Thursday, December 29, 2005

Links: Loaded Currency

Richard Edelman's blog has emerged as a "must read" in the PR world. Here is the top executive at the world's largest independent PR agency talking about the future of the craft. His essays are well thought out, well written and always encourage feedback. In fact, whenever I put comments on his blog I receive an email from him directly with a response. These have, quite often, turned into longer email conversations. He is certainly quite accessible.

But Shel Israel over on Naked Conversations believes Edelman doesn't deal enough in the "currency" of the blogosphere: links. "Any blogger soon learns that links are the blogophere's currency. Why is he so damned cheap?" Israel writes.

John Cass wonders if this is a case of "Synthetic transparency." By that he means a blog that offers only lip-service to the ideas of becoming a truly transparent corporation. He concludes that it's not.

But I think the major problem here is that links are a lousy currency. In the blogging world people live and die by them mostly for their search engine value. Get more links, rise in the Google ratings. In fact, PubSub puts out a list of ranked PR blogs. One day I managed to earn a ranking of #6 (right ahead of Naked Conversations) thanks to two or three links from some pretty influential bloggers. It felt good, but didn't lead to much. It didn't change my daily readers much at all, though did provide me with a few additional browsers.

But the best example, for me, is the blog of Brian Stuy, a man who runs a business helping people who have adopted children from China to track down some additional information about their child's birth families and foster mothers. My family recently adopted a daughter from China and is now part of this community. In this group he is relatively well known. His blog posts are long, well researched and also provide some good first-person journalism. I encourage you to reach his post about finding birth-mothers of children adopted by Americans.

But he doesn't get many links in. The traffic is good, but not great, certainly not as large as his comment traffic would suggest. Issues from his blog are often discussed on related online discussion boards, something not taken into account in any kind of search rankings.

In fact, it takes a bit of work on the search engines to find him. Yes, I'm sure I will get comments and emails about his need for search engine optimization, but the fact is, the people he reaches are not particularly tech savvy. So while this is a good way to reach them, it's not like they're all keeping blogs of their own. That may change, but it's not like that today.

Recently I returned to my home town to meet up with a bunch of high school friends. Being steeped in technology myself, I forget that there are many people out there who check email once a day, maybe once a week, and who only turn on their computer when it's necessary. These aren't poor or old people, these are people in their 30s who live in affluent communities like Westport, Conn.

My point? Links are only one way to judge a blog, making the "currency" of links only marginally valuable. How many people does the blog touch? Is it a community worth reaching? Does it spark debate? These are weightier issues and those that are more difficult to answer.

Around the same time I was writing this post, Shel Israel was writing a post regarding a comment he received from Richard Edelman. Edelman acknowledges that Israel is correct and that he should "join the conversation," something he pledges to do in 2006. While good news, this doesn't change the overall problem that links are only one piece of a much larger picture.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Interesting Google Book Search Happening

Something interesting happened to me on my way to a Google Book Search: I was prompted for my login.

I recently picked up my copy of the Wallace Stevens: The Collected Poems and read the poem "Winter Bells." Wanting to know more, I started out on the main Google page, but didn't come up with what I was looking for, so I figured I'd give Google Book Search a try.

One book had restricted content, but when I clicked on another a note came up asking me to log in. I did without even thinking, but a second later I wondered why. I don't need to log in to read any other searches I find from Google.

I'm not sure if this was related to the specific book I selected, whether it's something the publisher requested, or if it's standard practice. I've looked through the site but can't find any relevant information. If anyone has more information I'd be interested in finding out.

A few minutes after writing the above I answered my own question when I ended up in a FAQ that I didn't see before:

Why do I have to log in to see certain pages?

Because many of the books in Google Book Search are still under copyright, we limit the amount of a book that a user can see. In order to enforce these limits, we make some pages available only after you log in to an existing Google Account (such as a Gmail account) or create a new one. If you prefer not to log in but still want to see a few pages, click the "view an unrestricted page" link. Remember, the aim of Google Book Search is to help you discover books, not read them cover to cover, so you may not be able to see every page you're interested in.
Interesting. I don't know if this was part of the original plan or something added after the controversy.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

What Really Matters

I'm not a big fan of the New York Yankees, but I'll give them props for one thing: treating their employees right.

I'm sure there are people within the Yankee organization who will say bad things about their bosses, but let's just look at this from the PR perspective. The big news out of the New York (and Boston) sports scene is the signing of Johnny Damon, the long-haired, bearded and all around fun-to-watch former center fielder for the Boston Red Sox. He has now signed with the Yankees for more money than the Sox would have paid him.

But here's the interesting part: this wasn't all about money. In fact, Damon says he was offered a longer contract worth more per year from another team. So why take less money to play for the Yankees?

You could say it's the team's storied history or its numerous World Series championships, though Boston has a pretty cool history and Damon now has his ring.

No, it's none of that, at least not publicly. According to Damon: "I'm here because [Yankee GM] Brian Cashman was aggressive and George Steinbrenner wanted me.''

It's that simple, he felt wanted. His new teammates called and lobbied him, treated him like a star, and that treatment paid off in evangelism.

But let's not leave the Sox out in the cold here. Johnny's a pretty classy guy and was treated well by the Red Sox over the years. He has not bad mouthed his former team (as others have done) and simply states facts.

Yes, most companies aren't as well known as the Sox or the Yankees, but treating employees (and customers and partners) well and with respect is as much a PR move as it is just good business.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

More on the Little Green Machine

Kerry Howley over at Reason has a very critical piece about the $100 laptop I've written about on this blog. In a very critical piece she does a pretty good job of describing its weaknesses, including the fact that the $100 laptop is only available in bulk purchases of 1 million units.

Over on Emergent Chaos, Adam Shostack points out that $100 is a pretty hefty sum for many smaller and poorer countries, including several in which such a figure exceeds 10 percent of GDP.

But Howley's article directed me to Linspire's Michael Robertson who makes an interesting point on the topic:

Recently, Linspire did some research in several developing PC markets. We traveled around the globe to see how poor people are using PCs. The results were astounding. We saw homes without running water with a very capable PC in one corner that the whole family would use. This wasn't a low-end PC, but a middle-of-the-road machine that the family used for surfing the Internet, playing games, watching movies, listening to music and educating their children.

To buy the computer, the family would take out a loan for $250-$400 and often assemble their own computer (or have it assembled by friends). They did not buy the cheapest computer available to them, but instead insist on getting a fully functioning computer.
It's the same point made by Intel, but this one seems to be backed up by a bit more insight. I'd love to know more about this research.

I'm also wondering if we're looking at the wrong solution. One of my clients points out that it all starts with low-cost, high-volume manufacturing, areas such as apparel. These jobs give people money and encourage the building of an infrastructure (roads, communications, ports, etc) and that leads to the next level of jobs. As they earn more education also becomes important, and a generation later a different level of manufacturing takes hold.

Should we instead, be focusing on bringing manufacturing jobs to these countries and encouraging a must slower progression? Of course, political stability is important before even starting such an endeavor.

Certainly more complex problems than dropping in a million laptops.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Visibility Begins at Home

Alice Marshall, through her blog, directed me to an amusing press release today. The dateline made me laugh.

But then I tried to find out information about the company. When I go to a company Web site, I like to read a bit about it, details like who the founders are, where they're located, what it is they do, who is backing them. This is especially true when the company asks me to download software. How do I know who it's really from?

This site does none of that. It does have a little disclaimer saying that it doesn't have spyware, but to believe that you first have to trust the company itself. I have no evidence to use to trust it.

Yet, ironically, this company deals in a technology that, today, is used primarily to read blogs. Yes, I know that in the future RSS will be so much more, but right now it's about blogs.

Get with the program.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Myth of Control

There's a myth in public relations that you can completely control your message. Yes, it's true you can do your best to make sure your messages are out there and you want to make sure that if you, as the company spokesperson, are speaking, it is within the messages that you have laid out.

But complete control does not exist.

No one "controls" the message better than the current Presidential administration. The George W. Bush White House is known for keeping a strong hand on what information gets out and how it is presented. You can make your own arguments about what this means, I'm not going to get into a political discussion here, but laying out daily "talking points" for members of the party and having the ability to stay "on message" on such issues as Iraq, the War on Terror and even the economy in this modern news environment has been impressive.

But here's where it all falls apart: anonymous sources. Many have probably read my opinions about them before and about how I, as the reader, want to get a sense of who is actually doing the talking.

The December 19 issue of Newsweek contains a very unflattering story about President Bush called "Bush in the Bubble" that paints him as somewhat out-of-touch with what is going on in the rest of the government, if not the world. Written primarily by Evan Thomas and Richard Wolffe, but also reported by Holly Bailey, Daniel Klaidman, Eleanor Clift, Michael Hirsh and John Barry, the story contains no less than 11 anonymous sources to only seven who were directly interviewed and named. This is my own count and in no way scientific, I also have no insight into how the reporting was done or over what period of time.

Most sources are identified by their basic position as a staffer, friend or even "a former senior member of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad." These are pretty specific, which I appreciated.

According to the piece "virtually all White House officials (in this story and in general) refused to be identified for fear of antagonizing the president". In fact, the reporters seemed to run out of ways to characterize this fear, waiving off one identification by noting the subject's "fear of giving offense".

So, why do I note this? Two reasons. First, it shows how good reporting by a professional organization is still necessary as a check on the government. How a key elected leader sees the world is important for the public to know and understand. A blogger working on his or her own would not necessarily have the time, money or staff (note the large number of contributors) to create such a piece.

Second, it shows how no group can truly control the message in this modern day. Even without Newsweek breathing down your neck, any organization that tries to completely control the message by shutting down or quieting dissent will only find that dissent in the public anonymously. If the President and his top aides cannot keep their own staff quiet, how can the CEO of a small company?

Even with all this apparent fear, these staffers still spoke to reporters for a prominent publication. And I guarantee they KNEW to whom they were speaking. I'm confident these staffers, friends and officials were not tricked into saying things against the President, since they knew enough to conceal their identity.

You can do your best to work with reporters, present them with your story and make sure they have all the materials they need to properly represent your company and your messages, but in at the moment when the fingers hit the keyboard, only the reporter knows what shows up on the screen. The same holds true for bloggers, who may be your customers, employees and partners. Secrecy and forced silence may seem like an enticing policy for a while, but it always risks falling apart.

Is that a risk you are willing to take?

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Watching TV Across the Divide

TV is now a necessity for many people. Think about where we all turned for information during 9/11 or the images sent to us in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In today's society, even with the vast amounts of information sent over the Web, we need TV (and radio) for its immediacy in delivering information.

But when it's not feeding us necessary information the flashing box in the corner is feeding us ads. So I've been thinking how much money I hand over the TV industry just so they can feed me those ads.

Back when my wife and I were first married we bought a TV with a bit of our wedding money. It cost about $350 at the Bon Ton in Binghamton, N.Y. and has lasted about 10 years now. It still sits in my living room, hooked up to a small stereo system that includes a bit of surroundsound, a DVD player that cost us about $100 and a now-hardly-used VCR. We also have DirecTV with one of the more basic packages, costing us about $50 a month--I have DirecTV just so I can get the New York Jets games up here in New England. I debate about that expense every year.

Now the FCC has announced that in a few years we'll all need to switch to HDTV systems in order to watch even broadcast TV. Any HDTV that you would put in your living room will probably run you about $800 on the low end. Most people are spending more than $1000 on these things. That's a lot of money when you consider that you can buy a traditional TV set, no matter how small, for less than $100.

And this is just for the transmissions pulled from the air.

Then there is the DVR, the revolution started by TiVo and ReplayTV that basically makes it easier to watch TV when you want instead of when it's scheduled.

My wife and I haven't yet invested in TiVo. Frankly, we see it as just another expense to throw at our TV. Is it really such an important part of our lives that we need to have all this programming available whenever we want? I'm sure we'll get it at some point, but for now the money can go elsewhere.

Still, the DVR is a growing trend, one that Nielson has now recognized, much to the chagrin of traditional broadcast and cable properties. Nielson plans to report numbers for the day of broadcast, one day later and one over the week following the initial broadcast. For now advertisers will balk since DVR viewers are seen as less-likely to watch ads. But over time product placement people will probably embrace the numbers. In fact, you will probably hear shows touting how they're reaching a more "upscale audience" thanks to DVR. In other words, "poor people may watch us, but more rich people are watching us more because they have technology that poor people can't afford."

This isn't really new. Right now you hear how bloggers are a more "influential" or "upscale" audience. In the 50s you heard the same thing said about the viewing public, thought today we call it the "golden age of television." This notion will change over time as the price of technology falls and reaches the less affluent.

But for now it means that to gain the very basic information people need, many will need to pony up cash they may not have.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Godsend or Gadget

A few weeks ago I wrote about the $100 laptop unveiled by the folks at MIT. It turns out that the great minds at the Design Contiuum had a hand in designing it--they're located up the street from me and are responsible for some beautiful products including the Swiffer.

Regardless, today Intel Chairman Craig Barrett called it a "gadget." This isn't that surprising, as the device wouldn't use Intel chips and wouldn't run Microsoft software.

Miguel de Icaza has long said that emerging economies who make deals with Microsoft are selling their own soul. His argument is that people on the poor end of the spectrum need access to technology in order to advance, and being locked into an expensive and closed system from Microsoft limits that access. He would prefer these countries use open source software, which is cheaper and encourages involvement by those using it. Meaning, people are more likely to start learning to code to make the software do what they need it to do.

To be fair, de Icaza has a stake in this as he's one of the leaders of the open source movement and also founded Ximian, which early in its evolution specialized in open source desktops.

The machines, as designed, rely on Linux and other open source systems. Nicholas Negroponte pointed out that by using simpler software the machines don't need to be as complex as the computers we use every day and can still be as useful.

Barrett apparently doesn't think so. According to Reuters:

But Barrett said similar schemes in the past elsewhere in the world had failed and users would not be satisfied with the new machine's limited range of programs.

"It turns out what people are looking for is something is something that has the full functionality of a PC," he said. "Reprogrammable to run all the applications of a grown up PC... not dependent on servers in the sky to deliver content and capability to them, not dependent for hand cranks for power."

For their part, Intel and Microsoft are working toward similar goals and you can make your own judgments as to who has more altruistic goals. Regardless, I like what I've seen so far from the folks at MIT and I'm looking forward to reading more about these devices in the future.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Pulitzer to Recognize Some Online Journalism

The Pulitzer committee voted to recognize some online content in its prizes. Specifically, the content must be connected in some way to a print publication. The Pulitzer Web site has most of the information, including a PDF of the new rule.

There is some carping about the fact that these awards will be tied to print journalism. Most agree that it's a step, though not a big one. Jeff Jarvis calls it a "wimpy step."

In the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) Salon Editor in Chief Joan Walsh offers up the following:

"They have to figure out a way to honor the very best journalism‚… and not merely protect the newspaper industry, which is kind of what this decision looks like," said Joan Walsh, editor-in-chief of Salon, a 10-year-old online publication. "Over time, they are going to have to confront some definitional issues, no question about it. If they want to follow their readers, they should start by being more creative about their decisions."
This would actually be a fundamental shift in what the Pulitzers are. Right now there are no broadcast Pulitzers, the closest is the Columbia DuPont Awards, which are also awarded by Columbia University, though less well known. So the Pulitzers do not represent the best in journalism, only the best in PRINT journalism. This decision actually recognizes the fact that print publications are doing more work on the Web.

A few years ago Sreenath Sreenivasen, current dean of the J-school, helped launch the Online Journalism Awards, which aimed to be the online equivalent of the Pulitzer Prizes. I haven't heard much buzz about them in the past few years, so I'm not sure how much traction they received.

Regardless, the Pulitzer board recognized what it needed to recognize: that it's own constituency is doing good work that doesn't end up in print. As for awarding journalism that only appears online, that's a different decision altogether.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

So, is Anonymous Your Real Name?

A client once came to me about a comment on his blog that he felt used offensive language. He wasn't sure if he should remove it or just let it stand, as it came from a reader and made a good point.

My advice was simple: "you are the Editor in Chief of your own blog. If you feel it's offensive, you can edit it." Of course, it's not that simple. Each corporate blogger should develop a code of ethics when starting on this endeavor. In this case he was able to edit the comment, but also email the author of the comment and let that person know it had happened and why.

As a corporate blogger you don't want to sanitize your blog and get rid of all the negative comments, but if you're a CEO and the blog is tied to your own company, you also don't want to be foolish either. This balance needs to be set and stated from the start, in an open and plain manner.

I thought about this when I read Mark Jurkowitz's blog today. In a post about the dismissal of Todd Gross as chief meteorologist of 7 News here in Boston (full disclosure: I worked with Todd in the 90s when I was a morning producer at 7 News) he noted how an anonymous poster put up some negative comments about Todd. Mark points out:

If I were writing a story about Gross and had spoken to the source making the accusations, I'd a) have to use my judgment about the source's credibility and motives and b) then convince my editors to go along with such an anonymous attack on Gross. But here in the blogosphere, it's just unvetted information that may actually be on the money or just plain mean-sprited. There's no way of knowing. And there's no easy solution.
This is similar to the argument I've made before about anonymous sources in traditional journalism. Without more information, we as readers cannot make our own decision. In this case Mark turned into a "reader" of his own blog.

In the comments area Mark was called on just that point by someone who actually identified himself:
And yet you (as author and editor of this blog) choose to let this anonymous slander stand instead of removing it as a responsible editor should.

That makes YOU responsible for the comment.
Mark responded by removing the comment, which was the right thing to do. But I'm happy he let us into his thought process.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Ethicist in the Boardroom?

During a discussion with Phil Libin a while back he suggested that companies should have an ethicist on board. More specifically, he suggested an outside ethics consultant to help keep them on track.

It certainly seems like an intriguing concept given the recent business history that has brought us to such legislation as Sarbanes Oxley. But while that law, and others like it, focus on the financial obligations of a public company, who's concentrating on making sure all companies, public and private, treat their customers, employees and partners with respect?

Google likes to say that one of its core values is to "do no evil," but as I've suggested before, "evil" is subjective. In Saturday's Boston Globe, Robert Kuttner points out that Google collects a lot of information about its users, information that could easily be turned against us. Let's assume that the government needs that information for a criminal prosecution, is it good to give it over or is it good to protect it? Which part would be less evil? What if we're talking about a terrorism investigation, does that change the equation?

Google collects this information for its own business reasons, but is that good as in, "good for the shareholders" or is it evil as in "infringing on privacy"? It certainly lets Google become a more useful service, but how long should it hold onto that information? And what other purposes can they use it for? Not easy questions to be sure.

Also, once a conflict comes up, what is the right response? Is it a corporate business issue or just a communications issue?

In a discussion about Sony's DRM problems Shel Holtz, in a "For Immediate Release" podcast, suggested that if a communicator had a spot in Sony's executive suite, it's possible that the company may not have tried to spy on its customers.

I only partially agree. Sony's executives needed someone, but that person needed more skills than just communications. Sony's executives needed an ethical consultant who understands technology, it's possibilities, marketing, communications and a bit about modern society. Someone who can keep an outside perspective but still offer advice. But also one that has a strong understanding of who Sony serves most of all: the shareholders.

I think it's Adam Curry who says "there are no secrets, only information you don't yet know." Interesting saying, but when a company is beholden to both its shareholders and its customers (yes, I know there is overlap) then sometimes you need a corporate secret or two, and sometimes secrets should, in fact, be information.

The need for such a consultant will only grow as communication technologies continue to advance. The barriers between customers and companies continue to come down, leaving the companies directly exposed to their consumers.

Really what we're talking about, in a sense, is a corporate ombudsman. I've always been amused by the phrase "customer representative" because a person in that role doesn't represent the customer to anyone, they just represent the company to the customer. Really they're a corporate representative, but that doesn't sound nearly as good. Turn the job around--we need a customer's voice within the company.

But will CEOs accept the advice of such an ombudsman or ethicist?

Saturday, December 03, 2005

The Rats Nest

A colleague of mine started working on a proposal this week that included blog outreach. So he came to me asking for advice about what blogs to target and how to search out new ones.

I find that most PR people are looking for simple answers. When it comes to media we have some pretty basic lists that hit most of the big groups, then use MediaMap to fill in blanks. The lists we present aren't a be-all-and-end-all lists, but offer a good solid starting point.

Blogs are more complex, since they come and go, some have credibility and some don't, yet all show up on Google searches.

So to accomplish this task we started with a few sites we knew, then punched terms into Google's Blogsearch engine, and looked for links in Technorati. We also spent some time on Blogpulse and clicked through blogrolls.

A few hours later he showed up back in my office saying "My God! This is a Rat's Nest!" He's right, this isn't an easy process and it's up to each team to decide whether it's worth the time investment. Frankly, I prefer the term "maze," but that's just me.

Later another colleague asked me about a podcast he wanted to pitch. I told him what I new, but cautioned him not to send just a generic pitch, that he had to listen to the podcast and then craft something specific.

"That's what we should be doing for all reporters," he said. "But who has time?"

Back when I started at my current company each person worked on only three accounts, most of which had teams of five or more people. These clients paid a lot of money and there were a lot of publications, since this was at the height of the dot com bubble. They also received a lot of covearge for their cash.

But over the last few years teams have gotten smaller (as have fees) and the number of print publications diminished as well. Yet, our jobs have become more difficult as it's become more difficult to get into the publications that are left. News holes are smaller and journalists, burned by fly-by-night dot coms, are must core skeptical.

Oh, and we now have four, five or six clients per person. So our workload has increased, fees have fallen and the job has gotten tougher, meaning we have less time to research but more demands.

So here come blogs, which demand that you pay attention, engage in conversation and know about the blog. This is nothing new. Read through the bio on any MediaMap entry and you'll see a reporter scolding PR people to "read and understand the publication before pitching." Good advice. And the best PR people do just that.

Still, you can't do it for everyone. You may carefully research a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe or New York Times, as the reach and prestige are pretty high, but just throw a pitch at some of the smaller publications. It's not that you don't care, but you have to balance client need with the time you have to spend. Basic calculations. Of course, some clients may consider the Boston Business Journal to be more important and influential to their audience than the Times, which changes your equation a bit.

Then there are the bloggers, who are territorial about their own little piece of cyberturf, speak to smaller audiences, but are just as important to add to the PR mix, and you have a much more complex picture.

Just careful you don't get lost in the maze.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Found Something Strange Today

I opened my paper version of the Boston Globe to find a very thin classified section stuffed into the Sidekick. Just eight pages of real estate listings and a few jobs.

Granted it's the Friday paper, so it tends to be a smaller classified section anyway. But the fact that it was in the younger-leaning Sidekick caught my eye. Maybe an attempt to get people to notice it? Become more relevant?

Or maybe it was just a trick of layout and priting press placement. Either way, worth watching.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Escaping Through the Back Door

That image keeps coming to mind as I think about journalists and their reaction to the blogosphere. You keep hearing top dogs at big papers lamenting the loss of readers to the online world or the loss of journalistic credibility to "bloggers in pajamas."

But while they're guarding the front door, the revenue keeps slipping out the back. Today the Pew Internet Project is out with a study about how classified advertising is keeps moving to the Internet, specifically to Craigslist. I know I've used Craigslist in the past when I trying to sell something easily and would never THINK of buying an ad in the Boston Globe. In the past I've given away a washing machine and sold a mountable microwave and an Adams Trail-A-Bike. I also bought a beautiful oak desk/armoire. I haven't touched the Globe classifieds since the late 90s.

Moving to online classifieds isn't about younger kids, it's about GenX. According to the study, 26 percent of people between the ages of 29 and 40 sell things online. That's more than the 18 to 28 group (17 percent) and users over 40 (13 percent).

But Craigslist itself better watch out, because bigger changes are afoot. Google has launched Google Base, which is one such classified service, and now Microsoft is next with its service currently called Freemont. Charlene Li notes that Microsoft's is especially interesting because it includes the ability to exchange goods with a circle of friends. Kind of like a social networking tool with goods.

So newspapers better figure out a way to lock the back door, or at least look for a new revenue stream.