Blogs A Public Scourge

April 11, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — All public companies have one thing in common — they’re public.

As such, they are subject to far more scrutiny than private firms and their financial, personnel and product information is more readily available.

And they’re often targets of bloggers.

For online Americans, the Internet is a more important source of news and information than radio or newspapers, according to a recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which said fully 75 million Americans regularly use the Internet to gather political news and corporate information, debate issues via e-mail or participate directly in politics and business through volunteering or contributions.

“I think we’re seeing the wave of the future,” said John Helmholdt of Jones and Gavin LLC, a local public relations firm. “I think you’re going to see more and more corporations, businesses and nonprofits that are going to attempt to build these, mainly because it’s a rapid way to get your message out.”

While the new media has challenged public relations firms to evolve beyond traditional communications and into the vast electronic world of blogs, online newsletters, and public policy and media alerts, it also presents new dangers to clients’ images.

A year ago, “hate” sites and “suck” sites were the worst marketing attack the Internet had to offer. Online news sites are but a stealthier version of traditional media, and public relations firms have adapted to instant communications. When a crisis hits, one keystroke can deliver a response to all media, management teams, employees and community leaders, Helmholdt noted, within minutes of a story breaking.

Less easy to deal with is the Internet’s newer monster: blogs.

After implementing the downfall of CBS news anchor Dan Rather and CNN’s Eason Jordan, blogs have gained a reputation as headhunters.

“Those were situations where it spread so fast because one person caught something,” said North Star Public Relations CEO and President Dan Calabrese. “A whole bunch of other people joined in the discussion, and literally, within a day, they found themselves in meltdown crisis mode.”

Calabrese said much of this was because crisis communication templates were designed to work with traditional media.

“You’ve always had to move quickly,” he said. “Now you have to move even more quickly to get out ahead of it.”

In a February Wall Street Journal editorial, Peggy Noonan examined how blogs have changed American journalism. They have technological advantages, are passionate, free to the reader and cheap to produce, independent and influential. Critics say they are untrained and frenzied, but Noonan writes that, historically, so are the best journalists.

She believes the reason that blogs have gained such influence today is that they have consistently been right. When a high-profile blog story does prove false, blogs will likely lose some of their momentum.

If nothing else, Calabrese said, blogs have removed some credibility from mainstream media.

“It has always been sort of an assumption in the PR field that the reason you tried so hard to get media coverage is because there was credibility involved in it,” Calabrese said. “I don’t think that’s as true as it used to be and blogs have had a lot to do with that.”

Not only do they not have the overhead and restrictions of mainstream media, blogs are not subject to deadlines or relevance.

“Look at (Matt Drudge of the Drudge Report). If he has 12 words of information, that’s what he gives you,” Calabrese said. “He doesn’t have to worry about column inches and justifying it as news.”

Calabrese doesn’t believe public relations professionals will one day routinely pitch stories to blogs, as most exist primarily to promote an ideology or a field of interest.

“I do think that as blogs redefine how information is distributed, PR firms have to take a cue from that,” he said. “It’s not necessarily talking about generating news coverage anymore. You’re trying to get a message out, and in the old days you tried to do that through media coverage because that’s what was available.

“This is not so much a new medium for us to work with as an example to follow.”

Clare Wade of Clare Wade Communications has a client who is preparing to launch a blog.

“It adds more opportunity for people to communicate and engage one-on-one and with each other outside of the company,” Wade said.

Typically for communications from the CEO to shareholders or employees, they provide an informal feedback mechanism.

“People don’t feel as intimidated,” she said. “Because you feel like you’re talking one-on-one with the chairman of the company, there are no barriers like there would be if you tried to get down the hallway to his office. It puts everyone on the same level.”

If a company wishes to use a blog, Wade said, it is important to establish policies regarding the use of such a tool.

“You certainly don’t want any surprises,” she said. “People need to understand that if there is a blog being used internally at their place of business that they are still working and it is still a place of business.”

Companies should take special care to remember the lessons learned from the introduction of e-mail into the workplace, she said.

Structure Interactive Director of Creative Services Charlie McGrath believes such caution will limit the use of blogs as a marketing tool.

“We’re not going to see Steelcase letting some middle manager with a blog go on and on about the furniture industry,” McGrath said, “although it seems like a fantastic tool for internal communications. Human resources could announce new programs, holiday schedules.”

Externally, McGrath believes that corporations will mostly steer clear.

“Let’s be honest, corporations by nature are paranoid organizations,” he said. “And for good reason — they are constantly under attack by competitors, by the media and sometimes customers.”

But a blog, by nature, is about openness, honesty and candor, McGrath said, the direct opposite of most corporate communication strategies.

“I think it’s very unlikely that a corporation would be that upfront,” he said. “The lawyers would have a fit.”

Perhaps the best example is Apple Computer Inc.’s recent lawsuit against Apple Insider and PowerPage. Apple’s efforts to force the rumor sites to reveal the source of leaked product details has sparked a debate over the journalistic rights of bloggers.

But at the heart of the case is not just Apple rooting out a leak, according to a recent Silicon Valley Business Journal report. The information on the new product, the iPod mini, was on target except for one detail: the price. Apple blames the disappointing sales of the iPod mini — priced 25 percent higher than rumored — and subsequent stock fall on the blog report.

Interestingly, despite rampant excitement and media coverage, most people don’t even know what a blog is, much less read any of them.

In January, a Pew study reported that while blog readership was up 58 percent in 2004, only 38 percent of people know what a blog is. A study in March by CNN/USA Today/Gallup found similar results, with 56 percent of respondents having no knowledge of blogs whatsoever.    

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