The medium isn’t the message

PR is no longer about stuffing envelopes and organising beanos for journalists. By using blogs and podcasts, it is now a much more effective marketing tool for the brand owner. By Richenda Wilson.

Back in the days of the first dot-com boom, many predicted the death of bricks-and-mortar shops. They were wrong. The high street has had to adapt to new ways of selling, but it hasn’t brought down the shutters yet.

These days, the talk has a similar ring. “New media will destroy the way PR is carried out.” “The traditional press release is a thing of the past.”

Innovations such as blogging, RSS feeds and consumer-generated content are undoubtedly having a radical impact on the way PR is handled, but brand owners and consumers still want to open up a newspaper or turn on the television to see brands being talked about.

And while Ofcom research suggests that 70% of 18to 30-year-olds would rather get their news from social networking sites than traditional media, much of the news on those sites will have got there via traditional sources.

“What’s really happening is a growth of available channels of communication that need to be added into the mix,” says Nelson Bostock, managing director Martin Bostock. “We treat the Web as an extension of what we do.

The virtual pub
“Years ago, if someone was thinking about buying something, there were relatively limited sources of information,” he says. “They would read ads, perhaps buy a specialist magazine and ask a couple of their mates down the pub. [But now] you have access to a million ‘mates down the pub’.”

Thankfully, it is possible to monitor which “pubs” those mates are in, and talk to them.

Bite PR tracks the most active online communities. “Our Netwatch service monitors sites and blogs to find out what people are saying about our clients’ brands,” says associate director Paul Thompson.

Bostock points to Sony as a company that has engaged successfully with social networking media. It tackled bad press on delays to PlayStation3 by explaining the reasons for the delays in order to keep frustrated customers in the loop.

Eulogy! managing director Adrian Brady says: “Consumers have a right to express their views. Brands have to acknowledge and address that, so they can do a more effective job. If you give the audience the right message at the right time, they will accept it.”

Honesty is essential and cannot be manufactured: fake blogs (or “flogs”) will be quickly exposed. Wal-Mart recently found itself in hot water when its PR company Edelman ran a fake blog ostensibly from two ordinary people on a road trip across the US that extolled the virtues of the supermarket chain.

“The guiding principle of being successful is: if you are useful to the network, the network will be useful to you,” says Spannerworks head of media and content Antony Mayfield. “If you have information or content that people in the network want to use, make it easy for them to access it.”

Mayfield points to Sony Bravia as a brand that has done this with great success, by making its bouncing balls and paint ads freely available to download. Thousands have posted the ads to blogs, MySpace, Bebo and YouTube, where millions have viewed them.

The biggest question facing many brands at the moment is, however, to blog or not to blog? Opinion is divided.

Lexis chief executive Hugh Birley is unequivocal: “When clients come to me and ask if we should be doing a blog for them, the answer in most cases is no. Clients have to come to terms with the cost of that massive channel.”

For technology companies, blogging is already compulsory. “As a brand, you need to be blogging,” says Rainier managing director Stephen Waddington. “Discussion of your brand is in the hands of third parties and you need to be a part of that.”

Free to use
Another element that is completely changing the way PR is carried out for the Web is the need to generate materials that are “online-friendly”, suggests Threepipe Communications director Jim Hawker. “Access to images, video and so on must be made freely available if the online community is to use them,” he says.

Podcasts offer marketers more visual and interactive opportunities – be it for an event or product launch. Video blogs are also taking off, as demonstrated recently by the YouTube founders who chose that method to announce the sale of the company to Google.

Journalists are also changing the way PR is handled online. They are taking things into their own hands, choosing to use RSS feeds rather than press releases as their primary news sources, so that they can weed out irrelevant information.

The latest innovations are making the job of PR consultancies harder as they strive to keep on top of every information source and create content that is honest and interesting. However, used well, they can enable brands to ascertain what is being said about them and engage in deeper conversations with consumers.•

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