There’s no endeavor in business that can’t be examined under the light of Peter Drucker’s belief that the mission of every company is to get and keep customers. This is true, even if your product is a widget, service, or even investment capital. One way or the other, you are in the business of serving a constituency who doesn’t necessarily need to use you for what you provide, and once you win them, they don’t necessarily need to stay with you. Whether they do or not is a function of customer service and continued product development. And when they do stay with you over time, winning new customers couples with customer retention, and you’ve probably got yourself a very nice business.
It is in this hard light of fundamental business principles that I define what online public relations campaigns are. There’s a naive definition going around, saying that it’s consists of public relations professionals lurking on the Web, tactically interjecting their opinions so to sway general online attitudes towards the client’s goals. Their tools are comment spamming (astroturfing) and making fake blogs (flogs) where they pose as happy customers (sock puppets). The reason this approach is naive is that it doesn’t hold up over time. Just like the old Built to Last was abandoned during the Web 1.0 boom, in favor of built to flip, the principles of good customer service are sometimes suspended in favor of a built to flip mentality. The problem here is that with flipping, you sold your company and washed your hands of the problems you created. When you’re in it for the long haul, your online public relations campaign had better be an enlightened one.
First of all, everything you do is part of the permanent memory of the Web. Even if you “clean up” old mistakes, the Internet Archive Project might have a copy, along with untold numbers of Web caches and locally saved copies. Don’t ever think that a stupid indiscretion is gone, or that any of your activities are 100% anonymous. And with that in mind, you should always try to keep your nose clean. That’s not to say that you cannot sin boldly, so long as you are ready to take the heat and stand by your decisions, such as I did when I mistook the social news site Reddit as more of a social bookmarking site, like del.icio.us. But in general, it’s better to say who you are, be honest about your motives, and seek out audiences that will be uniquely receptive to your message.
Of course, you don’t have to actively seek out your audiences at all, with a more SEO or HitTail passive approach to online outreach. But such bait-and-wait tactics are not fast enough for everyone, and sometimes you need to give your online public relations campaigns a little more kick. In those cases, we recommend being ready to sink a lot of money into quality people, because it’s tough to get. The fallacy is that because the tools are much more accessible, and bloggers have much lower editorial criteria, it’s easier to spin online stories that will land you audience and customers. The thinking goes, just hire a college intern and show them how to post in comment fields. The truth is that the explosion of voices in the media through blogging has made it all the more difficult to get your message heard, and in order to really make any progress, you need positioning and messaging as carefully planned as any time in the history of marketing, and execution that is even more brilliant.
Take HitTail for example. I can speak to this online campaign because I’m personally participating in it as the online faceman. I also have an excellent support-staff, but Google on HitTail or my name, or a variety of topics related to long tail marketing. There I am. When I reach out to people in the still close-nit circles of online marketing, I almost always get an instant, warm reception. When I do posts on other peoples’ blogs, people are most often flattered that I stopped by. On the rare occasion they flip out on me, their tune changes after a couple of weeks when they start to discover what HitTail really is, and the fundamental shift in online marketing that it represents, and that I cared enough to stop by and speak a few words with them.
For us to find someone else to be the online faceman of this campaign would be difficult, to say the least. And what would we charge to rent ME out to other clients? And could I even do a good job?
Conducting your own online public relations campaign can be equally challenging, with your particular approach being as uniquely keyed to your business and “players” as I am to HitTail. Is there someone in your company who is already on a blog-like champion campaign, but is clueless about blogging? Perhaps you should follow him/her around with a voice recorder and turn their inspired ramblings into illuminating blog posts for your market. Perhaps you have an endless supply of successfully closed customer support cases that are locked up in your databases that should be marked up and released onto the Internet to show what a world class customer support company you really are. Perhaps it’s a combination of many techniques.
Either way, it’s a custom fit service for your company that’s difficult to outsource, because no one knows your business as well as you. Enter public relations firms. PR companies are one of the few who may indeed know your company better than you do yourself. Why? Because the straight-talking company-to-customer messaging is their domain. WHAT? The use of public relations and straight talking in the same sentence? Yes. Contrary to popular belief, and seasoned public relations company almost becomes an extension of your own company, understanding the workings so well that they can be called upon to speak on your behalf. And that’s exactly what’s required if you intend to use an outside firm for forming new online relationships, which will eventually lead to the winning of new customers, and the retention of the ones you’ve got. How do I know this? Because I too work for a public relations company.