Public relations by day, multicultural musings by night

Likeaporteño Spanish Classes: BA’s crème de la crème

My last post alluded to an idea inspired by the Responsible Citizens of Pakistan; an idea that intends to harness civic engagement to create civic value for the people of Buenos Aires. It’s an experiment that, from both a professional and personal perspective, excites me a great deal. As I work towards complete comprehension of the Spanish language, I have an opportunity to fine-tune my practical skills as a public relations professional, and, from a utilitarian point of view, an opportunity to address an issue that for the masses is quite an unpleasant one. However, this is a project for the long-term, a project that certainly won’t see changes occur overnight.

Consequently, I’ve decided to double my efforts and launch another, a project more personal than civic, a project that – with the right application and strategic thinking – should gather pace rather quickly.

I have a Spanish tutor, Yesica, an extremely talented professor that I see twice weekly. I’ve had many a tutor since arriving here in Buenos Aires last July, but Yesi’s Likeaporteño classes are unlike any I’ve experienced before. The reason: Her classes go beyond the classroom. She’s introduced me to (free of charge) the Argentine culture, from dancing Tango, to Folklore, to drinking Mate.  Yesi isn’t just a Spanish teacher, but a Samaritan; energized through watching those she interacts with, grow. Since meeting her, I’ve transformed from a closed, cautious loner, to an open, interactive socialite that has resulted in my comprehension of the language to increase ten-fold. For that, I am eternally grateful.

The fact is, I want to give something back, and this blog post is the start of that process. I’ve lived in Buenos Aires for almost eight months now, and what I’ve noticed is that among small and independent organisations, the transition from old to new collaborative tools hasn’t really taken place like it has done in Europe and the US. Yesi has a Facebook profile of course, and a blog, but until seven days ago, no Twitter or Google+ account. It appears that is it still difficult for people and organisations to move away from their current collaborative platforms and habits and adopt new ones. My objective is to change that and demonstrate that no matter what kind or organisation you are part of – young or old, big or small, cutting-edge or mainstream – these new technologies are accessible and appropriate the world over, as are the new approaches to collaboration and interaction that make use of them. Yesi has created a life for me here offline, so now I’m going to build her professional life online and watch her incredible service blossom.

Over the course of the next few months, I will update you with progress reports and new ideas to increase the bandwidth of Yesi’s brand. Additionally, if any of you have launched initiatives similar in nature, or have any ideas that could help, it would be great to hear from you.

So blogosphere, and fellow collaborators, I leave you with one humble request. Do what you do best: Share.


Responsible Citizens

I have just finished reading, for the second time, Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, arguably one of the most insightful books about the Internet ever published. While alluding to the fact that, for the first time in history, we live in a world where being part of a globally-connected society is normal for most citizens (the liberation of dozing in front of the TV has resulted in a cognitive surplus), Shirky strongly asserts that the collective leverage that can be brought to bear on any particular project or problem, whether it be personal, communal, public or civic, is colossal.

Shirky’s claims are supported by a plethora of pertinent case studies, from the personal but nevertheless creative (a website where people share funny animal videos) to the civic and democratic (Kenyan citizens reporting on human rights violations when mainstream media wouldn’t). However there is one case study in particular that stands out for me. Pakistan’s Responsible Citizens.

In July last year, having graduated with a first-class degree in PR at the Univeristy of Gloucestershire, England, I decided to move to Buenos Aires, Argentina to learn Spanish. The city is a beautiful one, much like the porteños (Buenos Aires-born folk), rich in Spanish and Italian influence and as vibrant a city as I have ever visited. However its beauty is tainted by one abhorrent exception. A myriad of dog excrement. Sadly, it appears there is no governance for dog-defecation in Buenos Aires and it has become a cultural acceptance that shows no sign of reversal. The profusion of stray dogs doesn’t help, but the unwillingness of owners to clean up their pet’s mess has solidified itself into the Argentine psyche.

Whether a first or third-world citizen, stepping on dog excrement is hardly pleasant, not to mention the health issues caused and the indictment on an otherwise statuesque city. Back in 2009, an organisation called Responsible Citizens was brought into existence by a group of Pakistani students and young professionals with the purpose of community service and awareness. They launched a social responsibility initiative, ‘Take Out The Trash’, designed to tackle environmental and social issues by literally picking up trash, to create a sense of national responsibility and ownership among the Pakistan people.

“We’re tired of hearing people complain and criticize about what’s wrong with this country — picking up trash is such a basic thing, and everyone complains about it. But when people join in, it turns into a movement, and that’s what we’re here to do, make everyone join in a movement to make Pakistan a better place”, said one of the volunteers.

Of course, the volunteers receive mixed reactions for their efforts, often mocked by those who either believed it was the Government’s duty to clear up their litter, or that the initiative had little sustainability. However another volunteer, Ali Khwaja, argued differently: “It’s laziness, doing things the conventional way, expecting others to pick up/clean up after you, these are phenomena that have been bred due to class conflicts, but have, ironically, surmounted, and permeated all the classes. They need to get over their own embarrassment.”

The fact is, sustainability is heightened through the Internet, as is our ability to harness civic engagement for civic value. In a city where there is clear class divisions, I believe an opportunity presents itself to display good governance by creating a practical sense of social responsibility in Buenos Aires. The Responsible Citizen movement ultimately enforced cultural change in Pakistan. It created a civic value that has tangible expression today and I believe Buenos Aires can profit from the same.

Shirky notes:

“If you do a web search for ‘we as a society’, you will find a litany of failed causes, because society isn’t the kind of unit that can have conversations, come to decisions and take action. Civic value rarely comes from sudden social conversations; nor does it bubble up from individual actions. It comes, instead, from the work of groups, small groups at first that grow in size and importance, the pattern of collaborative circles, communities and practice, and many other group patterns. If we want to create new forms of civic value, we need to improve the ability of small groups to try radical things, to help the inventors of the next PatientsLikeMe or the next set of Responsible Citizens get up and going. It’s from groups trying new things that the most profound uses of social media have hitherto come and will come in the future.”

So, Responsible Citizens: Buenos Aires, who’s with me?

The Mubarak Mistake

There are many differences between the Bahrain protests and the Egyptian revolution – the distinct foil in populace perhaps most apparent – but one fundamental similarity is the profound competency of social media to pioneer government reform.

With a population north of 80 million, the Egyptian opposition leaders had little difficulty attracting tens of thousands to rally the streets, however Bahrain’s population is a much smaller pool, south of 800,000, of whom 30% are Sunnis, guest workers and other foreigners.

Ten years ago, aggregating a mass protest – I must purport, peaceful – would have proved almost impossible, however today, we now have communication platforms that are flexible enough to match our social capabilities, and these are giving rise to new ways of coordinating collective action.

Clay Shirky, author of 2008 hit ‘Here Comes Everybody’, explicates the social transformation of groups:

“The centrality of group effort to human life means that anything that changes the way groups function will have profound ramifications for everything from commerce and government to media and religion.”

Clay was spot on. Standard. The Mubarak administration experienced this first hand when they decided to block Facebook in an attempt to dismantle the plans of Egyptian activists. In an interview on 60 minutes, Wael Ghonim, Google’s regional marketing manager for the Middle East, talked about how the Egyptian people gathered via Facebook, and, consequently, how the Government’s operation backfired.

“One of the strategic mistakes of [the Mubarak] regime was blocking Facebook. One of the reasons why they are no longer in power now is that they blocked Facebook. Why? Because they have told four million people that they are scared like hell from the revolution.”

So will the same mistake be made twice? On Wednesday this week, users of Bahrain’s Batelco high-speed Internet service were complaining of “service degradation”, and many believe this to be a Government induced gimmick to disorganise the protesters’ plans. So far, the Bahrain regime has not spoken of the issue, but if proved culpable, the revolution could well be now.

Digital Schizophrenics

However controversial and delusive this post may seem, I find the premise fascinating. It follows on nicely from my last post too, The Digital Self, which forecast a problematic future for PRs as company advocates and antagonists unearth otherwise cloudy corporate affairs.

I recently read an article by Tom Chatfield – a regular columnist for The Independent – about the age of risk-free Internet coming to an end. Now, the Internet’s intention has never been to conceal, make no mistake, and every technological transformation carries with it a facet of insecurity. “Vulnerability goes hand-in-hand with the communicative potential of new media” asserts Chatfield. Television, the amusement park of the 20th century destroyed social capita with its indolent influence on consumers. But although the shift from one-way indoctrination to open-source is exactly what civilisation has yearned for, the Internet’s power to expose has recently ‘hacked’ off a whole lot of consumers, when over a million Gawker, and several hundred thousand Twitter accounts were compromised.

The post-WikiLeaks political world will certainly become a more paranoid one, and perhaps more old-fashioned, but what about social life online? The hijacking of digital identities may not have the same repercussion as diplomatic cables, but it’s still an inconvenience we can do without, and as social networking, sharing and online collaboration gathers pace as the lifeblood of connectedness, the greater the emotional impact becomes when events like the Gawker hack take place. The question is, if a cyber war becomes a personal one too, how long before you and I, and indeed corporations, experience a paradoxical pressure towards the offline, old-school realm where credibility can be managed and privacy regulated?

It’s an interesting thought, yet unthinkable too, but if passwords, customer accounts and websites become sitting ducks to dedicated ‘hactivists’ – the latter fast becoming an organisation’s most prominent and profitable shop window – could offline emerge as the safest haven to manage reputation and privacy? PR and digital media guru David Phillips in his latest book on digital public relations said, “Reputation increasingly is what you get when you Google your organisation or yourself on the Internet.” I happen to agree, and that doesn’t bode well for helpless websites under attack. The problem is, there doesn’t appear to be anyway back, so for the time being we’ll just invest in the latest security operating system from Currys, until it too falls victim to invasion. Ironically, I can’t help but think we’ll end up demanding some sort of regulation from the very Administration we sought to expose.

The Digital Self

First let me start by defining ‘The Digital Self’. In its most facile of forms, The Digital Self is an institution’s alter ego, an extension of its advertised personality by third parties online. In essence, it’s the institution’s real self, without all the makeup.

So as humanity begins the shift from illusion to reality, from the consumption of engineered one-way propaganda to impartial two-way sharing, the new world order and the money-driven corporations that shape it face unprecedented change.

Many theorists believe the Internet has injured our ability to concentrate – for the sake of this blog I hope not – but I argue that although possible, the Internet and its collaborative platforms are laying the foundations for a new model of tuition, by assembling a constituency that’s withdrawing from the entertainment movement enforced by the ‘machine’ to fish for legitimacy. As the population online continues to spread like a bat out of hell, this becomes a very powerful prospect indeed.

WikiLeaks is the most contemporary example, a revelation that crystallised even the most watertight of institutions, and a phenomenon that will continue to gather pace as long as the ‘kill switch’ isn’t flicked. The inherently skeptical psyche of civilisation is always looking for stumbling blocks to help us jump ship, and as the blanket of connectedness grows, and the more consumers start to use their free time to participate symmetrically, the more likely cracks in Government and organisation operation will appear.

As Michael Hardt once said: “How do you argue with a network”? The answer is, with immense difficultly. This is why transparency today is so important. This is why the radical transparency card has been played in the public relations space. The organisations who have accepted the neo-digital age realise that publics today have more control and more ability to expose any malpractice than ever before, and consequently managing a relationship by almost not managing it at all (I.e. becoming totally open-source), is potentially the answer to sustainable relationship management.

But is this practice ethical? It’s certainly dangerous. The leaked files on the Afghan war published by WikiLeaks has gained significant traction on Twitter and other social networking forums since its release. The documents contained detailed personal information of Afghan citizens who approached NATO soldiers with information, of which the Taliban are now said to be targeting. This begs the question, where does one draw the line between transparency and the regulation of content in order to guard those concerned from harm, and how does this alter the way corporate public relations functions?

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