I took some time out recently to chat with Jane McDaid and Matt Matheson from Thinkhouse PR about the approach they now take when they are dealing with bloggers and others online. Thinkhouse PR is a Dublin-based agency that specialises in youth communications and in 2009 close on 40% of their revenue will be accounted for by activities in digital or new media.

Over a lovely cup of Barry’s Tea (one of their clients), we talked about the lessons they have learned in the past four years since they started experimenting with using bloggers to support various campaigns for their clients.

Targeting Bloggers

Thinkhouse have been four years at this and feel that they have developed an attitude to blogging that differentiates them in the Irish market. Blogging and bloggers have become a focal point in much of what they do. They openly hire staff who are active online and who, for example, know the difference between Facebook and Twitter. Staff members are encouraged to have their own blogs, to build their own profiles and to foster relationships with other bloggers. This requires trust in those employees with many other PR organisations proving shy of allowing staff to have an independent voice that could potentially undermine the organisation or their clients.

For Thinkhouse, since there are existing relationships with key influencers online, targeting bloggers becomes less of a shot in the dark. Deciding what information to send to which bloggers is done on a case by case basis. There is no blanketing. The PR team will determine what a particular blogger’s interests are and if they would be interested in the particular campaign that is being run. By knowing the bloggers personally they are in a position to not send irrelevant messages to individuals which may ultimately engender a negative reaction or even a public backlash.

Rather than just dumping press releases on bloggers, Jane and the team will seek to get bloggers involved in the campaign. They will invite them to events, ask for their feedback, send them samples or get them to participate in an online activity. The team typically target bloggers that they know like to write about these kinds of engagements. The request to write about the campaign is never explicit – if the blogger gets something meaningful from the campaign then there is a good chance they will let others know about it.

Clash of Cultures

Thinkhouse draw clear distinctions between the way PR companies traditionally interact with journalists and how they now need to interact with bloggers. Jane calls this a clash of cultures. PR people and journalists have a modus-operandi that is well understood by both sides. Bloggers are suspicious of the PR industry being active online since it is perceived as fundamentally commercial.

As Matt points out, bloggers are private individuals who, unlike journalists, are not paid to read press releases. If you get it wrong with a journalist they will bounce directly back to the account executive or manager. If you get it wrong with a blogger they will probably post about it and it will be all over the blogosphere within 24 hours. PR executives are consequently wary of the unpredictability and unaccountability of the blogging community.

Thinkhouse suggest that the PR-blogger etiquette has yet to be clearly defined. A new model of engagement for PR is required. The landscape is more fragmented and there are more nuances. A different language is required where technical words used to describe things are eliminated and where the tone is more personal.

The tools used by the PR industry need to change. Should a press release, for example, ever be sent to a blogger? It is certainly the default tool used in the PR-journalist dynamic but often causes more harm than good in the PR-blogger dynamic.

The Role of the PR Company
Is the PR company dead? No, but companies that do not adjust to the new landscape will not survive. PR people who see themselves as communications advisors with expertise in the language, tone and projection of messages regardless of the medium, will thrive. Clients today are increasingly seeking  expertise in the digital media sphere and while budgets are not increasing overall, agencies that can apply themselves in the online space stand a greater chance of capturing more of the budget that is available.

Jane points out that 2009 is a difficult period to be learning in the blogosphere – to be “a toddler online” as she calls it. Bloggers are less tolerant than they were four years ago and since the basics are now out there to be found, there is simply no excuse for getting it wrong. PR people really should not get involved unless they have educated themselves.

Any PR company should begin by observing, listening and understanding the culture, landscape, etiquette of the online space. It IS a big leap to take and you should only do it if you are culturally in tune with mores of the blogosphere.

A big thanks to Jane and Matt for taking the time to chat with me about their experiences. I’ve been invited to partake in a panel discussion with Suzy Byrne, Harry McGee, Shauneen Armstrong and Matt Cooper tomorrow at the PRII annual congress and the Thinkhouse attitude and approach to bloggers is certainly a model for other PR agencies to look at.