Word-of-Mouth PR Redefines The Concept of Lip Service

When it comes to spreading the word in a PR campaign, every PR professional knows that the messenger is just as important as the message. "You have to have the right spokesperson," says Gene Grabowski, vice president of Levick Strategic Communications in Washington, DC. "Someone who looks like and sounds like the audience. If the audience doesn't identify with your message, your message falls on deaf ears." But what if the messenger in question is the audience itself? Therein lies the influence of word-of-mouth PR: Putting the power and ownership in the hands of the public. In the midst of a seemingly endless communications clutter, word-of-mouth PR can be a breath of fresh air as consumers turn to their peers to get the scoop before investing in products, services or companies. "It's no longer about you," says Rick Murray, president of Edelman's Me2Revolution Group, of the communications experts. "People are turning to people like themselves. Word-of-mouth is helping to push people in that direction." "It's very persuasive," says Brad Fay, COO of the Keller Fay Group, New Brunswick, NJ, about word-of-mouth PR. "It's highly credible when it's something you know and trust. It's a very quick way to get the message out of something you care about." Indeed, person-to-person communications seems to trump the Internet as the alpha and omega of communications. According to TalkTrack, Keller Fay's proprietary word-of-mouth monitoring system, 72% of all word-of-mouth connection happens face-to-face, 21% happens by telephone and only 6% is online. (This data comes from a survey conducted last spring of 3,600 TalkTrack participants ages 13 and over.) "The Internet has been a powerful accelerator for word-of-mouth PR and as a source of information source, but the vast majority of word-of-mouth happens offline," Fay says, who notes this may explain why so many people continue to shop at Wal-Mart despite the many negative Net references it has generated. "When you're looking at just the blogs, there is negativity, but when you look at Middle America, they see it as Wal-Mart coming to town with low prices. For them, Wal-Mart is a good thing." Listen Carefully Leveraging a successful word-of-mouth PR campaign relies on what PR professionals should be doing: Listening. But listening to what consumers are saying about a particular product or service is only part of it; just as important is being able to know where consumers are saying it and how they are saying it. Murray likens this to being part of a cocktail party. "Before going to one, you find out who's there," he says. "Do some digging. Listen to the conversation before you butt your way into it." Yet too many companies either cannot or will not listen - and the results of such tactics could be lethal. "In word-of-mouth, if you take that approach, you will fail," Murray continues. "You have to function like a two-way street and that's what word-of-mouth is about. You have to listen, you have to respond." The real challenge, however, is to plant enough buzz to push the word-of-mouth efforts into a far and wide environment. "You want to drive conversation," says Dave Bartel, president of BzzAgent in Boston. "You should be asking with every program: Will this get people to talk about me? It all comes down to what services or product is worth talking about. What do you have to offer? What are they [consumers] going to do? What tools can you create for them - email, phone, online social networking?" BzzAgent has a database of over 2,000 volunteers to spread the word-of-mouth of a product or service of their choosing through a list of activities. BzzAgent garners 150 inbound requests from potential clients per month. Yet Bartel acknowledges such tactics aren't for universal consumption. "Not every company is ready for word-of-mouth," says Bartel. "Some companies are accepting the change, but some are leery about engaging consumers directly. It seems that the norm is becoming if you don't engage the consumers directly, you're not only doing a disservice to them but also to your product." CONTACTS: Gene Grabowski, ggrabowski@levick.com; Robert Murray, Robert.Murray@edelman.com; Brad Fay; bfay@kellerfay.com; Dave Balter, 617.451.2280.

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