How Might Friedman’s Flat World Affect The Public Relations Industry?

The World Is FlatI recently finished Thomas Friedman’s best-selling book The World Is Flat. In one chapter, Friedman suggests that as globalization continues, jobs will migrate from Western countries to developing countries. For example, many American accountants already outsource their work to Indian firms.

Friedman suggests that for many, the only way to prevent this will be for people to become “untouchables” — people whose jobs are not at risk of being outsourced in the near term. He suggests several types of untouchables:

  1. Special workers – workers whose extraordinary skill and talent make them irreplaceable
  2. Specialized workers – those with specialized knowledge
  3. Anchored workers – those whose physical location is important
  4. Really adaptable workers – those who continually evolve

Friedman views this as part of an ongoing and largely positive process of globalization (consistent with his approach in The Lexus and the Olive Tree, an earlier best-seller of his). Many people disagree, saying that rather than a positive trend it is just multinational companies taking advantage of cheap labour sources overseas. However, regardless of your personal view of how desirable this is, it’s difficult to argue that it’s happening.

This got me to wondering: How might Thomas Friedman’s affect the public relations industry? How can we become untouchable, and which parts of our industry might be outsourced?

The Untouchables

The Untouchables Looking at the four types of untouchables that Friedman suggests, most protection for PR professionals is likely to come from numbers three and four — anchored and really adaptable.

Only a few people will ever succeed in becoming a ‘special’ worker and many skills within the profession can be replicated with comprehensive training.

However, PR pros do have two opportunities:

Anchoring

A great deal of our usefulness comes from local knowledge, whether it’s cultural, environmental (political, media landscape etc) or relationship-based.

I think it would be very hard and not that feasible to replicate the knowledge needed to develop a practical, relevant communications strategy from thousands of miles away, or to replicate the relationships involved in government relations.

Along the same lines, event planning is unlikely to move overseas. While it’s certainly possible to develop an event plan and make arrangements from afar, the site visit plays an important role in the planning process. This might be somewhat mitigated by the potential to view photographs of a venue, but someone still has to take those.

Really Adaptable

The field of communications is growing rapidly. By that I mean that, while traditional approaches are still critically important, the field is rapidly expanding into non-traditional online approaches. Staying on the forefront of these changes raises the chance of you making yourself untouchable.

    At Risk?

    It does occur to me, though, that some parts of the communications field do have the potential to be outsourced. That doesn’t mean this will happen, that I would like it to happen or that people couldn’t make themselves untouchable, of course, but it made me stop and think:

    Writing

    Given the prevalence of English as the language of business, it’s perfectly possible that writing jobs could move overseas. Given the right background information, people could certainly write news releases, correspondence and speeches (to an extent) from across the pond.

    Web development

    Web development is a highly skilled occupation, for sure (as is writing in the last example). However, we’ve already seen the Indian software development industry boom. Why not web development?

    Media monitoring

    I don’t think all media monitoring could move overseas (good luck finding the Peterborough Examiner in India), but monitoring of online sources and major newspapers, TV channels, etc., could.

    As the link in the last paragraph showed, though, most local outlets publish online now. Overseas workers could flag when local outlets publish stories online so local PR pros could check out the hard copies, where story placement is still important.

    Proofreading and editing

    As with writing, while this is skilled work, I could see proofreading and editing moving overseas.

      These are just my thoughts on the implications of Friedman’s book. Am I on the mark? Might we see some of these tasks be outsourced in the next few years and might any others move? How else could we future-proof ourselves against this?

      • I like to think that the ‘at risk’ skills present an opportunity for us to rethink our potential. If we start outsourcing some of these skilled and/or time-consuming tasks, we might be better able to maximize our productivity and spend more time developing relationships, strategy and new business. It might even mean that we work less – but more effectively. The ones best suited for this type of change will be the highly-adaptive types.

      • Kyra – Thanks for your comment!
        I agree with you about the importance of becoming highly adaptive. What’s more, I think constantly evolving your skills is a great way to keep challenging yourself and make your work more enjoyable.
        Cheers,
        Dave

      • You’re on the money. In fact, we’ve already outsourced some monitoring tasks to India, and we’re a relatively small shop!

      • Web development is already outsourced. Have you looked at Elance recently? Indian engineers are providing good work at about $4 per hour. Some US shops are subbing work for their clients and making good money on the mark ups.

      • Hi Dave – I started reading this book but never got around to finishing it so it was nice to see your comments. Why read when you can read reviews and summaries online? Anyway – creativity in PR is something that can’t be done en masse like writing, web development and the other examples you list. It’s this ability to think outside the box and make connections between people, ideas, strategies, and social and mainstream media just to list a few. Innovative thinking never goes out of style and will always be in demand. While certain tasks can be outsourced, nothing can replace creativity and intelligence. Education and training is key to developing this but I think it’s more than that. By being open and trying out new experiences, possibilities emerge that would be unthinkable before. Social media is great for hearing different ideas and points of view but it’s also great to get out, travel, learn a new language, draw, play basketball, see experimental movies and stare at cloud formations in the sky.

      • Josh – great to hear from you. Thanks for your comment – I agree that that’s where a lot of the value in PR and marketing can reside. Consider this though – where is it written that creativity and intelligence can only reside locally? Why can’t people come up with creative ideas in India, China or any other economy?

        That’s my concern – it’s relatively easy to define PR’s value but it’s harder to figure out what would make our jobs untouchable.

      • Of course there is creative potential in China and India – but the local knowledge that is needed to create effective programs that would work in Canada is still key IMO. If we sat down to create a communications plan for a company based in Beijing or New Delhi, we would be at a disadvantage … at least to start. Local humour and disposition takes time to understand – to say nothing of language/translation issues.

        For a quick synopsis of some of my favourites: http://tinyurl.com/68n647

        And then there’s the Tourism Australia ‘Where the bloody hell are you?’ campaign … funny in Australia, not funny everywhere else.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/So_where_the_bloody_hell_are_you%3F

      • I’m with you there Kyra – that’s where the cultural knowledge I mentioned comes in.

      • Speaking from the journalist side of the fence and from remote New Zealand, I’ve found an increasing number of press releases and other material is landing on my desk from India, China and other low-wage places. There are a few phone pitches too.

        Almost, but not all, this material is worthless rubbish. Often the writing is gibberish, the material is totally out of context and poorly targetted. In fact, it looks almost indistinguishable from spam. In fact, a lot of it IS spam in the sense that it’s unsolicited. I’ve ended up filtering it out of my my email. The phone calls are worse. Apparently bullying journalists is par for the course in their world.

        I’d suggest any client buying these services is throwing its money down the drain.

      • You raise an interesting question Dave, but consider that a lot of PR firms already have offices all over the world, in places like India and China.

        One of the partners in my firm spent the better part of her career working in Hong Kong. Our network is made up of offices in parts of the world I’ve never heard of. We’ve done business here in Toronto with clients who have never set foot on the continent, let alone in the country.

        We already outsource a good chunk of our work, stuff like research and monitoring, only it’s sent to a dedicated group within our offices instead of in India.

        I think that because PR is more about knowledge and strategy than simple access to information and tasks, our core business will never be outsourced.

      • Chris – I agree with your knowledge and strategy point. I think that’s why things like communications planning aren’t at risk.

        However, your point about firms having offices all over the world reinforces the importance of my earlier questions. If PR firms already have offices all over the world, what’s to stop them moving some of the work to those offices? It might still be within your firm, but may not be within your office, or city, or even country.

        Sounds like Todd’s already there.

      • After reading all of these comments, my sense is that no PR function is truly untouchable. There is amazing talent and creativity everywhere. It was not my intention to suggest only talented people reside locally. My main point was that as the world gets flatter, creativity will be the differentiating factor in who will survive and who will be unemployed.

      • You know Dave, last Christmas I was reading this book as a PR student, asking myself the same question. I already know organizations that outsource their web development to Brazil and India. I don’t see the migration of labour as a necessarily bad thing, though. It is the nature of our profession to shift. Those that move with the current may anchor elsewhere while those that can’t, don’t. The process weeds out the weakest links, and this is why PR is an evolutionary profession. What i expect to see is continued exclusivity to this club (despite the social media opportunities that are making PR the “every man’s” tool).

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      • concerned citizen

        I will limit myself only to the contents of the book, “The world is flat.” To put things in perspective, Joseph Stiglitz (Nobel winner for economics and was Chief Economist at World Bank) said while on a trip to India, that 600 million people from India (out of the one billion!) have been left out of the “development” fold of globalization. So, obviously, all India is not going to migrate into middle class, if anything the inequality is far, far worse now, after the advent of globalization.

        Similarly newspaper reports have pointed out how Chinese workers are working in apalling conditions, to churn out the low cost products, with poor pay, cramped rooms, no accident or health insurance benefits, no job security, no overtime, long working hours – so who is actually benefiting from this sort of globalization? Corporates ofcourse, and the few privileged people of India and China who have been able to get educated in engineering and technology! Not the vast majority of population.

        I would recommend a small, but interesting book, by Aronica and Ramdoo, “The World is Flat? A Critical Analysis of Thomas Friedman’s New York Times Bestseller,” which offers an alternative understanding of globalization. It is a small book compared to the 600 page tome by Friedman, and aimed at the common man and students alike. As popular as the book may be, some reviewers assert that by what it leaves out, Friedman’s book is dangerous. The authors point to the fact that there isn’t a single table or data footnote in Friedman’s entire book.

        “Globalization is the greatest reorganization of the world since the Industrial Revolution,” says Aronica. Aronica and Ramdoo conclude by listing over twenty action items that point the way forward, for understanding the critical issues of globalization.

        You may want to see http://www.mkpress.com/flat
        and watch http://www.mkpress.com/flatoverview.html
        for an interesting counterperspective on Friedman’s
        “The World is Flat”.

        Also a really interesting 6 min wake-up call: Shift Happens! http://www.mkpress.com/ShiftExtreme.html

        There is also a companion book listed: Extreme Competition: Innovation and the Great 21st Century Business Reformation
        http://www.mkpress.com/extreme
        http://www.mkpress.com/Extreme11minWMV.html

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      • The most critical reason in outsourcing is the currency exchange rate of the recipient country.
        The outsourcing company can save anywhere from $1 to $3 per agent per hour.