Weber Shandwick evidently thinks so. It hired the ex-head of Bite Communications' interactive division, James Warren, last week to spearhead the launch of a 'web relations' arm (PRWeek, 24 February 2005).
WS's move is hardly pioneering. Most big agencies now employ a blogging expert, giving clients a handle on how blogs affect their reputation.
According to Europe technology MD Michelle McGlocklin, the division was created to cover a huge increase in demand for online services from consumer and healthcare clients. This suggests that blogging and other online activity can be used as effective channels for mainstream business, and are not the preserve of tech-savvy youth.
That said, it was 16-year-old blogger Laurie Pycroft who organised the demonstration against animal rights activists in Oxford last week. His campaign, Pro-Test, saw more than 500 people take to the streets in defence of Oxford University.
Inexpensive and immediate, blogs are often heralded as a revolutionary medium. But even Neville Hobson, an independent consultant on blogging and podcasting, admits: 'Blogs are still unknown to about 80 per cent of the population, and it is natural to assume that for products whose markets are in the millions, the opinions of a few hundred or thousand people on a blog are not that important.'
However, the blogging population is growing all the time, and many stories have broken on blogs before filtering through to the mainstream media. 'Once a story is on a blog, keeping a lid on it is impossible,' says Hobson.
WS's McGlocklin notes: 'People often do their research on the internet before buying products, so citizen journalism can have a direct influence on purchasing patterns.'
Justin Hayward, an associate director in Ogilvy PR Worldwide's corporate and technology practice, argues that blogs are more 'neutral' than traditional media. 'In print, if someone publishes something you disagree with, your only recourse is to appeal to the editor for a correction or a letter,' he says. 'In the blogosphere, you can post your thoughts immediately.'
For this reason, blogs can be a source of concern, says Hobson: 'They can be seen as disruptive. The model of having an approved press release sent to those on a regulated press list is being challenged.'
But PROs should never forget that bloggers can be reached via traditional public relations tools. As McGlocklin points out: 'Once we have identified key bloggers we treat them as elites.
We give them access to company executives and products, and invite them to press briefings.'
Even a less proactive monitoring of blogs can be useful, argues Echo Research CEO Sandra Macleod. 'Blogs are a good source of honest feedback. You can monitor constant, instant reaction, in a way you cannot with traditional market research,' she says.
But Orlando Plunket Greene, V-P of expert services at online research agency Infonic, says: 'Finding content is easy, but you need to assess what's important and work out which [bloggers] will talk about your client and their industry.'
Contributions to blogs should be considered with caution. If handled badly, responding can do more harm than good. Hayward says: 'I advise clients to think carefully about how to engage bloggers.'
Some would suggest that putting the client's case on its own website is an apt response, rather than wading into a debate with the company line.
The biggest faux pas is an anonymous posting on a company's behalf. Plunket Greene says: 'Blogging can be sensitive – there are lots of social rules online of which some PROs are unaware. Stealth bloggers always get caught, and it is hugely embarrassing.'
Launching a company blog can be useful, but is a bandwagon that certain organisations should avoid. 'Some firms come to us not really knowing what blogs are. It depends on the brand – sometimes blogging doesn't fit. For funky consumer brands, it can be
ideal,' adds Plunket Greene.
As well as ensuring the blog is not 'cheesy', devoting the time to keep the blog fresh is crucial, says McGlocklin: 'The biggest mistake is to not keep new content coming.'
A lot of companies encourage staff to blog. Yahoo! influencer relations manager Ged Carroll says staff, and not marketers, make the best bloggers: 'Their enthusiasm comes through in their writing, resulting in more powerful and effective communications.'
However, there must be boundaries: 'The first step is to work with PROs and HR to give employees commonsense guidelines,' explains Carroll. 'Then get out there and tell your story.'