There is a great story in Malcolm Gladwell’s best seller The Tipping Point, about the American patriot Paul Revere. Most will be familiar with the story of Revere’s ride up northern Massachusetts to warn towns and villages that the “British were coming”. Thanks to Revere, the British faced an unexpected rebel force at Lexington, where the opening shots of the war of independence were exchanged. While the British routed the patriots that day, the delay gave the American militia the time they needed to organize and turn back the British at the town of Concord.

What I did not know before reading Gladwell was that on that fateful night there were actually two patriots (rebels if you are a Canadian) that set out to warn the about the British. While Revere went to the north someone by the name of William Dawes headed south. Both were from Boston but Revere was well known throughout the colony. Dawes on the other hand was not known outside of Boston. Only one small community along Dawes’s ride appeared to get the message, while Revere’s route turned out the majority of the patriots at Lexington.

The story, according to Gladwell, points to the importance of networks. Networks are the tipping point for the ideas that change attitudes, create trends and mobilize action.

Now Gladwell wrote The Tipping Point just before the anyone truly began to understand how the internet could be a useful marketing medium. So his theory took on messianic proportions when marketers realized that ideas could move at warp speed on the net. Networks are of critical value and those that have the credibility to tap into these networks are truly influential and this separates them from the ‘also rans’…… or Paul Revere from William Dawes.

I see this as PA and PR’s competitive advantage over our advertising colleagues because our work does not focus on mass audiences but individuals whose opinions others respect. Our relationship swith opinion leaders allow us to play a powerful marketing role in what Tim O’Reilly and Michael Tenant call ‘The Age Of Persuasion’ – we are a vital part of  the dissemination of information.

Gladwell’s theory has been illustrated by various academic studies that show that members in coveted board positions often trace their appointments back to a few individuals who are key influencers in the business world . These people fit Gladwell’s definition of ‘connectors’-people who have an extraordinary ability to make friends and acquaintances. But influential people can also be information specialists (mavens) who acquire knowledge about the marketplace and share it with others, or salesmen who are charismatic and have a powerful ability to make others agree with them.

I don’t know about you but these three types of individuals sound a lot like the PR people I know! The challenge is to turn our networks  into value for our clients, just like Revere did for the Patriots.