Feb 06 2009

PR and web 2.0 ‘ghosts’

Having worked in construction industry PR for over 20 years, I have seen the technology involved in managing communications between organisations and their ‘publics’ evolve quite dramatically (echoing technological changes  in the wider construction industry, of course).

From paper to electronic (web 1.0)

For example, when I joined the marketing team at Halcrow in the late 1980s, most of our media relations work was heavily reliant upon paper-based communications. We had word-processors (Wang – anyone remember them?), but our finished news releases were still photocopied, stapled together and then sent by post, perhaps accompanied by a laboriously labelled photograph. Occasionally, we faxed news releases to favoured journalists, or they were couriered by motorcycle messenger.

Today, it’s a different approach. Releases are rarely printed out and posted; they are more likely to be emailed, and they are also made immediately available on our website, perhaps with accompanying low- and high-resolution images (for web and print use) available for download (the Halcrow website today even has a video newsroom).

From web 1.0 to web 2.0

But even this approach may be changing. On Thursday I attended a free breakfast briefing on social media hosted by London PR firm Kaizo, and there was talk of how they sometimes pitched stories to journalists using Twitter, about digital news releases optimised for web 2.0, and how corporate blogs are becoming part of the communications mix.

While many of the fundamental skills of PR haven’t changed the advent of new technologies does mean that PR professionals have to learn some new techniques and to adapt their codes of conduct accordingly. The Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) recently issued new social media guidelines (as have other bodies), and – like my fellow PR Liz Male – I remain committed to  its core principles of integrity, competence and confidentiality, but have some queries about  its strictures on openness and disclosure (Liz has already started to effect some changes to publishers’ policies on deep-linking).

My web 2.0 activities are not undertaken anonymously. In my ExtranetEvolution blog, for instance, I repeatedly disclosed my BIW employee status so that it was clear that my opinions may not be completely neutral (even if I endeavoured to be so). However, such openness can make life awkward occasionally (for example, I started participating on the Building magazine discussion forums last year, but soon found myself getting ‘trolled’ by other users hiding behind user-names).

How ‘ghostly’ can we be?

The CIPR Code talks about ‘ghost’ blogs:

… members should be aware that ‘ghosting’ a blog is illegal … . The drafting of material by public relations professionals for their clients naturally has a role to play in many areas of professional endeavour. But where a client requests a blog which is run entirely, or almost entirely, without detailed oversight by the supposed author (or ‘public face’) of the blog, then there are serious questions of integrity in addition to the legal issues.

Here, I wonder where the dividing line for ‘almost entirely’ lies? Over the years, like numerous other PR people, I have ‘ghost-written’ speeches, presentations, letters, emails and comments for clients and senior company colleagues. In every case, these productions were discussed before drafting, then checked, amended and approved by the individuals concerned, sometimes with no changes at all.

I suspect such practices would still be permissable. The CIPR guidelines give some examples of social media activities outlawed under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations:

  • Creating fake blogs (‘ghosting’) …

Under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations the following social media practices are no longer permitted:

  • ‘Astroturfing’, the practice of falsely creating the impression of independent, popular support by means of orchestrated and disguised public relations activity. For example, in the context of social media, astroturfing techniques could include the creation of a dedicated blog, posting comments on others’ blogs or on message boards, submitting supposedly amateur videos to YouTube
  • ‘Flogs’ the creation of a fake blog by a PR agency or organisation that poses as a customer to promote a product or service.

Like the term itself, ‘ghosting’ is a bit nebulous, not something that is easily defined. But ‘fake’ and ‘false’ are, to my mind, clearer concepts. Something is genuine or it is fake; it is true or it is false. So long as PR people continue to ensure that the words accurately represent their clients’ or colleagues’ views and that these individuals give informed consent to their use, including on a blog, then we should be OK. But it is less than ideal.

Better still, reverse the balance. Our clients and colleagues should be encouraged to learn about blogging and to learn some basic skills so that they can use the medium themselves (this is something that I have done for BIW colleagues and for other organisations). Such blogs would then ‘be run entirely, or almost entirely, with detailed oversight by the author (or ‘public face’) of the blog‘ – effectively removing any issues about integrity.

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