Every time I want to dismiss or ignore the impact of blogs on the public relations industry, I’m reminded of their power. A recent example occurred as I was talking to the head of investor relations for a Fortune 500 company. “My biggest problem right now is dealing with these [expletive] bloggers,” the IR chief said. “The amount of false information and mindless bashing masquerading as commentary is dizzying.”
This investor relations exec said that over the past year, the amount of phone calls from investors and analysts he’s gotten about negative blog attention has increased nearly two-fold.
“I thought it was bad when everyone was reading stock message boards, but now people are pretending to be journalists with these blogs, and that gets investors even more riled up,” he said.
Fortune 500 companies are not alone in feeling that blogs are the biggest threat to not just their reputations, but their stock prices.
Forbes featured a cover story with the headline “Attack of the Blogs!” as well as cheery subheads “They Destroy Brands and Wreck Lives” and “Is There Any Way To Fight Back?” (You can read the article at http://www.forbes.com/forbes/2005/1114/128_print.html.)
“Blogs started a few years ago as a simple way for people to keep online diaries,” Forbes‘ Daniel Lyons writes. “Suddenly they are the ultimate vehicle for brand-bashing, personal attacks, political extremism, and smear campaigns. It’s not easy to fight back: Often a bashing victim can’t even figure out who his attacker is. No target is too mighty, or too obscure, for this new and virulent strain of oratory. Microsoft has been hammered by bloggers; so have CBS, CNN and ABC News, two research boutiques that criticized IBM’s Notes software, the maker of Kryptonite bike locks, a Virginia congressman outed as a homosexual and dozens of other victims — even a right-wing blogger who dared defend a blog-mob scapegoat.”
Lyons’ article, not surprisingly, touched off a firestorm among bloggers, many of whom suggested that the scribe is reading too much into a few isolated incidents. Besides, some argue, there’s really not a big difference between blogs and the mainstream media. But as Lyons points out, “the combination of massive reach and legal invulnerability makes corporate character assassination easy to carry out.”
I know all too well what it’s like to be on the blogging side of the fence, and I carried out some pretty good corporate character assassinations myself. When I operated the DotcomScoop.com website, I routinely posted internal documents from companies such as Intel and Sprint. I also wrote hundreds of stories without ever contacting company representatives. I rarely had anyone from a company dispute a story, but to this day, I still have a copy of an email that the CEO of a Fortune 500 company sent me regarding one of my stories. His words serve as an important reminder:
“I’m not going to suggest that you didn’t get your facts straight, but had you called us to discuss the matter, you would not have made a fool of yourself by commenting on issues that you clearly don’t understand.”
In one respect, the CEO was correct. I should have contacted the company and obtained their side of the story. If nothing else, I would have understood the issues better, and as he said, not made a fool of myself. By the same token, I was being shut out of the info loop by public relations pros because I wasn’t a “credentialed member of the media.” (This eventually changed when I began writing for a newspaper.) Luckily, for today’s bloggers, times have changed, as public relations departments now routinely interact with the blogopshere. Of course, bloggers generally don’t like public relations departments. So what are we to do?
The public relations industry must engage in bloggers in a spin-free dialogue, and more importantly use the resources at their disposal proactively to protect the interests of their clients or company. Microsoft, with over 2,000 employee-written blogs, is doing a very good job of this, as are outfits like Macromedia. Blog monitoring, more than anything else, is the key to brand protection.
No longer can you rely on newspaper and magazine clippings; public relations departments need to closely monitor blogs for what is being said about their company or clients, true or false. Hand-in-hand with this monitoring, public relations departments must foster relationships with bloggers, even the ones who quite obviously detest your company or clients. Correct bloggers when they’re wrong, and congratulate them when they’re correct. Ignoring them won’t do you any good; increasingly, bloggers are controlling brands online.
At this point, if I were working in the public relations department of a major company or dealing with a big client, I would suggest setting up a corporate communications blog. This blog would be designed to address stories that appear in the mainstream media and on blogs. If the stories contain false information, or uninformed commentary, I would have no trouble pointing this out. More important, I would downshift out of “flack mode” and address bloggers in the same manner as if we were sitting at the dinner table. The biggest problem in public relations today is that PR flacks still speak like, well, PR flacks, and consumers and bloggers are too smart these days to fall for a well-crafted statement with little real meaning.
One of the suggestions made in the Forbes story is that targets of blogger attacks essentially turn the tables on bloggers by launching offensives designed to discredit critics. Taken too far, this strategy can infringe on civil liberties and get a company into plenty of trouble. However, if used correctly and legally, this strategy can bear fruit.
I have a feeling that the Forbes story might have signaled a “gloves are off” attitude towards bloggers in certain circles, and this will be a positive for the public relations industry. I know that myself, and others, have probably given public relations professionals the impression that they should be scared of blogs. I don’t think they should be.
The public relations industry should embrace bloggers, battle them when necessary, and co-opt the whole idea to the point that blogs are not a phenomenon or a source of stress. Blogs should eventually be seen as just another medium where some people write the truth, and some people obviously have motives to do harm.
This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.