'Craig' opens up on the Net

Craigslist founder Craig Newmark speaks to Rose Gordon about how PR pros benefit from the evolution in the public's Internet usage

Last week, Craig Newmark, Craigslist founder and technological liaison to Barack Obama's presidential campaign, visited PRWeek to discuss how the Web, Millennials, and Jon Stewart are changing history and the role of communications.

Newmark, keynote speaker at this year's PRSA International Conference in Detroit, was adamant about how open and honest information on the Web can benefit communicators.

PRWeek: What do you have to say to PR people?
Craig Newmark: We are living in the middle of something important in human history... People are using the Net to work together more in lots of ways that have never happened. It's never been accelerated like this. People are kind of bringing grassroots democracy... instead of in the past just thousands of people... now it jumps to millions and we see that literally every day now. That's the biggest thing that's happening. The course of human history is changing. The hard part of the message is getting the word out and getting people excited about it. The easy part, frankly, is the technology. While it's fun and I love it, human matters are more important.

PRWeek: You seem to be becoming more politically active.

Newmark: My interest is not in politics, it is just in getting other people to change the world…

I'd rather not be bothered by politics, like most people, but this is just too important. This has a political component, especially since one campaign has embraced grassroots democracy and the other has not been so kind. Obama has bet the campaign on networked grassroots democracy.

PRWeek: What has the Web done for communications to bring it to a level playing field? What do you think some of the new tools will be?
Newmark: We are seeing genuinely democratic media, and it's, let's say, merging with the more traditional forms. I'm now saying both traditional and grassroots media but that's a somewhat artificial distinction since they're blurring together… The great strength of traditional media is professional skills, particularly fact checking. And you do see now grassroots people doing some fact checking. The Huffington Post is a good example. They're doing impressive work. (Newmark noted he is a contributor to the site.)

Meanwhile, this does change the way people communicate on behalf of causes or companies. The wave of change that is happening is more and more participation in grassroots media or just people that are, let's say, curious to find out when they're being given good information. We see increasing weight given to fact-checking organizations, and that's by people of all age ranges.

So-called digital natives, [those] 0 to 24 or 30 [years old], depending on where you draw the line, are getting increasingly media-savvy and connected. There's a reason the most trusted names in news, particularly in those age groups, are [Stephen] Colbert and [Jon] Stewart. They do some of the best, most effective reporting, particularly on the presidential race. They don't take prisoners.

Prweek: And the tools?

Newmark: The Web is everyone's printing press. The big change in the last few years are blogging tools….We do see a flowering of opinion.

The Web makes lots visible that used to be hidden. Companies must choose how much more they're going to make visible. The ones that do it well will be the ones that survive.

: How so? How can companies do it well?
Newmark: A simple way... would be just to have bulletin boards where people who use their products discuss them, helping out other users. This should involve not only a peer community, but also company representatives. The idea is that the users that provide good help, find a way to reward them, engage them, and take their ideas seriously because they will also provide product feedback... This is a big message that a company can send.

PRWeek: What's that message?
Newmark: Basically that the company is serious about supporting its customers. In the experience all of us are used to working with companies that talk customer service and proclivity and then completely fail to deliver.

PRWeek: A big part of your job – in your Craigslist's role - is still communicating with the community. Is that right?

Newmark: I have two roles. The major role is customer service rep. To be clear… I am not customer service manager… I report to the manager of customer service. That's the bulk of my work.

Another part of my work is in media in the sense of getting the message out, and there I get to exercise my hidden agenda of getting other people to change things. I realize in a sense… – this is a realization from this morning – that I'm a community organizer, which is in a sense the purest, one of the best, genuine expressions of grassroots democracy…What I do outside of Craigslist is essentially draw attention to the work of other people that are doing really good stuff, and that's another answer as to why I might be talking to a PR group. I'll also be bringing attention to this wave of change breaking now among the young, because again, the consumption and use of media among the Millennials is, there's a big change coming, and to reach them means a much more active engagement.

PRWeek: Can you talk a little about the change among the Millennials and how to remain relevant?
Newmark: The peer-to-peer communications methods – Twittering, blogging, and Facebook – are much more important.

Trust doesn't come from the top down anymore. That was true in [Mad Men's] Don Draper's days, but not now. Truth now comes on a peer-to-peer basis, from the bottom up. Hence the popularity of Colbert and Stewart, and that in a sense is the basis of the whole Obama campaign. The whole campaign is really from the bottom up, which is scary because we're living in a transitional time from top-down money politics to bottom-up grassroots politics. That [has to] be a difficult adjustment.

PRWeek: How can companies and PR practitioners engage on a real level without coming across as having an agenda?
Newmark: Just engage people directly on blogs or Twitter. [Newmark has more than 3,100 followers on Twitter - https://twitter.com/craignewmark] Be very frank about what your role is and just engage in actual conversation. It's not just enough to listen, but you need to actually do something.

PRWeek: What's the next step for Craigslist?
Newmark: What's next is mostly more of the same. We do one thing really well, and we're not going to screw that up... There will be more cities and countries.

We need to do a better job of customer service, probably the most important aspect of that is – well, we have a problem with spam ads... We've made some significant inroads and there's more to come.

PRWeek: Are you ever going to redesign it?
Newmark: We're completely driven by community feedback. About three years ago…some designers presented a nice redesign... There was a lot of talk about it in the design community, and there were a few people in the design community that loved it… But no one in the user community did, so we just didn't bother. A more important design feature is to keep the thing fast, and we're all used to using sites that are slow, and if you're looking for a place to live you're already tense enough, you don't want a slow site, so fast is sometimes a design principal.

PRWeek: Craigslist is one of the first of these community forums, can you talk about what influence it has had on other applications?

Newmark: I know anecdotally that a lot of people were influenced by the message of doing well by doing good… And there are a lot of companies… who just like the idea of trying to simplify their site as much as possible and make it fast. If your site is typically corporate you might have lots of graphics, particularly of lots of smiling people who seem to be so happy that you wonder what their medication is and how do you get it? If I see any ad like that I immediately write off the company because I perceive that as phony, and I suspect that attitude is likely prevalent among youngsters.

PRWeek: You're involved in a number of groups, including efforts to improve Israeli-Palestinian communications. Have you noticed a change in public affairs messaging?

Newmark: I realized the lesson of the wise fool, ‘If you're going to deliver a message, if you're too serious about it people will tend not to listen too much.' Sometimes getting through the day is hard. We're all bombarded by a lot of media, and, well, you can try to deliver a message with hate and outrage or with humor, and frankly, humor I'm more comfortable with.

The new PR world will involve opinion shaping from the bottom up… Opinion leaders will be the people who have the best opinion ratings on a grassroots basis, and everyone gets to play on an equal basis. You guys probably have the edge if you're skilled with words and also images and so on.

As a professional communicator, first off you do need to identify yourself as having that background, because otherwise someone will find out and then say it. You start off with a small negative problem but do the right thing, you get a good reputation, and as such, you will probably be more effective than in the past.

PRWeek: Recently we've reported on a PR plan getting out in the media. It seems like there's no hiding anything anymore.

Newmark: One must assume that everything is on the record, which is unpleasant in some ways. It forces some into more timid messages. I'm somewhat restrained just because sometimes my sense of humor gets the better of me… What a kid would find acceptable disclosing on Facebook is what someone older, someone older than 30, would find often disturbing or just surprising.

PRWeek: If we're talking so much about social media now, what is the frontier?

Newmark: The next frontier really is democracy online and both in media and in politics.

PRWeek: If you were to leave PR professionals some last thoughts on effective ways to communicate in this new environment, what would they be?
Newmark: Pragmatically, start getting a reputation online. Get comfortable with these tools. The old joke about ‘Sincerity, I can fake that?' doesn't work anymore. People on the Net can smell a scam, whether it's a cashier's check or untrue communications, and they'll talk about it. It's like word of mouth is now scaling up to the millions, maybe the hundreds of millions.

Right now there's a window of opportunity for PR people to learn the new tech and to start getting that reputation, and I don't know how long that window is going to last.

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