It was a quiet, friendly dinner with an industry analyst with no hidden agenda, no placement plan of attack. Simply an opportunity to get to know each other and understand how we could help his firm, him, and ultimately... our client.

He recounted his recent visit to a large, multi-division firm in the personal computer/consumer electronics industry.

His disdain for the PR people was a little too painfully apparent. He listed their shortcomings:

  • He called them handlers, people who controlled and managed his meetings with one knowledgeable person after another barely contributing to the discussion of the technology, the applications, the future direction.
  • When he asked the publicist directly about one product area's return rate, the individual looked him straight in the face and said that wasn't an issue. When he asked the executive in a competitive product area—within the same company—he was told the group's returns were running about 10%. "The little b***** knew it existed—or should have known—and he lied straight to my face," he said with disgust.
  • He asked about the company's position on current industry standards; the individual didn't know about them or the company's involvement.
  • He asked for a comparison of his firm's products with announcements from two leading competitors; he didn't know.

At a time when business and marketing strategy changes at the speed of light, and competitors, partners and customers have instant access to information, the days of the handler, the publicist, are numbered.

If a public relations person can't place himself/herself on equal ground with senior managers and their advisors, then what value to management do they provide?

Putting together a news release when told to do so, setting up an editor/analyst meeting when asked, is no way to earn a place at the management table.

Public relations people have to increasingly be comfortable with soft issues rather than hard facts. They have to be uncomfortable with themselves and their ability to control news. They have to be able to read, interpret, synthesize market changes and be an influence and a contributor in every aspect of the company, particularly marketing.

Marketing provides a rich opportunity today for public relations to demonstrate and prove its strategic and tactical value because professionals can—or should— be uniquely qualified.

The professional media (print, radio, TV)—despite what many blogging advocates might claim—remains the major source of information to people around the globe according to reports by respected research firms such as Pew Research.

The Internet has opened a dizzying array of new, exciting placement opportunities, but for validation people still turn to traditional sources of news, information, facts.

Public relations people can ignore or usurp them at their own peril.

Nevertheless, public relations has a unique opportunity to strategically deliver results in the new soft-facts arena of viral marketing communications.

Viral marketing isn't new, but word-of-mouth is gaining attention and interest because of the broad, deep, and instant reach that internet vehicles deliver.

General and industry/application-specific Web sites have proven that they can shape consumer opinion almost instantly.

Blogs have grown in terms of their quality and influence.

Social community locations such as YouTube, MySpace, and Second Life have become important places to monitor and be seen.

Viral consumer how-to, application, educational, and helpful-hints videos—rather than hard-sell pieces—don't just attract a viewer once: They help spread the news, spread the information.

Audio and video podcasts are showing they can reach and inform narrow segment and special interest groups on a global basis with almost predictable results... positive and negative.

Most of the time, when viral messaging fails or management says they aren't worth the time, money, or effort it's because...

  • The informational/educational aspect of the content is squeezed out or killed because someone in the organization overrides the public relations potential and feels it has to have a product message—and a very strong product message.
  • There is a lack of true pass-along potential—news/information that can assist the audience so that first-time viewers want to bring the message to the attention of friends, family, or colleagues.
  • Information is presented from the company's desire to send a message rather than from the viewer's or listener's desire to learn something or solve a problem.
  • If it is the Internet then management expects instant gratification, instant results, even as the "news" of the information is being spread word-of-mouth, word-of-click around the globe.
  • Viral audio/video campaigns fall short by either being as polished as TV ads or as long and laborious as advertorial shows. Some of the most effective viral word-of-mouth efforts are done in an amateurish manner. Any message longer than four minutes on the social community Web sites loses audience interest rapidly. If they lose audience interest, they also lose pass-along word-of-mouth attention.

In the past year, a growing number of blogs and podcasts have matured from "here's what I did today," "left/right wing fanatic," and "gee aren't I smart, funny, better than you" sites to serious, professionally researched destinations for tens of thousands of people who want to learn more about a specific subject or product category.

These individuals are passionate about their product categories and have quickly become credible sources of positive and negative news and information.

Many of the bloggers/podcasters are carrying on their sanctioned or unauthorized activities within companies. Others are users, customers, or product/application-specific individuals who want to share their experiences and assist others.

Do you know who these individuals are in your product categories?

You should.

While they aren't "mass media," they can have mass impact on your products, your company, your future.

Studies by the University of Massachusetts show that while advertising influence has decreased, blogs and podcasts have become an increasingly important and influence in the product/service decisions made by people.

Delivering their messages with increasing credibility, they are expanding their spheres of influence and decision making in major product categories, including many of yours.

Finding a ready audience for reliable information, their numbers are also growing. According to eMarketer, the number of these word-of-mouth influencers is increasing, and by 2011 an estimated 20% of US adults will be sources of influence.

Whether they are company employees or product/application "experts," they can become the company's/product's best friend, worst enemy, and sometimes both.

They don't respond to or tolerate publicity handlers or release writers.

While the more general news—newspapers, radio/TV, news sites—move from subject to subject on a weekly, daily, hourly basis, these niche bloggers and audio/video podcasters practice narrowcasting—focusing on one product, one application, one market area exclusively.

They know their category thoroughly.

They appeal to individuals around the globe who share that knowledge and passion.

They expect "sources" to have a similar depth of knowledge and expertise.

With the growing influence of word-of-mouth posters, public relations professionals have to do more than simply send their messages. They have to work with, assist, understand, and constructively provide information and insights that serve the blogger/podcaster and his/her audience.

Handlers who can't take the time, effort, or energy to gain a full understanding of these people, their expertise, their passion, and their connections won't survive in the new world of word-of-mouth influence.

Blog and podcast user-generated content and word-of-mouth communications are becoming increasingly important to the company and management.

In this new environment, handlers and publicists quickly become road kill.

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G. A. "Andy" Marken is president of Marken Communications Inc. ( Reach him via