Q&A: Participants from Global PR Blog Week

On the heels of the Global PR Blog Week - which bears no relation to PRWeek, had an instant messenger conversation with the two organizers, Trevor Cook and Constantin Basturea, as well as two influential participants, Steve Rubel and B.L. Ochman.

On the heels of the Global PR Blog Week - which bears no relation to PRWeek, had an instant messenger conversation with the two organizers, Trevor Cook and Constantin Basturea, as well as two influential participants, Steve Rubel and B.L. Ochman.

Their weblogs and postings during the event can be found here. The following is the transcript of the interview, which deals with the nascent concept of corporate blogs, the role of journalists in the media, and privacy concerns. For Trevor and Constantin, what would you say your goal was when you first set out to do Global PR Blog Week? Trevor Cook: I think blogging has enormous potential to help PR people discuss some big issues facing our profession: Where do blogs fit in and the whole question of 'spin' and the public reaction against it? A blog conference is the cheapest and easiest way for people to participate on a global scale. Constantin Basturea: Well, everything started at the beginning of May, when Trevor sent a message to a dozen of PR bloggers saying that it would be great to start experimenting with a wiki as a resource for PR people, and that maybe we could meet in a sort of event. Then the ideas started to flow. I was thinking for months of launching a wiki that would be a repository of knowledge for the emerging PR practice, and I took the challenge and launched The New PR Wiki at Then we used the wiki to organize the event in a open manner, by inviting participants to add their names and contributions to the wiki -- and everything sort of grew out of this. PRWeek: The late '90s saw a bunch of expensive, lavishly catered events where great minds would meet, instead of exploiting the technology. Isn't this what people should have done years ago? Steve Rubel: I think years ago the technology was not where it is today. Platforms like MoveableType, which create a dialogue, were really not affordable to the masses back then. Cook: One of the great advantages of blogging is that it lends itself to group activity - it can be genuinely open. We interviewed some 'gurus' - [NYU professor Jay] Rosen, [Blogger and Microsoft employee Robert] Scoble, and [author Seth] Godin - but we also said, 'Anyone who has something to say can go ahead and put themselves on the program.' I think that was a great use of the technology. B.L. Ochman: I think 9-11 changed people's willingness to travel, resulting in a loss of budgets for conferences and generally made it difficult for people to gather. Technology came to the rescue, but there is great resistance to it particularly among PR people. I have heard a great deal of bitching about blogging. How can we possibly read one more thing? How can we possibly keep up? It's hard, there is no doubt. I personally feel it would help to be able to grow another head that only does reading and catalogs all the mountains of information. Cook: B.L., I get a lot of that: 'How can you read one more thing?' But the truth is blogging makes me a much more effective researcher, and I learn so much about PR by interacting online. Ochman: Trevor, I agree, but it is really hard for people who aren't really organized to deal with all the information. Cook: Don't you think blogging helps you get organized? I'm a mess in a paper environment, but I'm ruthless in an online environment in terms of getting my information organized. Regarding the speakers for the conference. These are people, like Scoble and Ruben, that were already convinced about the power of blogs. This is not to say that you guys were exclusionary, but, perhaps, you could give us some examples of how this week influenced those who had merely a scant idea of what blogs were before? Ochman: I interviewed [Poynter Institute senior editor] Steve Outing BECAUSE he is an expert on digital journalism and blogs. I think we all sought out people who already agree that blogs are helpful and useful and not fads. People have thanked us for giving them the basics and for telling them what the trends are. It is hard to find all the information we compiled in one place. Cook: I don't know if we will have reached too many people who are still skeptical about blogs, but the site will stay up and I think it will be a great resource for anyone coming online. Basturea: I think it's important to notice that we had about 1,000 visitors a day, and, from watching the statistics, it's clear that people coming from diverse organizations, including PR agencies, but also from government, non-profit orgs and corporations. Rubel: I received several e-mails from agencies this week that are beginning to talk to clients about blogs because of what they heard about this event. They were asking for guidance and links. Ochman: Me too. PRWeek: I wonder if you guys at all worry that you were among a small cadre of PR/marketing professionals to push this message, and that you might not get credit for it should it explode in the profession? Ochman: Bulldog Reporter has been particularly remiss in acknowledging the impact of blogging. The Wall Street Journal has talked about them as personal diaries. The New York Times has made fun of them. I think we'll get a lot more respect for blogs. Rubel: This is not about credit. Ochman: I've been pushing blogging for well over a year. It's not credit that I want; it's clients who will allow me to do blogs for them. Basturea: I think that right now we should be more interested in pushing the adoption, and not taking credit. Rubel: This is not about being Thomas Edison, Orville Wright or Willis Carrier. Dave Winer, Robert Scoble, and Dan Gillmor are those people. The clich? 'we are just the messengers' really sticks here. Cook: I just hope to be a little ahead of the curve when my clients and other Australian organizations start looking around for someone to help them with blogging. This is my strategy, and I've already had a few calls to come in and explain this stuff. Rubel: Keith, I think we are evangelists really. That's the way to think of it. Ochman: I want my blog to become well known the way my newsletter and articles have, but I don't care who gets credit for bringing blogging into the marketing mix. Rubel: There were others before us. Rick Bruner is a good example. Phil Gomes. Basturea: Tom Murphy, also. Cook: I'm trying to get myself some speaking engagements to PR conferences in Australia which don't seem to be doing blogging at all that would help spread the message. Ochman: I'm afraid it WILL explode in the PR profession, and they will screw it up the same way they have screwed up e-mail as a way to communicate with journalists by not adapting to changes in how info has to be presented. Basturea: I don't think that 'weblogs' can be 'screwed up' by corporations. Who will read something that's "packaged" as a weblog, but has no real voice, integrity, and honesty? Nobody. Ochman: I think most PR people can be counted on to make blogs sound like press releases. PRWeek: Here's a question as it pertains to corporate blogs. Whether or not there is a real voice to it, why are consumers going to care more than any of the other messages? At the end of the day, isn't it just the corporation talking? How do you envision corporate blogs reaching consumers? Ochman: I see companies reaching consumers with blogs along the lines of those done by Jones Soda, Nike and all the others I gave examples of today on the Global PR Blog. Rubel: Consumers will care because every company has customer evangelists who want to learn more about the companies they buy from. What would the reaction be like if Krispy Kreme or Jet Blue were to blog? Basturea: 'Consumers' will be care only if 1) they can enter a relationship with the blog's author, and 2) if it responds to his informational needs. Rubel: It's all about transparency. Cook: I think Scoble pinned this in the interview I did with him. Its about interacting with the person in that corporation that's has responsibility for your concern - not a hotline or a group e-mail address. Ochman: The same way that many corporations use websites as online brochures that don't have an authentic voice, companies will use blogs for corporate speak. Nobody will read them, and, eventually, they will get it. Outing said that the best blogs will rise to the top because they will be brilliantly written and well researched. Cook: Yes we need to avoid making blogs come across like press releases or annual reports. Ochman: I adamantly believe that blogs are NOT for everyone. Rubel: Keith, your question should be reverse - how do you envision consumers reaching corporations? The answer is blogs. It's about listening, not talking. But what about pushing out a message? Will there be someone there to listen? Ochman: Corporations have not ever been into listening on a grand scale. This is a sea change and it will take time for them to get it. Building an audience for a blog takes skill. It's not a 'build it and they will come' thing any more than a website is. And very few bloggers are able to build any real audience. Cook: I think blogs are more about pull (especially through RSS) than push. It's in reverse. Look at CRM and Total Quality Management. These are new topics. Corporations, in general, have never been touted for being immediately receptive to customers' wishes. What's different now? Ochman: I don't think anything is different now for the vast majority of companies. But for companies that want to get closer to customers, blogs offer an excellent tool. Rubel: You need to be [receptive]. You'll die otherwise. Ochman: But companies with layers of lawyers and 'tradition' are not ready for this kind of change. And that's most companies. This is something for a small number of companies In my opinion. Cook: This is a big problem, Keith. I don't know that PR can solve it. We can facilitate it. But the companies that do listen and do blog effectively will have an amazing tool to drive their reputations and customer loyalty etc Ochman: Trevor, I agree. But I don't have much faith that there will be many. Blogs, by themselves, are nothing. You need to integrate them into the rest of the mix to be effective. Blogs are a good way to send people to the e-commerce section of a site, for example. Basturea: I think it depends. Companies will learn, in time, how to attract people who can blog effectively. And let's not forget that [when] the Internet generation enters the workforce, it will have better skills for online communication. Cook: As soon as a few companies start creating shareholder wealth through blogs than interest will explode just as it did with TQM. But as Godin says in his interviews, most companies see feedback as a cost, not an opportunity. Rubel: Yes, the middle managers now have a way to listen to customers. It's not just the customer service reps or the execs on 'listening tours.' It's everyone who can listen at anytime, 24/7. Ochman: What I mean is that only a small number of companies will do blogs that are effective. You simply can't have everyone involved in blogging any more than you can have everyone be a company spokesperson. You have to have someone blog who you would also trust to represent your company. Steve, you brought up a great point. So what, besides fielding requests, complaints, and praises from the consumers, should corporate blogs be for? Do you think it's a good place to track users and find your brand ambassadors? Rubel: Absolutely. Find them and invite them to learn all about you. Maybe even given them space to launch blogs and spread your message for you. B.L. - what, besides size and attitude, will help a company determine if it has the proper mix to try this out? Ochman: Good question. Blogging should have a purpose, and, in my opinion, it should be either to sell product, service customers or provide helpful information that is complex and constantly updated. Blogging for PR, in my opinion, is a waste of time. You need to be blogging for a goal. And also, you need really good writers, preferably with journalism training. And - to all - what about the Raging Cow blog debacle? Are companies going to start hiring kids or teens to help get the attitude and vernacular correct? While the problem was Raging Cow, according to some, was duplicity, I think the other problem was that it read like a SVP wrote it thinking it would connect to young kids. Ochman: I think the Raging Cow blog was simply poorly handled. It really was a good idea. What they did that was totally stupid was think they could put one over on bloggers by paying kids to blog. Rubel: Companies need to be themselves or bring their brand ambassadors under an umbrella to do it for them. It will need to be entirely 100% transparent. Ochman: You can't con bloggers. Steve outing pointed that out - If you approach a blogger, there is no such thing as off the record. Didn't the company write the actual blog though? Ochman: Yes, people in the company wrote the blog, but they paid kids to blog about their blog. What they missed is that bloggers would out them. Just the other day, Rick Bruner embarrassed the hell out of me by publishing what I thought was a private email about PR Blog Week in his blog. Cook: It was dumb to try and buy it, but companies have been doing that with viral marketing with kids for a while. Ochman: Sure companies do that, and they also pay buzz agents, but they don't lie about it or try to make it a covert activity. Do you feel you can control the message better with journalists in this environment? Rubel: It's not about controlling the message. It's about pushing it in the right direction so the community controls it. And the journalists know it. Companies don't control the message any more; the customers do. Basturea: First, the whole concept of a corporate message will have to be reconsidered. What's stopping us from being afraid to say anything for fear of it ending up on an unknown blog, getting linked to Gawker, and damaging one's professional careers? Cook: I don't think we can control the message in the sense of deciding who will read it etc. The James Hardie fiasco is a classic example the PR strategy was to make it a business story and to take the focus off the asbestosis victims. Ochman: I think we have to be smart about what we say. We've all told clients not to say anything to a journalist that they don't want to see in print. Basturea: And it's not about controlling the message anymore. It's about shaping the meaning of an organization's actions by joining the conversation with those affected (or interested by) those actions. Cook: They got away with it for a while before it blew up in their faces, but in a blogging world. I think they would have got away with it for about a nanosecond. Journalists have things like societies and libel; bloggers don't have these restrictions. I know there is a blog pact out there, but I don't see it effecting too many of the people out there. Ochman: That's the point. You cannot control the message any more. Look at what happened when the Kerry-intern scandal broke. Bloggers beat it down in minutes. Bloggers are proud of the fact that they don't have editors. That's very hard for companies to swallow. But then the traditional media, for the most part ignored it, and it faded. Ochman: I think traditional media would have turned it into another Monica Lewinsky trip if it hadn't been for bloggers. Rubel: In the old model, PR people were steering a message sailboat through journalists' waters. Hopefully the boat got it to where you wanted to go. In the new model, the consumers are at the helm and PR people are the wind. Cook: Yes, bloggers are much faster and more critical than the media in outing this sort of nonsense. Ochman: Very few bloggers blog for a living. Most of us do it for fun. We're dedicated to it. We want to communicate. Traditional media organizations depend on sponsors. we don't... At least, not yet. Do you think people still trust the media to snuff out the truth and unfounded rumors? Ochman: No. The media is no longer trustworthy. It is becoming clear that the concept of objectivity is a sham. Objectivity, in the sense of clearly distortion of the truth or being completely impartial? Because no one should have ever thought the latter was possible. Ochman: Look at the Trent Lott situation. Traditional media didn't care about it. But bloggers got on it and he was eventually forced to resign. That's pretty powerful stuff. Rubel: I think the people are beginning to look to the bloggers to snuff out the media's errors. Cook: I think people are much more savvy about media and marketing these days. For instance, my kids get taught at school to deconstruct messages from about age 10. The next generation wants to know where you're coming from. Ochman: And that's where bloggers come in. So that's why I don't hold out a lot of hope for how the PR profession in general will handle the tool. Cook: There is no objectivity without a broad, free discussion. That's what blogging offers. Ochman: Bloggers broke the Iraq prison scandal. Bloggers have been getting news online as much as a few DAYS before major media. Here we have two instances where the traditional media could have gotten involved. In one case, it was wrong. In the other, it was the right call. Is the traditional media gun-shy? Or are they irrevocably going to be behind? Ochman: Traditional media does seem gun shy. And they are also going to be behind because they have constraints that bloggers don't have. Basturea: Also, it's easier to say, 'Yes, I was wrong' when you're not blogging for a paycheck. So, will we look to the media for the longer-form analysis and trust bloggers to break the news? Ochman: look at the Korea's [OhMyNews], which is a blog read daily by more than 3 million. Housewives and secretaries are among those who are delivering news. Cook: Yes, the Korean [blog] is a good example - it's basically an extension of the talkback radio phenomenon that gave radio something to do after TV stole the dramas and quiz shows. Basturea: Ochman: I think the Korean site is more than just talk radio. It is a collaborative effort to make and understand news. Rubel: Media will always have bigger reach. The two will work together, but I think it will be different in so many scenarios. Cook: No one says a blogger must be a 'paper of record.' We can just get in and have a go at anything we like. That makes our job a lot easier in a way. Ochman: I think many bloggers are also providing excellent analysis. What we have now is a new type of unaffiliated journalist in the mix. This will change the delivery of news. Cook: Yes, but here our newspapers feed off talk radio to get a sense of what people are talking about and also people often ring in with eyewitness accounts and so on. Ochman: A lot of journalists have to blog anonymously because their news organizations won't allow them to be open. I do think that bloggers should identify themselves. I don't like to idea of anonymous accusations. Cook: I don't much favor anonymous bloggers. I tend to discount them. Ochman: Some of this comes down to the fact that there simply aren't enough journalists to cover all the news on the planet. It seems to me that there is room for lots more observers. Rubel: The bigger bloggers (e.g. the Gawker types) are in a different class of bloggers in the sense that they are a business. Ochman: Journalists who need to make a living are likely to stay in their jobs. Rubel: That may mean they have more responsibilities. Ochman: Wonkette is a really good example. She is really tuned into the scene.

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