Forgive us for going out of order, but we are still making tweaks to Chapter 6, Consultants Who Get It. It should be ready in a day or two. Here's Chapter 7 for your review and ever-so-candid comments.
“What we have here is a failure to communicate.”—Cool Hand Luke’s warden.
There was a joke circulating the PR industry in the late 90s:
“Question: Why do lawyers like PR consultants so much?
Answer: It gives them someone to look down on in the ethical pecking order.”
Things haven’t gotten much better in terms of perceptions of the public relations profession since then. The 2005 Edelman Trust Barometer, an annual worldwide survey, reported “PR people rank far down the list of credible spokespeople,” just above athletes and entertainers and just below lawyers.”
This finding is hard to shrug off. Here is the image-building business, perceived to have more cracks in it than the Portrait of Dorian Gray. They consider themselves communication facilitators. But others see them as gatekeepers and spin masters. When the Naked Conversations book project was first announced, Israel, who practiced PR for over 25 years received email from someone he’d never met telling him the “book will undoubtedly suck. You’re a PR guy. Every time you open your mouth you lie.”
How did this industry end up with such a tainted image? A long string of scandals has not helped. By reading the papers, one can get an impression of an ongoing collusion between PR agencies and large organizations intent on deceiving the public. Then there’s the language barrier. The PR people use corpspeak—an oxymoronic mix of risk-avoidance and hyperbole. Then there’s the "flack-catcher" perception. People tend to view the press guy as someone adept at deflecting direct interaction between the press and public officials. Particularly when confrontation may be anticipated, the press guy steps forward to speak for the company because people in the company appear afraid to take the heat. The end result is a large number of people see the PR practitioner in the way of the truth, someone who guides company spokespeople to mislead or at a very minimum, control the message to the advantage of the company, not the public who feels it has a right to know what’s going on.
Bloggers enjoy a reverse image. They write in the plainest of language—so unrefined that postings sometimes scream for a good edit. Dave Winer likes to see typos because they prove authenticity. So why did we find so many great blogs written by PR practitioners? There wasn’t room enough in this chapter to cover all the great PR practitioner bloggers we found. Because there are many great and conscientious PR professionals who understand that blogging has already disrupted the status quo of their professions, and have adapted to the change to the benefits of their clients and themselves.
They remain in the minority however, More traditional members of their trade sit with arms akimbo insisting that they can continue to do what they’ve always done, which is to command when announcements will be made and to control who makes them as well as what they have to say. Personally, we think many of them may find their futures in the restaurant service industry and the world may be a better place for it, even if the restaurant industry is not.
There’s a great deal more to PR than the press release, but it is a flagship and a fundamental tool of media relations. They are created through a process that is often started by a mid-level PR person, who then gets edited by one or more members of the marketing and executive team in committee fashion. If the company is public, major releases are passed through legal. Sometimes a dozen pair of hands tweak it before it is distributed by email and channeled by a distribution service. Often PR practitioners call key target editors or email them.
Blogs just get posted by a single, approachable person. If others find it interesting or important, a chain of events is set in motion. Others add relevant, fast-breaking news as they get wind of it. The story becomes amplified by the receivers—not the senders. Word travels fast from one blog to another at a rapid rate. For example, when one Scoble ardently complained in a weekend posting, that his company had reversed its position on an emotionally charged social issue of gay discrimination in Washington State, the blogger received over 100 comments in a few hours from people strongly agreeing and disagreeing with him. Conversations moved from the blog into email, onto phone lines and into business and social meals. Within 48 hours, The New York Times covered the controversy on it’s front page. The only PR involvement was Scoble requested—and received— PR agency permission before he publicly cited his CEO Steve Ballmer’s internal document.
The blogosphere calls this amplification. While traditional PR most certainly has the ability to amplify, the difference is that, in blogging, receivers decide what gets amplified. In traditional PR campaigns it’s the senders and their budgets.
This illustrates one way public communications has been upended. It’s like the message at the beginning of the old Outer Limits program from black-and-white TV days. “You are not in control…” Indeed, may people have come to call the traditionalist PR practitioners the “command and control” school. We assume the new school will soon become known as “listen and participate.”
Not all traditional practitioners are entrenched in obsolete or unsavory practices. For example Frank X. Shaw, vice president at Waggener Edstrom told us that as Microsoft’s PR firm his agency has had to adapt to a “smaller, faster world.” Not long ago, a nimble agency had a few days, or even a week to react to major news, giving the agency sufficient time to decide on a strategy and implementation plans, then schedule meetings with executives and decision makers. Today he has four hours, from start to finish. How does Waggener Edstrom adapt? The PR agency e-mails Microsoft’s bloggers, giving them the information and having them serve as a global distribution system of company news.
While we see an amoebic separation of new and old schools in the practice, the new has the memory genes of legitimate traditional practices. But in their hearts blogging is taking an emotional and passionate place. Noel Hartzell, at Sun Microsystems says cultures will determine which PR teams will evolve and which will not. “Our PR team is thinking about how to use technology and culture as a corporate weapon and blogging does both.” He said the Sun communications team sees itself as information gatherers, analyzers and counselors directed their energies toward a series of communities. “A bad way to do PR for them is to blast press releases every Thursday. We help feed the right information into the right channels. What could be better for a PR organization than blogs,” he said.
While veteran technology communications consultant Shel Holtz, sees blogging as a central tool of his practice, in the big picture, it’s just another point on a continuum dating back to the beginning of online communications and likely to continue past blogging. “Why is blogging a bigger deal than when I started incorporating Instant Messaging in the middle 90s,” he wondered.
We found a passion for blogging both on the corporate and agency side, and in all sized organizations. Richard Edelman, CEO of the world’s largest independent PR firm, is in a position to evangelize blogging into powerful offices where blogging’s relevance to date has been generally discounted. He has also used his personal blog to bludgeon the tainted ethics of a rival PR agency. Rubel has found himself catapulted into a position of great influence somewhat to his surprise and his innovative programs for clients may elevate also to guru status. Renee Blodgett, who serves a national client portfolio from a home office uses technology to make geography less relevant to her practice and her personal blog as a direct channel to extol a client’s virtues. Holtz, along with Amsterdam-based Neville Hobson, and Silicon Valley operative Mike Manuel have been at the PR game for years, but they are now enjoying greater recognition and respect—not to mention increased new business prospects, because of the success of their blogs.
Catapult to Prominence
Perhaps Rubel’s story is most striking. If you type his name in to Google In May 2005 you got 42,600 responses. Edelman outpolls him by 300 mentions, but Edelman has been at the game twice as long (even longer when you consider that Rubel’s blog is a couple of years old) and runs an agency 100 times larger than the one where Rubel is employed. Edelman has also authored or co-authored a half-dozen books and the world’s largest independent agency bears his name. But Rubel has been blogging longer and posts much more frequently, bringing the name recognition issue to a virtually draw.
Not long ago, Rubel was just another PR practitioner, making a living mostly by smiling and dialing editors on behalf of clients. Now his blog, Micro Persuasion is wildly popular. It is indexed as a source for Google News. Rubel is often the first to either break news or point to another blog that does. He’s among the world’s most frequently interviewed bloggers and speaks more than 50 times a year. Media Magazine named him one of the 100 people most influential to the media—along with Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey.
The editors, he used to dial up, now call him. A large number read Micro Persuasion as a primary source for fresh leads. One example is when he caught wind that NewsGator, a blog aggregator software company was acquiring a competitor, and blogged about it. Within an hour, dozens of other bloggers repeated Rubel’s scoop, amplifying the news. Most of them linked back to Rubel’s original post. By the next morning NewsGator CEO Greg Reinacker found himself talking with press from all over the world. There had never been a press release issued.
Perhaps the sweetest irony is that other PR practitioners now pitch Rubel to mention their clients coverage on his blog. While he clearly enjoys playing in the spotlight, he was more eager to point out the benefits blogging has for his growing number of clients, one such example: the Association of National Advertisers (ANA)—comprised of Fortune 500 companies like Proctor & Gamble, Sears, Disney and others companies of equal magnitude.
With Rubel's coaching, Bob Liodice, ANA CEO and president, started blogging. CooperKatz sent out a brief announcement back when traditional media still regarded the blogosphere as the purview of lonely teenage diarists. The New York Times picked up the story, wrote positively and gave it prominent play. Now, the press regularly goes to Liodice's blog to report on what he has to say.
This, it seems to us, changed the traditional PR role. Instead of standing as a gatekeeper in the middle of the conversation, Rubel connected the parties then stepped back to let them talk directly without him. This is contrary to the way agencies traditionally work. Billable hours are lost when an agency engineers itself out of its disintermediary role. By relinquishing traditional command and control tactics, CooperKatz established a new facilitative role, one that other agencies would be wise to emulate.
Recently, CooperKatz elevated Rubel to head up a newly formed practice addressing blog and social media activities, naming it Micro Persuasion after his popular blog. Among Micro Persuasion’s first new clients— Vespa, motor scooter company, who followed his advice to initiate two blogs, both of which feature real Vespa owners posting about their daily experiences. The scootering bloggers were, of course, selected call for applicants online at Rubel’s suggestion. Rubel posted several blogs at Micro Persuasion and in characteristic humility attributed the idea to Church of the Customer’s Huba adn McConnell's book, Creating Customer Evangelists.
Another Rubel blogging success was the case of WeatherBug -- a software utility for the meteorologically obsessed. With a company claim of 65 million downloads by May 2005, we assume there’s a lot of them. Earlier, as company officials tell it, WeatherBug's parent company AWS Convergence Technologies partnered with another company and the result was customer complaints of spyware snaking into their computers. Weatherbug has since been vetted as a clean application, Rubels asserted, but had a residual reputation problem to deal with. "WeatherBug used the blog as a central communications tool to engage in a public dialog that included some very harsh critics. It managed to turn the situation, rebuilding trust and now, according to Rubel, some of the best-known and most-trusted bloggers extol WeatherBug’s virtues.
Through Rubel’s counsel, WeatherBug also became a pioneer in “event blogs.” They have made a Groundhog Day blog, into a popular annual event, in which the company straight-facedly reports on shadow-sightings and have “experts” interpret their implications. WeatherBug created more serious event blogs when each of four hurricanes hit Florida, in 2004, using them for information-sharing between people and organizations as the press dipped into them as a primary news source.
Rubel remains the sole CooperKatz blogger, but he says his entire agency is touched by his blog.We think its has elevated CooperKatz stature and competitive position. His Micro Persuasion practice is CooperKatz’s fastest growing unit and the firm is producing new products to service existing clients and an increasing number of prospects. CooperKatz has started to develop specific blog-related products. One, called “LockBox,” is used only in case of crisis and will be discussed in a later chapter. Another, called "Blogwatch," entails junior agency staff monitoring blogosphere mentions of clients, their products and markets on a daily basis to determine if client risks were normal, high or elevated.
Rubel believes all agencies can prosper while providing clients powerful services through blogging. For example, noting there are now 1500 bloggers at Microsoft putting out volumes of content daily, he suggested that Wagner Edstrom could pluck the 100 most interesting Microsoft blog entries every day, aggregating them into a master blog, making it easier for Redmond-watchers to find employee-generated content. He says he’s all-too-happy to help other PR professionals. "The best PR people have always been connectors. They've often had to be like Plasticman stretching between clients and press. Blogging is the best connection tool ever invented," he said.
Richard Edelman oversees a worldwide organization of nearly 2000 employees in more than 40 offices on four continents. Until recently, he was not well-known in the tech sector; having built his reputation in international services, particularly Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). He has consulted Egypt, Israel and Mexico on economic development and is a member of the World Economic Forum as well as the World Corporate Ethics Council. His agency’s Trust Barometer is based on surveys of 1500 “opinion leaders” in the U.S., Brazil, China, Japan and Europe. Now in its sixth iteration, many consider the barometer as confirmation of a continuing trend of people trusting each other more than institutions. The Barometer has also indicated the steady ascent of the Internet as a trusted source.
Soon after starting his blog, SpeakUp in September 2004, some bloggers complained that Edelman came across like a corporate executive, which is precisely what he is. He conceded to us that his posts were too long and infrequent, “but I feel as if I am part of the revolution, not simply standing on the sideline observing.” He boosted his credibility of being more than just a hubris-tosser, when he posted a condemnation of rival agency, Ketchum PR when it was caught in scandalous “pay-to-play” collaboration with conservative columnist Armstrong Williams and the U.S. Dept. of Education. His main point: Edelman PR employs more stringent ethics than Ketchum from top to bottom—and other agencies should so as well.
Over time, Edelman’s language has also gradually loosened and on last check, he was edging toward greater brevity and frequency. What makes his blog remarkable, we think, is in his reporting on fascinating conversations. While most bloggers post about shared pizza and beer with other bloggers, Edelman seems to be constantly globe-trotting to break bread with world class thought leaders. In May 2005, for example, he posted three consecutive reports of meal-side chats with blogger-philosopher David Weinberger, Julie Gerberding, head if the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Yeon Ho Oh, CEO of Korea’s OhmyNews, an interactive newspaper that influenced the unexpected outcome of Korea’s last presidential election.
Edelman takes advantage of his prominent position to demonstrate his own thought leadership as well. He advises PR agencies to have clients speak for themselves, rather than contracting outside spokespeople or official company spokespeople. Taking perhaps another subliminal swipe at Ketchum, he said “PR companies need to be totally transparent on funding sources.” Third, he advises that PR agencies to understand the implications of peer-to-peer communications media including the blogosphere.
Does today’s PR practitioner face the same fate as last century’s blacksmith? Perhaps. “Certainly many of today’s practices are already headed for the scrap heap either because they undermine integrity or because bloggers will supplant them,” he said. These include such smarmy practices as: buying one's way onto a video news release issued by a "credible” reporter; exclusive elite media interviews where questions asked are pre-negotiated, and allowing partial disclosures such as was delivered by former President Clinton, early into the Monica Lewinski scandal; and eliminating popular cameo personalities representing special interest organizations as well as entering chatrooms under a false identity.
His list makes clear that the need to clean house in some PR sectors is greater than what blogging can be expected to fix, but it does play a role. “I think those of us in PR have to improve our own game--we have to be part of the conversation by reading key bloggers in relevant product categories, to be prepared to contribute to the conversation with smart posts and to keep key bloggers updated by maintaining relationships akin to those we have with reporters.”
He agreed with our premise that blogging is sufficiently significant to his industry to present a change-or-perish situation. “Blogging is not a passing fad. Any brand, business or organization that fails to grasp (that) fact may very well be. It’s essential to any company seeking to connect in a spontaneous, continuous fashion with its publics. It affords a window into a company unlike any other--more credible because it lacks the dimension of control, more sustainable because it is rooted in reality, more powerful because it can be connected to comments of others having primary experiences with a company's product or service. Smart companies will take heed of what they learn from online critics, amending the product or process by being committed to continuous improvement from whatever source,” he told us.
The Edelman agency encourages its clients to get on the blog wagon, designating mid-level employees as bloggers “so that the company's R&D or marketing or service units can gain profile outside of trade media or business publications. In fact, good word of mouth in the blogosphere leads to coverage in the off line media.”
Why is this sea change occurring? From Edelman’s perspective, it’s because “traditional marketing has entered its twilight years.” It’s premised he said, on an old model of persuasion that worked from the 50s through the 80s, where “marketers could reach 97 percent of the target audience with three ads in prime time on network TV. They relied on a pyramid of authority in which elite audiences such as investors, regulators, retailers and elite media received advance notice of company plans. A large commitment to advertising and appropriate monies for slotting allowances guaranteed favorable treatment at retail...and the consumer, lured by the ads, would purchase, especially if a big name celebrity was in the ad. The big idea—keep everything under wraps until the last moment before the ads break--give an exclusive to the Wall Street Journal and you are home free.”
“So now a smart company has a different approach--call it the ‘paradox of transparency.’ Co-create your brand with key consumers. Talk to critics at NGOs in advance to reach an understanding. Use your employees as your first line of offense. Use a real person as a spokesperson or maybe the winner of a reality show like American Idol. Create synergy among the promotions and talk across the silos, but offer real dialogue, not hot air.”
Like Rubel, Edelman advises practitioners to get out of the way of the conversation. In his posting on Weinberger, the Cluetrain co-author contended bloggers generally distrust PR people because they prevent their clients from speaking openly. Weinberger wants PR people out of the middle to ensure veracity. But Edelman argues PR people can play facilitative roles opening windows into corporations and serving as “prods to action.” He added, “PR should be seen as a spur to true interaction, not a barrier.”
Avenue of Communications
As much bigger than the CooperKatz that Edelman is, Renee Blodgett’s operation is that much smaller. While, she may use freelance talent from time-to-time, Blodgett is essentially a one-person operation working from a San Francisco-based home office. She also sees the beauty of small in her client service strategy. Saying she loves a family style relationship with clients, she told us, “I love putting companies on the map and the challenges that come with getting there. She recently moved her operation from Boston. There were some pains, but she lost no clients, demonstrating the diminution of geography’s relevance in the business service industry thanks to online interactivity.
Blodgett would have found the blogosphere anyway, but one client forced her hand. NewsGator works with other center stage blogging companies such as Six Apart, and Technorati. She needed to live and breathe in the blogging community. She started Down the Avenue in November 2004, covering covers technology, marketing, public relations, politics, media and life. We don’t know if Blodgett played a role in leaking her client’s acquisition to Rubel, but we suspect we could find a couple of fingerprints on close inspection.
DowntheAvenue is well-written, but what we found unique unique, is that she may be the first PR consultant to use her blog extol the virtues and milestones of her own clients. That was bound to happen, but Blodgett has managed to do it a style that the blogosphere finds completely acceptable.
She told us she writes about her clients “in the same way I write about someone who makes an impact on me or those around me. If I’m thrilled about news that a client will speak on a prominent panel, received an industry award or landed up in USA Today, its validation that what they’re doing is positive, we’re on the right track and have something compelling to say.” But Blodgett braids her client-related virtues into other postings, sometimes favorably discussing competitors. It’s not that different from how Bruggeman gingerly handles Activewords plugs on his blog, taking care to mention his company only about once in every four postings.
There have been no challenges so far, neither negative comments posted on her sit nor critical blogs pointing to it. “The key,” she told us, “is to maintain full disclosure that they are clients within the post.” She encourages other consultants to do the same. “With a powerful vehicle like a blog, it’s a natural fit for a communications consultant, and frankly, a ‘must’ in my opinion.”
Before starting a blog, she advises people to know what image they intend to project. “It’s important to think about how that new ‘voice’ will impact your client’s business and how and where it can benefit them strategically. Finally, she urged, “be authentic. Having an authentic voice, whatever that means to you, will make your blog more sustainable and readable.”
Neville Hobson and Shel Holtz are friends who have both been in the PR industry for over 25 years, spending much of their careers employed by large organizations. Both went into their own practices and have blogs that are central to these endeavors. One thing that separates them, however, is about 6000 miles. While Hobson is a British citizen living in Amsterdam, Holtz is a Southern Californian. This presents no problem in their joint podcasting project which we will discuss in a future chapter.
While both consider blogging central and vital, both turned jaded eyes toward arguments that “everything has changed,” reminding us of a conversation we once had with John Naisbit, author of Megatrends. “Everything never changes,” he told us shortly after 9/11. “Something changes, and everything else adjusts.”
The something that changed for Hobson was the merger of two European agencies, one his employer and he found himself out of work. A steadfast believer that technology is the communications industry’s great enabler, he started blogging in 2004, writing daily on whatever interested him. “I did my thinking in public,” he told us, in the hope that it might, “enable me to connect with others who had similar mindsets. I began visiting other blogs and connecting with those bloggers. My blog played an instrumental role in my deciding to go my own way rather than finding another traditional job.”
Holtz was a reporter for a few years, then served as an agency and corporate communications executive for about 20 years before he brought an idea to his employer to use intranet software technology to save clients significant dollars. His boss didn’t want like the idea. Higher revenue from higher-priced, less efficient shrink wrap software may have meant higher price and lower performance for clients, but it meant higher profits for the consulting company. So Holtz quit, forming Holtz Communications + Technology in 1996. He thinks online technology has been one of the two biggest changes during his tenure, second to management’s recognition of the value of communications.
Despite negative perceptions voiced elsewhere, Holtz argued that quality has increased in PR, for reasons far more comprehensive than the blogging. He told us he saw less fluff and more quality content these days. When he began a stint at Mattel in 1984 shortly after the company took a body blow in an interactive TV escapade, he discovered, “the lead story in the employee magazine was about an administrative assistant who would be square dancing in the opening ceremonies of the LA Summer Olympics. Today, most companies are communicating material of substance to employees and other audiences The industry has matured considerably, in his eyes. One indication is the position the senior-most communicator in most organizations, has been placed proximate to the CEO, and he or she is included in senior level meetings.”
Holtz sees the birth of bloggging as one more milestone along the online communications continuum, perhaps no more significant than a decade ago when Internet Messaging emerged. He has the historic perspective, having started playing with online communications with Compuserve back in 1988. Working in corporate communications for Allergan, a US-based pharmaceutical company in 1991, Holtz used the Internet to monitor newsgroups addressing animal rights, since the company engaged in animal testing, ultimately using what he gathered to convince management to alter its approach.”
So, while he sees blogging as a logical next step, he share the perception of a sea change in progress. “ Control of message, targeting of audiences, measurement of effectiveness -- it's all changed. And, most strikingly, most communicators don't know it yet.”
Hobson’s self-employment is nearly a decade more recent than Holtz’s and he sees blogging as the enabling technology that got him started. He launched exclusively from his blog NevOn, using no brochures, flyers not even a traditional website—just the blog. “My blog is my persona. It’s where my new business relationships begin. Others get to know me before we meet. Blogging has produced new professional relationships which has led to new clients,” he said. It also altered his life. For example, he reads online news in tandem with finding out what other bloggers say on a subject. “I connect with those opinions either through joining in conversations on other blogs or writing comments and opinions in my own blog where others may comment. It makes for amazing connections. “It has convinced me there’s a new way of working where a blog is central and that by doing it that way, relationships have a new form of trust as their foundation.”
His practice enables him to bring blogging into corporate environs where it did not previously exist. When we interviewed him, he was helping an unnamed global telecommunications company to develop a blogging platform to serve as a primary channel between internal marketing communications and public relations staff and external agencies in Europe. He was hoping that when it rolled out, it would serve as a “benchmark for other potential uses of blogs as communication and relationship-development tools.”
By contrast, Holtz see his own as a practice in transition with a long-view memory of how the practice has changed. Until 10 years ago his life was filled with the joys of bluelines and press checks for corporate brochures. Now that stuff has gone the way of the Gutenberg Press. The online “change has been stunning. The introduction of many-to-many communication has had a dramatic impact on the communication environment. From a strategic point of view, online communication has turned all the models and assumptions under which we operated upside down, he told us.
He was also a pioneer advocate for the efficiencies of online. He went to the Well, an early online community for expertise on how he could help his client, Adobe Systems, to develop a the first-ever online desktop employee benefits desktop application in the mid-90s. He got the advice he needed and supervised the $140,000 project over nine months. It was excitement over this intranet technology efficiency that he proposed to his boss at Alexander & Alexander of New Jersey. Holtz quit and started out on his own.
Today, Holtz still performs traditional communications consulting services if you ask him, “But I don't promote these as prominently as my online-focused services. Still, not all of my online services are necessarily focused on social media. I work on a lot of intranets, Web site audits and online communication planning.” Holtz sees blogging fitting progressively into this chronology of online activity. His blog is an extension of a subscription-based newsletter that he’s done for years, which if course is now RSS syndicatable. But there are modest changes, including the time he invests in his blogging and podcasting.
Despite his attempt to put blogging into perspective, he admits that blogging has dramatically and irrevocably has changed his business, just, “not as dramatically as some of the more zealous blogging evangelists would have us believe. For one thing, I don't believe PR ever “had control of messages. Instead, he sees a more significant change on the other end of the equation, “the audience has been amplified exponentially. Blogs affect organizational communication in terms of transparency, tone, channel, influence. There's not an element of PR that won't be affected by blogs.”
“But when I read that blogs will replace press releases (as one example), I just have to laugh. A press release is the official, authoritative, final statement of record by an organization. A press release can be distributed in a manner that accommodates securities regulations. They may be lowly, but they have a place. Blogs can't replace that. Blogs also can't brew a perfect cup of coffee. What am I trying to say here? You'll find no bigger advocate for companies understanding and employing the power of blogs -- and recognizing the awesome impact of blogs on the business -- than me. But I have always believed that new media don't kill old media; they only force old media to adapt. Blogs are, unquestionably, transformational.
This all may be true. But press releases may have all the impact on getting news coverage that the WeatherBug groundhog has on authentic weather prediction. Arik Hesseldahl, a Forbes Online editor, told us, “I just don’t use what’s in the press release. I may use the boilerplate, but too me, they’re just not worth the tree they were printed on.” “Confided a communications executive in a Fortune 100 company, “I don’t read our own press releases anymore. They’re just a bunch of crap. But we have some great bloggers here.” It seems to us legal compliance is a weak argument for the time, expense and occasional animosity releases require. What’s wrong with releases, we think, is not that they exist, it’ in their inability to speak with clarity and succinctly on the subjects they seek to amplify.
Shut Up and Listen
As head of the Voce Communications Digital Advocacy (DA) practice, which focuses on online communication, Mike Manuel helps companies listen and understand what’s being said, see where opinions are being formed and who are the core influencers. He helps clients, particularly Yahoo determine what the best way to get into conversations.
His core advice: “Shut up and listen. Listening is hard for companies and ironically it’s hard for communicators too, especially the command and control types accustomed to, well, talking. It’s really in our professional interest and the interest of our clients to take the time to do diligence and determine how the blogosphere is – or is not – impacting public opinion and brand perception. And you do this simply by listening.”
As the lead for Voce’s DA practice, Manuel leads a team to help Yahoo’s Search division understand how online discussion was impacting its perception – and to formulate a strategy that would allow the group to have a louder voice in a noisy marketplace. Among the results was a Yahoo Search team blog . The blog lets visitors get to know and talk with product team members, which has the obvious humanizing benefits we reported on at Microsoft. Manuel worked in the background for the blog’s planning and development. He’s clearly proud of the result, suggesting the Search Blog can serve as a model for other corporate blogs.
Yahoo Search also uses blogs and wikis internally to share insight and information into online discussions. “We use tools like blogs and wikis to help structure all this data in a meaningful way so that it’s digestible and actionable for a variety of points in the internal food chain. This is all part of what we call a listening engine,” he explained. Manuel, also is involved in planning Yahoo 360, a blog tools service in beta testing as of this writing, but he declined to discuss unannounced client products. This was not to our surprise.
In a larger light, Manuel sees three major trends being driven by blogging:
(1) Blogs are democratizing the media. Whether it’s the Trent Lott scandal or the Dan Rather cover up, the blogosphere is actively watching MSM– and participating in news cycles for the first time. Previously, audiences couldn’t take active parts because there was no easy way to be heard. Now they can be heard through blogging almost instantly. Manuel feels this directly impacts both journalists and communicators.
(2) Blogs are driving corporate transparency. We’re seeing trust erode with the MSM and corporate brands. “Trust is the only capital you have in the blogosphere and to build trust companies need to become transparent in their practices,” says Manuel. This eliminates command and control options , and gives, Manuel says, audiences “the power to scream back.”
(3) Blogs are challenging traditional PR practices. The rules of engagement are different with the blogosphere, but the fundamental principles behind solid media relations still arguably apply. For example, Manuel says “blasting out the same product announcement to bloggers and journalists is just a recipe for disaster.”
Blog or Die?
When we contemplate the current status of the PR industry, we were reminded of one of the few passages we really appreciated in Steven Covey’s aging best-seller, Seven Habits of Highly Successful People. Covey metaphorically described a jungle in which a management team is hacking its way through the thick, vision-blocking undergrowth with machetes. An executive comes in, reviews the team, then climbs a tree to get a broader view. He calls down in alarm: “Stop! Wrong jungle!” The senior manager glares back up at him saying, “Leave us alone. We’re making progress.”
We think many PR organizations have spent way-too-long hacking in the wrong jungles. There are too many tactics which have become obsolete, expensive, ineffective and ethically questionable. Blogging is not the answer but it is clearly an answer.
The money wasted on hokey promotions and gimmicks can be channeled into R&D to make better products and R&D departmental bloggers can be made smarter by listening to customers. More important, worthless corporate monologues can be easily transformed into mutually beneficial dialogues.
To lovers of communications command and control—we think Holtz is right, you never were in control. If, like Covey’s managers you keep driving forward, we suspect you will discover the brick wall in your windshield is closer than you think.
For a very long time, we contemplated calling this book, “Blog or Die,” until our blog readers persuaded us this was an unwise course. When traditional publicists in mind when we wrote it. We see the restaurant service industry in the future for some of them.
We were heartened to see so many visionary, honest, articulate practitioners emerging to prominence in the industry.