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Paul Holmes: PR People, Take Blogs Seriously.

The following very lengthy article ran today in The Holmes Report, an influential PR industry newsletter, and is reprinted with the full permission of Paul himself. Thanks Paul! It's Time to Take Blogs Seriously-and Maybe to Develop One of Your Own

Since the earliest days of the Internet, its evangelists have been predicting that the new medium had the power to transform the nature of journalism. A decade ago, the late John Scanlon stood in front of an audience of Edelman clients and told them they had the power to become "content providers," to publish their own versions of news stories, to reach consumers directly.

For those who expected the Internet to change everything, and to do so overnight, the big shock must be how little things have changed. Yes, every newspaper now has its own website, and the pressure to break news in real time has led to some lowering of standards. But new, Internet-only media have been slow to evolve. Online magazines like Slate and Salon don't differ dramatically from their offline counterparts (not surprising, given that Slate is owned in part by Microsoft) and the Internet has produced precisely one big-name reporter: Matt Drudge.

So PR people can be forgiven if they react to one more story about the emergence of new, more participatory form of journalism with a skeptical shrug. But there are signs that the long-awaited revolution is finally upon us. This week saw the celebration of Global PR Blog Week 1.0, an online forum about PR and blogs launched by Australian blogger Trevor Cook and supported by a small army of public relations bloggers. It also saw the announcement that both major political parties would be welcoming bloggers to cover their conventions-an announcement that drew considerably more mainstream media attention.

Says Steve Rubel, vice president of client services at New York PR firm CooperKatz & Company and author of the MicroPersuasion blog, "Blogs are changing the way the media world works. They are creating an environment of participatory journalism, in which anyone can become a journalist. I'm a journalist. I break some news. I have had people pitch me exclusives. And I'm a PR person. That's crazy, but it shows how much things have changed."

The announcement that the Democratic Party would supply media credentials to selected bloggers for the upcoming national convention in Boston generated a mixed reaction. Some hailed it as evidence that the new medium had arrived: "It's like we've finally been invited to sit at the grown-ups table at Thanksgiving," says Ana Marie Cox, who runs the political blog wonkette.com.

Some worried that encouraging bloggers would simply lower journalistic standards even further. Says Tom McPhail, a journalism professor at the University of Missouri, "They're certainly not committed to being objective. They thrive on rumor and innuendo. Bloggers should be put in a different category, like 'pretend' journalists."

And some merely expressed confusion-after the Washington Post reported on the admission of bloggers into the media tent, several readers wrote to ask what a blogger was.

For PR people who share that confision, the term weblog was coined by Jorn Barger in 1997. According to Barger, a weblog is "a web page where a weblogger (sometimes called a blogger) 'logs' all the other webpages she finds interesting." Back then, there were only a few hundred bloggers, but as new software came on the market, it became possible for people with no technology skills or knowledge of HTML to create their own web pages and update them on a daily basis.

Today, there are at least a half a million blogs, and blogging has evolved beyond the aggregation of interesting articles to include comment and analysis.

"Blogs are usually written by one person and in a style that is candid, authentic, even raw," says Debbie Weil, who runs her own blog and also manages Internet conferences on blogging. "The voice of a blog is sometimes edgy; usually opinionated; often smart. Bloggers are not journalists but they comment, analyze and report in real-time on politics, culture and all things Internet. The coolness quotient of a blog is based on how many other Weblogs link to it. And what kind of buzz it stirs up in the blogosphere."

From the Democratic Party perspective, the presence of bloggers presents a risk-many of them are considerably more liberal than the presumed presidential nominee, John Kerry-but also an opportunity to reach the grassroots of the party more directly.

"We want to treat them just the same as other reporters," said Mike Liddell, the convention's director of online communications. "We're even planning to do a breakfast for them the first day of the convention." Lina Garcia, a spokeswoman for the convention, said she hopes the bloggers will help the party reach young people. "A lot of young people blog now, and they're important to us," she says.

The blog-reading audience should be equally important to public relations people, experts say. But many PR people don't seem to know they exist.

It used to be that blogs were for technophiles only. Then they expanded to include the political realm. But today, "blogs have expanded well beyond tech and political space," says Sarah McAuley, resident expert on the blogging phenomenon at Greenough Communications Group in Boston, "reaching into all aspects of life: serious social commentary, entertainment, sports, books, and music."

According to Weber Shandwick Web Relations executive vice president Mike Spataro, virtually every topic under the sun is being blogged about. "Even though most companies and corporate and PR pros remain largely unaware of this expanding 'blogshere,' some leading-edge marketers are definitely getting into the act and working within the blogging community to deliver messages and interact with customers."

"Blogs have clearly expanded to all reaches of the global community," says Todd Defren, a principal at Shift Communications and a blogger himself. "Today you can read blogs from Iraq, posted by U.S. soldiers and Iraqi housewives. You can read about the adventures of happy-go-lucky Brazilian teens, entrepreneurial Czechs, Hollywood stars and Chinese dissidents."

It's difficult to know how many people are reading these blogs, and easy to dismiss the numbers as relatively small, but they are being read by people who matter.

"The people who read blogs are the opinion leaders and the early adopters," says Rubel. "They are people who pass on what they learn to other people. And these sites are being read every day by the journalists who cover your industry. It's amazing how many stories start on the Internet and then make into the mainstream media."

As an not particularly representative example, the news that John Kerry had chosen John Edwards as his running mate was broken by an aviation industry blogger who noted the new decals on the candidate's plane. (Meanwhile, the mainstream New York Daily News was reporting erroneously that Dick Gephardt would be on the ticket.)

"While I think marketing executives are aware of blogs, I think very few really grasp what role they should play in the corporate communication effort," says McAuley.

When corporations think about blogs, they tend to think first about the potential threat they pose. Blogs are entirely unedited, and to a certain extent unaccountable. Skeptics point to Gregg Easterbrook, a respected mainstream journalist whose blog review of Kill Bill included the words "Jewish executive" and "worship of money" in uncomfortably close proximity to one another. The presence of an editor would surely have caught the faux pas before it made it into print and cost Easterbrook his credibility and his lucrative weekly column at ESPN.com.

"The biggest potential threat is that there's no mandate for politeness in blogs," says McAuley. "If a blogger doesn't like something, there's no editor encouraging the writer to tone it down or offer a more balanced view. In many ways, bloggers write to be sensational, to get a reaction, and to start a dialogue-which of course presents an opportunity.

"But if I put a product in the hands of a blogger for a review, I have to be very confident that the product is going to live up to or surpass expectations; otherwise, I would brace for impact and get ready for a negative review the likes of which would probably be off-limits in most print media."

But if a blogger is interested in a product, he or she is probably going to find a way to get hold of it, or to get hold of a reader who has gotten hold of it-which suggests that PR people can either embrace the inevitable or resist it.

"To those people who still think that blogs are 'loose cannons,' I'd say that they should embrace the revolution- or become cannon fodder," says Defren.

And those who dismiss weblogs as untrustworthy just don't understand the nature of trust, says Lance Knobel, author of a recent white paper on participatory journalism for Edelman, who points to the agency's Trust barometer surveys. "In most of the countries in the survey, doctors and healthcare specialists come top. But close behind comes 'average person, like yourself.' The average person is more the twice as credible as a CEO or broadcaster. Effective weblogs are written by an 'average person, like yourself.'"

In other words trust is conferred by having a big corporate name behind a site, or even about adhering to time honored journalist standards. It is earned by forging a relationship with your readers. "When you read a weblog for a while, you develop a relationship with the author. If, day after day, the information or analysis seems good, you develop trust in that weblog, just as readers develop a hard-to-break relationship with their daily newspaper. What's different about weblogs, however, is they are open and connected. So one trusting relationship leads to another."

For example, Knobel says he read Berkeley economics professor Brad DeLong's weblog daily for his economic insight and "because I've found his political commentary to my taste. When Brad links to someone I haven't heard of before, I follow that link and more often than not subscribe to the site. Many weblogs also have so-called blogrolls, lists of weblogs the author reads or recommends. Many specialist weblogs maintain a blogroll on their specialty so that readers can find other weblogs that deal with, say, social policy, intellectual property law or diabetes."

Blogs, in other words, are tapping into the word-of-mouth phenomenon, providing consumers (and employees, and investors) with sources of information that lack traditional authority but provide something even more important: authenticity.

Of course, some blogs are more important than others. To figure out which blogs really matter to your company, Rubel suggests starting with a Google search-enter the industry or company name along with the word blog-but then checking the site for tone and for frequency of updates. Finally, he says, PR people should check resources such as Technorati, which ranks blogs according to how many other sites link to them, a system similar to Google's credibility algorithm.

"Blogs are more of an opportunity than a threat," says Spataro. "Blogs are among the best ways today for companies to speak directly to consumers-an increasingly important strategy in this age of participatory citizen journalism. With media fragmentation at an all-time high and its continuing loss of credibility to the average American consumer, blogs can be tremendous buzz generators for a company. And nowadays, brands can't afford to turn down any opportunity to create a greater sense of connection with their target audiences."

(At the very least, public relations people need to be creating RSS feeds so they can monitor what is being said about their companies, their products and their competitors in the blogosphere.)

In addition to dealing with independent bloggers, some companies have already created their own corporate blogs. "A few savvy businesses have caught on to the fact blogs essentially present an opportunity to build communities where like-minded people gather to establish interactive dialogues on issues of their choice," says online marketing columnist Kathleen Goodwin. "And in the business world, large communities gather. Business-blogs offer organizations a platform where information, data, and opinion can be shared and traded among employees, customers, partners, and prospects in a way previously impossible: a two-way, open exchange."

"People don't want messages anymore, they want conversations," says Knobel. "They want to be able to engage with an organization, to be listened to, to feel they are dealing with an individual, rather than something faceless. This sense of engagement does not only arise when people are angry, concerned with a poor product or against a particular policy. It also applies when people are thrilled with a product, or are enthusiastic about a political candidate."

Weil agrees: "No one listens anymore to sanitized marketing messages. If you find the right person in your organization to blog about your products or services you'll brand your company as authentic and knowledgeable... Think of a blog as an always-on e-newsletter with more interactivity built into it. There is an immediacy and realness to the interaction between blog writer and blog reader that you don't get with an e-newsletter. Readers can add comments to any blog post for all to see. Anyone who reads a blog can see what everyone else is commenting about it."

In some cases, the CEO himself can be the blogger. McAuley is particularly impressed with Dallas Mavericks
owner Mark Cuban, who runs a blog: "He writes really candidly about the state of his business, the rationale behind some of the decisions he makes, and he's honest about when he thinks he's made a mistake."

But in other cases, rank-and-file employees may be the best bloggers. "You need someone who's dedicated enough to update it daily or at least a few times a week," says McAuley. "Alter-natively-and the model I favor- you can have a blog that has a few authors and integrates a couple of different perspectives on various topics, lightens the individual load for contributing, and keeps content fresh."

McAuley cites Robert Scoble's pioneering Microsoft blog as another example of a corporate blog that works. "But the very reason for its popularity is that it isn't the mouthpiece of an organization filtered through the marketing department."

Indeed, Scoble was a blogger before he joined Microsoft in 2003, as an evangelist for Longhorn, the newest version of Windows. With the encouragement of his employers, he continued his blog after he joined the company.

He is quite upfront about where he works, and he is an advocate for the company and its products, but he has earned the trust of his readers with an even-handed approach: he links to several critics of the company, and acknowledges when he feels the company has made a mistake, following the blogging manifesto he drew up before he joined the software company.

Some of the rules he suggests in his manifesto should be followed by anyone who wants to run a corporate weblog:
* Tell the truth
* Post fast on good news or bad
* Use a human voice
* Have a thick skin
* If you screw up, acknowledge it
* If you don't have the answers, say so
* Never lie
* Never hide information
* Link to your competitors and be nice to them

Scoble's work, and the work of others at Microsoft, have earned the company high marks from the blogging

"The company doing the most in this new environment is Microsoft," says Knobel. By some estimates, there are now over 300 webloggers within Microsoft. Some of the weblogs are explicitly used for what Microsoft terms evangelism, others engage in highly technical debates, while still others offer personal reflections on life inside one of the world's most watched companies.

"What possible difference could these weblogs make to a company like Microsoft? In terms of selling more copies of Windows or Office, I suspect very little. But in communities that matter deeply to Microsoft, the difference can be great. For example, Microsoft relies on outside developers and other computing professionals to support its customers, and to create new products that work well with Microsoft.

"Unsurprisingly, Microsoft pays a lot of attention to these professionals, running an elaborate MVP (most valuable professional) program to give them the information they need and to make them feel part of the Microsoft world. But the network of Microsoft weblogs has organically extended that program beyond the MVPs. Given the hostility engendered by Microsoft in some technology circles, weblogs also provide a very different picture of the corporation to the one imagined by those who mutter about the evil empire in Redmond."

Still, Knobel acknowledges that Scoble's approach probably cannot be duplicated in every corporate culture. Says Knobel, "One of Scoble's rules will perhaps be the hardest to bear for
most organizations: link to your competitors and be nice to them. What's the point of that? Linking to
people you disagree with-or to competitors- is one of the ways to build trust with your readers. If
it's clear that your blog will ignore rivals, it becomes very hard for readers to trust it to present a full picture."

Another benefit to embracing other, competing voices, is that it adds to the authority of a site.

"Successful bloggers are big readers of other blogs," says McAuley. "Much of the value that you offer readers is showcasing your own expertise but also pointing them in the direction of other sources for information." A good example, she says, is a personal blog by Evan Williams, the founder of Blogger (which is now owned by Google).

"I haven't seen a corporate blog that does this really well yet. For a corporate blogger to be successful
on this front, you would have to be familiar with other experts in your industry, and leverage your blog as a tool for dialogue, either by commenting on other's sites or expounding on their ideas on your own site."

Clearly, companies thinking about starting their own blogs need to understand the medium before taking the plunge.

"Start slow and learn the game first," says Spataro. "Even though blogging has been around for some time, corporate blogging as a marketing discipline is relatively new. The ground rules are very different than any other form of previous marketing and communications. In fact, it's not about marketing and PR. It's about establishing a direct line of communication to your customers."

Companies need to be prepared to sacrifice some control over the corporate communications process.

"The first loss of control," says Knobel, "is the very act of allowing individual weblogs from within the organization. That requires trust, but it also requires recognizing that there will be occasions when people write things you don't like. Further loss of control will occur if you allow comments to be posted on a weblog."

In addition, Defren suggests that anyone assigned to blogging should be familiar with financial disclosure regulations.

"A sanctioned blogger within a public company might be required to undergo a class in investor relations," he says. "Even if you forbid Mary the customer service rep blogger to talk about financials, she could slip up and the company would have a poor defense for allowing Mary to act as an official spokesperson, without proper training."

The bottom line: "Only start a blog if it really adds value for your audience," says McAuley. "Don't blog for the sake of being part of the larger trend-it's transparent, time consuming, and boring."

Of course, companies should be aware that blogs may happen whether they encourage them or not.

"The empowering nature of the Internet will allow users to blog with or without corporate permission," Defren says. "The blogger who is encouraged with tools, freedom, and a few simple rules-of-the-road becomes a valuable advocate for the company. The blogger whose ambitions are repudiated simply sets up shop at home and spends their free time gossiping about the company's embarrassing hiccups."

How much will this change the way the media-and public relations people-work?

There are skeptics. "I don't think enough people are doing it well enough yet to see how big the participatory model is going to get," says McAuley. "If I had to guess, I would project that a few companies are going to do it really well and benefit greatly from it, more companies will throw their hat into the ring and do it wrong, therefore diluting the validity of the model as a whole, and then it's going to become another function of marketing and PR that still adds value, but not to the extent that it's a really fresh and innovative way to get your company messages out there."

But others believe the changes will be more profound. "Meta-sites, blogs, wikis, and the proliferation of RSS and related site syndication technologies, have all rapidly given a voice to people who previously had no way of expressing their opinions," says Elizabeth Albrycht, who runs the Corporate PR weblog. "The Internet is no longer a closed-medium where knowledge does not affect or crossover into the offline, 'real' world."

In such an environment, companies will need to learn to listen, and they will need to earn credibility the same way everyone else does: by delivering accurate, actionable information.

Rubel agrees: "There used to be two spheres-the media and the audience-and information would flow from the former to the latter. The media's attitude was, 'We will tell your what is news.' The audience had very limited feedback channels. They could write a letter to the editor. But essentially it was one-way communication.

"Today there are three spheres-the media, the blogosphere, and the audience-and they are all interacting with each other all the time. Bloggers are talking to their audience, and the audience is talking back to the bloggers, and the media are listening in and sometimes participating in those conversations."

Companies can ignore those conversations (at their peril) or they can participate in them, in which case they will need to do so in a spirit of openness and transparency or risk mockery and vituperation. What they cannot do is make them go away.

Paul A. Holmes.

from: Micro Persuasion


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