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?

PR, Bloggers and Teeth

Should PR people read blogs? Or more specifically, should PR people read the blogs of those people they’re pitching? Or, more specifically, should PR people read the blogs of people they’re pitching and take personal events, comments and references into account when they’re making their pitch? Answers to the first two questions are pretty obvious, but I’m not so sure about the third one. The issue has come to the fore with Microsoft mega-blogger Robert Scoble, who has written about the sudden and serious illness of his mother on his blog. But he’s still getting pitched by PR companies:

It’s amazing how many product pitches I’ve received in the past few days. Even in phone calls. Do they not read my blog? Do they have no clue what’s happened in my life in the past five days?

Apparently not.

The discussion in the comments that follows is interesting, and revealing, as is this interview with PR giant Richard Edelman. I have great sympathy for Robert, but this episode inadvertently raises all sorts of questions — about blogging, about PR, about the community that builds at the intersection of blogs, comments on blogs, and the conferences that bring such people together. I’m not going to pass comment on Robert’s choices but here, for what they’re worth, are some thoughts about this grey area:

Having a blog:

  • A blog is a great way to share, but unless it’s password-protected, you’re sharing with everyone, forever. That means opening up your life to some great people, but it also means you’re opening up to the whacko across the street with a gun. Be ready to share with people you may not want to share with. Because you already are.
  • Conversely, it’s fine to be personal on your blog, but unless your blog is entirely about your personal odyssey, don’t expect everyone who reads it to relate to or deal with you on all the levels you write on. Some people may have enough friends already, and just be interested in your professional comments on how to put ships in bottles.

Being a PR person pitching a blogger:

  • Pitches should never be made by phone without an email requesting a chat first. Phone calls are no longer as acceptable as they were; they are now as intrusive as a foot in the door.
  • PR people should find out if their mark has a blog, and if so, read it. For background, and to make sure the person is not on holiday or in the middle of a gender-change. It’s good to include some reference in the pitch to the fact that the blog has been read but there’s really no need to be smarmy. (“I’m a huge fan of your blog since before you started writing it and your post about how spammers are really annoying was just so spot on I had it tatooed in its entirety on my children’s foreheads.”)
  • A PR/journalist relationship can be as close as lips and teeth, but teeth can bite, and should. (The teeth is the journalist. Please keep up.) A journalist will always, if not today then at some point in the future, write something the PR person doesn’t like about their client, and the PR person needs to be ready for that. So should the journalist. The two can be best buddies, but I find that makes it harder to do one’s job, and be seen to be doing one’s job as a journalist al dente.  So I keep my personal distance. That’s just me. I think it was the BBC’s John Simpson who quoted someone as saying that people should always feel a journalist at the table was a menacing presence. As a journalist you’re not there for the people you’re dining with, you’re there for your readers/viewers.
  • If that’s true of journalists, then I can’t see any reason why it shouldn’t also be true of anyone being pitched. The pitchee — whether blogger, opinion shaper, or journalist — represents an opportunity for PR to get their word out. So anyone accepting pitches should have teeth. And be prepared to use them.
  • If you have teeth, you can’t expect — indeed, you wouldn’t want — PR to take your personal life into account. They can be nice about it, but it shouldn’t affect their pitch, and whether they’re nice about it or not, it shouldn’t affect your likelihood to bite. After all, you’re both supposedly on office time, and office rules apply. It doesn’t mean not sharing your personal life, but it means either being ready to have people say “sorry to hear about your cat’s demise, would you be interested in reviewing our new kitty litter?” or leaving out those parts of your life from your blog that may muddy this relationship.

Robert’s overall experience as a mega-blogger is an interesting one in itself, and should be studied in much greater detail. There’s a transparency there that is refreshing and I believe it has influenced the direction of technology blogging, PR, journalism and the whole environment in which technology has evolved. That’s quite a powerful contribution. But I feel we’re still tweaking the edges of this intersection and, perhaps as with many other parts of this new world, we may find the lessons of the old world still apply.