR professionals is to communicate thoughtfully the truest and best stories about our clients to the right people, at the right time. Sometimes we can do it instantly, in 140 characters; sometimes we can do it in a great Q&A with a major business publication, and sometimes the only way to have the story be heard is to wait, and tell it at a time when the audience it’s aimed at is willing to hear it. Timing matters, and there’s no reason we should let the ability to communicate instantaneously be the reason for doing it.
In our lives, where it seems everyone is sharing everything right now, we need to remember that sharing the right things remains the only way to have an impact that makes a real difference. Just because we are able to say something immediately doesn’t make it the right thing – and if it isn’t the right thing, then it may be better left unsaid.
Of course, in personal matters, sometimes saying (or hearing) anything straight away is the right thing. Which is why, on that sick day a few weeks ago, the only other thing besides my well-worn copy of Emma to make me laugh were the real-time, right now messages coming to me on my iPhone.