12:49 PM

[Guest Column] PR Perspectives: Blogging--Look, think before you leap

[Here is a guest column/blog post)

By G.A. “Andy” Marken President Marken Communications Inc.

Take a look at the raw numbers and blogs are impressive. Imagine being able to reach, inform and influence millions of people around the globe. It looks like the ultimate in 1:1 corporate and marketing communications opportunity. A public tool tailor made for your organization.

According to Pew/Internet:

· 7% of the 120 million U.S. adults using the Internet have created a blog or web-based diary…8 million people!!

· 27% of the internet users read blogs

· the top 400 blogs reach 50 million people

Now extend those numbers and the current growth projections blog readership’s increase of 58% annually -- across the total global Internet and it is no reason companies are adding this valuable tool to their internal and external stakeholder efforts.

Service providers (especially PR people) are quick to point out that it is important that the company become involved because employees are already there. For example, HP has more than 2,500. Microsoft has more than 3,000. IBM has more than 4,500. Proctor & Gamble…Coca-Cola…Pfizer…Dell…firms large and small have blogs being written by employees.

Taken at face value, all of this is true. But blogging didn’t grow to its current position for business to consumer or business to business communications. And it isn’t its primary application.

Blogging has some potential and it has some pitfalls. It shouldn’t be jumped into just because it is the new communications/marketing tool in town.

Why Blog

Pew Internet has done an outstanding job of researching, documenting and reporting on all aspects of the growing Internet world.

Recent studies by Technorati and AOL’s digital marketing services highlighted the primary reasons people blog:

· establish themselves as authorities

· therapy

· creating a record of one’s thoughts

· keeping in touch with friends, family

A growing number of bloggers are even struggling to establish themselves as “legitimate” media outlets and as true journalists. A few bloggers have been recognized as members of the White House press corps.

Increasingly events and trade shows are trying to evaluate blogs, which bloggers should receive press credentials and which are simply…well bloggers. Some do seriously cover industries and product categories. Other individuals simply want to be recognized as an authority, want to improve their writing skills or hope to generate an income in the blogosphere.

The Silent Club

While we personally disagree with the position that many bloggers take especially the casual blogger that they are true citizen journalists, the truth is that blogging has gone mainstream. It has developed a strong following and a growing list of “victories.”

Political blogs are credited with the fall of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott on his laudatory remarks at a party for Senator Strom Thurmond. Blogs noted that Thurmond was a supporter of white supremacy and Lott had a long history of racist remarks. In the end the blog furor was instrumental in Lott’s resignation as Senate Majority Leader.

Blogs were instrumental in soiling the otherwise outstanding 30-year journalism career of CBS newsman Dan Rather. Conservative bloggers built a case around what they asserted were forged memos used in a 60 Minutes segment. The “evidence” was so overwhelming that CBS was forced to deal with the issue and issue an apology regarding the poor research and reporting. Two months later Rather announced he was stepping down as CBS anchor.

As we noted earlier, a growing number of corporate employees are posting official, semi-official and unofficial blogs about their work, their work environment and their company. Some of these efforts have been far from appreciated by management and have lead to reprimands and dismissals.

While most organizations agonize over providing employees the tools to blog about business activities without monitoring, it can be a cause for concern. Conversely it can be an opportunity for management to look at the situation more closely to see if there is in fact substance behind the blogger’s statements and position.

To help bloggers protect themselves from personal and professional action, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has established an excellent set of guidelines to help bloggers produce their expressions freely.

Bloggers should study the recommendations www.eff.org/bloggers before they begin their blogging activities. At the same time, corporate management should study the guidelines to gain a better understanding of the pros and cons as well as strengths and weaknesses of employee and management blogs.

Blog Monitoring

While only a few corporate executives have their own blogs, most have said they would probably initiate one in the next two-three years. They noted it was a quick way of communicating ideas and news to corporate stakeholders as well as a more open means of communicating with all interested parties.

One executive at a recent online communications conference noted that management’s hesitation about blog-equipping employees was much like the early discussions of whether or not to equip employees with email accounts. He noted that in today’s Internet environment management can no longer control and “manage” the message because everyone was a spokesperson.

If it exists and can’t be managed then it is vital that management monitor and understand blogs and the blogging activities that are going on today. As you would expect, there are a growing number of analytical services being introduced that have been developed specifically to monitor the blogosphere.

Next Step

While marketing people are eager to step into the next new thing of communications, it is interesting that bloggers rarely hear from corporate management or public relations representatives.

Perhaps this is because they haven’t spent time studying the growth and influence of the blogosphere. Or could it be that as long as the reporting is favorable, they feel it is better to leave the individual blogger alone. Or perhaps when there are negative comments it is best to ignore or play down the importance/influence of the statements.

None of these positions are correct.

If the blogger is supportive of the company, its positions and its products; management should nurture the relationship and feed the blogger releasable news, information and insights.

If the blog is negative about the company, its policies or its procedures the information should be brought to management’s attention. If the facts support the position then corrective actions need to be taken. If they are erroneous then facts should be presented to the blogger offline to at least nullify the situation or at best turn the blog positive.

Remember the statement of Mobutu, a ruler of Zairethe Congo; "keep your friends close but your enemies closer." Unlike his approach he reportedly lived next to a cemetery once you identify the negative or anti-company/product bloggers you can do something about it.

While it may be uncomfortable, it is best to address the situation head-on and correct the situation to management’s/ the blogger’s satisfaction if at all possible. Keep in mind that the blogger is more credible with blog readers than your barrage of news releases, your corporate blog or our web site.

Information on the Internet never dies…it lives on forever. In many instances hoaxes, legends, scurrilous rumors and negative campaigns go through dormant and hyperactive cycles.

The first step in the process is to know the activity is going on. Then determine if it is in your best interest to directly and aggressively confront the situation, seek out friendly third parties to attack the position or if necessary take legal action.

Each instance requires thorough research, careful analysis and then an action plan. There is no pat answer. No one right way.

Look Before You Leap

The Blogosphere shows tremendous opportunities for organizations of all sizes to reach out and inform, education and persuade business partners and consumers. But it is not for the faint of heart. It is not weak management/companies/products. It is not something that can be tried for a few months and abandon.

There is nothing worse than going to a web site that hasn’t been refreshed with some type of news, information, product or service in the past 2-3 weeks. Worse are the sites that have been neglected for months and years. It is a wasted opportunity and tool.

Blogs that haven’t had an input to them in the past week are just as bad, perhaps worse. Management should look at their blogging activities as a long term communications effort with their stakeholders not something that should be tried for a few months and then abandon when the newness and “fun” wears off.

Corporate blogs internal and external represent an excellent way for management to directly and immediately explain the company’s direction, plans and position on subjects to thousands of individuals on a 1:1 basis.

But this doesn’t mean that you should immediately initiate one or more blogs. Before embarrassing yourself with a lackluster blog should sit on the sideline and monitor blogs for a few weeks and months. Management has to be professional enough and confident enough in his/her company/products to be open to both positive and negative responses. They have to be able honestly address issues.

Corporate blogs can give management unfiltered feedback on the company’s performance based on the customer’s view, not middle managers interpretation. It also provides management with a very inexpensive opportunity to explore new product, new service concepts.

Corporate blogs represent a tremendous opportunity for companies to build and reinforce the close relationship with customers that management and marketing experts have been talking about for years. But in every relationship the key to long term success is dependent upon continual measurement and management against established objectives.