The simple fact that so many popular blogs exist creates both challenges and opportunities for the PR pros who hope to work with them.
A July 2005 study by real-time blog search engine Technorati and Pew Research found that there are approximately 14 million blogs in existence, 32 million people reading blogs, and some 38,000 blogs created daily. (A recent check of Technorati revealed that it currently tracks 19.4 million sites.)
From a PR pro's standpoint, statistics like these prove just how strong an impact blogs have had on the industry - and how serious the consequences of overlooking this medium can be. And this is especially true for those working in the closely covered technology industry, where any real-time information disseminated to the public needs to be monitored on a consistent basis, and whose bloggers are naturally among the most sophisticated around.
"I think that a lot of people are afraid of blogs in probably the same way that they were afraid of the internet," says Sarah Bresee, an account executive at OutCast Communications. "You can't ignore it and hope that they're going away. You have to interact with them. You have to work with them. That transparency can be scary, but it can really work out well for your clients."
To avoid feeling overwhelmed by the vast number of blogs out there, Porter Novelli global tech industry group leader Rhonda Shantz suggests first narrowing down the list of blogs you want to reach.
"There are tools that can help you sift through the millions of blogs that are out there, and identify the three or four key influencers that you really care about," she says.
One such resource is the site Blogebrity.com, which includes the popularity ratings of certain bloggers by putting them on either an A, B, or C list. Once you have an idea of how many people read a particular blog, then you can look into exactly who the audience is.
Lynann Bradbury, an SVP at Waggener Edstrom, says it's critical to read relevant blogs daily - and, whenever possible, on an hourly basis - to understand their slant, tone, and point of view and learn whether there's anything unique that you might be able to add to the discussion.
"It's not that much different than how you would engage the mainstream media in terms of the homework that you need to do up-front," notes Bradbury. "Being well educated about that blog and what that blogger cares about is critical and is a necessary foundation to lay down before you have a conversation with them."
Beyond doing due diligence, there are distinct differences between engaging a blogger as opposed to a traditional journalist. The first step is to find out whether blogging is their day job, or a hobby on the side.
"When bloggers have a print medium, some people don't try to approach them with information for the blog - they're not thinking about the opportunity to seed information much further out," says Shantz.
"I would advise PR people to treat bloggers as they would any other journalist," says Tom Foremski, former Financial Times reporter and publisher of the blog Silicon Valley Watcher, "but just make sure that you're talking the same language - spell out if something's under embargo, and what they can and cannot say according to the agreement that you make."
"Don't assume that bloggers know any of the journalistic conventions. I think for most people outside of the industry, an embargo is something that OPEC does," says Dan Gillmor, Bayosphere.com blogger and PRWeek columnist.
"Take extra caution, because they're not used to working with PR people," says Bresee of non-journalist bloggers.
Chris Pirillo, creator of blogging network Lockergnome.net, suggests that instead of making a blanket statement or issuing a canned press release, approach a blogger by beginning a conversation about something he or she previously posted.
"Even if it's disingenuous, at least I know you took the time to look at my blog instead of making a generic statement, which is so impersonal," says Pirillo. "The more you act like an automated system, the more turned off someone is going to be to continue engaging you in a conversation - and that's really the key: conversation."
Bradbury agrees, adding that "the easiest way to take that initial step is to post a response to their blog, because that tells the blogger you're reading their blog, you have a point of view, and you're willing to engage in a dialogue."
Along with keeping the relationship on a more personal level, Patrick McLaughlin, an account supervisor at Airfoil Public Relations, says it's important to keep your intentions and identity out in the open.
"Bloggers are independent and take offense if they feel they are being manipulated by a PR firm or corporation," notes McLaughlin. "Harm can be done by a well-meaning PR person hoping to change an opinion by inserting a contrary statement, intending that the source isn't noted."
"The way I coach people," says Bradbury, "is that you want to inform rather than influence, involve rather than invoke. If you're trying to influence them to force a viewpoint, you're going to lose."
This technique also works when dealing with negative comments or criticisms. "To respond to constructive criticism is smart - you address the feedback head-on," says Pirillo. "Let them in on the thought process."
When Pirillo mentioned a desktop search engine on his blog, the company's VP put him in touch with the development department so that he could make suggestions on the product, which he continues to do.
"A traditional PR move would have been to take the clip and move on," he says, "but it's about more than just getting a link - it's about establishing a relationship with a passionate customer...someone who is going to take your brand and run with it."
"Customers are eager to share input that helps drive the direction in which product development goes, and companies would be wise to listen," says McLaughlin.
But according to Foremski, there's no cause for concern just because something negative is posted. "In a blogging forum, you can reply," he says. "Blogs encourage discourse and debate, where the old media model just broadcasted into the ether."
Do include bloggers in your media strategy
Do remember that blogs are open forums
Do treat bloggers with the same respect as journalists
Don't try to mislead or manipulate with a posting
Don't pitch or send press releases
Don't forget to explain the terms of an embargo