More than a decade after blogging began, this simple publishing platform's users remain the dread of communications, public relations and public affairs pros. This gives me scant hope for the flexibility, creativity and savvy of my profession, I have to say. Tactics range from "we don't work with them" policies, like the one Target uses, to lots of anxious hair-pulling and nail-biting. And when in doubt, blaming "the bloggers" has become the default modus operandi at many fine institutions--a sure sign to me that you haven't really thought through your media relations approach for today's realities.
This happens, I might add, at institutions and companies that like to talk about openness, public information, public outreach missions and yes, transparency. This week, NASA slipped and showed us the oh-no t-shirt under its normal we're-all-about-the-outreach pinstripes, and it didn't have Superman's "S" on it.
In this post from Embargo Watch, reporter Ivan Oransky--a Reuters Health journalist and author of two blogs--shares the email reaction to bloggers of a NASA press officer, Dwayne Brown. Oranksy had inquired whether NASA had any reflections on what's known as the #arseniclife announcement, which created a firestorm of speculation on the Internet after NASA announced a press conference using the words "extraterrestrial life." Here's how Brown responded, in writing, to the seasoned journalist/blogger:
It’s easy to play Monday morning quarterback. However, the statement was accurate.
The real issue is that the reporting world has changed because of the Internet/bloggers/social media, etc. A “buzz” term like ET will have anyone with a computer put out anything they want or feel. NASA DID NOT HYPE anything – others did. Credible media organizations have not questioned NASA about any text. Bloggers and social media have……..it’s what makes our country great—FREEDOM OF SPEECH.
The discussion now is about the science and next steps.
The boldface emphasis is mine, but the all-caps are all Brown's.
I see myriad public affairs issues with this email, but it's the blame-the-bloggers approach (and its cousin, the pit-them-against-reporters approach) I want to highlight. The moment you use "bloggers" as a term that means anything more significant than "users of the same publishing platform," you've already exposed that you don't really understand with whom you are working. NASA compounded this private email error in a public way when Brown, as reported by CBC, noted that the lead scientist "will not be responding to individual criticisms, as the agency doesn't feel it is appropriate to debate the science using the media and bloggers. Instead, it believes that should be done in scientific publications." (Never mind that some of the bloggers are scientists, nor that the journal Science--in which the research was published--was reaching out using social media and engaging public, science and media on the story.)
At its base, media relations has always been about relationships--and you know how far you get in relationships when you start dismissing the gender, race, politics or religion of the person you want to get to know better, or from whom you need something.
- Do get used to the think-out-loud aspects of blogging: In this case, as in many circumstances, a little information can go a long way on the Internet. While reporters chafed under an embargo that kept them from disclosing true details, non-reporter bloggers speculated about this story--and some reporters pointed out cryptically that they were guessing wrong. Guessing and speculation are part of the conversation. When you're the official voice of the news being issued, join that conversation with care--but do join it. NASA started the ball rolling with "extra terrestrial," which Brown's email acknowledges as an incendiary term. So why use it? If the shoe's on the other foot and a blogger is speculating without your help, get in there and correct the record, then stand down. Blame won't help anyone.
- Don't lump all bloggers into one slimy, unsavory group. Almost from the beginning of blogging, it was clear the platform was being put to a myriad of uses. Credentialed journalists blog--and you may want, even need the coverage of non-journalist bloggers. In this case, NASA dismissed bloggers' comments--but some of the bloggers were prize-winning journalists eager to cover the story responsibly, and scientists who could contribute to understanding of the research. Get smart about who's blogging about your topics and your organization, and start there to build a strategy that's more targeted than blanket.
- Do start with your existing policies to credential, and do credential bloggers. Microsoft has a reported 30,000 or more employees who blog about...Microsoft. Yet it merely issues an FAQ to staff bloggers, and reminds them that all the standing policies (like SEC rules and company non-disclosure policies) apply, something that has kept the company from issuing a formal blogging policy. Not all bloggers external to your institution will meet your existing policies, of course, but you may find useful policies and guidance already in place that can be extended to cover bloggers. For example, if you don't currently give press credentials to business marketers, publishers and ad sales teams, you won't extend them to those types of bloggers. To credential bloggers, there are plenty of good examples to follow. At the Supreme Court, where physical space for press is limited, bloggers are credentialed on a case-by-case basis, following existing policy. You can find my examples of 13 well-regarded institutions that credential bloggers here (along with a couple that don't); the list runs the gamut from the White House to Chrysler.
- Do seek consistency in your policies that we all can see and understand. That's why you need to think this through. If, on some days, you want the coverage of Carl Zimmer, New York Times contributor, astute observer of the origins of life and book author, and, on others, he's "just a blogger," you cast the credibility of your policy in doubt. Be consistent. Don't turn the faucet on and off all week.
- Don't be unclear if you're not gonna play with bloggers. I don't advise this, putting it in my dancing on the head of a pin category of communications strategies. But if you are going to follow Target's policy of not working with "non-traditional media" (included in the 13 policies linked above) make it clear and transparent in a published policy. And brace yourself. That fence doesn't mean you're protected.
- Do use common sense. Even the White House misfires on this one, recently getting surprised when bloggers invited to an off-the-record briefing just couldn't help themselves and live-blogged. (This can happen with "real" reporters, too, mind you.) The old "don't say it into a microphone unless you want to read it on the web" rule still applies.
- Don't fail to ask bloggers what they want, need and will adhere to. And if they're giving you feedback, hear it. Brown really floored me when he told Oransky what the discussion was about. This really calls for a don't-tell-do-ask approach. Inquire! It's the best way to avoid looking anxious or defensive, and you'll learn something useful, every time. Better, of course, to do this well ahead of your fire drills, then plan accordingly.
Photo by Brett L. from Flickr, under a Creative Commons license.
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