Listen Up: The Blogosphere’s Golden Boy Schools PR On Digital’s Inside Track

When Robert Scoble, former member of the Channel 9 MSDN team (Microsoft's discussion forum used to promote conversations among Windows users), announced he would be leaving the corporation to join as VP of media development, the news spread in a rather ... untraditional way. It was 2003, and he was speaking at a relatively small industry event. During a casual Saturday morning discussion, he told approximately 15 people that he would be leaving his post, asking them to keep the news quiet until Tuesday, when he would be making a formal announcement. By 7 p.m. that evening, there was a story posted online from a source in New York - a person who was completely removed from and unrelated to the conference. By 11 p.m., the story was all over the blogosphere, with over 100 stories/comments about the announcement. By the next morning, Scoble was fielding calls for job offers all over the place, and he hadn't even officially resigned. The Communications Implication: Listen Up Even in the Stone Age of 2003, the network of digital communications platforms was a force to be reckoned with. Scoble told the tale of his ascent to cyber-celebrity (just Google "Robert" and see what pops up first) and gave his tour of the Internet at the Counselors Academy Spring Conference, while addressing an audience of agency professionals on how Web sites you've probably never heard of can (ahem, must) enhance their communications portfolio. But before ever getting into the multitude of Web options, the first step, he says, is just a matter of listening. "Business people are trained at how to talk 'out.'" Scoble says. " We were never trained on how to listen because we've never had to, but this is a two-way media. With Google, blogs and the word-of-mouth network, you can see it and interact with it. The problem is that most companies don't understand the power of talking to a small audience on a blog." Scoble addressed the point that many communications - and general corporate - professionals still overlook niche blog audiences in favor of more general, widespread media targets. They want to "talk" to traditional media instead of "listening" to the influential network of bloggers. But, as the story of Scoble's resignation from Microsoft proves, audience size doesn't necessarily matter - it's the impact of the message and the connectivity of the people it reaches that does. In the words of Scoble, "It's not about a huge audience - it's about an influential audience." Don't Have Something Nice To Say? It's Better To Say Nothing At All This mantra may hold true in etiquette schools, but this is a blog-eat-blog world. When misinformation about an organization is disseminated online, some counselors urge companies to wait it out and resist responding. Scoble disagrees, saying, "Journalists are now looking for any information to counter a point. If you see something happening, you better correct it quickly and furiously. Get your CEO on camera saying it's not true. If there isn't a response, people will either assume that the news is true, or that you just don't care." Urging communicators to consider blogs and other online platforms as viable communications channels, he gave the audience a cyber tour of the sites he finds most applicable to the current business climate (see sidebar). He also offered tips for those who face resistant managers and clients, as a risk-averse culture is still the number-one obstacle in adopting a digital lifestyle. "Corporate culture is like a membrane," Scoble says. "At some companies, that membrane is like a drum - very taut. At others, it's a balloon. You can push, and it will expand. At Microsoft, we took risks slowly. When the company survived them, they let it happen more freely." Scoble refers to his tenure at Microsoft because it was a storied one. Hired to produce videos that showcased Microsoft's employees and products, Scoble introduced an open and honest communications style. While he championed many products, he never hesitated to criticize certain company practices. Plus, the level of access he allowed his audience was unprecedented. It was a lesson in transparency and customer engagement, and, though controversial at times, it gave the company's image a much-needed makeover. According to a February 15, 2005, article in the Economist: "He [Scoble] has become a minor celebrity among geeks worldwide, who read his blog [] religiously. Impressively, he has also succeeded where small armies of more conventional public-relations types have been failing abjectly for years: he has made Microsoft, with its history of monopolistic bullying, appear marginally but noticeably less evil to the outside world, and especially to the independent software developers that are his core audience." How, Now? With this Microsoft PR coup as a backdrop, consider these Scoble-approved tips to engage the world of digital communicators and bloggers: Learn the impact of video. Do YouTube searches on your industry. Start small with video demos of your company's product or service. Then link to the video from your corporate site. Every time you meet a customer, ask how he/she finds information about your industry. Take note and incorporate that into your communications mix, because this day-and- age is all about direct connections with individual customers. Visit sites like Twitter to see who people are and what they blog about. This will show non-obvious connections between audiences. Don't rely on search-engine optimization. "[Search-engine optimization] is like putting salt on a good pasta meal," Scoble says. "If you have good pasta, a little bit of salt will taste great. But you have to have the meal in the first place." Don't just pitch bloggers - hang out with them. Attend blogger conferences like the Blog Business Summit to connect with bloggers on a personal level and to get a taste of their world. Develop relationships with bloggers the same way you would a reporter. After all, like it or not, bloggers are reporters now. CONTACT: Robert Scoble, The Most Influential Sites You've Never Heard Of This site automatically generates a news summary every five minutes, "drawing on experts and pundits, insiders and outsiders, media professionals and amateur bloggers" to give you the need-to-know-now low-down. It's a great site to add to your RSS feed, especially if your position requires you to be up-to-date on industry news. (Really, that should encompass every communications executive.) Much like Memeorandum, this site wades through technology-related stories on blogs and news outlets, surfacing the links on one central source. It's an ideal way to keep up with the constantly changing technology, whether you are a bonafide member of the digerati or not. This site allows anyone and everyone to create their own interactive TV channel on their Web site, blog, social network or mobile phone. Why on Earth should you, a communications professional, be interested? It's the intersection point between online video and social networking, and it allows you to create a mash-up of content about your organization. Then, viewers can log-on, contribute, comment and talk live via an online chat. It's the ultimate in connectivity. Google Blog Search takes its ubiquitous search-engine technology and applies it directly to blogs. The search results include every blog that publishes a site feed (either RSS or Atom). You can use this tool to see what the blogger population is saying about your company. Twitter is a social-networking and micro-blogging service that allows users to send updates via SMS, instant-messaging or similar platforms. It is an ideal way to receive constant updates from the sites whose content you care about most, as you can select the updates you want sent directly to you.

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