Public Relations and Blogs

Jon Udell at Infoworld responded to some of my and fellow bloggers’ recent remarks on how PR people might try to take advantage of blogging to benefit their clients.

In general, I think Udell is too magnanimous toward PR people, almost naive. While acknowledging that they (“we,” I’m aftraid) may be hired to ghost-write “an executive’s or architect’s blog” to make them and/or their firms look good, he says this won’t go too far, as the connection between bloggers and their readers are founded on a deep authenticity that is “hard to fake.” I don’t know about that last part. I have seen some PR people who can fake just about anything (it’ll all be in my book).

Once we have people who command a large audience (“transmitters”), we have PR people fluttering like moths around a light bulb. I would be very surprised if the mega-bloggers do not begin to get “pitched” blog ideas from PR hawkers (posing as dedicated fans who “want to share an idea” with them). We have already seen how Dr Pepper plans to create a “blogging network” to help hype its new product. Blogs are a rich and untapped market, and there is no way PR people will be able to ignore them.

As Udell goes on to say, there really is a helpful, justified side to PR in terms of brokering and facilitating smooth connections, to the benefit of journalist and spokesperson alike.

My gripe with my own industry is how this legitimate role can be abused. For example, a PR guy in one of the multi-national mega-PR firms (not my company here in China) recently put out a company-wide email asking everyone in the firm to go to a website where a poll was being held on which Widget has the best features; there, we were told to “vote” for the client firm’s Widget. This raises a slew of ethical questions that this emailer apparently never considered: it’s ballot stuffing; it destroys any possibility of a credible poll; it’s not the PR person’s role to tamper like this; it’s utterly stupid — the email is red-hot evidence of dirty tricks, etc., etc. But this is how a PR person responds: Opportunity; exploit it at any cost. It’s Pavlovian. The Opportunity bell rings, the PR person salivates.

The PR person who acts as a true coach and mentor is the exception, though that’s not necessarily our fault. The bottom line is that clients’ measure our success generally by a single criterion, i.e., column inches or other “measurable results.” (Many of them have no interest in our service as coaches/mentors.) Is it any wonder that we’ll go to nearly any extreme to obtain them? And that driving force will, I am afraid, end up contaminating the blogosphere, at least to some extent. It’s just too irresistible. Someone has a captive audience of a quarter-million readers a week, then someone somewhere is brainstorming on how to subtly use that blogger to get their client’s message across, be it on political affairs/legislation, a product, a company, whatever. Very low-hanging fruit in the eye of the PR shark.

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