Blogs offer new way for PR pros to speak with clients

Veteran bloggers encourage PR pros to follow in the footsteps of Richard Edelman, while warning them of the pitfalls of using blogs for marketing.

Veteran bloggers encourage PR pros to follow in the footsteps of Richard Edelman, while warning them of the pitfalls of using blogs for marketing.

Richard Edelman's decision to start writing his own blog is likely to get other large PR firms thinking about doing the same. If the CEO of a major agency is jumping into the blogging waters, others might feel they need to follow.

Veteran bloggers say that's fine: PR agencies should know about the rapidly growing world of blogs. But they warn of the pitfalls of misusing them and caution anyone thinking about following Edelman to learn the territory first.

PR execs who see blogs - the accepted shortened version of weblogs - as just another way to distribute press releases or tout carefully crafted client messages will soon find themselves floundering in a universe that wants conversation and insight, not canned spiels.

"It's not a marketing tool; it's an opinion tool. If there's marketing anywhere on the blog, that's death," says Richard Cline, president of Voce Communications, a PR firm in Palo Alto, CA. Blogs, he says, "are not a thing PR people should go into to exploit."

Technorati, a site that monitors blog growth, estimates that more than 4.1 million blogs exist online today, a number that has jumped from 2.5 million in May. Estimates of how many of those deal with PR range from 30 to 50, so PR people already are staking their claims in blogland.

Steve Rubel, VP of client services at CooperKatz in New York, agrees. Rubel says his blog, Micro Persuasion, has helped him get a client for his firm and become more widely known among reporters and potential clients. Six months after starting it, Rubel credits his blog with earning him three speaking slots at conferences and 35 press interviews.

He's accomplished that not by pitching in the traditional sense. Rather, he's simply talking about PR and communications, hoping people will think him insightful enough to want to do business with him. He writes about how blogs and what he calls "participatory journalism" are changing the world of PR.

"Blogging is a conversation," Rubel warns. "It's not a place to put your press release; it's not a place to pitch your story."

Embracing new ideas

To effectively use blogs, PR pros will need to accept a mindset change, acknowledging that the days when they could control messages are quickly disappearing. "There's an uncontrolled message out there already; you can't control the message anymore," Rubel says. "What I hope agencies are doing is listening."

Edelman says he decided to become a blogger earlier this month because "I'm trying to lead by example." He wants his agency to be aware of blogs, and he wants his clients to know he's aware of them. (The blog can be found at speak_up/blog/.) "We are really pushing our clients hard to consider alternate media," he notes.

Client messaging won't be a part of his blog, which is called "6am" for the time Edelman expects to be writing it. Rather, he'll write about things regarding his interests and experiences.

Rubel applauds Edelman for joining the trend, but others like Cline say an agency can gain more if several of its employees blog. His firm has three or four employees who do PR blogs on their own. The agency doesn't control their content.

"Sometimes we look at it, and other times they have pretty free rein," he says.

The firm isn't worried that a disgruntled employee will use a blog to knock the company. "If they're putting stuff up there saying they don't like the company, we're doing something wrong" and need to address the complaints rather than worry about them being on a blog, he says. The agency might eventually do a corporate blog and use it as a place to link all its employees' blogs together, Cline adds.

Blogging "is going to involve a whole new level of communications advocacy. It changes communications enormously in the coming years," says Andy Lark, VP of global communications and marketing with Sun Microsystems, himself a blogger. "You have to get used to a different way of messages being delivered."

Indeed, examples already have surfaced of companies being exposed and ridiculed online after trying to hide PR and marketing efforts in blogs.

Dr Pepper/Seven Up, a Cadbury-owned beverage maker, was ridiculed last year once it became known it had asked bloggers to write about its new Raging Cow milk drink. A Raging Cow blogger boycott was the result.

Earlier this year, Warner Bros. Records tried to post favorable comments on MP3 music blogs about some of its own music after the company had made the music available to the bloggers. The blog world found out Warner was planting the comments and trying to make it seem they came from average listeners.

Lark started his blog, called simply Andy Lark's blog, to talk about communications, but he's also posted sailing photos and shots of his dog, Gabby.

"What it's really about for us [Sun] and me personally is how you connect with people and get feedback," Lark explains. Thousands of Sun employees, including the CEO, have blogs, Lark notes. Rather than try to control them, Sun provides links to employee blogs on its website, creating a micro-community of Sun bloggers.

Bloggers helped Sun last year, when it settled a long-simmering dispute with rival Microsoft, Lark notes. While some techies were angered by the agreement, Sun bloggers wrote about it and answered concerns more effectively than a company press release could have, he contends.

"It takes enormous courage to blog," Lark says. "It's going to take an enormous mind shift for communicators to move from communications control to communications advocacy."

Expanding the practice

Having a blog can be compared to putting people on the speaking circuit. Agencies have long known that speaking at key industry conferences can help clients, but only when the speakers have something insightful to say. Merely delivering commercials for their firms doesn't fly. Blogging follows the same logic - people want to know more about what you have to say rather than what you have to sell.

Blogging shouldn't be limited to tech companies or PR agencies that work with tech clients, Lark notes. "Any industry can embrace blogging. You've got to have faith in your employees and your customers."

Dan Gillmor, business and technology columnist with the San Jose Mercury News and one of the first journalists to begin a blog more than five years ago, agrees, saying, "I think it [blogging] is good for any business that wants to have a conversation with its constituents. A blog carries a human voice."

In his book, We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People, Gillmor writes: "Using weblogs and other information tools, such as discussion forums, companies can engage customers, suppliers, and employees in a dialogue in which everyone learns from each other. Mass media remains a vital tool of modern communications, but understanding the evolving world I've been describing will become just as necessary. For example, a well- targeted approach to a weblogger who's become an expert in a given area may be more effective than a magazine ad."

Ignoring blogs carries its own peril. Gillmor notes the recent problems with Kryptonite bike locks. Information about easy ways to pick Kryptonite locks spread rapidly through the blogosphere, causing a consumer uproar seemingly before the company even knew it had a problem. No company is safe from that kind of unrestrained consumer communication.

Edelman expects clients to want to know more about blogs and how to use them. He wants PR agencies to gain that knowledge quickly before other communications disciplines - such as advertising and marketing - grab blogs away from PR. "I want our industry to start taking market share away from advertising," he says. "If we allow the advertising guys to get the web, we have blown an opportunity."

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