The Zen of PR: Polls in a Bubble

Nice touch by Richard Edelman, quoting Shakespeare on his blog to illustrate the concept that the most reliable information is that which you can validate from the experience of trusted peers.

In a scene from Richard III, Prince Edward wants verification of something he’s heard — that Julius Caesar built the Tower of London. When told there is documentation to prove that fact, the prince replies, “The truth should live from age to age as ’twere retailed to all posterity even to the general all-ending day,” which Edelman interprets as meaning “without peer to peer communication, there is insufficient substantiation of claims, whether historic or in any other vein.”

Documented proof, especially nowadays, can be distorted or even faked. But if a witness you trust tells you something, its truth is given much more weight — even if that’s all you have to go on.

PR executives must think about this fact 24 hours a day. Their firms are hired to help companies gain market share, enhance their reputations or achieve a legislative goal through the dissemination of carefully crafted and controlled messages. The company’s spokespersons must repeat those messages every chance they get, but a PR campaign doesn’t cross the finish line until trusted others are repeating the messages.

In the old days, those “trusted others” came from the ranks of leaders and influential people, including journalists, but also elected officials, other business leaders, professors, celebrities, nonprofit directors, activists. The algebraic formula of a PR strategy might be: Meet with leader X. Persuade leader X. Enlist leader X to persuade leader Y. Leader Y gets quoted on TV. Leader Y’s followers buy the product.

Nowadays, we aren’t so willing to give someone our trust, regardless of their mantle of authority. We will instead tend to trust someone like ourselves. So, how does a PR practitioner bridge that gap? The math no longer works in their favor. If your target market is, say, one million consumers in a given segment, those one million people might have one million different peers they believe.

I think there are three possible responses to this conundrum. I’m still trying to figure out which one I believe.

  1. Business as usual. Blogs and other new media are just more and different media outlets. You can influence them from the top down, just like old media; you just have to come up with new strategies. If your message is presented persuasively and creatively, bloggers will repeat it, just like reporters. The evidence for this can be found in political blogs. Howard Dean’s talking points are disseminated by Democratic bloggers uncritically, even less critically than the so-called liberal media. The same goes for the right-wing blogs, many of which proudly proclaim they are “Blogs for Bush.” Even when these blogs actually criticize Bush (on immigration issues, typically), they still declare loyalty. That’s more than Bush gets even from Fox News.
  2. It’s All Over But the Shouting. There are a range of interesting thinkers — from marketing, from the Web 2.0 world, from the news media — who think PR is a big loser in the evolution away from “legacy” media. Bloggers are a PR person’s nightmare, compared to the old-fashioned journalist. They are passionate, partisan, highly knowledgeable, cannot be bought for love or money, and feel no obligation to be fair. They hate being spun, and have great fun mocking “clueless PR people” and their bad pitches.
  3. The Zen Approach. If the magic of spin has worn off, no worries. PR people can still play a role, as facilitators of conversations (in the cyber-sense) that, indirectly, accomplish the same goals old-fashioned PR used to aim for: Building awareness and trust. These conversations can be between the client and the consumer (or voter, or whoever makes up your target audience); or the conversations can be among members of your target audience, in a space created for them by the client. Where the conversations go, nobody knows, and nobody tries to control. Let it be. The fact that such conversations are happening benefits the brand. The client appears to be open, authentic and transparent, unafraid of critics, and that stance enhances their reputation.

The Zen approach is probably most reflective of how the Web works. However, how many clients are ready for it? If they’re confident the conversations would go well — because the product, customer support and other features are best-in-show — why do they need PR help? And if they’re not so confident, why should they pay a PR firm for what could end up as an exercise in masochism?

I anticipate that we’ll start seeing more examples of the Zen approach in 2006. What got me started on this post was an Adweek story about the cosmetic company Maybelline’s new Web site for a new makeup line, Pure, aimed at teenage girls and young women.

Built by aQuantive’s Avenue A/Razorfish, the site, WhatisPure.com, will debut with polls on issues close to the hearts of the 18- to 24-year-old female target: beauty, fashion, music and Tom Cruise, among others. Visitors will be encouraged to create their own topics, share them with friends and upload personal photos.

One thing the site will not do much is hawk products. Instead, it will carry only a small link to product information at the bottom of Web pages. “We were thinking of the ways to talk to our consumer that she’s not accustomed to being spoken to by a CPG (consumer packaged goods) brand,” said Kristen Yraola, director of Internet at Maybelline New York.

(snip)

Yraola said the average Maybelline Pure customer is a typical MySpace user: young and comfortable with the Web as a two-way medium. To reach her, Maybelline is advertising WhatisPure.com with a two-week blitz on MySpace, featuring rich-media ads with poll questions for girls to answer. It is relying on visitors to spread word of the site to their friends to build an audience, Yraola said. One concession to the freewheeling nature of such sites: Maybelline will screen all content before it goes live.

(If you have a teenager, I don’t have to explain the allusion to MySpace, a web version of Pleasure Island from “Pinocchio,” where kids can easily post their own websites, exchange photos, enter chat rooms and God knows what else.)

The Maybelline site is very odd, silly, but entertaining and potentially addictive. Bubbles float and pop across the screen, asking poll questions in which both answers have the word “pure.” You can submit your own poll question, but only if you give them an e-mail address.

The first two bubble polls I saw were:

Global Warming? Pure Science Fiction or Pure Sad Fact

Ponchos? Pure Out or Pure Still Cool

You click to vote, then see the results instantly. (FYI, Global Warming is “Pure Sad Fact” to 94 percent. Dick Cheney will be heartbroken. And he better ditch his poncho.) The viral aspect is an easy link to AOL’s Instant Messenger, that immediately opens into a window where a “check out the web address” message is helpfully written for you.

It’s Zen in the sense that my AIM message to my friend might say: “This site is pure…crap.” Only my friend will see it, but still, Maybelline has effectively made it easier for me to dis their marketing and their products. If I was an Alpha Girl, my entire high school class might be led to declare Maybelline terminally uncool.

How Maybelline might respond is: “Yeah, that’s too bad, but those conversations are already going on. Some people don’t like us. Why hide from it?” Meanwhile, when you sign up, you can opt-in to get Maybelline spam, and there are a few other places, not very obtrusive, where you can link to content that markets the product.

Does this site work? Is it worth the money Maybelline is investing in it (and in advertising it)? As a 50-year-old man with a son but no daughter, I will probably only find out when Maybelline or its web vendor issue a press release–which I will read skeptically. But for the girls they’re aiming at…”the truth shall live from age to age.”

2 thoughts on “The Zen of PR: Polls in a Bubble

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