PR professionals are wise to think a bit differently about how to craft messages before sending them into the digital media, including the blogosphere, RSS feeds, chats and online social networks. Why?
Simply put, digital media is a place where your message can be revised and interpreted or misinterpreted to a greater degree and frequency than when printed or aired in the traditional press. When only sent to the traditional press outlets, the impact of your message relies heavily on frequency and reach and less on excellence of content. A reporter doing his/her job might quote you or use your information, but their job is to report, not to simultaneously edit and interpret.
Digital media and the Internet present a nonlinear, every-which-way kind of dynamic system where your message on the screen may not even closely resemble its original form. To some, digital media may seem like a risky, random, even chaotic place to send your message ....and it is. So, careful consideration based on the specific objectives of your public relations program must be taken before you decide to enter this world.
Given this landscape, how do you approach message development and dissemination differently in digital media?
Qualitative, Not Quantitative - The first rule is to concentrate on how strong your message can be and how well it can survive in the chaotic digital media world. This may sound Darwinian, but taking a hard look at your messages' DNA will determine if they are fit to survive. A strong message should be devoid of platitudes and trimmed of generic phrasing. Ask yourself and your team if your message is too similar to any other perspective, product/service attribute, issue or even another industry, and that will be your litmus test for durability. If it falls in this category, it's back to the drawing board. It also has to be honest and in-line with messages sent elsewhere. According to a Senior Director of External Communications at a major global pharmaceutical company: "Sure, the digital version of your message has to be more clear and concise than your messages sent to the traditional press and, perhaps, without the fluff. But the core should be consistent also." No message will be fool-proof, but how many different ways can someone construe it and how can you find out? Test it.
Sample Message Runs - With digital media, there are built-in (and free, by the way) focus groups for your message. Try your message out on a certain blog and see how it survives, how it gets interpreted and what it looks like with time. Once you have established that your message is durable, the next important question is whether it is influential and catalyzing. Does it spur discussion? Your efforts should create, stir and manage debate among user groups, individuals, bloggers, constituents, societies, organizations, etc. This is a departure from thinking of results just in terms of impressions, circulation, readership/viewership and general demographics. There is risk to be sure, but the targets are more accurate and the upside is higher. This relatively new atmosphere recalls an old, tried and true PR tactic.
The Grassroots Revival - A grassroots PR effort is one driven by the community. Digital media revives grassroots efforts because the system itself is largely driven by the user. As anyone in PR knows, the term grassroots defines an effort that at least has the appearance of being born out of a constituent or community group and communication on the topic is spontaneous and not arranged by existing media structures. So going "old school" with digital media can work quite well. But don't get caught "faking it." Often referred to as "astroturfing," faking a grassroots effort in digital media happens when PR professionals and company spokespeople mask who they are and voice their opinion as if they are just another Web constituent. As PR pros, our job is to establish and manage, not impersonate. Take, for example, what happened to John Mackey, CEO at Whole Foods who tried to be just one of the commentators and didn't identify himself when bashing competitors and hyping his company's stock on Yahoo! Message boards. When he was "outed" he brought himself a world of bad publicity that he is still suffering from.
Lessons Learned and Intelligence Gathering - These have always been, and certainly remain, two of the most important activities a PR pro can do to bring value to the company or client and write an even more effective program for the next term. And, with digital media, the information you can obtain is far greater and richer than ever before. Traditionally, you were left with a few numbers and vague measurements on reaction, response and perception change (if any). Today, you can often find written and voiced, specific and instant responses to your message. This information is priceless.
So, the gap between advertising and public relations widens. Very few leaflet drops for PR. Digital media has been around long enough and so many people are using it that it must be weighed as an option in your PR program. But, it requires careful consideration and risk analysis, and it relies heavily on your ability to craft a message with chaotic stamina.
Jerry Doyle is the executive vice president of CommCore Consulting Group. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.