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Effective PR Blogging

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How to develop an effective public relations (PR) blog strategy for your company or organization.

For-profit companies and the modern incarnation of the traditional University have a lot in common. Universities have been using viral, buzz, and word-of-mouth marketing for years: their students, their professors, and especially their alumni networks. It is little wonder why MIT and Yale offer future Presidents lifetime free email addresses in the form of alum.mit.edu, and aya.yale.edu -- because when smart people share valuable information, people want to know where that person went and where that person works.

It is very likely that your business can benefit in a similar fashion by setting the best and brightest in your company free to create goodwill for your firm and spread your name in the community. If properly utilized, these ambassadors can have a significant impact on the image and standing of your company, so they should be carefully chosen, loyal, invested team players. At present, the best tool for this job is the weblog, better known as "blogs". In the article below, I will try to give an overview of the use and impact of blogs, and to provide a history and contextualization of blogs, so you can better decide if and how you would like to implement this powerful tool.

Years ago, I served as Managing Director of beehive North America, a software company that developed web applications using a Python-based programming platform called Zope. In order to see where interest lay, I started the Zope Python User Group (ZPUG) and a personal blog that featured my day-to-day while also being the only place where photos, information, and meeting minutes for the User Group could be found. I quickly realized that it is possible to shamelessly promote yourself, your wares, your company, and your services if you are perceived as giving way more than you get.

In my case, I used my personal blog to cover monthly ZPUG meetings, how my travels to Germany to visit my parent company went, and how cool it was to train Zope to the gang at Pfizer, Johns Hopkins, and the Nature Conservancy. I talked about working on new e-Books and developing new components for our Enterprise-level content management suite of applications that we were developing for major Berlin banks.

Since it wasn’t a corporate blog proper and served as my personal home page, I could easily discuss everything that was happening to me, including recipes, pet stories, travel experiences, and lots and lots of work. Since I spent over half my waking hours working, I spent a lot of time blogging about beehive NA, its parent company beehive GmbH, ZPUG, and Zope and Python in general. And since the software is Open Source and constantly evolving and maturing, my blog became a valuable resource to find more Zope answers, Zope help, Zope information, Zope training, and Zope developers. And that trainer and that developer would usually be beehive NA or beehive GmbH.

Like I said before, Universities have been doing this kind of viral and buzz marketing for centuries. And since Universities openly and readily share their scholarship, no matter how shameless the pomp of their titles, they and their hallowed Academies most certainly offer back much more than they are perceived as taking. And yet they are not paupers. Universities control endowments in the billions of dollars and command princely sums for the privilege of study. This is a shrewd business in which prestige, altruism, collaboration, brain trust, and purity of thought result in a self-promotional carte blanche that only finds its equal in organized religion. There is nothing even close in the commercial world.

Most of the early tech companies and early adopters of the Internet circa 1992 were former academics. The first thing these academics did when they moved from the Ivory Tower to a suite of offices was to get back into the USENET newsgroups they frequented during their research days. In truth the only notable difference in their discourse was in the signature file at the end of every posting. Instead of an .EDU address, the posters transitioned their emails to .COM. These were the pre-SPAM days when it was okay to have your plain text email address in a public posting. Everybody had their real email in their revealing signature at the bottom of every posting. This signature said a lot about you. It lent legitimacy to your words and allowed you to be the expert. If your media.mit.edu email address worked, then you were in fact who you said you were.

There isn’t a better form of word of mouth marketing than having the name of your company associated with brilliance. Universities have known this for years and it has become institutionalized in the axiom, publish or perish. Whether a professional journal, a conference, academic paper, the essay, or in postings on USENET, the reputation of an academic and the academy can hinge on the prestige associated with good PR. And in the academic environment, content is king.

USENET used to be exclusive and it wasn’t until well into the 90s when gateways opened up to AOL and other ISPs to USENET, followed closely by spammer, spiders, and bots. Forced into exile by bozos, baiters, flamers, and newbies, USENET became Balkanized. A brain drain into more exclusive communities ensued. One of the earliest homes for the alpha male techie was Slashdot, which launched in 1997 and is a prototype for the modern blog with Dave Winer’s Scripting News being one of the earliest. Both of these sites were highly technical with strong academic influences.

Until 1999, one might find some important vestige of USENET in a personal web site or in a Frequently Asked Question (FAQ) but these were publications and not open for debate and collaboration in the same culture of open sharing found in the Newsgroups. In the late 90s, web logging (blogging) became a viable option for savvy users and early adopters. Blogs allowed easy daily postings and associated threaded discussions and XML-based Really Simple Syndication (RSS).

Blogging articles – whether personal, technical, or professional – with the ability to accept reader comments and be able to track visitors has become a major force in the media in the last few years, arguably influencing the 2004 U.S. Presidential election. Not only were people interesting in learning what other people were thinking real time, but people were eager to talk back and get involved in dynamic debates over issues as they happened.

RSS has become very simple and widely adopted in recent years. The reading of online content via RSS client software allows online readers to dispense with their Favorites and Bookmarks and read online news, journalism, journaling, papers, search engines, and magazines in the same way we now read email.

Most consumers ignore corporate sites as sales pitch and propaganda. Not so if you allow your employees to speak for you. Talk not only about the cool new project and hot new services, but everything else. If you hire smart, if you trust your employees, if you walk the talk, then there is nothing to worry about. And people really enjoy listening to employees discuss their day-to-day. Consumers want to know your company’s eye color and they only way they’ll find out is by getting to your you through your employees.

It is similar to visiting campus before applying to college. You want to stop a couple students (or talk to a couple alumni) and ask them about their experience. People love gossip and people adore getting the inside scoop because everybody likes dirty laundry and everybody loves being let in on a secret. What this comes down to is that people demand to be entertained and nothing gives back more than feeling like an insider.

If I were to recommend blog-building to a .COM enterprise, it would have to be at this level: invite your brightest to blog just outside the umbrella of the company with your blessing. There are some important ground rules: the employee needs to feel comfortable and not micromanaged otherwise the blog will not be perceived as honest. People can tell when their being duped; additionally, it is essential that there is trust there on both sides; finally, it is important to find the employee who really wants to do this, otherwise the blog will fall to disrepair.

It takes such a leap of faith to convince the corporate lawyers to loosen their grip on blogging employees. And, as the number of bloggers who get canned by their employer for blogging, increases, people are going to become more covert about it. They go underground. They are blogging already anyway. Why not allow them to blog fully, blog freely, and share with the rest of the world the proud fact they spend half of all their waking hours working for you, your company, and fulfilling your vision?

Feb 08, 2004 12:00 AM