Blogs, Press Releases, and Farmers in Appalachian Valleys

This is the meme that won’t die. I was going to stay away from it, until I received a comment from Stowe Boyd yesterday. His comment was so long that my response (I feel) deserves a post, rather than a simple reply. The funny thing is, today I received an email from a former student (Sarah) who opened her eNewsletter from Lawrence Ragan Communications today and saw my name at the top of Shel Hotz’ post about the post in question. Kinda cool. Oh, and “Hey, Sarah!”

If you aren’t confused, re: Farmers in Appalachian Valleys, then I’ll appreciate your help – ’cause I am confused. You see, I have never written about Appalachain Valley farmers and press releases (have I?), but apparently Stowe Boyd thinks I did.

The title of this post is but part of a comment left by Stowe Boyd on the post, Blogs are Soma to So Many. At least he liked the metaphor – sort of. His comment is in blockquotes below. I respond.

Stowe Boyd: I think the metaphor is pretty, but misleading. You could make the case that anything that any group advocates is like Soma. I don’t buy it. Blogging is not like taking an anti-depressant. It is (at a physical level) a collection of tools for web publilshing, and (at the societal level) a social medium through which we gain understanding of the world. Not a drug.

Actually, my intention re: the use of the metaphor is as follows.

The assertion that blogging will right the wrongs of poor corporate and organizational communication with stakeholders gives blog enthusiasts solace. Enthusiasts hope and believe that social media’s conversational form will bring relief to the distress of poor customer service and customer relationship marketing / management. So, it is the idea of a blog revolution that serves as your soma. You embrace it as something that will make society and corporations, for instance, co-exist in harmony. And, you seem to expect us to get in line – quick.

I agree that blogging is a medium, but I’m a little surprised that you used that term. Isn’t “place” or “space” the blog-speak appropriate term, along with “people” instead of audience? I wouldn’t want you to be drummed out of the Blog Thought Leaders Club. (See David Weinberger’s JOHO the blog, your own reference to Doc Searls, Dan Gillmor’s The Former Audience Joins the Party, and Jay Rosen’s The People Formerly Know as the Audience.)

Those enthusiasts are, after all, creating waffle words or jargon. (See Milton Friedman.) But, wasn’t this supposed to be the movement that did away with required appropriate norms of speech and definitions. Isn’t it the movement that frees all to speak in their own voice? The implication being, if you don’t subscribe to the dogma, “you don’t get it.” I think Stowe Boyd used that phrase.

Stowe Boyd: Your argument boils down to the fact that established mechanisms of PR have been baked into law and other conventions, and therefore blogging — which wasn’t foreseen when those where codified — shouldn’t be used in place of old timey ideas like press releases distributed by newswire services. I have suggested that we could work collectively to get these conventions, or laws, if necessary, changed.

No, my argument is two-fold. But, yes … we can work to change the old laws. However, it will take a lot of time.

First, you fail to do research in advance of your claims, because if you had, you would have known that there are many more legal reasons – alone – to use traditional news releases. And those required practices cannot be achieved via blogs. I will, if you wish, go into the whole reality that PR is much more than media relations, publicity and press agentry. But, I get the feeling you think that’s all it is.

Second, I assert that you make bold sweeping claims about using blogs instead of news releases, yet you fail to recognize the scope and breadth of PR practice in the world. I suggest to you that many, if not most, of these PR practitioners – the ones I believe you care not to acknowledge – cannot necessarily reach their publics / audiences /people via blogs or any online media. At least not now, anyway. In the future, maybe. Now, nope – not all. At best, they should only use blogs and online as one aspect of a communication mix.

An example of a broad sweeping claim? How about your recent post:

Jack Welch on Corporate Blogging: Just be authentic. Be clear in your vision, and have one message and one view that are authentic. I worked somewhere once where they had different messages for employees, analysts and the press. There should be only one message for everyone, and fight like hell to get that message across everywhere you go.

Stowe Boyd: I don’t how you can do this today without blogging, do you?

I hope you realize that it is possible to be genuine … authentic – without a blog. On television, Walter Cronkite, Ophra Winfrey and even Bill O’Reilly have convinced their believers / followers that they are being authentic. On radio, Paul Harvey and Larry King pulled it off. Even Don Imus is believed to be authentic. In print, Maureen Dowd and Thomas Friedman have done it. So have Paul Krugman and Frank Rich. And you and I both know that local columnists have done it for years. In the military, Ernie Pyle was certainly authentic … and heck, even Gomer Pyle was embraced as authentic by his fans. From the pulpit and on TV, Bishop Sheen and Mother Angelica have accomplished the feat in their respective generations. Come to think of it, authenticity can be achieved going door to door. Alfred C. Fuller started doing it in 1906 selling brushes.

Now you and I may not think they are authentic, I don’t know. But we both know that their audiences – the people they interact(ed) with truly believed they were/are authentic. And, gee. I don’t think any of them ever had a blog. I could go on with many other examples, ya’ know.

Stowe Boyd: But no, let’s instead just keep the status quo. I hear nothing more than “Get a horse!” style kvetching, here.

Well, you may only hear that, but hearing and listening are two different things. I don’t like the status quo, but I realize that it is sometimes all you have – for awhile. Change takes time. It cannot be forced.

I’m not kvetching. I’m reciting reality and facts. I am suggesting to you (practically begging you) to listen to, talk to with, the people you choose to berate (“Don’t get it“) and offer ill-advice. Why? So that you may learn what the realities of their world (public relations and marketing communications) is and how they must deal with that reality. (By the way, do you realize that Shel wrote the first book – Online PR Strategies? It is used in business school marketing classes.)

Stowe Boyd: And, oh, by te (sic) way, the idea that PR folks are communicating directly to farmers in Appalachian valleys through press releases is patently crazy. PR is principally directed to media: newspapers, et al. And they all have internet now, even if they are in Boondocks LA or wherever.

OK, I have to admit, I’m stumped to discern where in the world you pulled the “farmers in Appalachian valleys” line from, but I’ll address that, too. You want “patently crazy”? You offer it.

Are you aware that:

Fifty-four percent of all U.S. farms own or lease a computer, up from 50 percent in 2001. Farms using computers for their farm business increased from 29 percent in 2001 to 30 percent in 2003. It appears that computer usage, ownership and Internet access on farms have begun to level off. (Source: USDA report from NASS – 28th July 2003, referenced at the Pig Site. Love that name. Those swine farmers do their research.)

And, I did an interesting thing, re: the Appalachian farmers, and Appalachia overall … I called the ARC – Appalachian Regional Commission – and visited their Web site (they don’t have a blog, sorry). ARC is tasked with economic development in the vast area of Appalachia ranging from Mississippi and Alabama all the way up to New York and Pennsylvania. Their role includes developing better connectivity to rural areas for business development, distance learning and overall education.

You know what I found?

Links to the future reports – 2000 and an update from 2004 (based on 2002 data) and other reports.

There is even this PDF file of the Information Age Appalachia report from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC).

Now, in there you will see that even broadband (cable and DSL) access is limited. ARC does not have statistics on phone service availability, as the FCC compiles that in their Wireline Competition Bureau Statistical Reports (formerly FCC-State Link).

Suffice to say, regarding phone service, the ARC suggests that most people in Appalachia have phones (and thereby, possible access to dialup). Perhaps +95 percent have phones. Now, that doesn’t mean they have internet service. You see, there are not sufficient statistics (that I can find – and I asked ARC) on availability of ISP services in the broad areas of Appalachia.

Oh, and about that broadband access – for using YouTube and other social media networks requiring great internet access – the ARC says beware. The statistics compiled by the FCC – re: availability – is greatly over stated. Why? Well, in their sampling, if there was only one person in the area (defined by zip code) with broadband access of any kind, the FCC counted the whole county as having broadband access. Not very trustworthy statistics, are they. Gee, the swine farmers seem to be doing a better job. Bad FCC!

Now, the ARC is doing great work. They also realize they have a long way to go. They are trying to encourage thinking about planning – like laying of conduit and ethernet cables in new construction (buildings, roads, etc), but only where it makes sense – economic sense for the developers and phone/cable/ISP companies. That’s just a small part of what they are doing, but I think you get the point.

All that to say, Stowe, your claim that news releases to print publications in order to reach farmers (and others) is “patently crazy” is — well, “patently crazy.” Um, it is the print and broadcast mediums (radio/TV) that still seem to have the edge in Appalachia.

Guess how you reach them?

Well, I would suggest a mix of traditional tactics and perhaps online – all in a strategy that mixes the right approach for each media outlet / market.

Finally, when you state, “PR is principally directed to media: newspapers, et al.”, you reveal how little you know about public relations and marketing communications. I’m not suggesting that you, “Don’t get it”, because I think you get a lot. Still, Shel has a book. You might want to read it. If you want a copy, leave a comment. I’ll send you one.

OK, I’ve been a little snarky. I apologize. I’m really not trying to fight with you, Stowe. I’m begging you to at least try and see it from other sides of the discussion. There are many sides, you know. I promise not to come and try to tell you how to run your startups.

And, while we agree on medium, Todd Defren reminds us all that it is the message that matters most. But, then … you know that, don’t you? /Message

So, there ya’ go.

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0 thoughts on “Blogs, Press Releases, and Farmers in Appalachian Valleys

  1. Jesse Ciccone

    While I (once again) thank you for so rationally, thoughtfully and credibly articulating a very reasonable point of view, it is becoming increasingly clear to me that Stowe is not interested in a “conversation” at all (that’s what blogs are supposed to be about, right?).

    Conversations to me imply a rational consideration of alternative points of view.

    Either through conscious choice, laziness or some other factor, Stowe is refusing to hold up his end of the conversational bargain by pounding the table about a topic where he has incomplete facts (I’m being kind here using the word “facts” associated with what he’s articulated thus far) and then covering his ears and screaming “la la la la, I can’t hear you” when it’s time for a response.

    I don’t know the man and probably shouldn’t be quite this harsh, but until he can acknowledge Todd’s point that this is not an either/or discussion, what’s the point in continuing it?

    I recognize that it would be easy to say “well, of course he feels that way, he’s a PR guy.” But the fact of the matter is I don’t entirely disagree with all of Stowe’s points. Unfortunately, his refusal to work from common ground makes it hard to remember that…

    Reply
  2. Shel Holtz

    It’s not just Applachia where newspapers and TV news hold considerable sway. It’s everywhere. I was reminded of this when last week’s issue of PRWeek arrived on my desk with an insert from Ketchum Communications highlighting its 2006 media usage survey. (Why it took so long to get this into print I don’t understand; I think I reported on the survey in December.)

    In any case, Stowe hangs much of his argument on the diminishing impact of traditional media. It’s easy to look at declining numbers and herald the end, but the reality is that local TV news, major network news, local newspapers and cable TV news continue to dominate the media people use and trust. Blogs are fifth from the bottom among 16 options (with podcasts second from the bottom).

    In a nutshell, three out of four respondents relied on local TV news and newspapers as their most trusted sources for credible information that affects them. Blogs earned a platry 13.4% of the vote. Consumers are four times more likely to use local newspapers than blogs.

    An intriguing point is made by Susan Brophy in her analysis of the findings (she’s VP and media strategist with Ketchum). “While it’s more challenging to be a gatekeeper when you’re surrounded by bloggers, traditional media will continue to hold the credibility edge — especially as more ‘citizen journalists’ join the blgging world. It’s going to be even toughere to discern the facts from opinion and faction. And consumers will likely respond by giving even more credibility to traditional media sources.”

    I say all this as a blogging/social media evangelist. Those numbers are going to change; a shift is occurring. But the scales will never tip completely; new media do not kill old media and, as Brophy notes, professional journalism will offer reporting that is much closer to objective than one can count on from any given blogger.

    As you note, Robert, he tipping of the scale (as far as it will go,) will take time and, as Todd notes, it’s not an either/or proposition. What PR professionals do is determine the most effective means of influencing opinion — usually through sound research — and then develop a plan to use them effectively. Sometimes that will be a press release. Sometimes blogs. Sometimes both. Sometimes neither.

    What bothers me is the knee-jerk reaction that says, “All or nothing, my way or the highway.”

    Reply
  3. Robert

    Jesse, thank you. And also thank you for your kind post at conversations matter. I appreciate your kind comments.

    Like you, I do agree with some of what Stowe has to say. I’m sure he will agree that this is supposed to be a conversation, but conversations (civil and productive ones, at least) do require that empathetic capability. By that, I mean the willingness to, if only momentarily, detach oneself from firmly held views to understand the environment from all sides.

    I don’t know if he will come back to engage, but if the last post is any indicator, it will likely take two weeks. I do hope for a productive exchange of views.

    Thanks again, Jesse.

    Reply
  4. Robert

    Shel, thank you.

    I agree with your observations about the prominent media consumed today. That PR Week survey is also summarized at PR Week online. (Subscription may be required.)

    I particularly liked how “The survey … compares the media habits of 1,490 Americans with the practices of 500 corporate communications professionals.”

    There is also the article about research that polled “219 in-house (PR) professionals, drawing primarily from the technology, consumer products and service, and financial and professional service industries”. What they claim in the results is that “more than half only allocated 1% to 5% of their budget” for research. I’m thinking Stowe is investing about as much and resources in his discussion of this meme. A meme he started, by the way. (That survey distresses me deeply, by the way, regardless of the minimal respondent pool.)

    It is the research into your audience (the people) and their choices of preferred media sources that will make or break your campaign.

    And we agree – the change is going to come slow. Now, if Stowe could show us solid research we could engage in a more realistic conversation. And, it isn’t like he isn’t seeking the information. You commented on his Making the Case for Corporate Blogging post where he asks to be pointed “especially to quantitative studies, or anything making a solid case for strategic benefit.”

    All of the available books – regardless of how good they are, yours and Ted’s and Debbie Weil’s – all the others – notwithstanding, still leave us with too few case studies and research as of today. Much of what is out there is primarily anecdotal for anyone to make a very strong case – at least for universal adoption of blogging.

    Let’s not forget that it is still early. It will depend upon circumstances and best practices for the particular environment until we have a significant body of knowledge on the practice.

    I am no longer surprised, but still bemused, that the enthusiasts make such sweeping claims. Heck, the term “weblog or blog” is less than 12 years old, or less than 8 years old, depending upon which source you believe.

    So, like you, I embrace the idea of exploring blogs and social media – where it will work – and not trying to force it upon all as the uniting communication practice. To claim it has universal applications – as some of the more ebullient enthusiasts do – is truly folly.

    Thanks.

    Reply
  5. John Cass

    Robert, I would like to think my corporate blogging survey 2005 with its six case studies provides some great examples. Especially Macromedia.

    You also said in your article that it is wishful thinking that social media will change company communications strategy. I think you are right just because a company blogs does not mean they are having a conversation. Many corporate bloggers do not yet understand how to blog. Those companies that have a large public or customers who give feedback quickly are at an advantage; they learn the benefits and pitfalls of customer blogging. Dell is a good example just as Adobe is.

    However, I will say that blogging presents an opportunity for companies to really implement the marketing concept, whether they do or not is up to the company.

    Reply

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