Corporate Blogging

Shel Israel and Robert Scoble, in their book Naked Conversations: How Blogs are Changing the Way Businesses Talk with Customers, state that every company, from the small-town plumber to the multinational corporation can benefit from blogging. They argue that by ignoring the blogosphere, a company risks missing out on important conversations about what customers and competitors are saying about it. Moreover, it is foregoing the chance to enter into that conversation to help set the record straight if something inaccurate has been posted or printed somewhere or to give the company a more human face. For Israel and Scoble, both company executives and public relations professionals are missing out on an opportunity to get closer to the people who make a difference to them.

I agree that PR professionals should be jumping onto the blogging bandwagon. However, blogs are a new and still evolving tool for many companies, and represent a new set of challenges in terms of tone, timing, and commitment.

Toby Bloomberg had it right when he said in Naked Conversations that blogs should be viewed as yet another tool in the PR professional’s kit that have their purpose, just as the more traditional tools have theirs. Israel and Scoble are too quick to assume that other PR methods are already obsolete. The Project for Excellence in Journalism’s 2007 State of the News Media found that niche publications and even newspapers as a whole are still not fully plugged into the Ineternet, in that they are still finding out how to effectively use the medium. To assume that a traditional press release will no longer get a company’s message out effectively is to assume that newspapers no longer matter and that all reporters are taking part in the blogging conversations. As with any PR effort, those who use blogs need to ensure that they match the message – and the channel by which that message is sent – to the audience.

Clearly, for some companies a blog would be well received. However, encouraging a company with limited resources to spend the time and effort required to maintain a blog when the company culture or targeted market sector does not mesh well with this mode of communication may not be a sound business strategy to pursue, as Scoble and Israel themselves point out. Computer companies, such as Microsoft, for example, are ideal candidates for blogging; their audiences, from shareholders to customers, are more likely than, say, John Deere’s or the plumber’s Scoble and Israel are still looking for, to keep up with relevant blogs. 

The same aversion blog audiences have to spin and company-produced hype holds true for inappropriate use or participation in a blog, where attempts to spin or market a product or company in a medium that shuns that type of behavior could backfire. Therefore, companies must be up front not only with the tone of the blog, but also with the fact that they are actually participating in a blog in the first place. Blog readers are likely to pick up on slick PR or corporate messages, and if poorly handled – as was the case for Sony, WalMart, McDonald’s, and Whole Foods – the effort could result in a PR nightmare. In each of these cases, the executive – as with Whole Foods CEO John Mackey – or the PR firm – as was the case (ironically) with Edleman’s handling of the WalMart incident – hid their identity when blogging or participating in chat lines. Just as with a press release or any other PR tool, being truthful is paramount. Here, Shel Israel’s comment that blogs are credible, press releases are not, rings hollow.

Another concern many companies may have is determining how to measure the effectiveness of their blog? Does the blog actually bring in more business? Scoble and Israel argue that the Microsoft blog had an impact on the public’s perception of the company, but did that result in more sales? What metrics do you use to tie a blog to a company’s success or failure?

The learning curve for many in the PR profession and for many company executives will be steep. But if they can master this technology, it can be a powerful tool in communicating with – not to – their various audiences. The questions remain, however, concerning what the next big change in technology will bring. At this stage, as technology evolves so quickly, how soon before blogs are replaced with more interactive multimedia tools? Will a text-only blog seem outdated and passé, forcing companies to post videos of their executives chatting with their customers?

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