The PR panel in some ways encapsulated the weird nexus between corporate America and internet-era technology which has characterized a large part of the Milken Conference. Monday it was newspapers, Tuesday it was music, Wednesday it was PR: in each case the industry, we were told, is being transformed by the internet, and in each case the dinosaurs in charge are failing to keep up.
The difference with the PR panel was that it was dominated, as panels featuring him are wont to be, by Jason Calacanis, who proved himself to be as quotable as ever: "If you’re a CEO and you cannot blog and you cannot use Twitter, you should be fired," he said. "You’re antiquated." And in general the panel did grok the changes to the industry and understand the power of blogs and the internet to shape public perception of companies.
But the audience was another matter: when the moderator showed the famous iPhone "will it blend" video, it was clear that most of the audience had not only never seen it, but had also never seen anything like it.
And the PR industry, if Hope Boonshaft of Hill & Knowlton is representative, sees itself as providing a familiar corporate face to senior management and lowering them gently into the chaos of the internet. Boonshaft might not be an expert on the web, but she knows a little more than her clients, and that’s important. "The people at the opera, they didn’t even know what YouTube was," she said.
Steve Rubenstein was on the panel too, and he told the audience that his clients still generally say "I want to be in the Wall Street Journal". Those clients are the kind of people who attend a Milken conference, or indeed the kind of people who run the Milken Institute itself – a think tank which still seeks to control its output very carefully, and which is a very long way from hosting blogs or even distributing slightly rough-at-the-edges working papers.
Across town in Santa Monica, PaidContent had a one-day conference on the economics of social media. In a place like that, it’s easy to forget just how far from the web the people who actually run America really are. At the Milken Conference, it’s in your face. In a conference featuring the likes of Quincy Jones – someone who knows what a mass audience can really be – a video which has been seen 5 million times by a very young-skewing internet audience does rather shrink in importance.
One thing I’d love to see at Milken – maybe this could be a panel next year – would be a discussion of the limits of the internet. At the moment there seems to be a huge disconnect: the technoutopian geeks are convinced, with good reason, that the world is undergoing an enormous revolution, even as most large businesses can quite successfully ignore all of that. If you’re a bank or a pharmaceutical company or a steelmaker or even a consumer-facing business like Procter & Gamble or WalMart, the old paradigm of learning about the world by reading the Wall Street Journal is still very much in effect.
Jason Calacanis has been in the information/media industry for his whole career, and that industry has certainly been the most transformed by the internet. I do think, however, that it’s easy to overstate the importance of the consumer-facing internet to most of the rest of the business world.