Kensington Locks, the US-based PC peripherals supplier, may not be the world's best known brand. Yet in May, millions of web- surfers read one blogger's demonstration of how its locks for securing laptops could be opened with just a piece of cardboard.
It followed hot on the heels of another blog involving bicycle lock manufacturer Kryptonite. Last year a blogger wrote that its locks could be opened with a biro. Both are examples of a new PR headache to which some PROs do not seem to know how to respond.
While Kryptonite spent £5.5m in replacements, for example, bloggers claim that Kensington's PR team has remained silent. This is despite one blogger mockingly reproducing a letter he sent to the supplier's PR team, and another bewailing how the PROs still will not respond.
The threat that blogs pose to corporate reputations is perhaps obvious, but for PROs thinking they are a US problem only, it is time to think again. A recent survey by Market Sentinel found that 20 of the UK's top 50 brands had at least one link to nega-tive websites in the first ten matches of a Google search.
And the problem is not going to go away: 23,000 new blog sites are created every day. Today, if people are unhappy about you or a client's product, they will not just tell their friends, they will tell the world.
So what should PROs do about it? 'Blogging has never been in anyone's control, which is why it is so disruptive,' says Joel Cere, Hill & Knowlton vice-president and head of netcoms EMEA. 'Consumers, analysts or employees are now able to share their opinions or voice their discontent on a planetary scale. The disgruntled employee or dissatisfied customer could ignite a full-blown crisis, much quicker and on a broader scale.'
Defending corporate reputations in the face of a flood of blogs presents a challenge. But Burson-Marsteller knowledge development director Idil Cakim points out: 'It is better to be proactive than fearful. Catching a simmering issue before it turns into a crisis would be a lot more cost-effective than responding to a crisis after it erupts.'
PROs can start by identifying the influential bloggers who write about clients' industries and track what they are talking about, sending them relevant information. 'Identifying the public opinion influencers is crucial here,' says Cakim. 'Not all bloggers are experts on what they write, and they may not have a large following.'
However, few companies even have a proper blog policy, says Market Sentinel CEO Mark Rogers: 'PROs must realise more consumers find a company through Google than going straight to its homepage, and that's where they will see blogs mentioning that company first.' He says a simple measure such as having a plan for search engine listing is not on the radar of most PROs: 'Optimising search terms will put your link above others. Another problem is that most clients only optimise their home page and not phrases from the rest of the site, which is why blog mentions will come up higher.'
Controlling bloggers is doubly complex because they come from internal as well as external sources. In January, Joe Gordon, a bookseller at Waterstone's in Edinburgh, was sacked for bringing the company into disrepute. His crime? He said on his blog that he had the occasional bad day and that his boss wore sandals. Media coverage suggested the company's response was heavy-handed. Waterstone's will not comment on the dismissal and the company did not have a blogging policy at the time. 'It is currently under review,' a spokeswoman tells PRWeek.
But some firms have been quicker to spot potential banana skins, issuing guidelines on what staff can put in blogs. Fredrik Wacka of Malmo-based W PR & Information runs www.corporateblogging.info and has compared the blogging policies of the few major companies (such as H&K, IBM, Sun Microsystems and Yahoo!) that have them. All agree on four points: corporate bloggers are personally responsible and should abide by existing rules, keep secrets and 'be nice'. Some allow staff to write on company time.
Of course, if you cannot beat them, maybe the best policy is to join them. Research group eMarketer says at present just four per cent of large US corporations have their own blogs available to the public. Microsoft has a small army of bloggers writing about what they are doing and responding to both positive and negative opinions from customers. Over the past 18 months, IBM has also encouraged its employees to blog, seeing it as an important component in the company's mission to be seen as a thought leader.
'People can talk about IBM, positive or negative,' insists Philippe Borremans, IBM Belgium and Luxemburg PR manager. 'But we want to protect intellectual property and confidential information.' The company has around 20 blogs that are open to any internet surfer, though most of them are internal.
Borremans has his own blog and insists that other PROs need to write them to understand the potential of the medium.
Into the blogosphere
Guillaume du Gardier, MD of French technology agency PR Planet and CEO of bloggingplanet.com, puts it more bluntly: 'Most of the PR world doesn't know a thing about blogging. There is a huge lack of understanding. PROs have to jump into the blogosphere as soon as possible.'
But maybe the message is slowly getting through. GlaxoSmithKline, not noted for having a bold approach to communications, has started a blog on the future of health from its laboratory in France. Corporations are even starting to pay people to write them. Food company Groupe Danone, Microsoft and Piaggio have all hired bloggers to write (or 'shill') for them.
Remember though; there are pitfalls to corporate blogging. Mazda might have done better sticking to traditional comms channels after it was derided in the blogosphere for using a blog in a viral campaign. The viral spot itself was the main content of the blog and it was thus dismissed as a hollow marketing exercise. Blogs, even corporate ones, need to be a little more subtle than that.
Companies will be heartened that Apple was able to get a court ruling forcing bloggers to reveal their sources after insider leaks on new products in March 2004. Similar cases are likely as blogging enters the mainstream, but Wacka says: 'Forget control. It's gone. It's not about controlling, it's about participating. If people are talking about your products or services, join the conversation. That's the only long-term option.' L
THE PR BLOGGERS
Joel Cere, Hill & Knowlton V-P and head of netcoms EMEA, writes a blog called Beyond PR and argues that blogs can help with executive profiling, thought leadership and building rapport with stakeholders. His blog ranges from things to do in the office if you are bored to reputation protection and brand management.
Steve Rubel, V-P of client services at New York PR firm CooperKatz & Company, heads the agency's new Micro Persuasion practice that monitors and responds to blogs. Andy Lark, V-P of global comms and marketing at Sun Microsystems, is light on company policy in his blog. Instead, he touches on fashion, Coke's marketing, yachting - and blogging. Google director of corporate comms David Krane blogs on Kraneland.com on issues from IT to U2.
Justin Hayward, associate director of corporate and technology practice at Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, was one of those who attended a 'Geek Dinner' on 7 June in central London. Hayward says it was 'the peer-to-peer equivalent of a flash mob conference for the technorati, a self-selecting audience who have one thing in common - they don't mind being called geeks'. Around 117 people were there to meet and mingle with Robert Scoble, blogger, technical evangelist and the human face of Microsoft's development team. The majority were bloggers.
Dr Peter Orosz, a translator, travelled from Budapest. Peter met his girlfriend blogging; both wrote and emailed each other under pseudonyms, then met in a bar by coincidence.
Hugh Macleod, organiser of the event, is circumspect about what blogging can achieve and is sceptical of the kudos given to some bloggers. 'Blogging is self-promotion. Just because you've got a blog link on your site doesn't mean you've got a God-given gift to be right.'
THE CEO BLOGGERS
Jonathan Schwartz, Sun Microsystems president and CEO, muses in Jonathan's Blog on issues ranging from company strategy to April Fool's Day, and expresses frustration at the legal disclaimer he has to put on one entry. It is relatively warm and at times playful (an open letter to Apple, for example).
Randy's Journal, written by Randy Baseler, V-P of marketing at Boeing, is less folksy and more corporate. However, blogs are meant to be transparent; so while CEO blogs have not yet caused any PR disasters, there are dangers. In May a customer response was withdrawn from the blog of David Gee, head of worldwide marketing for Hewlett-Packard's management software business. The negative message was reinstated after protests in the blogosphere.