Have you entered the blogosphere? Chances are, probably not - it's the preserve of techies and geeks, isn't it? To an extent, this is true, but, by consensus, PROs have a professional duty to log on and tune in to the PR opportunities, and threats, that could be lurking in the deeper reaches of the web.
Blogs - short for weblogs - are online journals that combine comment with links to related websites. Well-known blogs include that by the Baghdad blogger, Iraqi citizen Salam Pax.
Meritocratic and easy to set up, blogs enable anyone with a modicum of technical knowledge to broadcast their opinion. Most blogs contain no information or opinions of professional interest to PROs. But organisations and companies are waking up to the impact blogs can have on their communications and reputation.
Dan Holliday, founding partner of marcoms agency The Fish Can Sing, believes that as access to the net increases and its power to influence opinion grows, blogs will 'accordingly swell in their influence'. He says blogs represent the next evolution of the 'democratisation of knowledge', mirroring the declining influence of official institutions and experts, brought about by the likes of Google.
Bloggers are as proud of their editorial integrity as any journalist and, as Holliday points out: 'Blogs cannot be PR-ed in the usual ways since they are minor fiefdoms representing the interests of their creators.' But he says TFCS has 'engaged with' relevant blogs for clients such as Motorola and Grolsch.
Blogging isn't yet properly understood, or therefore accepted, by most organisations, according to Susanna Davidson, associate director in Cohn & Wolfe's digital division. But blogs can be influential in assessing the latest technological developments.
Bloggers can get hold of new gadgetry or, more broadly, information, before journalists and thus generate word of mouth. Examples of this include Apple Safari, a browser launched by the US computing firm and reviewed on influential blogs within an hour of its release. 'When the offline coverage of Apple Safari did appear, it was apparent that much had been influenced by the opinions of the bloggers,' says Debbie Wosskow, co-founder of PR shop Mantra.
Bloggers can be powerful customer evangelists and 'seeding' products with bloggers as early adopters is an increasingly popular PR tactic. Wosskow says that when launching emerging technologies, especially those with a US presence, the blogging community 'is incredibly important'.
Mantra selected and targeted the top 150 'most influential and appropriate' bloggers in the US and UK when it sought to promote search-engine client Blinkx. The agency says one blog generated more than 5,000 links to Blinkx in less than 24 hours.
Some companies, such as Nike, are even setting up their own blogs, while Microsoft encourages its staff to blog, a move widely seen as enabling the computing giant to personalise its operations and generate customer loyalty.
In the US, where blogging has a higher profile than in the UK, organisers of this month's Democratic National Convention handed political bloggers press accreditation to best enable John Kerry to get his message across.
Nike last month launched what is effectively a corporate blog, Art of Speed, produced by Gawker Media.
Fuse PR partner Philip Sheldrake says Nike's blog 'espouses fashion, performance and innovation: all values that make up the Nike brand'.
Mark Mulligan, research director and senior analyst at US-based JupiterResearch, says the blogs run by its market analysts are a means by which they can communicate their opinions on developments in the sectors they cover.
Blogs give 'added value' to clients' research subscriptions, says Mulligan, while for non-clients they 'give a flavour' of the firm. 'The blogs are also a useful tool for journalists, who can follow up directly with the relevant analyst after reading a blog entry,' he adds.
But most companies have not only failed to enter the blogosphere, they have yet to consider even applying for a visa. Hill & Knowlton netcoms director Niall Cook describes the contrast between blogs' profile in business circles and most PROs' lack of understanding about how they work and bloggers' motivations as 'quite alarming'. 'Agencies are still grappling with (blogging),' he says. 'People are asking: "Is this a media outlet to tap into?"; "Do our crisis management consultants need to be aware of them?".'
For corporate comms teams, blogs often seem like a threat but can prove to be an effective early warning system for issues management. After all, flak flying on blogs is only a click away from a national newsdesk.
Blogs can be used as a branding tool, but companies must be absolutely transparent about who's running them and what they are for. 'You must declare your interest on a blog - bloggers are smart people and recognise when someone is on the payroll of the company in question,' says Sheldrake.
Media-monitoring firm Durrants does not monitor blogs for clients, but product development director Simon Fathers says: 'As the number of blogs grows, we imagine demand for blog-monitoring services will grow. But the number of quality opinion formers who write blogs is currently small.'
Is a scenario possible whereby companies will employ blog specialists?
Sheldrake says blogs should not be treated as a silo within an organisation and all staff must be trained in 'how to manage them'. Davidson cautions: 'Like any media form, the PR industry can't afford to ignore them. But for most people, blogs won't replace conventional news outlets.'
Nonetheless, blogging will become an increasingly important comms channel - the blogosphere must be integrated into the external comms framework of any PR programme. As Cook says: 'Companies have an amazing opportunity to use bloggers to amplify their message.'
PROs should wake up to a phenomenon whose significance is on the rise.
SELECTED BLOGGING SITES
The Baghdad blogger http://dear_raed.blogspot.com/The Nike blog
www.gawker.com/artofspeed Blog 'chart'
www.blogdex.net Blog search engine www.technorati.com
US-oriented PR site