For brands the world over, blogs and other forms of new media have become the equivalent of nuclear fission.
What to do with this wondrous source of energy? Use it as an alternative source to reach the new word-of-mouth culture? Or exploit it for all its radioactive worth as a weapon of mass comms destruction?
While PR and marketing pros struggle to capture the blogosphere in a bottle - from agencies establishing entire new media practices to companies creating crisis plans for when blogs attack - few are stepping back to see the bigger truth about blogs, podcasts, and the like. And that is truth itself. At its heart, this is a universe founded on truth, myriad layers of direct-to-opinion points of view based on truth, justice, and the new media way.
By their very self-promoting nature, corporate blogs may seem to be the antithesis of such pure communication, nothing more than press releases or pitches under the guise of a blog. See GM vice chairman Robert Lutz's initial blogs at www.fastlane.gmblogs.com for some fairly overt product plugging.
Worse yet, fake blogs, or flogs, serve up objective opinions with no link to a company. Flogs are designed to give the appearance of objectivity in touting a brand or trashing competitors.
The folks at Mazda were accused of the former with the "Kid Halloween" promotion last year. When the only entries on the supposed 22-year-old photo assistant's blog were found to connect to slick commercials for a new Mazda, bloggers everywhere weighed in with merciless criticism. The site was taken down in a matter of days.
Somewhere between ham-handed corporate blogs and outright fakes is an aberration like Microsoft's MSNFound.com. Billed as a cyber hunt among bloggers using MSN's search capabilities, the site screams an apocryphal tale. FakeBlogsWiki, a new forum for identifying flogs, calls MSNFound's six blogging participants "plastic stereo-types masquerading as users ... as imagined by a Madison Avenue focus group."
Too many brands are missing a chance for a real moment of truth with customers by trying to manipulate the medium. Corporate blogs offer a chance to build direct, truthful, and trusted communication between an organization and its public. Throw in a dash of spin, a jigger of hype, and the absence of any soul-bearing truth and all you have is a convenient target of criticism.
One could argue a company has all it can handle being on the defensive in the age of blogs, stemming the wildfire of dissent its brand might face if the hundreds or thousands of barbs percolating on the web are left un- attended. And what of staffers bashing employers online? Or disgruntled workers leaking proprietary data to the masses as "citizen journalists" over a Wiki site? Or competitors launching public potshots via flogs?
All valid concerns that should be addressed through corporate intelligence and liability-avoiding policies as necessary. But just imagine how a brand fortified by disarmingly truthful dialogue could face down the naysayers, backed by a cadre of believers who know and trust the brand in ways they couldn't pre-blogging.
Looks good on paper, but can this be practically implemented? Consider the benefits of direct-to-consumer corporate blogs when communicating issues like product delays, recalls, or tampering. Imagine the upside if Ford and/or Firestone had gone to customers directly via an ongoing blog once the Explorer crisis hit. No misquotes or third-party rants, just a direct channel to say what was being done to address the issue and that these companies care about people.
Even more compelling is the thought-leadership potential for smart corporate blogs that look beyond pitches and plugs. Imagine a tech company being open about the resurgence of the digital divide and where the tech industry is at fault. Or a pharma giant coming forth about the dilemma between rushing a drug to market to save lives versus the need for tests and FDA approval.
It's unclear whether we'll embrace new media channels as the ultimate forums for brand truth or try to manipulate them into the sensibilities of traditional PR and marketing. The good news is we likely won't see widespread weapons of mass comms destruction, something as flagrant as rampant flogs or Big Brother attempts to control bloggers' opinions. Far worse, however, would be PR's failure to apply this new source for all it's worth, thus missing a seminal moment in brand communication.
Honesty, indeed, should be the best policy.
Stephen Jones is an EVP at GolinHarris.