I always wanted to be a journalist — to let others know what was occurring in the world, honestly and accurately. And I succeeded at that — at five newspapers, topped by The Philadelphia Bulletin, where I was, some 50 years ago, a beat reporter and, later, an editorial writer. Yet one day in the newsroom, a wise older reporter, referring to The Bulletin, remarked, “There may not always be an England.” He was right, for the paper that “everybody read” and for a time was the nation’s largest evening newspaper closed in 1982 — a victim of growing traffic jams and evening television watching. By then, however, I was working as the post-accident communication manager at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant down the Susquehanna River from Harrisburg, Pa. (After the TMI accident in 1979, I was invited by a former Bulletin colleague to help improve the communication setting at the nuclear plant.)
It was at TMI that I began increasingly to realize that my life’s interest wasn’t so much in journalism as relational communication — how groups of people connect with each other and build and maintain satisfying communities. I was foursquare into public relations, which, at its best, is a discipline of fairness and constructive regard for others – the aims of a good communicator.
As the years passed (I’m now 80), it became increasingly clear that Martin Luther’s centuries of print communication were changing into Mark Zuckerberg’s electronic era – one in which social media summoned from someone’s handheld device or desktop are becoming the norm. Digital media offer the potential of more direct and intimate communication than newsprint does, but still require observational skill and awareness.
The problem, though, with digital communication is that it’s occurring via the Internet, which is a vast sea of information, virtually boundless. Mark Schaefer discusses that in his latest book, The Content Code. Rather than writing editorials, one can be a blogger, but still you need to have your blog discovered, read and responded to. Of necessity, that makes you both a writer and a marketer, and maybe not a very successful marketer, at least for a while.
You can even launch a social network of your own, like the one I’ve started on fairness – SimplyFair.net. The problem, though, is getting it discovered on the Web, of adding members so that it becomes a beacon on the digital sea. That isn’t easy — I still haven’t discovered the secret, beyond patience and fortitude. Meanwhile, possibly, you can blog for others, like the daily postings I did for Talent Zoo’s public relations blog, Flack Me. But the remuneration there ran out.
So where does all this leave an elderly communicator, or younger ones seeking to navigate their own digital tides? First, you have to want to communicate, to understand and practice the discipline of attempting it regularly. And you can’t expect to be paid for doing so, like I was as a reporter and, later, an editor. Maybe you will or maybe you won’t, but you have to want to connect via your own resources. You won’t become Facebook, but you may discover a way to be heard and to attract the attention and participation of others. You may find outlets for your creative energy on Twitter, or one of the other established social networks. You may, in short, build a sharing, decently informed community, which I continue to work at doing.
To me, at my keyboard, age doesn’t matter. A hero of mine is the great systems thinker W. Edwards Deming, who wasn’t widely discovered and followed until his eighties. What matters, these days, is a vision of what you’d like to accomplish provided you can get all your digital resources functioning well. That’s challenge enough for another decade.
Doug Bedell has a background in journalism and PR and is the owner of Resource Relations LLC in Central PA, focusing on organizational and crisis communication. He’s the community manager of SimplyFair.net, a social network on fairness. On the Web, Doug’s at www.ResourceRelations.com. On Twitter, he’s @DougBeetle.
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