Anti-Social: Is Public Relations Messing Up in the Blogosphere?
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Holmes Report

Anti-Social: Is Public Relations Messing Up in the Blogosphere?

Prior to the rise of blogging, PR people were forced to rely on the blunt and cumbersome traditional media, an imperfect relationship building tool, because it basically allows for only one half of a conversation.

Paul Holmes

On the second page of the first chapter of The Corporate Blogging Book, an otherwise unremarkable little volume about the most fashionable topic in corporate America these days, I came across this infuriating piece of advice: “A blog is written in an informal, conversational style that tells the real story,” according to the author, Debbie Weil. “No puffery, no PR.”

What, I wondered, are we supposed to make of that? Blogs, according to Weil, a popular speaker and marketing consultant, are not to be used to help companies relate to their publics.

That struck me as odd, because I had considered blogs to be an ideal vehicle for strengthening the relationship between an organization and its various stakeholders. Here was a medium through which large corporations could engage ordinary people in an authentic dialogue, initiating conversations, listening to their customers, their employees, their communities.

I had, in fact, been arguing that blogs were the ideal public relations medium. In moments of extreme exuberance I had told people that prior to the emergence of the blogosphere, public relations had been a great idea in search of the right instrument for its implementation. Prior to the rise of blogging, PR people were forced to rely on the blunt and cumbersome traditional media, an imperfect relationship building tool, because it basically allows for only one half of a conversation: you can talk and talk and talk, but you rarely hear anything back.

Blogs and other social media could enable public relations people to finally live up to the potential inherent in the discipline, to escape the media relations ghetto in which they have languished for so long. And the public relations people had something to offer the blogosphere: they are expert in earning attention rather than buying it, to providing substantive information rather than hype, to surrendering control of their message to third parties, to answering skeptical questions. Public relations could save the blogosphere from the worst instincts of marketers.

Except, so far, it hasn’t worked out that way.

In recent weeks, the Internet has been a pretty harsh environment for public relations people. First there was the furor over a blog that sang the praises of Wal-Mart without ever bothering to mention that its authors were in the company’s pay. Then there was the announcement that public relations people would no longer be permitted to post at Wikipedia because they had been inundating the online encyclopedia with biased and misleading material. And this week, a community in the game Second Life voted to ban public relations practitioners from their lands.

Of course, when Weil wrote that blogs should not be about PR, she didn’t mean that companies should not use them to relate to their publics. Her understanding of public relations—an understanding shared by the majority of non-practitioners—had nothing to do with relationship building and everything to do with spin and hype, manipulation and deceit.

And sadly, so far, the industry appears to be living down to Weil’s expectations rather than living up to mine.

Earlier this year, a public relations firm representing ExxonMobil, among other companies, created a video that mocked the claims of former presidential candidate and erstwhile environmentalist Al Gore and his movie, An Inconvenient Truth, concerning global climate change. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, of course. If ExxonMobil really believes global warming is a myth, it has an absolute right to make a fool of itself by expressing that belief in public.

 The problem was that the video—Al Gore’s Penguin Army—was posted to YouTube, where its author was identified as a 29-year-old amateur filmmaker. But when reporters from The Wall Street Journal attempted to interview the auteur, the trail led instead to the offices of public relations firm DCI. Confronted with evidence of its apparent deception, DCI told reporters, “We do not disclose the names of our clients, nor do we discuss the work we do on behalf of our clients.” Client ExxonMobil denied any knowledge of the video.

The deception was not only cynical, it was also stupid. The Internet is an unusually transparent environment. Efforts to mislead are almost always uncovered, their perpetrators unmasked. But beyond that, there were obvious public relations approaches that would have attracted a much wide audience and communicated the pro-global warming message much more effectively, while respecting—embracing, in fact—the spirit of social media. The PR firm could, for example, have invited fellow warming deniers to create and post their own videos, creating grassroots enthusiasm.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that some public relations people are either too lazy to be honest and open (it’s easier to create a video and try to pretend it’s the work of a regular guy than it is to go out and find a real live regular guy), too concerned about surrendering total control of their message (in which case they should just go work in advertising), or so addicted to spin that they can’t give it up even when it’s obviously harmful to their interests.

Some of the same criticisms can be made of the Wal-Mart campaign, managed by Edelman, which featured a Washington Post staff photographer and his partner, a freelance reporter, traveling across America in an RV, benefiting from the kindness of the retailing behemoth (which allowed them to park overnight in store lots) and blogging about the whole experience. Somehow, the authors forgot to mention that in addition to sharing folksy stories about the nice people at Wal-Mart, they were also in its employ, having received the RV and travel expenses from the company and had allowed it to dictate their route.

It’s hard to imagine that no-one at Edelman—perhaps the most enthusiastic of all the major public relations firms in embracing new media—anticipated the possibility of discovery and therefore censure. And it’s even harder to imagine what would have been lost by simply being open about the link between the bloggers and the company. If their blogging was authentic, most neutral observers would have judged it on its merits; cynics inclined to doubt their honesty would presumably be even more cynical about a blog that claimed to be independent of the company.

Edelman chief executive Richard Edelman, to his credit, apologized for the episode, but other PR bloggers were fiercely critical of the incident.

It would be nice to believe that these are isolated incidents, but if the frustration being expressed by the founders of the Wikipedia and inhabitants of Second Life are any reflection, many—perhaps most—PR people have no idea how to behave online.

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, facing criticism over inaccurate content (some of it positive, some of it negative) placed by individuals with a vested interest in a particular subject’s entry, decided to ban posts by public relations professionals. According to Wales, “The big problem with paid editing on Wikipedia is not that someone is getting paid to write, but rather that this causes a rather obvious conflict of interest and appearance of impropriety…..

“I think that PR-firms editing in a community space is deeply unethical, and that clients should put very firm pressure on their PR firms to not embarrass them in this way.”

Wales presented no evidence that content supplied by paid public relations consultants was any less accurate than content provided by other contributors. My own suspicion is that most of the egregiously inaccurate content on Wikipedia was (and still is) contributed by those with an ideological ax to grind rather than a commercial interest.

The real solution to Wikipedia’s credibility problem would be to target those who post inaccurate information rather than those who are paid to help present the information in a more reader-friendly way, but from a public relations perspective Wales showed himself to be a savvy operator: no one (present company excepted) is likely to protest too loudly over a libel on the ethical standards of the public relations profession.

At the same time, the problem of malpractice by some public relations practitioners on the Internet is clearly real. The residents of Dreamland, one of the largest gated communities in Second Life, were reportedly (according to the Second Life Herald newspaper) “incensed by the recent spate of false claims by PR Flacks, marketing mavens, and clueless corporations.”

So they passed a resolution saying that since “some PR agencies and RL [real life] companies have abused SL and made claims in RL media of being first to do things many SL residents have done long before them (‘1st radio station in SL,’ ‘1st fashion brand,’ ‘1st tabloid’),” they should be banned from Dreamland.

Writing in the Herald, editor Urizenus Sklar observed: “The sad thing is that it had to come to this. Apparently, this is just the most recent in a string of episodes in which the PR industry has invaded a social space and deeply offended the residents. Clearly they are not learning. I guess it comes down to this: hubris dies hard.”

So is the public relations industry on the verge of missing out on a golden opportunity by living up to the negative stereotypes of the discipline? Opinions among industry experts are divided.

Steven Silvers, principal and director of the corporate affairs and communications group at Denver-based GBSM and author of the popular Scatterbox blog, says that “The degree to which so many PR people try to exploit social media underscores how much this has become an industry of shills, rather than a profession of advocates.

“It’s not a big mystery that much of what we call public relations is really just another form of marketing promotion.  Where advertising is the rattling of the stick in the swill bucket, PR has too often become the practice of disguising the stick to look like a pig that other pigs want to date.”

David Henderson, a veteran of the Washington, D.C., public affairs business (until recently, he was head of the D.C. operations of EuroRSCG Magnet) and author of the Making News blog, is also critical, although a little less harsh. “It’s beyond time to wake up because the tools of new media have been in use for more than three years already, and many of today’s practitioners of new media are considerably ahead of the PR profession in savvy ideas,” he wrote recently.

The Handbook for Bloggers, written by new media pioneers Julien Pain and Dan Gillmor, has been available online at no charge for a year, he points out. “Reading it might have avoided PR tech-rush fiascos, like the Wal-Marting Across America blog.”

Richard Edelman, meanwhile, admits that there have been missteps, but believes the opportunity remains as exciting as it ever was.

“I think we are getting tarred from two sides,” he says. “We are getting tarred by being linked to government propagandists like the Lincoln Group that are using the blogosphere, and we are getting tarred by being linked to marketers who are in the blogosphere and pushing their products the same way they have always done in other media. I think the blogosphere has limited patience for that kind of thing. People want authenticity and honesty and transparency and if you screw up they can be very unforgiving.”

“I don’t think we are totally screwing up,” he says. “We have not been perfect. But we have done successful work for Unilever, Starbucks, Nissan and, yes, Wal-Mart. Our mistake on the RV tour was not a new media mistake, it was a PR mistake.”

Much of the criticism, he says, is unfair. Companies like Wal-Mart, for example, are routinely held to a higher standard than their critics. He points out that individual authors of the Wal-Mart Watch blog—which is highly critical of the company—do not use their full names on posts. Other critics point out that the organization is less than fully transparent when it comes to the money it receives from organized labor groups.

“There are certain bloggers who believe that PR folks should just stand aside, that we should not get between them and the clients,” he says. “There are others who believe that PR types are incapable of telling the truth or enough of the truth.”

Todd Defren, a principal at technology public relations firm Shift Communications and author of the PR Squared blog, has a more optimistic view, however.

“If PR is screwing up,” he says, “it is likely because we are rushing forward to embrace this opportunity. As you know, PR tends to be more conservative than most other marketing disciplines, so this is a refreshing change. However, in our speed, PR agencies will make mistakes that will—in the long term—accrue to the benefit of both our clients and other marketing disciplines. We’re defining rules and best-practices based on both PR’s good work and its not-so-good work.”

Alex Parker of Amrnet Dietrich, a Chicago-based public relations firm with a new blog called The Fight Against Destructive Spin, shares that perspective. “I think PR is learning,” he says. “And sometimes you learn by your mistakes—although this doesn’t diminish some mistakes that are made.”

Defren also wonders whether public relations people are the real villains in some of the horror stories. “The Second Life backlash is, in my opinion, more about corporate marketers than PR practitioners. It’s always this way when an edgy new ‘scene’ is identified and over-run by corporate opportunists.”

Whether they have the words “public relations” on their business cards, however, those opportunists are identified with the profession, with the result that public relations people are in danger of becoming pariahs in social media realm.

The solution is straightforward, if not necessarily easy. Public relations people need to start behaving as if the art they practice is about my definition—relationship building—rather than Weil’s definition: spin.

The basic difference between public relations and spin is that the latter is transactional. You can use spin to manipulate people into doing what you want, but usually only for a limited time, until they figure out—as they inevitably do—that that you are not being honest with them. At that point, all trust is likely to be destroyed and persuading them of anything ever again is incredibly difficult.

Public relations, by contrast, is a long-term investment in a mutually beneficial relationship. It requires honesty and openness, a commitment to dialogue that means listening as well as talking, and an openness to changing the organization’s behavior if necessary, in order to strengthen its relationship with key stakeholders.

Parker believes there is still an opportunity for public relations to flourish in citizen and social media, if practitioners learn to play by the rules.

“This lesson of accountability is one that PR professionals must learn before venturing out into the wilderness that is the social media landscape. It’s new and certainly a different atmosphere than traditional outlets. It’s very easy to burn bridges and ruffle peoples’ feathers. That said, PR people have a golden opportunity online — if they do it right.

“That means not marketing from behind the curtain. It means being upfront about whom you represent and finding appropriate forums to create interest. It’s the same game, with different rules. People are demanding honesty and responsibility from marketers, and the negative perception that PR receives is only furthered by subversive e-guerilla marketing. It is up to the industry to help consumers differentiate between fact and flack. We must do our best to back up our PR efforts with documented facts and figures, which, I think, are as effective online as they are in traditional media.”

But it’s not enough to play catch up.

“Public relations business must stay ahead of trends, not follow them,” says Henderson. “Despite today’s excitement within the PR community over blogs, it is technology that has been in use for over three years. PR must authentically embrace a responsible role of leader, not copycat.

“The PR industry must get beyond its obsession with the press release, a 60-year-old tactic, and strive to more effectively build honest relationships between clients, audiences and the news media. The trend of the Internet is toward people expressing themselves, rather than having messages pushed at them.”

Richard Edelman believes many practitioners will have to adopt a new mindset.

“Historically, public relations people have been agents for their clients,” he says. “We received information from our clients and we acted as intermediaries or brokers for that information.” But in the new world, public relations people have to adopt a new role. “We have to become credible advocates. We have to adopt a position that’s a little more balanced. We might have to be willing to present both sides of an argument. We can no longer be in the sales business; we have to be in the truth business.”

Edelman and Henderson have different opinions about whether public relations should develop and present original content in the blogosphere, however.

Says Henderson: “The PR industry must get beyond its obsession with the press release, a 60-year-old tactic, and strive to more effectively build honest relationships between clients, audiences and the news media. It is not honest for PR to attempt to create its own form of media through new media.”

Edelman has heard that before, and he disagrees. He says that in his early conversations with social media pioneer David Weinberger, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto and an occasional consultant to the firm, Weinberger told him there were only two legitimate roles for public relations in the blogosphere: pitching stories to bloggers and getting clients to talk directly to the bloggers. But Edelman says he was able to convince him of a third.

“We can have a role as credible advocates for our clients, and we can present our clients’ point-of-view,” he says. He believes public relations people can create their own content, as long as they are honest and transparent about their funding and their motivation, and says Edelman is in the process of reviewing its policies to ensure that episodes such as the Wal-Mart controversy do not recur.

The bottom line is that any content or comment needs to be real.

Says Curtis Hougland, who helped launch the Internet practice at Middleberg & Associates in the 90s and recently launched a social media relations firm, Attention PR: “Authenticity is the single most important filter in PR today. Authenticity is what allows a Company to communicate with and not to its audiences. Too many agencies do not understand the need for authenticity, or its subset, transparency.

“So yes, we PR people are messing up the opportunity because we do not understand that consumers now own the brand, and can smell unauthentic content miles away. It is now not only okay, but essential that PR communicate different things to different consumers. And to do this, we must understand and interact with the community at a different level. Laziness is killing it all.”

One challenge will be persuading clients that honesty and openness are the best policies. Says Defren: “Ultimately one of the biggest challenges that the PR industry will face will be juggling with transparency issues.  Some clients are keen to embrace the social media trend, even though they are either not familiar with the ground rules of transparency and ethics, or, they are willing to flout these ground rules.  It’s incumbent on PR to help clients understand, embrace and take advantage of social media, with full respect for the community.”

Adds Silvers: “The ethics of transparency and attribution have always been considerations in communications strategy. There will always be people who for whatever reason instead choose obfuscation and misrepresentation. Some of those people are flacks. And some of those people are politicians, lawyers, CEOs, fundraisers, reporters, religious leaders and documentary film-makers.”

But he offers a warning to those people.

“Truth can’t be regulated,” he says. “But it can be commoditized. And that’s what the social media movement is doing to the role of public relations. For every blog that tries to hide its identity, there are dozens more that expose the agenda. For every billionaire that tries to fool communities into being consumers, there are millions who leave to create a new network somewhere else.

“Social media have empowered the public to create a fork in the road for the PR industry. One path uses the tools of the information age to build credibility and engagement with people who matter most.  The other uses those tools to concoct more scams to put lipstick on the pig.”

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