Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Web 2.0 Wake-Up Call: New Communications Review

Editor McClure Reveals Online Missteps to Avoid, Six Tips for Web-Savvy PR—and Tech Trends to Watch in 2007

This week's spotlight: Jennifer McClure, Executive Director, Society for New Communications Research

"The blogosphere gives customers a direct voice about their ongoing experiences with brands," says Jennifer McClure, executive director of the Society for New Communications Research, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the study of new communications tools, technologies and emerging modes of communication and their effect on media, professional communications, business and society.

"Because of this, blogs provide educative input tools to brands and the organizations behind them," continues McClure, who is also editor of New Communications Review, and whose annual new media conference is now in its third year. Translation: "Web 2.0 and the participatory era of communications represent the biggest opportunity PR has ever had to put itself at the hub of the organization," McClure believes.

For example: "Suppose you see a damaging post about your company in a blog," she illustrates. "These days, you take that to senior management and say, ‘Here's a problem with our IT support, brand or [whatever the issue was]. We must do something about this. We must act on it.' This goes beyond just blog relations. It goes to the core of PR being at the table with other executives and helping to drive behavior, not just communicate it. This is a revolutionary change."

Here's why: "Over the last 20 years, PR has been primarily about media relations. As an industry, we've forgotten that PR doesn't stand for ‘press release.' It means public relations. That means assessing, establishing and counseling companies on how to have good relationships with constituencies. As an industry we have forgotten about that. We've gotten away with it—but not any more," cautions McClure. "Web 2.0 changes everything."

Her advice for keeping pace begins here:

What is the first step for a PR person who wants to take advantage of these opportunities?

First, you must know what's being said about you—you have to listen to the conversation. It's as easy as going to Technorati and searching for blog posts with your company name or brand mentioned in them. Use the search windows with quote marks like you would any other search. What will come up will be a list of all blogs that link to you or write about you.

For those who want to become more engaged, there are tools like Cymfony, BuzzMetrics and Biz360. They're all good. But Technorati is free. And it certainly can be eye-opening. It gives you a bird's-eye view of the tone and volume of comments about you in the blogosphere. It's a brief snapshot of the online conversations about you.

How do you engage with the conversation about you once you find it?

A good place to start is to look at your culture honestly. We have found that companies that don't have an open internal culture also won't be ready to open up online. So assess where you are with transparency before launching any kind of social media program. You can go back to the agreement the company makes with employees from the start about what they can and can't say. It's a good indicator of whether your culture can sustain the openness and transparency required to engage or participate in Web 2.0.

Let's assume the company has a culture of transparency—what then?

From there, engaging online really goes back to the best practices in PR. In the case of spotting a negative post about you, it's the same as dealing with a negative article. Your fist step should be to determine whether it's true. If it is, you need to figure out what steps your organization must take to correct it—and that goes to the idea of internal communications and having a seat at the table. If you have that seat at the table, you can help determine corrective action.

At that point, you can go back to the blogger and say, "I really appreciate what you said about our company because it alerted us to a situation we need to address. And here's what we're doing." That's what bloggers want. They want to be heard, and they want some kind of action.

What if the post is not true?

Your first step should then be to find the facts and then to relay them to the blogger via email or in the comments fields. You need to say, in a gentle tone, "I'd like to have an opportunity talk with you about this post and why you believe it. I'd also like to provide some information that will help you fact check what you have written."

Also, let the blogger know that he's committing journalism and that there are certain best practices that go along with that. Blogging codes of ethics reflect journalism codes pretty closely. For example, there is a code of blogging ethics available at Review that and consider linking to it in your email. The key is to do all of this in a way that is not combative.

What qualifies as being combative in responding to a post?

What doesn't work is finding some other communications vehicle to refute what you found. For example, don't issue a press release if you saw it on a blog. All that will do is incite the blogosphere. They'll pick up the release and use it to make fun of you.

How about issuing a cease-and-desist?

Don't do it. Two years ago, a guy with a blog started making furniture out of FedEx boxes and posting the photos on his blog. FedEx felt it was a problem because he was taking boxes from a location, and there wouldn't be any left for customers. But instead of contacting him and maybe offering boxes in what might have been a great brand-building campaign, they issued a cease-and-desist.

What was the upshot for Fed-Ex—how did that hurt the brand?

He posted the cease-and-desist on his blog. It got picked up by the blogosphere, with everybody saying, "Isn't FedEx horrible?" Then it got picked up by mainstream media. Then their stock price started to fall—for about six whole weeks.

So the lesson is to engage with bloggers one-on-one. Had FedEx contacted him and said, "We like the furniture. It's clever. But we're having a customer service problem. Can we work something out?"—they could have turned him into an evangelist. Instead, they turned him into a detractor. Also, by putting the issue in the hands of the legal department, they set him up as a defendant—and ultimately hurt the brand.

What is your parting advice for PR practitioners thinking of engaging in Web 2.0?

It goes back to remembering that PR's function is to foster positive relationships. To do that in the online world, PR still has a lot of work to do. And we must embrace our new roles. Specifically, this includes:

Learning to use new communications tools effectively. Every time I go to a PR event, I'm shocked that people don't know what Technorati is, how to record a podcast, how to do a blog, or how to record a video. We need to know how to set up and maintain these things. Otherwise, we'll lose them to other disciplines. There is a struggle today about where New Media should sit—whether it belongs to advertising, PR, marketing or outsourced tech agencies. Even if it gets outsourced, PR people still must understand this stuff internally.
Expanding the number of communicators in our organizations.
Empowering colleagues across all disciplines to have a voice by teaching them how to use these communications tools.
Giving up stringent control of the message and sole control of our relationships with media.
Allowing for relationships to develop organically and dynamically and robustly with all our audiences and across all levels of the organization.
Fundamentally changing the image of PR and re-educating our organizations, clients and our own industry about what the true role of PR is and always has been—that of relationship-building.
What's next in Web 2.0—what trends and developments must our readers watch?

Podcasts, video blogs, virtual societies—these are all things to watch in 2007. But ultimately, these are tactical tools of the trade. What we need to watch for strategically this year is the blending of traditional media with citizen journalism and social media using all of these tools. This is already happening in a big way. For example, The New York Times just added Digg and other social media tools to its offerings. Time magazine added some blogs. And BBC used citizen journalism pictures in its coverage of the tsunami and London bombings. You'll see a lot more of this in the year ahead.

That's why these things must be taken seriously. It's not amateur hour anymore. It will all converge this next year. What's said online is important—if you don't engage in these conversations, you will lose the leverage you have with partners, competitors, media, analysts—and customers.

Brian Pittman (

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