Speaking the Languages of New Media

There is a significant language problem in our profession. We speak our native language just fine and may even speak a foreign language or two, yet very few of us can decipher HTML (the language on which web pages are built) and CSS (a web page’s design, including look and format). What’s more, we think in narrow terms when discussing topics such as the “interactivity” of new media objects. It’s long past time we expanded our vocabulary on both fronts. We live in a digital world, and in order to communicate in that world, we need to be able to speak the language.

The understanding of HTML and CSS is a skill visibly missing from many of our resumes and CVs, and unfortunately, it’s not high on our priority list either. I surveyed 16 of my peers regarding the skills they felt were necessary (and unnecessary) of today’s communications/public relations professionals. Survey respondents were asked to choose five skills from a list of 12 options, and their choices included: writing and editing, verbal, design, social media strategy, communication strategy, media relations, event organization, working understanding of HTML/CSS, blogger relations, project management, working understanding of CMSs and speech writing.

Eight individuals responded, and the top five skills they identified were: communication strategy (7), social media strategy (6), writing and editing (6), project management (5) and event organization (4). A working understanding of HTML/CSS and design were the only two skill sets to not receive any votes, and only three individuals listed a working understanding of CMSs. The top five skills respondents felt were not needed were: design (8), a working understanding of HTML/CSS (6), a working understanding of CMSs (5), blogger relations (5) and speech writing (5). In this case, social media strategy, communication strategy and writing editing received no votes.

I was surprised to see so many people discount both a working understanding of HTML/CSS and CMSs while putting so much stock in social media strategy. Even while we may not be responsible for building our company’s website or creating new media objects on the behalf of clients, many of us are charged with leading these initiatives or making updates to our company’s website. How are we expected to do so effectively and to their full potential if we don’t understand the languages on which they are built?

Suggesting that we, as professionals responsible for leading new media projects, understand CSS (and be able to edit it accordingly) doesn’t seem like it is too much to ask. Heck, I doubt many communications professionals know how to view the HTML or CSS of a website. In 2012, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) issued the organization’s new definition of public relations and in their official statement, they outline the various roles/expectations of the modern PR professional. Among other things, the list includes counseling, planning and organization functions and

Examples of the knowledge that may be required in the professional practice of public relations include communication arts, psychology, social psychology, sociology, political science, economics and the principles of management and ethics. Technical knowledge and skills are required for opinion research, public-issues analysis, media relations, direct mail, institutional advertising, publications, film/video productions, special events, speeches and presentations.

How they can list technical skills and knowledge in subjects such as public-issues analysis and film/video production and not include web design and development is beyond me. Among other things, having such knowledge can help us set expectations of leadership with regards to how long projects may or may not take. Changing the color of a font is one thing; moving elements around on the page is another. We have to know the difference.

The second common problem I’ve noticed is our propensity to talk in general terms about new media subjects. When describing what type of website we need during a redesign, we say we want it to be “interactive” while failing to mention that we also need it to be responsive [a website that adjusts based on the type of device a visitor is using]. By not fully understanding these and similar concepts, we can find ourselves delivering a product that doesn’t meet our expectations. The concept of interactivity, for example, is noted to be as much a physical action and mental process as it is a manipulation of a new media object according to new media theorist Lev Manovich in The Language of New Media. Interactivity with a book occurs when readers fill in the blanks left by ellipses, and when you have to move around a sculpture, you’re physically interacting with that piece of art. Taking the idea of interactivity one step further, author Janet Murray notes the “appropriate design goal for interactive environments is not the degree of interactivity, but whether or not the system creates the satisfying experience of agency for the interactor” in Inventing the Medium. In other words, the goal of your website, app or digital experience should be centered on meeting user expectations and fulfilling a need and NOT on the bells and whistles that may ultimately prove to be useless. So, if we can accept that the concept of interactivity extends beyond the digital space and can include how we think and act, we can better develop engaging and potentially meaningful experiences. The same is true for other words and ideas.

There are other programming languages and new media terms we can use, and unless we are formally educated in these areas, it is up to us to learn them. We have resources such as lynda.com and W3 Schools that offer tutorials for people of all skill levels, so we have no excuse not to try. We need to extend our knowledge and skills beyond writing and editing or event planning and start to focus how the materials we create live in the digital world. If we do that, we can advance our discipline and find new ways to engage our audiences.

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