In this age of interactive media, conversing - not controlling - is the key to effective comms

When I was a columnist for the San Jose Mercury News, I had a "Dear PR People" web page.

When I was a columnist for the San Jose Mercury News, I had a "Dear PR People" web page.

I said - and I wasn't being facetious - that I appreciated how difficult PR jobs could be, particularly when dealing with demanding folks like journalists.

The page offered a variety of advice, much of which was the standard stuff such as "Please don't call me to tell me you're sending a press release, and then call me to tell me you've sent me the press release." The letter went on at considerable length, with many specific suggestions of what to do and not to do.

I had a narrower focus then, and was talking about a traditional relationship. Now, traditional methods must give way to different kinds of conversations.

In a world of blogs, podcasts, video mash-ups, interactive maps, and so much more, the nature of corporate communications must change from top-down control to multi-directional openness - from lecture to conversation. If all that is daunting, however, keep in mind that the new options are available to the newsmakers and the PR people advising them, not just the bloggers.

The way entry-level PR people and journalists deal with each other isn't a trivial matter; solid press relations are part of a smart PR strategy. But they are becoming less important than the way newsmakers - the people and institutions journalists cover - deal with various other constituencies.

These range from customers and potential customers to investors to suppliers to staffers to the communities in which companies do business. How a company communicates with them, and how they in turn communicate with each other, can determine failure or success.
It's messy, but the collision of technology and media creates new communications options at all levels.

Blogs are all the rage, and I encourage their use as part of the external - and internal - communications process. Unlike press releases, which tend to read as if they'd been composed by the mating of a computer and lawyer, good blogs have a distinctly human voice. They are conversational almost by definition.

But the key word here is "conversation" - and the first rule is that you have to listen. That's why companies should encourage comments from those various constituencies, publicly and privately, as part of the conversation, even when they make insiders cringe. The people at the edges of the communications and social networks can be harsh and effective critics. But they can also be fervent, valuable allies, offering ideas to each other and to the newsmaker.

Media entities, too, are being forced to change. Traditionally opaque, they now must explain more about what they do and why. How's that for irony?

A conversation doesn't mean total transparency, but it does mean a willingness to listen. We all have plenty to learn.

This is my first in a series of monthly columns for PRWeek. Let's make it a conversation. Send me an e-mail at

Dan Gillmor is author of We the Media: Grassroots Journalism By the People, For the People. His weblog is found here.

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