I wrote the following article for Global PR Blog Week 2.0.
There has been much written about blogs since Global PR Blog Week 1.0 as they pertain to public relations: their attributes, their strengths/weaknesses, their power to persuade and their risks, to name a few subjects (check out the New PR Wiki for a plethora of links and resources). What I’d like to do here is to look at blogs a bit differently: to discuss how they are foundational tools for network building.
Over the past year I have become increasingly convinced that the primary function of corporate communications/public relations today is network building. By that I mean that all of our strategies and tactics need to be focused on building, extending and nurturing the entire universe of connections (by which I mean people) possible for an organization. You could argue, of course, that this has always been the function of communications, and you’d be right – to a point. When we identified our key audiences and decided upon the strategies and tactics to use to influence them, we were indeed nurturing a network, but a decidedly lopsided one in which all of the power resided with the organization (at least in its own “mind�?) and the audiences existed to passively consume the information we provided them with. Now, I don’t want to endlessly parse this portrait of traditional command/control communications here. Rather, I want to explore how blogs, in particular, and participatory communications tools in general, can be powerful tools for building more complex and more effective networks.
First of all, why this focus on networks? What is so special about them? The way I usually explain it is this: By investing in, building or hosting the connections, links or pathways between and among your key audiences, you will be well positioned to use these networks over time to persuade people to action, to respond to a crisis, to leverage current market conversations and to improve your business overall. To put it in slightly more technical terms, I am relying on interpretations of Metcalfe’s Law and Reed’s Law. The former states that the value of the network is the approximately the square of the number of users. The latter states that when you enable connections between nodes on the network to take place, the value of the network grows exponentially. What that means for our subject is that you should be motivated to grow your network in terms of numbers of connections as well as to enable members of that network to communicate with each other as well as with your organization. Participatory communications tools like blogs are particularly well designed to help you do both of these things.
By focusing on network building, we move away from the hyperbole of BLOG and begin to think about how to use blogs pragmatically, as powerful communications tools. A prime reason blogs are such good tools for network building is that they are link-heavy, and the link is the core technology for making networks visible. I believe the visibility of a network contributes to its effectiveness because that very visibility reinforces its presence and influence to its members.
There are already tools available to help you visualize the network of connections an organization, or a person, has. For example, there are a variety of sites in which you can type in a url and immediately receive a graphical representation of its links (e.g., Opte Project, MyDensity.com) or track online conversations (Blogpulse, Technorati, PubSub). By examining these links, nodes and connections, a professional communicator can quickly grasp where the most influential connections lie. As time goes by, and these tools become more sophisticated, they will become ever more important to the public relations function.
In the past, it was much more difficult to see your network, as connections had little sharable physical manifestation. A business card sitting in a rolodex on your desk is a far more difficult to assign value to vs. a visible link on a website or blog. One of the implications of this visibility is that it makes the results of our work more easily measurable, making our work more justifiable (always nice at budget time).
To restate then, blogs are important tools for network building because they give you a place to generate visible links, both incoming and outgoing. By enabling comments and encouraging trackbacks, you are creating visible links. By commenting and trackbacking yourself to other blogs, wikis, websites and so forth, you are also creating links. That is why it is so important that, beyond just producing a blog yourself, you are contributing to others.
We can find another argument for using blogs as network-building tools in the social networking concepts of strong ties and weak ties. According to Wikipedia, “Strong ties are those such as kin relations and close personal friends,�? and weak ties are “loose acquaintances such as those connections made at a party.�? Mark Granovetter, in his groundbreaking article, “The Strength of Weak Ties�? (The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 78, No. 6., May 1973), argued that “weak ties…are more important for personal advancement, such as getting good jobs, than the strong ties of family and friendship.�? Robert Putnam developed this theory a bit further in his book, Bowling Alone, where he surmises that weak ties act as “bridging social capital�?. A bridging form of social capital is “outward looking and encompass[es] people across diverse social cleavages.�? (Bowling Alone, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000, 22) Furthermore, “bridging networks…are better for linkage to external assets and for information diffusion…Moreover, bridging social capital can generate broader identities and reciprocity…�? (ibid, 23)
My argument is that as professional communicators, we need to focus on building these weak ties via online networks. This doesn’t mean abandoning the activities we already pursue via in-person and other forms of communications, of course, but we should start viewing these activities as part of our overall network-building objective.
The challenge with this objective is that it is extremely tricky to build the social capital needed to nurture network building online. People are very quick to point their virtual fingers at corporations who misstep, and they are not inclined to believe anything corporations say these days. We have witnessed a mass breakdown of social capital between corporations and people over the past couple of decades, and that will not be overcome easily or quickly. However, the consequences of this breakdown can be severe (decreased share price, talent recruitment problems, over regulation, etc.) and it would well behoove corporations to begin mending these bridges sooner rather than later. Blogs represent a new, powerful tool for doing just this. As I have written before, it isn’t as simple as just launching a blog. Rather, corporate representatives have to be active contributors to the conversation.
One of the core mantras of public relations is that having someone else speak credibly (and positively one hopes!) about your organization and its products or services is more valuable in terms of persuading people to take positive action than a corporation speaking for itself. This remains true in the blogosphere. The challenge is to first find the influential people (not tremendously difficult) and to enter into an ongoing conversation with them (the hard part for corporations). A lone PR person trying to speak on behalf of his or her corporation isn’t enough. Rather, one should consider viewing his or her entire organization as full of spokespeople: employees, partners, customers – in fact, all relevant audiences. These people are already talking to each other at meetings, tradeshows, on the phone, and at the local pub. They talk about your organization, make recommendations and offer criticisms. Increasingly, they are doing it online, where they can easily link up, driving increased visibility of corporate issues (and, sometimes, dirty laundry). These people already have weak ties/bridging social capital with other individuals and groups. Isn’t it better to engage with them, so you can gain access to these bridged networks vs. trying to create the bridges yourself (which, in some cases, may not be possible)? These audiences also represent scale. Their sheer numbers can be a tremendously valuable asset when you are trying to grow a broad network! Companies like IBM and Sun have recognized this and embraced employee blogging.
Network building requires communications professionals to acquire new skills and utilize new tools. Given how new some of these are many of their longer-term implications are difficult to predict. Furthermore, fast and furious changes in technology and social practices increase the challenge. The good news is that there is a strong group of worldwide professionals, represented here, who are working very hard to understand this new world and share our thoughts and experiences with our colleagues. I can’t think of a more interesting time to be a professional communicator!
As always, I am very interested to hear you reaction to the ideas presented here. Please feel free to comment or contact me directly at ealbrycht at gmail dot com.