Whoring for fun and profit

14 July 2005

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.)

2 Comments

I think a key point to Mr. Bray's argument is that corporate policy would have to change to allow a bit more freedom for employees' postings.

That said, I think the world probably works more like the way you've described it: people are going to be careful about what they say about their employer because the sword is dangling over their chair. The system you've described makes me feel more cynical than heartened, so I'm not sure we should applaud or defend the current state of affairs.


Mr. Bray is in a privledged position. He has established himself as an expert in a certain sphere and has built a reputation where he can enjoy more freedoms in blogging than most employees. That said, I would hope that companies would respect and trust the people they hire and expect that there would be well-reasoned objections to company policies.


Opposition is as valuable as affirmation. You rarely hear people being ridiculed as 'no-men'. If a company's ideas are truly innovative, then they should withstand any half-baked criticism from inside the company and benefit from thoughtful disagreement.

I think you're missing the point.

"rarely does the company do a good job of communicating it to its employees, let alone anyone outside the company."

That's a problem, not something to which to resign yourself and base your strategy on. If everyone in a company was blogging then, one hopes, those within and without would gain a clearer picture of the company.

"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."

A company that fosters this sort of climate of fear is not going to be anywhere near as successful as it could be. Employers need to encourage their employees to blog their discontent. What good is served by having your employees stay mum when they know you're making a huge fundamental error? Short term stock gains maybe, but long-term disaster. Companies should be leveraging the collective wisdom of their component employees, not silencing and ignoring them. Blogs aggregate and break down walls.

"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."

Maybe Company S wouldn't have made such a mistake if those in charge had been blogging their decision making process all along. Or maybe it would become clear to all that those in charge have not made a mistake.

"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?"

Or will they speak out, as they should?

"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."

I would prefer a business ecosystem based on reality, not lies.

2 TrackBacks

Listed below are links to blogs that reference this entry: Whoring for fun and profit.

TrackBack URL for this entry: http://www.hackingcough.com/cgi-bin/mt/mt-tb.cgi/3

Posts On PR And New Media from The CRA Expert Access Blog Sandbox on July 17, 2005 1:25 PM

Really interesting conversation about PR and new media going on right now. First read this by David Weinberger (one of the Cluetrain authors). Among his points: Now I think PR is entering a phase where it sees itself as helping... Read More

There’s an interesting conversation about PR and new media going on in the blogosphere right now. First read this by David Weinberger (one of the Cluetrain authors). Among his points: Now I think PR is entering a phase where it sees itself as hel... Read More