Measuring the Blogosphere and BeyondEver since the online population reached critical mass, the Web has been a viable public relations channel. Companies have built sites to galvanize product promotions, manage crises, enhance media relations, inform the public about their social responsibility initiatives and illustrate thought leadership.
However, they now need to switch gears from feeding information to news outlets to communicating one on one with self-appointed marketers and journalists. Independent, outspoken and influential bloggers have jolted the communication landscape, changing public relations dynamics irreversibly.
According to research from Burson-Marsteller, 31 percent of online public opinion leaders have blogs. The newsmaking process has become a collaborative process between the media and publics. Audiences who follow events through traditional and alternative channels, and sift piles of information to unravel a story, are replacing those who receive news only from well-known media outlets.
To participate in this process with immediate, accurate and continuous information, companies need to designate resources, establish policies, train staff and communicate with online audiences who are readers, producers, journalists and publishers simultaneously.
Instead of fearing scenarios where informal online communications eradicate classic press release formats and media relations strategies, the futurist PR executives can implement the following strategies and seize the business opportunities introduced by blogs:
Keep your hand on the pulse: Partner with online research firms that mine and analyze user-generated media to determine if and how bloggers are buzzing about issues related to your business.
Map your blogosphere: Survey your audience and identify those who actively write and/or read blogs.
Weight your target blogs: Develop quantitative and qualitative metrics to rank the most influential bloggers for your industry. When determining a blog's influence, evaluate the types of links on the blog, frequency of content updates and the credibility of the blog author. Track key stakeholders' awareness and reactions to the blogger's entries.
Solicit blogger feedback: Consider establishing an online network of autonomous bloggers who can review new products and services as guardians of public interest. Participating in blogosphere conversations would underscore your company's transparency.
Build an online information hub: Bloggers build a substantial portion of their content by linking to official sources. Keep them in the loop by providing easy-to-find, current information on your company Web site. Include transcripts of important offline news coverage about your business. Refer your Web site visitors to third-party sites where they can download additional information.
Take questions and reply: Use your company Web site as an interactive forum to answer questions frequently asked by your online and offline stakeholders.
Legalize company blogs: It is crucial for companies to understand that bloggers will exercise their right to freedom of speech. Human resources and legal departments can create guidelines to protect employees who blog and facilitate their conversations with other bloggers.
Stay ahead of the curve: Research communication trends that are likely to follow blogging. Watch companies that develop next-generation communication technologies. Study the media usage habits of early adopters and trendsetters.
Visionaries use technology to create new business opportunities. As seen with music and movie industries, those companies that follow and embrace their audiences' choice for online content gain competitive advantage. The Internet is vast but not amorphous.
Public relations professionals need to take a proactive approach and size up the Web, researching users' online communication habits and capturing the word-of-mouth percolating in public discussion areas. Blogs are only one of the latest formats of user-generated media. Yet they signify the Internet's power in shaping public opinion.