An open letter to David Murray2004-12-07
What can I say about your opening item on the December 6, 2004 Ragan Report‘s page one column, “Blog wonks need chill pill”? It’s wrong on so many levels it’s difficult to know where to begin. You and I have known one another for, what, more than a decade now? I’m sure that, since your editorial was distributed to all the Ragan Report‘s readers and published on the Ragan Communications Web site, you’ll agree that it’s highly appropriate—and even maybe a little ironic—that I reply to you personally via my blog.
Your overall premise is that those of us who blog about public relations and organizational communications are unjustified in trying to push the public relations industry into adopting and leveraging blogs. Or, as you put it:
“These guys—they are all guys, as far as we can tell, in a profession dominated by women—use their blogs to wonder why their communication colleagues aren’t more blog-savvy and blog-happy.”
“The truth is, organizational blogging will move forward at its own pace and communicators don’t need geeks…whipping them in the behind while whipping themselves into a lather.”
Allow me to enlighten you on the many reasons why your conclusion is naieve at best. When I’m done, if you’ll bear with me, I’d like to take issue with some of your other comments.
Let’s start with the importance of blogs. I don’t want to spend much time on this topic, since it’s been addressed well throughout the blogosphere. Still, in response to the assertions in your column, it’s worth covering the highlights.
The impact of blogs has little to do with technology and much to do with culture. The ease of publishing through a blog has resulted in the fulfilment of one of the Internet’s great promises—that anybody can publish. Now there are millions of people publishing and even more reading what they write. According to some estimates, more than 11% of those who go online read blogs.
Because the community is large and growing, it wields a certain amount of influence. Some examples:
- Bloggers report news the mainstream media misses or ignores, often forcing the media to cover stories they otherwise wouldn’t. US Senator Trent Lott’s remarks about Strom Thurmond, which led to his loss of the Senate leadership, is a good example.
- Many reporters have turned to bloggers to promote their stories, hoping to drive traffic to their publications’ web sites.
- Bloggers have corrected misinformation reported by mainstream media, most famously Dan Rather’s claims to have documentation of US President George Bush’s failure to fulfill his National Guard service.
- Readers have turned to blogs for information. For example, authors who can’t get reviewed in mainstream book review publications have seen sales increase when bloggers have reviewed their works.
- Similarly, popular blogs have served as platforms to complain about institutions and their products and services, influencing opinions and affecting reputations.
I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Just read some of the blogs of those CWTOBs, as you call them (communicators with their own blogs), and you can gain even more of the insight that appears to have escaped you.
There is, however, an even bigger picture. As a consequence of the blogging phenomenon, we are witnessing the birth of the “social constituency.” These are audiences—running the gamut from customers to shareholders, from activists to employees—that have the ability and the expectation to interact with real people. As one writer put it, by listening to members of social audiences, “companies have the opportunity to create the tightest relationships between vendor and customer we have seen since the days of the corner store.” Of course, this writer focuses solely on the customer. The relationship potential extends well beyond customers, though, to any constituency whose opinion can affect an organization’s performance or reputation.
Clearly, then, there is a role for communicators to play. It naturally falls within the realm of communications and public relations to guide the production of official company blogs, to work with influential bloggers, and to monitor and react to the blogosphere when bloggers turn their attention to the client.
Sadly, organizations in general tend to be slow on the uptake of any new relevant communication technology, and the public relations profession tends to be even slower. Think back, David, and you’ll remember that the earliest company Web sites were managed by IT, not communications. While the World Wide Web phenomenon exploded around us, communicators blithely continued to ignore its existence while programmers and system administrators assumed responsibility for organizations’ online presence.
To put a slightly different spin on the situation, organizations that ignore blogs are at risk. They risk missing out on the potential blogs afford them while their competitors reap the benefits. And they risk the damage blogs could do them if they aren’t paying attention.
We in the communications profession know from experience that organizations don’t wait around for their PR counselors to figure out new technologies and their application to communications. If we’re unable to help them, they’ll turn to others who can. Thus, as the PR profession lumbers along at its glacial pace of technology adoption, we, too, are at risk. And that, David, is why your claim that communicators don’t need to be prodded along is mistaken. Communicators have always needed prodding. Without it, as companies become aware of blogs (and other tools that enable the social constituent, such as wikis and social networking), they’ll look to alternatives and we’ll be left to fulfill secondary roles.
Besides, David, even your own publication, the Ragan Report, contains little that isn’t intended to whip communicators in the behind. In the same issue in which you so denegrate bloggers dedicated to dragging the profession kicking and screaming into the age of the social constituent, RR implores communicators to embrace videos, write better headlines, make HR communications interesting, and use creative means to solicit employee feedback.
The efforts of the community of PR bloggers—those CWTOBs—has already paid off. PRSA, which had no sessions on blogging slated for its annual conference—added one at the last minute. They even enlisted some of the bloggers who had been critical of the oversight to run the session.
Which brings us to some of the other off-base points you managed to pack into your brief editorial. (I trust I’ve made the case against waiting patiently for “organizational blogging (to) move forward at its own pace.”) Let’s start with your opening salvo:
“Back when the Internet was new, we heard a serious argument among the arly adopters in the communication profession. Some of these ‘Internet geeks,’ as the more Luddite-ish of the Ragan editors dubbed them then, asserted that the Internet was as important as the invention of the Gutenberg printing press. Others argued fiercely that the Internet was way bigger than the Gutenberg press; they said it was as big as the invention of fire. The argument was imbecilic then, and it hasn’t gotten any smarter in the meantime.”
Okay, David, I agree that harnessing fire. But you have to forgive the enthusiasm many felt for a medium that can rightly be compared to the printing press. The most significant contribution the printing press made to society was the redistribution of power. Before the printing press came along, the average person had to hear the word of God from a priest. Once a bible could be printed and given to that same average person, he was free to read and interpret it for himself. The Protestant Revolution would never have happened without the printing press.
Not much has changed in the world of communication since the printing press. Even sound and video are incremental advances. The Internet represents the most profound change to the communication model since Mr. Gutenberg put ink to his first sheet of paper. It once again redistributes power, this time the power to publish. If you haven’t seen the result of that change, maybe you need to get out more.
Don’t worry, David. I’m not personally offended at being called “imbecilic.” The Internet’s impact on culture, society, business, entertainment, and virtually every other walk of life is evident to nearly everyone. Those of us who proclaimed the inevitable impact it would have were right then, and our argument has only gain more relevance in the meantime. Blogs, as you might guess, are the latest development to reinforce the relevance of that argument.
To support your point, you picked on Neville Hobson:
“Recently, Hobson harrumphed, ‘With so much debate and discussion going on about blogging and organizations in a wide range of business blogs, I’ve been surprised to note that hardly anyone who is an IABC members is joining any of these discussions.’ Hobson also joined the ranks of blog wonks who piled on IABC Chairman David Kistle when he introduced his own blog in October and then failed to post a new entry for more than a month. OK, Kistle’s lack of follow-through was bush-league. But perhaps the crime was not quite heinous enough to justify Hobson’s nearly teary post of Nov. 24—the 30-day ‘anniversary’ of Kistle’s last blog entry: ‘I’m just too disappointed to add any comment at the moment,’ he sobbed. Good Blog, man, get a hold of yourself!”
Neville’s blog is widely read, David. In fact, he’s among the nominees for best European blog in the 2004 blog competition. One reason he’s gained such a following is that he’s a fine writer. He uses writing techniques to make a point. I suppose Neville could have taken three or four paragraphs to articulate why Kistle’s failure to maintain the blog was disappointing. It’s the mark of a good writer that he was able to make the same point in a single sentence.
It was a point worth making, too. More than just “bush-league,” a chairman’s blog that remains untouched for a month is a reputational problem waiting to happen, particularly when the chairman represents a communication association.
Thanks for sticking with me on this, David. I hope I’ve been able to help you figure out why the Internet is important, why early adopters need to drag the profession into the world of blogging, why Neville didn’t deserve to be singled out for attack, and why the IABC chairman’s blog really did pose a problem worthy of attention. I also hope we’re still friends.
Shel Holtz, ABC