PR's next role: digital reputation

Can anyone remember a time when there have been more challenges or opportunities for the PR field?

Can anyone remember a time when there have been more challenges or opportunities for the PR field?

There's the 24-7 news cycle that can make or break an image or reputation in a nanosecond and archive it for posterity. There's the unforgiving Sarbanes-Oxley business world in which we live that simultaneously places extraordinary pressure on organizations to act transparently while satisfying the ravenous appetites of Wall Street. Then, there's the super-charged impact of emerging technologies that have empowered consumers to determine how, when, and where they receive the information, entertainment, and education needed to make informed decisions. Stir in the rise of the "citizen journalist," and you have the dawning of a brave, new communications world.

Most marketing managers believe PR is best qualified to steward their organization's traditional reputation. Yet, those very same individuals scurry to the nearest interactive advertising agency to create their digital communications presence. As a result, we're seeing the rise of bizarre, interactive Web sites, guerrilla campaigns, and blogs that might be controversial and attention-grabbing, but bear little or no resemblance to the organization's stated brand positioning.

Such "one-off" tactical strikes are rarely, if ever, coordinated with the organization's broader, strategic messaging and are often seen as crass, self-serving sales pitches. We recently surveyed some 300 corporate and agency executives, for example, and asked them about corporate blogs. More than half saw blogs as little more than electronic brochures that peddle the organization's services. At the same time, corporate marketers have been rushing to seed online chat rooms without thinking through the implications.

And rush is the operative word here. Corporate America is careening ahead at a breakneck speed to embrace technology's marketing promise. It is hastily de-coupling the traditional marketing spend away from 30-second commercials and toward more effective, one-on-one initiatives that deliver a measurable ROI. So we're witnessing a simultaneous scramble to determine whether mobile messaging is more cost effective than blogging or if blogs generate a faster ROI than podcasts.

In this mad technology version of the Oklahoma land rush, Corporate America is overlooking its traditional reputation partner, PR. While our marketing brethren are gifted tacticians who can make any digital program shine like the brightest star in the heavens, most are ill-equipped to determine the reputational impact of the crazy, interactive cartoon character they have just designed on the organization's Web site or, perhaps more alarming, how to deal with the sudden crisis that has arisen as a direct result of an ill-conceived digital program.

There's a digital reputation gap that PR is uniquely qualified to fill. Corporate marketers need to wake up and realize the implications of digital reputation and not delegate it to brand tacticians or technology wizards. Agencies who have yet to do so need to begin building a digital reputation capability and explain why an alignment of on-line and offline reputation is so critical.

Are we willing to step up and handle this new strategic responsibility that, by its very nature, demands a "seat at the table"? Or are we content to be seen as "after the fact" media relations and special events people whose value continues to be marginalized by the rise
of the corporate purchasing manager?

Steve Cody and Ed Moed are managing partners and cofounders of Peppercom.

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