By Jimgris-Oracle on May 24, 2004
We are clearly entering a new paradigm of communications, with blogs and all sorts of emerging social software applications. It's a messy paradigm, for sure, but one that empowers the individual to communicate in an authentic voice. I like it. It's scary, but I like it nonetheless. Hell, even Bill Gates is talking blogs now, so it must be ok, right?
For me, this is quite a relief and provides an interesting avenue for growth. I've done six years in corporate PR and three years in university PR. The two experiences were polar opposites. I used to do PR at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine in Grafton, Massachusetts. Back then, the "PR" department at Tufts University was staffed by former journalists, not PR people. We viewed our jobs as internal reporters ... we dug out the coolest stories on campus and then called the press and sold the stories that sold themselves. We ignored the others. Granted, we were fortunate to have a high quality, scientifically- and medically-oriented university to tap for stories, but the analogy still holds, I believe.
We did not have message platforms. We did not "media train" our spokespeople. We did not have Q&As. We did not pitch stories that were self-serving. What we did do, however, was exactly opposite. We did a version of Cluetrain before we knew what Cluetran was. We trusted our spokespeople (doctors, veterinarians, biologists, students, professors, dentists, nutritionists, clients etc), and we encouraged them to simply tell their stories in their own voices. We encouraged the diversity of voices. There was no being "on message." When reporters experienced this authenticity, they let their guard down (most of them, anyway), and a genuine professional relationship formed. That's pretty much it. The result? Lots of really interesting stories with juicy quotes from funky researchers doing fascinating things throughout the university. Every day I talked to top tier print and broadcast media from around the world, and I did it rather freely. I was never afraid of a leak. It never crossed my mind, actually. We had to be protective on occasion due to obviously sensitive issues, but that was the exception, not the rule. It worked out pretty well, I'd say.
From that experience, I jumped into six years of corporate PR at three different companies. I was totally unprepared. Everything was different. Everything was opposite. All conversation stopped and it stopped immediately. I repeatedly got into trouble for trying to do what I did at Tufts. I just didn't fit. Eventually, I gave up. I realized that I simply didn't have the skills to articulate a corporate voice.
I'm not saying life at Tufts and that model was perfect. Far from it. I almost got fired a few times for doing this, and we constantly fought with the very nervous university administration to convince them that this was the way to go. And I have some wild media stories from that experience that my corporate PR friends find utterly outrageous. But if I had to do PR again, I prefer the "conversation model" we implemented at Tufts. Authenticity works. It disarms. It connects. It trusts. I realize that this is a difficult lesson for executives in public companies who are under constant -- and unreasonable -- pressure from Wall Street, but there must be room to integrate the concept of "conversation" into the corporate paradigm. The market is demanding it. It will be interesting to see how corporate PR and marketing departments adjust. Embrace it ... and grow. Ignore it ... and die.