Has PR Taken Over The Conversation?

Here’s the hot news for a Monday: PR firm Edelman has teamed up with Technorati to develop localized versions of their offering in German, Korean, Italian, French and Chinese. Edelman’s PR teams worldwide will retain exclusive use of these sites as they are being developed, beginning with French this summer. These localized versions – which will include keyword/tag search and more – will evolve into more robust public-facing sites that everyone will be able to access beginning in the first quarter of next year.

Interesting. And, I have to say, puzzling. What is a PR firm doing developing content for what is basically a blog search engine? (I’m sure both companies consider themselves more than that, but strip it away and that’s what you’re left with.) Here’s to me what is the kicker, from Steve Rubel’s blog (Steve now works at Edelman):

This is the first in what we hope will be a series of collaborations with the Technorati team. It is designed to help our clients participate in global conversations. In addition to working with Technorati, we also plan to align ourselves with other companies that are developing outstanding technologies that will help us further this important goal. We look forward to hearing your reaction and ideas.

Now, I’m trying to think this through. Edelman’s interest is in promoting its clients. Fair enough. Technorati would be a great place to do that through advertising. But are there not conflicts of interest, and if so, where and when do they arise? What happens if blogs critical of Edelman’s clients start appearing on Technorati? How do readers know that the rankings are not being tweaked to hide such blogs lower down the search results? How do we know that faux blogs or PR-sponsored material is not finding its way up the rankings, or that the material being translated on these non-English Technorati sites is being developed in-house, so to speak?

I guess I worry too much. Perhaps this is all good stuff, a merging of minds intent on the same transparent goal: better information for all. But some of this new blogosphere world is starting to sometimes sound like a parody of itself; of a court full of people spouting all the right buzzwords, but lacking a lot of their original meaning or sincerity. Or maybe I misunderstood it all in the first place. Technorati man Peter Hirshberg, for example, writes about the Edelman/Technorati deal thus:

With the incredible growth of the blogosphere, brands and media companies worldwide realize that their communications environment is also in for big changes. The clout that bloggers have developed the U.S. is going global. The lessons that marketers have begun to learn here— get a clue, listen, participate, engage— will soon apply everywhere.

Yes, it’s true that the blogosphere is big and going global. Well, it already has gone global. And it’s true that a lot of marketers still need to get a clue. But does it mean that a PR firm takes what sounds to me like a board-like, potentially gate-keeping position in one of the key starting points for anyone looking for information in the blogosphere?

I’m no staunch fan of traditional media. But it spent decades, centuries even, building Chinese walls between the marketing and the editorial departments (and, in some cases, between the opinion pages and the news gathering pages.) This was so that what you read wasn’t influenced (or unduly influenced) by the guy paying the bills, whether it was the proprietor or the advertisers. It didn’t always work. At some places it never worked. But you kind of knew where, as a reader, you stood. For sure, we’re all struggling to find this new balance in the blogosphere, and there’s no reason it needs to look anything like the old model. But we should be talking about it, not just gushing about it, just because everyone is using the same satchel of buzzwords.

Perhaps the key to all this lies in Richard Edelman’s blog. He goes into greater detail about the deal, and it’s clear he’s focusing on the analytics side of Technorati — it’s phenomenal ability to track the blogosphere, not merely in terms of users, but in terms of what they’re talking about. This is a goldmine for marketing folk, of course, and having a global presence Edelman is going to love to get its hands on the analytics of Korean and Chinese blogs — a relatively unknown territory to anyone who doesn’t read those languages. There’s lots in there for them, as there is in the idea that “every company can be a media company”, although I think this one, too, needs a bit more analysis.

But the key is in the last two goals Richard mentions: “make PR people valued contributors to the discussion, not the often-reviled spinmeister or hype artist lampooned in the media.” This means, at best, PR becoming more honest and factual in their presentation of information, rather than spin. At worst, it means that the average user will increasingly find it hard to sift between what is PR and what is objective, impartial commentary. For every independent blog there will be a spin blog, or a blog that might be independent on 99 subjects but one. After a while, you’ll forget which one, and that’s when the message finds its way through.

The fourth goal Richard mentions is this: “we are certain that this tool will be useful to brand marketers and corporate reputation experts alike. Look at the corporate reputation benefits for Microsoft, GM and Boeing, all three getting praised for new openness as they initiate blogs such as Scobelizer or Randy’s Journal.” What I think this means is that companies are getting praise for setting up blogs  — although one should distinguish between Scoble and Boeing, I fear; one was a guy and a laptop, carving something out of nothing; the other was a major initiative using hired help. Richard concludes: “For brands, the blogosphere will be a unique way to solicit expert opinion, to mobilize the base of enthusiasts and to monitor worldwide trends (avian flu if you are KFC). A globalized world needs global tools and analysis.” Several different issues at play here, not all of them compatible. “Solicit expert opinion”. Does that mean listen to the bloggers who know what they’re talking about, before it becomes a big mess, a la Kryptonite? Or is “mobilize the base of enthusiasts” put out the word to people who understand its importance, or mobilize as in pass around freebies to key bloggers in the hope they’ll say nice things about your product?

Many bloggers, I believe, do a great job, even a better job than journalists in their transparency and sourcing. But that doesn’t mean the genre is settled and invulnerable to manipulation. Perhaps we’ve already hit the intersection where these potentially conflicting interests collide and merge into something new. If so, what is it? PR was invited to the conversation; they may well be the smartest people in the room, and, while old media was wringing its hands, they may have already taken the conversation over. If so, what was the topic again?

Bookselling And The Internet

Spent an interesting couple of hours with an online bookseller yesterday researching an upcoming column about selling over the Internet. Ian Bruce works out of a disused British Telecom phone exchange, a long narrow building with only one window nestled between the sandstone houses favoured by Britain’s new ruralized yuppies in the quaint English countryside.

I learned a lot about how the Internet has changed the booktrade of which I was once a small part. In particular, how Amazon is, with its Marketplace, doing the same to the second-hand trade as it did to new books. Now booksellers sell popular books for 1 pence (a couple of U.S. cents) and make their profit on the Amazon allowance for postage, which is about $5 in the UK. This of course squeezes the smaller booksellers out of the game, since they can’t exist on that kind of margin. “The thought of trying to make a livable wage on less than one pound is ludicrous,” Ian tells me.

The market, he says, is quickly maturing, pushing more and more small sellers out of business: “The market in the U.S. has developed to maturity and people are pricing to the absolute margin,” he says. “This will eventually happen in the UK too and for that reason it’s absolutely absurd to stock any popular book.” The result: Booksellers like him are furiously weeding out any book they might recognise and holding on only to those books that have some sort of rarity value. “My rule of thumb is, if I haven’t heard of the title or author, then I might be interested.”

This is a grim view of the bookselling world, although it hasn’t quite imploded. My local bookshop, Kingsthorpe Bookshop, is still going, but the proprietor is threatening retirement soon. Hay on Wye, a mecca for bookworms, still hosts dozens of small bookshops which all seemed to be surviving when I visited them a few weeks back. But while books are an odd commodity — what other business requires you to stock a selection of thousands of single units only, year in year out? — the Internet is removing the last few kinks from the market, and it will only be a matter of time before copies of every book ever published can be hunted down at the click of a mouse.

The likely result is that folk like Ian won’t have much business. Sitting on stock won’t be worthwhile, but neither will the skill of matching customer requests with books be much of a skill either. The trick may end up finding those books that are commanding high prices in the short interval before everyone else digs up more copies and pulls the price down. “You look for the unpopular books,” says Ian, “that there will be someone — some man in Brazil, perhaps — may be looking for.”