If there is one thing that journalists and PR professionals share, it is a sickening attachment to buzz words.
Inasmuch as both entities are supposed to be effective communicators, both have often managed to mute that internal editor that is tasked with limiting trite phrases, overused buzzwords, and meaningless argot.
And when those words meander into our lexicon, they often are often confounding, begging someone with no fear of looking to stupid to bray, "What the hell are you talking about?"
The words enveloping the new media landscape both begun with the letter "e." And both, it has become apparent, mean very little, if not nothing.
The new media chestnuts "empower" and "engage" have circled the Internet as long as public relations professionals started testing out blog software. This incredible new medium, the argument goes, allows PR to bypass the gatekeeper traditional media to get all Woodstock-ian in the mud with consumers. Frolicking and fostering bonds, engaging and empowering consumers, PR professionals were finally in the position to reach out to the community and let them tell their friends about their products.
However, the problem in this assertion is that the very products that made PR professionals think this actually allows consumers to engage and empower themselves, without even needing the highly-paid PR people. By their very nature, blogs and the online environment "empower" consumers who then "engage" with each other. Exactly what are marcomms officers offering as tender to enter this party?
Engaging is difficult. Steve Rubel, blogging champion and newly-minted Edelman SVP, previously represented client WeatherBug [when he was still at CooperKatz], which had to defend itself in the blogosphere against claims – malicious, incorrect, or not – that its product constituted spyware.
When Gordon Gould, a venture capitalist who maintains a blog at Weblogs, Inc, criticized CooperKatz client WeatherBug in a post, Rubel immediately engaged Gould by offering, in the comment section, to set up Gould with the WeatherBug team to discuss the software.
Gould is a venture capitalist and writes about the field on his blog, but the blog is more personal than professional. He's not an expert on weather tracking technology, nor approaching the incident as a journalist. He was a pissed-off customer that Rubel approached, admirably, with the same amount of attention as he would a journalist.
Gould commented on how he appreciated Rubel's pitch and praised CooperKatz and WeatherBug for having such a dedicated man on staff. Gould promised to take Rubel up on his offer. But, to this day, Gordon Gould has never mentioned WeatherBug again.
In an interview given when he was still with CooperKatz, Rubel told me that WeatherBug specifically asked its agency to address these issues head on, so Rubel was doing exactly what his client asked him to do.
"You can never reach out to every single individual," Rubel says. "We pick our spots. [With Gould], you have to jump in and address that."
But PR professionals and employees engaging bloggers in this space can only do so much. And sometimes, in overzealousness, that "so much" is "too much."
Another blogger – also a Houston Chronicle journalist and radio talk show host – voiced similar issues with WeatherBg.
He also received the first-class journalism treatment for his blog, but did not have the same positive response.
"Much to my surprise I received not one, not two but THREE e-mails from three different employees of WeatherBug. Apparently my column was found and sent around their company. They each took the time to explain that their program was not spyware and it was not adware and how great they were and yadda-yadda-yadda. ... I appreciate that they want to evangelize their product and protect it's [sic] reputation. I even respect that. Sadly, one fact remains. When you install the free version you get a pile of software crap on your PC you would be better off without. I won't hesitate to tell you that and I likely won't be changing my position on this anytime soon."
The reality is that there is no real easy way to do this "empowering" and "engaging" business.
But it's not impossible. Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions just finished a campaign where they empowered bloggers to get on a plane, all expenses-paid, to Amsterdam in return for ad space on their blogs and a requirement that they submit to a questionnaire that might be used for marketing material. Bloggers weren't even required to post one thing on their blog about the trip, although most did. More than 1,000 bloggers applied. So if your engagement or empowerment is win-win and a big success, do yourself a favor: call it something else.
Ubiquitous marketing is PRWeek.com editor Keith O'Brien's bi-weekly column on how technology is changing how companies interact with and position their wares to consumers. Keith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.