“Before you know it, the Renaissance will be here and we’ll all be painting.”

Thank you, Kevin Roderick! I wasn’t sure when I was going to tell anyone about this blog. Not until I gained some mastery over the form, I figured. It took awhile for me to understand how to structure a news story. Or a press release. Or a speech. Or a 600-word op-ed. I’m now learning the craft of screenwriting, which is as formal in its structure as the 19th century sonata. I figured I should practice blogging in splendid isolation for awhile before telling the world about it. (But here’s one lesson: When you “claim” your blog on Technorati, attention soon follows.)

Decades from now, students might enroll in academies to memorize the Five Essentials of Blogging. But no such thing exists today. There’s plenty of blogging technology, but there is no form, no set of rules. It is organic to the blogger, personal and authentic.

And, for that reason, somewhat disreputable.

Many news organizations have issues with blogs. That’s partly because so many blogs are dedicated to pointing out their mistakes and biases. More high-minded reporters and editors say bloggers don’t check facts out as thoroughly as real reporters do. No editors around to ask the tough questions editors are supposed to ask. No credentialing. Reporters remember how hard it was to get hired by prestigious publications like the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek or Forbes, and here these arrivistes come along who can just start writing and spouting opinions, without having paid any dues at all.

The smarter reporters and columnists, however, are starting to realize they can blog too. Some of them are quite good at it. Blogging also fills in crucial gaps in reporting. There was an eye-opening guest post on Jay Rosen’s PressThink by “citizen journalist” Lisa Williams, who writes a blog about her hometown, Watertown, Massachussetts:

Many of the things I put on H2otown would not make it into a newspaper where space is at a premium, and my newsgathering techniques (I TiVo local access cable of town meetings) would not pass muster. But in many cases, there’s no one else covering this stuff in any way, in person or otherwise.

I realize that my newsgathering techniques aren’t professional grade; in fact, some people might laugh at them. I’m willing to be humble and to be humbled about that. I’m also completely upfront with readers and anyone who asks about how I get material; jokes about my TiVo are standard fare at H2otown. Nonetheless, the site now gets 1,200 page views a day in a town where the local weekly newspaper’s circulation is around 4,300. My challenge was to put together something useful with my spare time, a pocket digital camera/digital videocam and a voice recorder from Best Buy, and a $40 a month account to rent community site/blogging software.

Williams’s post raises crucial points for those who see a coming clash between the mainstream media (MSM is the accepted acronym now, so I use it) and the alternative media represented by blogs. The fact is, they help each other. If there’s anything most serious blogs have in common, they are almost all content aggregators–and much of that content comes from the MSM. Sometimes, sure, the blogger links to an article for purposes of mockery, or rage. But the scribe should appreciate the compliment even still. At least someone’s paying attention and taking them seriously.

I see a much bigger challenge from blogging to the public relations industry. Fundamental to any PR or issues management campaign is an attempt to control the message. Of course, one of the first things a PR pro tells their client is “you can’t control the message,” because reporters will write whatever they want, no matter what you tell them.

sea anemone.jpgNonetheless, the standard model for most PR campaigns that I’ve had anything to do with is built around an attempt to develop “message points” about the product or issue, and then to drive those few, clear, hopefully memorable phrases into the target audiences’ consciousness through whatever communications outlets are available–including media interviews and any interactions with the public. (“Message discipline” is why talking-heads public affairs shows became so tedious. The guests are media-trained within an inch of their lives before they submit to such interviews, and they cling to those talking points like a sea anemone clings to coral.)

When the Internet first arrived, the PR industry loved it. Another medium, relatively low-cost and very much under your control, to drive home the messages. Corporations, nonprofits, entrepreneurs, government agencies all built websites with increasingly rich content and detail, to tell their stories. Consumers could use them to find out about products and send e-mails with questions or problems. Reporters could read the latest press releases. Investors could view the annual report. Cool graphics, a video message from the CEO, games and promotions, favorable news clips–all of it could be posted online.

As time passed, the corporate-model website got stale. The blogging phenomenon subtly undermined the value of it. Typical corporate websites were relatively static. The home page looked the same, week after month after year. There might be a link to something [NEW!], but you had to find it and be motivated to click it. But good bloggers update their sites frequently, some of them several times a day. When you get hooked on a blog, you keep going back. There’s a narrative going. Something important happens in the news or in the issue covered by that blog, and you want to find out: What’s (fill in the blank)’s take on this?

The tone of a blog is also completely different. PR-speak is highly refined, heavily processed. Coming up with a PR campaign’s messages can take weeks of meetings, and sometimes tens of thousands of dollars worth of research. Once a client has invested that much time, money and executive attention on “what we want to say,” they don’t like to vary from it. Bloggers? They rant and rave. They exude passion, or scorn, or a snarky sense of humor. They don’t say the same thing twice. They switch subjects on a dime. They even make mistakes–and sometimes admit them. That’s why you go back to a blog: To be surprised. PR clients aren’t fond of surprises. They want their public utterances to “stay on message.” An old saw of PR is: Once a client is completely bored with their own message, that’s the point when it’s finally “breaking through.” But boredom is deadly on the Internet.

Bloggers react anecdotally. They are word of mouth to the power of a gazillion. When Jeff Jarvis’ Dell computer didn’t work, he blogged about his problems with their customer service. He had one of those terrible consumer experiences that sometimes happens. I’ve bought two computers from Dell, and have been very pleased. Go figure. Jarvis wasn’t so lucky–and as a result, Dell got hammered.

In a new white paper launched (8/12/05), analysis clearly reveals that blogging has a direct influence on corporate reputation. The white paper, ‘Measuring the Influence of Bloggers on Corporate Reputation’ scientifically measures, for the first time, the influence of bloggers versus conventional media.

Authored by Market Sentinel, Onalytica and immediate future PR, the white paper uses the example of blogger Jeff Jarvis’s criticism of the computer retailer, Dell. It shows first that Dell has sustained long-term damage to its brand image and secondly that the cheerleaders for the poor reputation of Dell’s customer services, are bloggers.

“Bloggers have extended their influence from dominating negative perceptions of Dell to dominating perceptions of Dell’s entire reputation in the customer services area,” says Flemming Madsen from Onalytica.

He continues, “Bloggers used Jeff Jarvis’s shorthand ‘Dell Hell’ to collaboratively spread negative comment about Dell’s customer service: weakening Dell’s reputation where the company used to be so strong.”

This is all so unruly, from the traditional PR standpoint. In the old days, if a reporter was working on a story about customer dissatisfaction, the reporter wouldn’t spring the story on the company. That wouldn’t be considered fair. He or she would call the company’s spokeperson. That call would give the company enough running room to get to the bottom of the problem and either debunk it (factually of course), or acknowledge it and announce changes. The negative story might still run, but it would be (the gold standard of PR) a “one-day story.” Now anyone can say anything, true, false or in-between. If the issue gains momentum, the traditional PR “holding statement” is a pretty weak weapon.

The PR industry has spent much of 2005 struggling with this new dynamic. It’s been an interesting year to spend on the sidelines, allowing me the time to think about it without the pressure of having to process it for a specific client. A few of the links on the right column are to bloggers who are documenting the impact of blogging on PR. (I’ll add more soon.) The consistent theme is, of course, blogging is an opportunity. And it probably is–but first, I think the PR industry has to recognize that the old game is over, the rules are gone. Tens of thousands of PR people around the world must now un-learn some things they spent decades learning and practicing–and do it fast, because clients aren’t going to pay indefinitely for what isn’t working anymore.

One of the most open-minded people I’ve met in public relations is Richard Edelman–who happens to be president and CEO of Edelman (where I worked for seven+ years). He’s been blogging for almost a year and a half, and many of his observations concern what blogging means for his industry. His blog is worth reading in toto (and I recognize that among his many posts is at least one that addresses the controversy of which I’m a part), and it’s hard to find just one chunk to quote. But here’s one from last May, which is about a debate Edelman had with “blogger extraordinaire” (and consultant) David Weinberger:

I asked (Weinberger) how PR firms can work with the blogging community in a way that does not make them suspicious. We agreed on four concepts.

First, DIALOGUE. Ask their opinions. Give them a chance to influence the outcome, whether a new product launch or a debate on product safety.

Second, OPT-IN. Those of us in the private sector cannot suddenly send an email to a person who has been complaining about his/her cell phone service in a usenet discussion, suggesting a competitive carrier. We have to wait for some tangible evidence of intent to act or learn, such as going to Web site on a disease, before countering with an offer of interaction.

Third, INFORMATION. As one example we can offer a library function, a chance to engage with information seekers, by offering a blog roll, facilitating links to interesting postings that are informative.

Fourth, NOT CONTROLLED. We can send along products that are in test phase (schweg is a Weinberger word) but with a note that makes it clear what is expected. We can ask for feedback without expectation of a certain outcome (reminds me of dealing with my 14 year old daughter.”

David and I then tried to come to a broader understanding on the role of the PR person. He contends that we are best in a matchmaker’s job…. (snip) He believes that PR professionals are not “primary content people” and that “PR people have a guarded attitude, trying to put the best spin on every situation.” He suggests that those of us in PR should continue in our traditional role of setting up our clients for direct conversations with end users of information, just as we would pitch a reporter who could conduct an interview with a client. He does acknowledge that PR could have a very beneficial role if it takes on the challenge of building Public Relationships, that involves telling both sides of a story with a serious commitment to transparency.

I told him that I disagree with his assessment of the potential for our profession. I believe that we can be content creators, in finding credible advocates and in bringing together various parties to resolve important issues, such as Microsoft’s support for digitizing content in libraries. PR can give voice to those traditionally deprived of a platform and that PR is a means of finding and then communicating the truth in this messy environment where skepticism of motive reigns. I left our meeting convinced that we have real work to do to assure our profession’s future in this new media world.

I agree with much of this, but a lot hangs on what Edelman means by “the blogging community.” It’s not just bloggers; it’s also those who read them, who leave comments, and who turn to the blog and the comments for the “real deal.” A great blog doesn’t just document the thoughts of a blogger–it creates a community. A good local example: Jon Weisman’s Dodger Thoughts, which can get 700 comments on a single post–in the off-season! Many commenters themselves are prodigious writers with distinct personae. Together, they are an extraordinarily interesting and loyal community of clever people with much more than just baseball on their minds. When Dodger management tries to sell a story Weisman’s community isn’t buying, they get picked apart without mercy.

The blogging community trusts one another far more than they trust professional spinmeisters. Bloggers are allergic to spin, whether it’s coming from a newspaper, a corporation or anyone paid to flack. They can smell it a mile away.

The “real work” Edelman talks about is to build trust in a new environment that, in a Darwinian sense, no longer favors the old species. From a more tactical standpoint, the “real work” for both PR and journalism is to figure whether, how and what to blog. Many are doing it already. My early observations are: the institutional blogs that essentially push the old message points in a new form aren’t interesting enough to make it worthwhile, except in cases where the product or company is of inherent fascination to an intensely involved community (e.g. electronic games). The ones that will succeed, it seems, are the ones that let the consumer, the voter, the reader, the stakeholder participate in the dialogue on an equal footing with the blog owner. The risk? The discussion will take off in a direction that doesn’t fit into the plan. The opportunity? To make a new plan.

But it’s early yet. There’s much I don’t know and can’t know. I feel privileged, however, to be part of a communications revolution that compares with any other cultural revolution–like the addition of perspective that revolutionized painting in the Renaissance, or the elevation of reason in the Enlightenment, which formed the philosophical basis for what we Americans take for granted–democracy. So I’m blogging “on the road to find out.”

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