Here are a few thoughts on blogging in a piece I have written for the Sept/Oct edition of the Institute of Public Relations magazine, Profile.
When web logs first appeared a couple of years ago, they were often dismissed as online diaries - egocentric ramblings from lonely bedroom philosophers - but now many forward-thinking PR practitioners believe ‘blogging’ may have profound implications for their profession.
Certainly that’s what the more adventurous commentators predicted in Global PR Blog Week 1.0, a remarkable virtual conference that brought together some of the most influential voices in online PR.
A web log – usually shortened to ‘blog’ - is like a personal web site, but much easier to set up and run. Because they are so simple, they lend themselves to short, quick, informal content, sometimes just a couple of lines of comment with links to other sites. And they might just be talking about your client...
Blogs are made up of ‘postings’ displayed with the newest at the top, pushing the latest news to the fore. As new content is added, older posts are archived, but stay open to visitors and linkers. Usually they feature links to other blogs, giving immediacy and a vibrant sense of community.
Some PR Blog Week participants look to a future when bloggers – outsiders without training and professional values – overwhelm traditional gatekeepers and create a free-for-all where ordinary folk talk about products and services without the passing through the reassuring prism of corporate PR.
Optimists see this as a good thing - peeling away the protective layers, the mirrors and distortion, will take PR forward into a new era of openness and transparency. Some see a new role for practitioners, recast as the bloggers who help clients put forward their ideas with a human voice; others herald the very death of PR as we know it.
Blog Week commentator BL Ochman wrote: “While many businesses are still getting used to the idea of having any kind of Web presence, forward-thinking companies are looking to blogs as simple, self-sustaining websites and intranets. If you're not thinking about how to use blogs in your business, you're missing a big opportunity.
“Blogs make people feel like they know you and trust you, and that's one step closer to having them become your customer.
“Blogging can be a remarkably effective marketing tool. It's also an excellent way to stay in touch with customers and hear concerns that can be an early warning system of potential problems.”
Global PR Blog Week 1.0 began when Australian PR practitioner Trevor Cook, who writes the Corporate Engagement blog, floated the idea of an online PR summit. Within weeks the conference was attracting several thousand visitors and will now stay online as a valuable, permanent resource.
In his piece Re-thinking PR, Cook argued: “Blogging is different from other mediums because it collapses the distinction between producer and consumer. Bloggers and blog readers are essentially the same people. Instead of largely passive audiences, complex webs of online communities and conversations are being created.
“Intervening, and influencing, these communities and conversations will require different skills, techniques, protocols and strategies. Up until now, ‘feedback’ has been the poor cousin of PR, which has been mostly concerned with the disciplined download of cleverly-crafted, and tightly-controlled, messages.”
One of the challenges for PRs used to dealing with traditional media outlets, is learning to work with participatory journalism, characterised by almost zero entry costs and an ethos demanding two-way communication – dialogue that will be open and critical, whether organisations like it or not.
Some of the world’s biggest corporations are taking up the challenge. For instance, the often secretive Microsoft has over 700 bloggers. Robert Scoble, Microsoft technical evangelist (yes, that is his job title) told Cook: “Consumers now are getting knowledge networks that are unparalleled to learn about products that they are about to purchase … (and) if people are saying your product isn't good, then you better have an answer.
“Companies traditionally are used to controlling the messages that go out. In the old world corporate PR professionals would … make sure they totally understood everything about a product and what they wanted to say about it. Then they'd go on press tours and visit with the press that they wanted to write about that product.
“In the old world, word-of-mouth happened, but companies weren't able to be involved …In the new world, word-of-mouth networks are far more efficient. Today people can email hundreds of friends within a few minutes of a news event.”
For organisations that routinely limit the number of people who can comment to the press, blogs brings new challenges, blurring boundaries between corporate and personal, official and unofficial. Scoble says: “I don't know if there should be rules, beyond a few common sense ones. But education is key. If you're going to have employees talking with the outside world, you should educate them about acceptable online behavior. That will vary from company to company and product to product.
Ryan May, of Minnesota PR, said: “As PR professionals we have two choices when it comes to blogging, either we can ignore it and hope our company never ends up in a blog or we can monitor blogs related to our business or our clients.”
Elizabeth Albrycht is in no doubt. “We should participate in the blogosphere itself… Don't just monitor from afar. Jump in with both feet.
“PR people have been trained to be invisible in the old "control the message" world. In this new world, they need to celebrate their identity. Don't hide behind the client, but participate in public conversations with the client.”
A sign of the times, Albrycht’s PR work is mostly centred in San Francisco, - even though she lives just outside Paris. Imagine doing that ten years ago!
Trevor Cook argues: “The world of PR will be turned upside down over the next few years as we reinvent ourselves in response to this awe-inspiring new phenomenon.”