Tim Bray's article on The New Public Relations is interesting in a "do you honestly believe what you're writing or did you start before thinking it through?" way. It's drawn some heavy criticism already from the PR side. Tom Murphy does not see himself running beery love-ins and Stuart Bruce among others in the PR world have commented.
Some parts of Bray's piece make sense: I wholeheartedly agree that the trade press as we know it is going to see some big changes, although my personal feeling is that blogs will only play a bit part in that process and the process has already started. But I'm afraid his thinking on why the trade press is in trouble has a little too much of the philosophy that led to the publishing aberration that was the wikitorial.
Bray makes a sideswipe about whored content from journalists and analysts and how that will become transparently obvious to the avid blog reader; as if it isn't already obvious. Instead of this odious situation, Bray postulates a brave new world where corporate employees will remove the worst journalists and many of the PRs from the information food chain. Employee bloggers will carry the message to an audience hungry for their thoughts on what is going on at MegaGalactic Chips & Stents, Inc.
Bray's brave new world has the senior management telling staff what they are up to and "the people who are really doing the work tell the story to the world, directly".
I have never been an employee at Sun Microsystems and I can't say I plan to become one. But I have worked for a few companies, large and small. And I can say with reasonable confidence that, even where a company has its entire strategy worked out - and I can count those on the fingers of my left foot - rarely does the company do a good job of communicating it to its employees, let alone anyone outside the company. I don't believe this is a problem that is isolated to publishers. Often it is down to incompetence. Sometimes, there are good reasons for lack of internal communication. Most companies announce things making sure they tell the outside world the absolute minimum about what it means. They want the element of surprise when they launch a product or service based on what they did earlier. The last thing they want is an employee giving the financial markets and the SEC a scare by blabbing the whole strategy in a blog.
OK, so you don't tell employees everything, which is what happens now. But the thing about employees is that they don't necessarily share all the values and opinions of their employer. Often, they have policies that are rammed down the throats of their workforce. Some will accept the situation; others talk to journalists on the understanding that they will not be attributed in the story that results. They will not share their discontent on a blog unless they like being sacked, sued and having their home computer confiscated in the space of a day. Oops, one down for the "blogs only contain truth" argument.
Let's look at the other side of the situation where employees and their employer do not share a common cause. Let's assume Company S has bought into a moribund market for no apparently good reason, say tape drives. Will employees conspire to parrot the claims of their employer believing that the strategy is inexplicable, wrong or misguided? Or will they find that silence is the best policy? If there is one thing people hate being more than sacked it's the ridicule of their peers. How they will love being called a corporate shill as they look around for their next job. But, let's assume everbody consumes Tim's Kool-Aid and see the massed corporate blogs as revealing the truth about a company. What happens when they go to these blogsites and see on the subject of Company S's acquisition: nothing. What will the markets make of it? "Company S stock plummets on employee foot shuffling over acquisition." That's the story I'd be running...oops, I forgot, trade journalists are an extinct species.
That's why PRs exist: they are not there just for journalists, or bloggers or Auntie Maureen down the road with Company S shares in her pension fund. They exist because the company needs someone to give the best spin on every company move, and use techniques to make that spin the position that is accepted by most of the people out there. Everybody knows they are paid to do that and you don't have to like it. But that is the point: their position to comment on what the company does, no matter what it is, is always clear. Bray should be thankful for the existing corporate blogging rules that, for the most part, ask them to stay off the corporate-publicity turf.
As an aside, Microsoft blogger Robert Scoble's tally-ho rallying call to the blogosphere claiming you aren't part of the picture unless you get in on this particular conversation is a little, erm...misplaced. It's a bit like running outside the pub, where a heated argument over whether the Gooners are going to kick the Blues' arse next season has suddenly involved more than two people, and claiming that the future of football lies within. (I'm aware I may need to provide a translation or better analogy for non-UK readers. I don't even watch that much football myself.)