22 January 2007

Glass half-full..? Half-empty..?

I read that today is supposed to be the most depressing day of the year. I’m generally an optimistic type though. Always look on the bright side…thing’s will turn out alright…everything happens for a reason…positive thinking…blah, blah, blah.

Having said that, when I think about the PR industry in 2007, I get a bit gloomy.

You see, last year we all got excited about this new world of social media and how it could be the chance for PR to step right to the forefront of communications; how it played to our strengths; how we were soon to topple those pesky flash Harry advertising types from their self-built pedestal. But it didn’t really happen, did it?

So here we are looking forward to another dull year of slogging away trying to generate same old same old press coverage in an ever-decreasing pool of traditional media and not really having a clue about how to interact with the new stuff.

This new world of blogging hasn’t really worked out as we’d have liked, has it? I mean, how many of you are being paid decent money by clients for advising them on their own blogging? Or helping to create content? OK, so you’ll be keeping an eye on the blogs that matter (if you can find them) to make sure you client’s not being slated, but that’s just a monitoring service.

Blogs should be our bag. We’d all love to be involved in clear, open, honest, transparent communication about the truly decent things that clients get up to. But therein lies the problem. Clients. They still want to have control over the message; total transparency isn’t really their thing, is it? And as we bang on about how anything but transparency doesn’t work in the blogosphere, the more they think, “well I’m not touching that with a bargepole, that wouldn’t work for us at all…” And even when they do decide to do it, they still want to retain control and you end up with an Edelman/Wal-Mart fiasco.

Here’s another problem that blogging has presented us with. Time was that you could make a bit of cash – even a few grand a month – pushing out rubbish press releases full of guff and spin just because the client wanted you too. The very worst that would happen is that they wouldn’t generate any coverage and you’d just have to roll out an excuse to the client…”got bumped by a bigger story”…”it was written by got edited out by a sub”…”needed a customer angle”…”feature got pulled”…or some other bull. Nowadays, if you try and shove something weak or inaccurate out there, it’s likely to get jumped all over by the blogosphere and torn apart…your reputation with it. The Porter Novelli/SpinVox thing being a little example of what can happen. There’s no hiding place.

In many ways, this should help. Agencies need to push back on their clients if the story just isn’t any good. It should raise the game. Thing is, a company that didn’t have any decent news before can’t just come up with some because you’ve given them a kick up the backside; they’re more likely to decide not to do it at all and stick their money into something they can control, like direct mail, or advertising.

One of the traditionally tricky things when selling PR to a client is the lack of guaranteed results, and the lack of control over those results. Hacks will interpret the story and put their own angle on it. But that’s PR’s power too…the third-party endorsement. You just need to convince the client that the risk/reward equation is worth it. With blogging, the balance gets skewed again. For many clients, it’s just too risky. But as blogs become more influential within key audiences, “traditional media” becomes less so, and clients start questioning the money they’re paying to get covered by it. Which is your PR budget.

This time last year many people felt that social media might be the thing to not only save PR, but to send it into the stratosphere. But maybe in 2007 we’ll be scrabbling around trying to hang on to the little we’ve already got?

As some bean-counter once said when asked if he was a glass half-empty or glass half-full type of man: “I’d get used to a smaller glass.”

Just make sure it's got enough Scotch in it.


Fiona Blamey said...

Lots to address here. Sure, people have been blogging for ten years, but it is only just now starting to gain the critical mass it needs to become a powerful and influential medium.

For PR, it is still ridiculously early days. Our clients have heard about blogging because they've read about it in the mainstream media. I don't know of a single client who keeps a blog, or who reads blogs on a regular basis. For now, all they know is that there is a quirky new medium, and it may be in their interest to keep an eye on it.

And for now, that is what we are advising our clients to do - keep an eye on it for a few months, work out the dynamics, see who's talking about what. Only when they're familiar with the landscape should they consider starting to join in the conversation - and that should only ever be done in an open, transparent, personal and honest manner, and only if it is in their clear interest to do so.

We haven't got to this stage yet with any of our clients, though. There's no point pretending we have. For now we are just monitoring and reporting (although yes, we are making a nice bit of money from that, thanks very much).

As far as I'm concerned, there's no advantage to being the first mover in 'blogger relations' - it's a whole new medium, with a whole new set of unwritten rules of engagement, and the first movers (e.g. Edelman) were bound to make very high profile mistakes.

I've been blogging for five years and I'm still not sure how PR is going to work in this environment. I don't think anyone is. But I'm starting to have an idea, and I'd rather wait until I'm convinced that this idea will be in our clients' best interests, than wade in all guns blazing simply because social media is this year's fashionable thing.

I'm also not convinced that as blogs become more influential, traditional media becomes less so. There's a *long* way to go before any amateur blog has a greater amount of influence over public opinion than the BBC, the FT, the Sun, Heat, the Economist... And with the mainstream media increasingly using blogs as a medium, the distinction between the two will eventually blur into insignificance, and this whole discussion will look dreadfully quaint.

....the world's leading.... said...

I see where you're coming from Fiona and a lot of what you say rings true.

For a company that's bang in the middle of tech PR, however, I wonder if you're a litle behind the game...or perhaps are being a touch conservative? When you say things like, "I don't know of a single client who keeps a blog, or who reads blogs on a regular basis" I'm very suprised, as I certainly do (on both counts).

But I think your approach makes some sense. I do think that more "traditional media" will use blogs and that these will blur that particular line, but then wasn't the power of social media meant to really come though user-generated content? After all, whether it's on paper or in a hack's blog, editorial is still filtered through that journalist and targeting is still esentially the same media relations it ever was.

The greater PR challenge comes from the potential influence of the blogging individual (for instance - though it pains me to say it - a Scoble) and the sheer speed that issues can escalate...issues that might have arisen through no direct action on your client's part.

All good stuff though.

Fiona Blamey said...

I don't know if it's anything to do with where in the 'game' we are as an agency, but I can still honestly say that I don't know of a single one of my clients - all PR and marketing people in the tech industry - who reads blogs, let alone keeps one.

Perhaps because our clients are more niche and B2B-focused than e.g. MS, Dell and Apple, I've also never yet seen an issue raised by a blogger that has gone on to become a PR problem for any of our clients. That certainly doesn't mean it won't ever happen, though, and if and when it does, we've got the monitoring systems and processes in place to catch it and respond to it early.

Convincing clients they need to invest part of their limited budget in an early-warning system for something that hasn't happened yet - or to get coverage in a blog whose audience is tiny even in comparison with the lowliest trade mag - isn't the easiest of tasks, although there are of course strong arguments for doing both. But as blogs continue to push into the mainstream and become more widely read, it should become commonplace for clients to want to engage with them.

So no, it didn't really happen last year, and it might not even really happen this year, but eventually it will really happen.

Andrew Smith said...

I think there are some more fundamental issues re: PR rather than just whether blogging is the future.

Since the dawn of time, clients have always said that the key thing they want from an agency is originality and creativity.

But how often to you come up with original and creative solutions and the client asks: "But how do you know this is going to work? What guarantees can you give me?"

Here's the thing - if its original, it has never been done before - so you've no idea whether it will work or not.

Its called taking a risk. And profit is the reward for risk. Part of the issue is that that clients increasingly want the agency to shoulder all the risk and to keep all the upside reward for themselves.

On the other side, agencies need to take some risks too ie try out a load of things off their own bat - sure, not all of them will work (if any) - but doing nothing is not an option.

And of course, not everyone (clients and agencies alike) are going to be prepared to take huge gambles - but someone has to - otherwise, there will be no great leap forward.

So to blogging - as Fiona says, no one really has a clue how this is all going to pan out - but I'd suggest that those who are bold enough to take a few risks and experiment will probably have a better chance of making more money (and having a more interesting life) than those that don't.

Anonymous said...

It's the clients. Even in technology companies there is still a lot of ignorance, fear and simple loathing of this stuff. There is still very much an attitude (given these people often come from marketing and not technology backgrounds) that bloggers, people on social networks, message board posters, etc are geeks and therefore not worth engaging with. I've lost count of the number of times that I've heard them disparaged in terms of because they're spending time online they must have no lives and are worthy of pity and are therefore not worth engaging with.

Personally I think things will change but only once the current generation of marketeers move on and those who grew up with the internet move more into positions of power.

Finally I think the PR industry fails to realise sometimes that there are a load of digital agencies out there doing this stuff better than most PR agencies and hence this is another reason why revenue opportunities in this space come up less than you think.

Simon said...

I didn't read all the post.... I was just pleased to see you picked up on our Blue Monday meme/story!

Interestingly, it's generated loads of blog chatter - but most bloggers have picked the story up from the mainstream press.

Doesn't that demonstrate that while blogger-relations may be relevant for eg. techy clients; the good ol' word of mouth route is perenially effective whether it generates off or online awareness.

Does that match up with the rest of the post??

....the world's leading.... said...

Tell you what Simes - you rude boy - why don't you read it and find out for yourself instead of banging on about how great at PR you are?

Oh, and while you're at it, read Andrew Smith's comment above - particularly this bit: "Since the dawn of time, clients have always said that the key thing they want from an agency is originality and creativity."

I don't see any mention of clients wanting to piggyback on someone else's work, do you?

Of course, that's not to say they don't love it when they can...saves a lot of money, doesn't it?

Simon said...


The Jiveman said...

Wow. A well argued, somewhat dark post indeed and some great points here about generational conservatism in marketing and the blurring between blogs and ‘trad’ media. I have reason to believe that in the case of blogs and social media above the line does not know much more than PR does (yet) though for a lot of digital tactics the expensive Soho crew will be on a client’s mind long before their PR agency. Convincing clients to pay decently for advice on their blogging, which is by nature a very high value activity in terms of reputation enhancement and management is a challenge but not an insurmountable one. The market opportunity is brief but is still there. Attitudes are getting in the way but we must join the battle before disrupted folk in sister disciplines work out what is going on (especially with aid of the more powerful analytical tools available to above the line) and steal our lunch. Leaving us selling in vapid product releases to a diminishing number of disinterested trade hacks while the party goes on elsewhere…

Anonymous said...

just so you know: the spinvox demo is a scam. The calls go to a call center in India where stenographers transcribe the voice and enter it into the txt message.

Not universal machine based voice to text - just low paid people sitting at a keyboard with a headset.

Now you know…