The new marketing battle between public relations and advertising is occurring not in the fight for budgets, but the fight for blogs.
In one corner, there are "authentic" blogs, which are written by an actual person or persons who represent the company. A great example is GM's FastLane blog, authored by Bob Lutz, GM vice chairman of global product development. Many PR professionals have touted "authentic" blogs as the new way of empowering consumers and building ones brand through free media.
The other blogs are written by creative teams that either feature a character or some other fabricated campaign. They have been given many names, including fake blogs ("flogs" for short), character blogs, or mere expletives from detractors. Some creative blogs are glaringly fake, such as being authored by a brand symbol like Captain Morgan, while others have been lambasted for not doing enough to point out that they are inauthentic.
Companies such as Lifetime Television, McDonald's, Diageo, and Microsoft have all launched some form of a character blog, and the trend doesn't seem to be slowing down. Many PR professionals and otherwise interested parties have argued that blogs require authenticity to work. But, as the media have already ascertained through their countless articles about blogs, it's somewhat difficult to determine exactly what a blog must be.
With millions of blogs in existence, it would be nearly impossible to determine whether public relations or advertising embraced the technology before the other. But blogs did initially explode as an outlet for people's true feelings, opinions, and news commentary. Rare exceptions aside, blogs as a creative marketing tool are relatively new. And as they become more prevalent, companies will be looking closely at whether authentic or character-based blogs lead to greater exposure and more revenue.
Companies who have launched blogs that appear authentic, but are actually authored by a creative team, have been widely panned, and it is unlikely that this practice will continue to occur as companies learn that few people have sympathy for deception. But the criticism leveled against character blogs, such as the one Diageo created for Captain Morgan, is that they lack authenticity and thus bungle the opportunity to create a real dialogue with the consumer. Critics say that consumers thirst for the real dialogue from an executive or representative from the company they patronize, and it is a much better marketing tool than the irreverent wisdom of a fabricated pirate.
Steve Rubel, CooperKatz SVP of client services and author of MicroPersuasion.com, is a well-regarded PR blogger and one of the character-blog critics.
"It all boils down to authenticity; I don't see the logic in launching a fake blog," Rubel says. "If a blog by real people is not right for [a company], why do a blog at all?"
In his blog, which recently celebrated its one-year anniversary, he has occasionally chided his colleagues about their reluctance to embrace blogging or their myopic approach to the medium. But Rubel has not embraced character blogs, which has drawn praise from some and accusations of similar myopia from others.
Fellow PR professional Shel Holtz, an equally zealous proponent of blogs and other online communication technologies, has parted ways with his colleague on this debate. Writing in his blog about different types of blogs, Holtz says, "Whether we're talking about... 'real' blogs vs. character blogs, let's not forget that blogs are just a medium that can and will be put to multiple uses..."
Others have expounded on this point, saying that a blog is a software medium, not a particular "message." The debate is boiling up in blogs of influence.
One comment, on Rubel's Monday April 18 post, "Character blogs are a complete waste of time," Robert Scoble, a Microsoft employee who blogs and is steadfast against non-authentic blogs, said, "I'd recommend not linking to fake blogs. We just urge them on."
Another poster, Dan Diephouse, wrote, "Character blogs can have a large entertainment value. Just because it's fiction doesn't mean it isn't good."
In his role as technical evangelist at Microsoft, Scoble was particularly critical of a character blog, MSN Found, which his own company created for its search product.
"You wouldn't use a saw to hammer a nail into the wall," Rubel says. "The best blogs are used to convey authenticity."
But the companies that run character blogs disagree.
Gourmet Station, a purveyor of delivered gourmet dinners, created a character blog, authored by fictitious gourmand, T. Alexander. In the first line of the blog's "about us" section, the company says, "Let's set the stage right up front. T. Alexander is a fictitious character created by GourmetStation, it's [sic] creative partner, Blue Marble Media, and Bloomberg Marketing."
Cara Barineau, president and founder of the GourmetStation's ad agency, Blue Marble Media, says the company decided to use T. Alexander, because of his prevalence in the company's marketing campaigns. Barineau and GourmetStation CEO Donna Lynes-Miller co-author the blog.
"There are blurbs from T. Alexander throughout the website," Barineau says. "T is the voice of GourmetStation."
Alexander's voice resonates enough that some GourmetStation customers even write letters addressed to the fictional character.
Even more so, Captain Morgan's pirate is the voice and image of the brand. Stuart Kirby, director of PR for Diageo, explains that the Captain Morgan pirate is the brand's biggest asset, one that the company has placed many hours and dollars into crafting.
"The face of our brand is the icon himself," Kirby says. "For us to give the blog to a spokesperson to the brand, versus the campaign [icon], wouldn't make sense."
The Captain Morgan blog is written by one of Diageo's agencies, Real Branding, and the Captain Morgan brand team.
Kirby says consumers don't identify with the parent company; a majority of them don't know or care which company owns Captain Morgan.
"Over the past couple of years, consumer feedback has been that the Captain is a strong personality amongst legal drinkers from 21 to 24," Kirby says. "The target heavily consumes online media and consumers are telling us they want to hear the voice of the Captain, the personality, in an irreverent and nontraditional way."
The blog is currently on hiatus for an estimated two to four weeks, while the company re-evaluates its success. The company initially planned to run it for four weeks and then decide whether to continue.
The blogging debate is not likely to quell as more companies - and their branding and advertising agencies - roll out fictional blogs. As Kirby asserts for Captain Morgan's, there are people who have more of a relationship with the Pillsbury Doughboy than the vice presidents at parent company General Mills.
Despite his reservations about fictional blogs, Rubel best sums up the debate.
"People are trying different things and [the market] will determine what works or not," Rubel says. "It's whatever the people decide is acceptable."