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Michael O'Connor Clarke Michael O'Connor Clarke is proud to be a card-carrying flack. Currently based in Toronto, Michael has spent almost 20 years in corporate communications and marketing roles. He started blogging at almost the same time as he first moved into PR - over five years ago. Now he's trying to figure out how to combine these two areas of expertise for the benefit of clue-seeking clients. In his time, Michael has pitched people, products, processes and pop-tarts, but he has a congenital inability to peddle fluff. Email Michael


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October 28, 2004

Relax. Don't do it.

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Posted by Michael O'Connor Clarke

It’s mailbag time at the FlackCave.

An email from a Flackster reader earlier today asked:

“What role should my PR department play in supervising corporate blog content?”

Easy: NONE.

Unless you’re actually going to be blogging yourself – or maybe helping promote other employees’ blogs by talking them up to your friends, family, customers, partners, analysts, reporters and so forth – you have no role.

A blog that is PR-sanitized, scrubbed for messages, spun, or otherwise adulterated by over-protective flackery can’t really be called a blog. We need to get it a new name. Maybe it should be called a “press release” – sure bears the same high stink of decay about it.

With apologies to John Gilmore: The blogosphere treats spin as damage and routes around it.

*sigh*

Perhaps I should backtrack here. Inject a little coherence. One simple, innocuous email question wasn’t really the only thing that flipped my rant bit today.

It started with this genuinely wonderful piece in today’s New York Times: “Madison Avenue Ponders the Potential of Web Logs.

It’s interesting, well put together, timely, and relevant. Go read it.

There’s a couple of buts, of course.

But the first: almost two-thirds of the way through, reporter Nat Ives makes the point that “the growing number of professional blogs often lack the qualities that made earlier blogs big hits: attitude, irreverence and an apparent interest in kicking up a fuss.”

True. Sad, but true.

Sounds to me like what Nat’s describing is a sterilized, over-spun, corporate Blog Lite. Something, in other words, that is lacking the most basic defining characteristic of a blog (as Dave Winer puts it): the unedited voice of a person.

But the second: Nat’s comment is almost immediately followed by a quote from an Ad agency bloke, saying that his firm’s corporate blog is allowing visitors to the site “to get a feel for who we are without even having a conversation with us.”

Um…right.

This is the point at which I’m inevitably going to be accused of starry-eyed idealism. Indulge me.

I’ve been actively blogging for almost four years now (182,000 words on my personal blog, countless comments and random postings in group blogs and blog-ish projects here, there and everywhere). I like to think I’ve explored this medium reasonably well.

So I’ve no wish to reopen the hoary “what is a weblog?” debate, but please. No voice? No conversation? Ergo: no blog.

Call it something else. OK, maybe it’s blog-like – but if your corporate site is just a reverse-chronological series of articles, without:

i. the clear, unedited personal voice of a real human being, and;
ii. a means of conversation and interaction (comments, trackbacks);

...then how is it any different from the rest of your brochureware? Maybe you should have Ashlee Simpson blogging for you.

It’s clear where both my email correspondent’s question, and the urge to corporate-ize employee blogs comes from. There’s a place of deep fear in every corporate PR department.

The estimable Steve Rubel puts it well, earlier in the same New York Times piece: “The biggest fear is an uncontrolled message slipping out ... do they allow comments or do they not? Is there an implication if it is a publicly traded firm? Who is the one who should blog for us? How might that choice be received in the company?”

It’s a valid set of concerns. Like Steve, I’m inclined to think (to hope): “ultimately this will all work out,” but we’ve some more pain to struggle through before we get there.

The root of PR fear is a lack of trust. Trust is the oxygen of a successful corporate blog. Without explicit, unequivocal, active trust, your bloggers will choke.

Case in point: does Microsoft's highest-profile in-house blogger, Robert Scoble, sometimes say things that would make the Wagg Ed account execs squirm? Sure.

Does his high-traffic, genuinely influential blog continue to resonate with Microsoft’s customers and other communities of interest. Damn straight it does.

Is Robert – as a smart, knowledgeable, engaged employee who’s clearly passionate about his job at Microsoft – ever likely to deliberately say something that would expose his employer to serious disclosure issues? Surely not.

Will he screw up once or twice? He’s human.

So. Is Scoble’s blog, on balance, a positive thing for Microsoft?

The people in power at Microsoft clearly trust him in this – with minimal oversight from the corporate PR guys in the Department of Voice Prevention.

It’s all about trust.

Few years back, I was hired by a public company CEO who decided he was going to sit in on every press interview I did. I’m not kidding.

He’d picked up a copy of Andy Grove’s “Only the Paranoid Survive” on his way past an airport book stand. Unfortunately, I don’t think he’d actually read much further than the title. But the title alone had become an absolute mantra for this guy.

His idea was to quietly monitor every conversation I was having with any reporter – without disclosing his presence on the call – just so that he could be sure I was staying on message.

By this point, I’d already earned some battle scars as part of the team that took a previous company public. I was pretty well schooled in disclosure regulations and reputation management. More: I loved my bigass marketing job with this new company. I had an evangelical zeal for the company’s products and its people.

Sure – I was going to make some mistakes and have some challenging moments as the lead corporate flack. It happens. But I was also going to do my best at all times to add shine to the company’s reputation and expand our circle of friends.

Long story: I talked him out of it. Trust was a big part of the argument. But I also lost some of my love for the company that day, and it made me disengage just enough to be of less value as their PR frontman.

If you have employees who are genuinely engaged in the business of your company and the markets you call home, so much so that they want to talk about it, blog about it – either on your servers or off – here’s what you need to do:

Get them some training – on disclosure, on competitive intelligence issues, and on media and customer relations – then get the hell out of the way.

Trust them.

Things will go squirrelly once in a while – be sure of that. But relax and realise that the benefits will massively outweigh the fear.

Informed, engaged bloggers and blog readers can sniff out the merest milligram of mendacity in a mountain of Moveable Type posts.

If you’re tempted to force your corporate bloggers to filter their posts through some sterile PR decontamination filters, just don’t, OK?

Don’t.

Your customers will love you for it.

And you can handle any issues that do arise, can't you? You're a PR pro - it's what you do.


[Still no sign of the bit with the dog, btw. I’m starting to get worried about him, to be honest. Sure he’ll show up soon though.]

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