There’s a disturbance in the blogosphere. Feel it?

Call me crazy, but sometime last week I felt a shift in the tectonics of social media — at least as they relate to PR. It was actually a series of three tremors, so there must be something to it. Let me know what you think.

steverubel.jpgShift No. 1 is Steve Rubel’s revelation that he and others who’ve zealously promoted social media in PR are (or were) “drunk on their own Kool-Aid.” Say what? When the lead blogger in PR makes such a dramatic reversal, we all need to pay attention. But few did.

Check the writings of the prominent PR bloggers, including many on my blogroll, and you find scarcely a mention of Steve’s post. You’ll find a lot of idle chat about media “snacking,” but nothing of significance. (Same silence last week following the critical and hilarious “New Media Douche Bag” video. But Steve’s post is serious business from a writer who’s inspired more than a few top bloggers.)

Why aren’t the PR bloggers buzzing about brother Steve? You tell me. When the highest-rated PR blogger in the universe makes a statement like this one, we need to talk about it:

Let’s face it, we’re skunk drunk and it’s because of money. It’s almost like we all need to enter Betty Ford Clinic 2.0 together. This time, it’s not stock market money but private equity, M&A, VCs and to some degree the reckless abandonment of logic by some advertisers who are perpetuating what is sure to end badly when the economy turns. Hubris is back my friends.

Kudos, Steve, for opening the door to new perspectives on social media. And let’s hope those who disagree show you the respect you’ve earned. Let’s make it a “conversation.” Steve’s back on my feeder. You?

Shift No. 2 involves an Ohio newspaper’s decision to shut down political blogs. Seems the Plain Dealer asked one of its paid bloggers to refrain from comment on a congressional race after the writer admitted making a contribution to a candidate. That blogger quit; another followed. The PD then shut down the “Wide Open” blog, leading to criticism from most bloggers in the region (Examples here, here, and here.)

blog-header.jpgSince blogs are all about opinion, maybe the PD overreacted. But I’m not upset in the least. Perhaps mixing MSM and blogging isn’t such a hot idea — at least in matters political. If I want opinion, there’s no shortage of it in the blogosphere, or the editorial page. But if I want real news, gathered and vetted by professional journalists, I still prefer the MSM, on paper, on air and online.

Social media play a vital role in the discussion of news, and occasionally they even turn up a scoop. But let’s not delude ourselves into thinking unpaid bloggers do real journalism. Let’s leave that to the professionals.

ovaitt.jpgShift No. 3 comes via PR Conversations and guest blogger Frank Ovaitt. A bona fide guru in PR research, Frank actually wrote about the work of another research guru, Kirk Hallahan. Here’s the key point:

New technologies are not the solution to all organizational communications problems. Just because a new tool is available – or others have rushed to use it – is not an appropriate reason for adoption. With so many choices, planning must be media-neutral and involve the astute selection of channels. Moreover there is a limit to the quantity and quality of time people can spend with new media and organizational messages – especially users who have low or minimal involvement with an organization.

To borrow a line from James Carville, “It’s the strategy, stupid!”

Does anyone doubt that social media will play a significant role in the future of our business? Didn’t think so. But it’s time we viewed it more critically, and maybe with a bit less, uh, enthusiasm. Let’s dump the Kool-Aid, break out the beer, and have a realistic conversation about where social media is going in PR.

Sorry, Steve, but we can’t do this on Twitter.


26 Responses to There’s a disturbance in the blogosphere. Feel it?

  1. mbrosenyc says:

    Rubel is not a PR blogger. He rarely, if ever, writes about PR so he does not enter the equation as far as PR bloggers go. He’s a gadgeteer, more CNet, than MyRagan. So he woke up one day and could not even stand to hear his own bull. Congrats. What’s he going to do now? This social media crap has been dead for some time.

  2. Jill says:

    You wrote, “…let’s not delude ourselves into thinking unpaid bloggers do real journalism.”

    Joe Hallett of the Columbus Dispatch wrote something kind of sort of like that last spring. I’ve heard him, in person, say that he knows it’s not an accurate statement. I’m going to email you what I emailed Joe last spring, when I read what he wrote about political blogs not doing primary source reporting, worthy of being called “real journalism.” I hope you’ll take the time to check out what I send.

    FWIW, your colleague Tim Smith and I exchanged a few emails and comments after Poynter posted about the Wide Open situation. I’m the second blogger that resigned. Both you and Tim make excellent points, but they aren’t the only ones. I hope you will keep an open mind.

    Thanks for taking note of what happened with Wide Open.

  3. Bill Sledzik says:

    To Jill: I mean no disrespect to the political bloggers who left “Wide Open.” Fact is, you stood on principle, and I admire that. I didn’t follow the blog, but my point wasn’t related to content. I’m simply pointing to this case as one that illustrates the very uneasy relationship of MSM and social media. I see a lot of value in separating fact and opinion. There is plenty of room for both in different venues.

    To mbrosenyc (I’d use your name if you’d left it): I have to disagree. Rubel was among those who led the way in the discussion of social media in PR. Sure, he became a cheerleader and now admits to drinking too much of the Kool-Aid. But give the man credit. He sparked a lot of discussion into a new arena of PR practice, and what is a fruitful new area for PR research. He deserves credit for his contributions. As for the “social media crap” being “dead for some time…” I think you’re wrong about that. Social media will be a part of PR strategy from this point forward, especially for organizations that operate on the symmetrical model. We need to use social media because they fit the strategy, not because they’re new and fun.

  4. Dino Baskovic says:

    Yeah, I’d sayhe’s back on my radar screen…

    And I hate you for making me tweet again. Though it begs the question: could Twitter one day become a new channel for “micropitching” to the media?

  5. Bill Sledzik says:

    Nobody’s making you tweet, man — least of all, me. You may be right about using Twitter to pitch media, but that would require carefully crafted tweets, and I don’t see much of that in my limited monitoring. But seriously, it may be a lesson for our media relations students — capturing the essence in 140 characters.

    I do see possibilities for Twitter in the marketing realm — to generate buzz and linking — but it’s not a place to have meaningful conversation, and that’s what we need on this topic.

  6. cfast says:

    I think part of the reason Rubel’s post hasn’t got more attention in the PR world is that he largely concentrated on the investment bubble in Web 2.0. Most PR pros see social media sites as tools, not investment opportunities.

    However, that does lead me to Shift #3, and I couldn’t agree more with Ovaitt. Figure out what your strategy is first, then choose your tools/tactics appropriately. And no, “social media” is not a strategy in itself. I think most people with a background in traditional PR can see the distinction, while many of the new kids on the block have the blinders on. That being said, it never hurts to play with the new toys so you at least know what’s available.

    As for Shift #2, I’m not quite sure how it relates to the others, or how it even represents a shift. I do think there are opportunities for the MSM to integrate their coverage with bloggers, in much the same way as proper news coverage is mixed with editorial content in any newspaper. In this case though, the PD obviously didn’t do all its homework before launching the blogging initiative.


  7. tastyburger says:

    Very glad to see you drawing attention to this Bill. Steve hit the nail on the head with his reference to Google/YouTube being the first domino in this shift.

    ‘The man’ has taken over the Web and we 2.0 drunkards are the biggest disciples – me included. Steve’s article didn’t cause me to stop drinking (I’m addicted to Twitter; come on – join the conversation – Jaffee needs some more people to Tweet with) but I think his ramblings have lessened my hangover.

    Side note – glad to see he referenced our dear WordPress as one of those companies trying to make a difference.

    -Ben Brugler

  8. […] Bill Sledzik (on Tough Sledding): A disturbance in the blogosphere […]

  9. Bill:

    Interesting post. Not sure I agree with you (surprise) on the not talking about anything worthwhile based on one post linked to me. The media snack meme was supposed to be silly fun, and that’s why I had my dog in the video. But there is certainly much more substance discussed on my blogs, which I’ve invited you to comment on before.

    That being said, I agree that there’s a bit of a bubble right now. Here’s why:

    1) Web 2.0 company approaches me last week to execute PR and social media in exchange for equity
    2) A client goes under, web play commercial real estate oriented
    3) Third co approaches me to do PR for a web 2.0 app. Self admittedly, no substance to the app. just want to get in to the “2.0” thing.

    It scares me to see this behavior because it is the exact same as the dot bomb era. Let’s hope cos like this don’t get that far this time.

    On the marketing side there is a bubble, too, but in large part because many organizations continue to try to execute one way rules, controlling the message, talking to audiences, etc. instead of truly engaging in the conversation. Instead of blow-ups or blogodramas, these efforts increasingly fall on deaf ears. Posers, fakes and ignorant PR types who fail to realize the dynamics of two way communications will fail badly. And they will cry that social media doesn’t work, when in actuality their failure lies in themselves and not the media form.

    I leave with this. On the Now Is Gone blog that you linked to there is a tab, listing social media case studies. Successes can be found here:

    Best wishes,


  10. mbrosenyc says:

    Hey Bill, true that Rubel sparked discussion about PR 2.0 eons ago but there is little or nothing in his discussions (for a couple of years) about PR and its practices. He mixed the Kool Aid, drank it, and now that the party is over he is finally able to acknowledge what many us have been saying for a while. In order to understand what social media might mean to PR we have to discuss PR, and that won’t come from Rubel. PR agencies have returned to what they have been doing for 50 years because the euphoria/hype did not get them anywhere, it was a momentary detour. I saw Rubel speak a couple of weeks ago and he sounded like a raving lunatic. Giving him some sort of credence in PR only changes the brand of Kool Aid we’re drinking. You know more than he does, and you are a world more rational. Rubel’s post 11/5 on Web 2.0 Kool Aid boozers is just dumb. Is this the best we can do for ‘thought leaders’? – Mark Rose, PRBlogNews, NYC

  11. […] Bill Sledzik tagged me on what may be a returning meme, this time generated by Steve Rubel, wondering if there’s a bubble in the web 2.0 world. In my comments I acknowledged seeing some bubble-like activities. […]

  12. Bill Sledzik says:

    Thanks for coming by, Geoff. I think it’s great that we disagree, as it allows us to discuss the ups and downs of social media in PR (I don’t focus on marketing, per se, but that post is still in the hopper). I’m also pleased to see your clients willing to experiment with Web 2.0. That’s how it’s gonna happen — companies taking small risks with PR professionals like you executing the plan and — I hope — measuring the results. That leads to solid case studies that build a body of knowledge we can all benefit from. I understand you and Brian have documented some of those cases in your book. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet. I will.

    Next step is to develop bona fide measures of Web 2.0’s effectiveness that go beyond case studies. That’s a far larger challenge, and it’s happening slowly but surely.

    Yes, there are some PR types who don’t embrace 2-way communication. But they don’t live my world. They live in caves, I think. Grunig and Hunt laid a firm foundation for symmetrical practice in the 1980s, and that was built, to a great degree, on Bernays’ writings of 1955 (The Engineering of Consent). If any group violates the tenets of 2-way practice with regularity, it’s our evil twins in marketing who, all too often, focus entirely on bottom line concerns.

    But now that we’re on the topic, this may be what gets my dander up when it comes to the Kool-Aid guzzlers Rubel is addressing. I see out there a belief — Dare I call it a smugness? — among the Web 2.0 cheerleaders that they’ve discovered the holy grail of communication — conversations and listening.

    Rubel is right about this. The new generation of practitioners needs a little more focus on history and a little less on Twitter.

    Only the tools are new. The strategy hasn’t changed a bit.

    As for the “snack” meme, yes, it had some value in that it focused on how a new generation is consuming media. We all need to understand this. But what we need is some serious research on the topic, not the “idle chat” I refer to. And that research, too, is underway here and elsewhere:

  13. Bill Sledzik says:

    To Mark…I’m not as quick to dismiss social media as part of the PR mix, as I’ve worked with clients for whom a symmetrical model of communication was wise, and sometimes even necessary (in the case of highly regulated businesses). But there’s little doubt that some practitioners took it too far (and continue to), presenting social media as the new paradigm of PR practice. There’s no paradigm shift here, just some new tools to help us do our jobs. And I still see a ton of potential for those tools, as I know Steve does.

    I’m eager to continue the exploration into social media to see how we can use them as listening posts and research tools. I’m not so much interested in how we use them to create buzz, but I’m not a marketer who focuses on selling stuff. I’m also willing to give Steve Rubel credit for being a leader who got us thinking about how to use the tools of Web 2.0 and exploring the possibilities. He admits to getting a tad loaded in the process. I can accept that. But I think we’ll all be wiser down the road for the experimentation Steve and the folks at Edelman have undertaken. How well it served their client base these last few years is another matter.

  14. Bill: No doubts. We have good discussions.

    As you know, I definitely believe that the new PR is a return to the old PR, creating goodwill between organizations and stakeholders. That means a strategy that clearly compels communities that’s effectively communicated through a variety of tools, including traditional media relations, speaking opps, awards, and social media tools (and so much more, too)!

    I disagree on the case study front. Case studies demonstrate tangible, numerical results. THe most powerful case study to date is Dell. Consider Dell’s 27 point decrease in negative blog posts, from 49 percent to 22 percent. How much would they have had to spend on an ad campaign to achieve that same result… if that same result is even possible through advertising. Hundreds of millions of dollars for a brand that large.

  15. Bill Sledzik says:

    Welcome back, Geoff. I don’t think I said anything negative about case studies, did I? I teach a class called PR Case Studies so I know their value as learning tools. But there’s a limit to what we can project from cases, as each one has it own context and circumstance. We need to use them as a foundation for building theory that will apply more universally. And we will.

    There is a huge downside to cases in that we seldom see the failures. Only natural, I suppose. Who’s gonna publish their failures? And that leads to a second weakness: Most cases we read are self-reported and unaudited (even the venerable Silver Anvils) so there’s no objectivity, no external review. In doesn’t take much effort to recast and objective after the fact to be sure it matches the results.

    Some of the best lessons in our Case Studies class come from high-profile screw ups. Same was true in my career, as I recall! Maybe I’ll talk to Dugan about doing a “Bad Case Blog.” Has potential.

  16. […] Professor Sledzik praises Steve Rubel for the latter’s big-time revelation that “the Web 2.0 world is skunk drunk on its own Kool-Aid.” […]

  17. […] Fascinating comments can be found on this Eric Mansfield thread and this previous Jeff Jarvis thread, this thread on Matt Dickman’s techno/marketer blog and this one on KSU assoc. professor in PR Bill Sledzik’s blog. […]

  18. Hello Bill,

    While I did not write about the PR angle of Steve’s post, I shared a few reflections about meaning that go to the “relations” part here

    Good to read you and meet you through your voice here (via Kami’s blog).

    As respects case studies from your conversation with Geoff, I’d rather read them in story format, touch the human part of what happened. Some results are indeed intangible, yet they create loyalty and trust. The learning does come from screw ups 😉

  19. Jay Rosen says:

    “But let’s not delude ourselves into thinking unpaid bloggers do real journalism. Let’s leave that to the professionals.”

    Wowzer. That’s quite a statement. I think what it means is “Let’s leave that to the professionals because we in PR know how to deal with them.”

    Here’s something for you to contemplate next time you decide to make a categorical remark like that doozie.,0,4771551.story

  20. Bill Sledzik says:

    Thanks for sending that link, Jay. I saw your piece when it ran in August, and enjoyed revisiting it today. I won’t disagree that bloggers sometimes unearth big stories. Anyone who follows social media knows that, and, in fact, I said exactly that in this post — one sentence before the one you quoted.

    Here it is for those who don’t want to scroll back up for context:

    “Social media play a vital role in the discussion of news, and occasionally they even turn up a scoop.”

    And I stand by the statement. While unpaid bloggers do occasionally bring stories to the attention of the MSM, it’s not an everyday occurrence. Serious, day-to-day news gathering requires folks with the skills and the time required to get at the truth. Most of the time those folks need paychecks to support their work.

    As for PR folks dealing with bloggers, the smart ones are picking up on it quickly. Your interpretation of my statement isn’t at all accurate. Fact is, I’d far rather deal with bloggers than a reporter from the MSM. They’re more accessible and more attuned to dialog. And in my classrooms, we go to great pains to ensure that students understand the difference.

    Unlike the professor you spotlight in your August column, I spend a lot of time reading blogs, as do my colleagues. We explore social media in our classrooms and in our research. Our students in public relations immerse themselves in social media, even spending a semester blogging at part of a class assignment. But we also don’t serve the Web 2.0 Kool-Aid that Steve Rubel is talking about. We try to keep it in perspective.

    Bloggers have been a wonderful addition to the public discourse about issues. But let’s also be mindful of their limitations.

  21. Judy Gombita says:

    Bill, I had *just* finished reading the new comment from Jay Rosen, as well as your response when an e-mail pinged in from my Brit tech-journo pal, Chris Edwards, who also authors the always-clever Hacking Cough blog. He pointed me to this Guardian Unlimited site article, “Are reporters doomed?”


    Are reporters doomed?

    Citizen journalism is here to stay. But in the rush to embrace new media we risk destroying the soul of traditional reporting David Leigh Monday November 12 2007 The Guardian

    “I was dismayed to read Roy Greenslade ‘s recent blog about the rise of citizen journalists. “Journalistic skills are not entirely wiped out in an online world, but they are eroded and, most importantly, they cannot be confined any longer to an exclusive elite group ,” he wrote.

    As a result, media companies of the future will require fewer staff, and their job will be to process materials from freelances, bloggers and citizen journalists. He continued — and this is the scary part: “It is also clear that media outlets will never generate the kind of income enjoyed by printed newspapers: circulation revenue will vanish and advertising revenue will be much smaller than today. There just won’t be the money to afford a large staff.” I am afraid Roy is right, that the journalistic future will be a future with less money around. That won’t be good. Too much competition leads to a race to the bottom. And you can’t report if you can’t afford to eat.

    Yet the old media are clearly on the way out. So are we reaching the end of the era of conventional reporting? Certainly, we must soon imagine a world without — at least — weekday printed papers. I believe we are going to see a new model of newspaper production in all the British nationals within the year. But my fear is that everyone is too obsessed with new platforms, and not enough people are talking about values….”

    To see the rest of this story with its related links on the Guardian Unlimited site, go to

    Plus the other week David Reich, did a post on Marketing Profs Daily Fix, “Citizen Journalists: A Good Thing… Sort of”

    where he detailed Vancouver-based international citizen journalist aggregator site, Now Public (

  22. Jill says:

    Bill – I have a serious question for you (meaning, not rhetorical but rather, I want to know your thoughts): Why isn’t there much discussion in here (this thread) about the impact readers’ desires have on news provision? Or even the form and substance of news in the context of PR?

    I view the proliferation of blogging as a news provider as well as blogs as a news resource as a direct outgrowth of what readers want – they both provide what they want and go looking for it.

    What do you think about this aspect?

  23. Bill Sledzik says:

    Three primary reasons for the limited discussion, Jill. First, a good portion of my readers are PR types, not journalists, so it’s not an issue that’s central to them. Also, the post was primarily about Steve Rubel’s comments, and many readers may have seen my discussion of a local story as off topic. Add to this the age of the post . Folks have moved on — clear evidence of the digital attention span!

    I agree that blogs can be a great news resource. But I think most of us use them to locate stories of interest to us — stories that bloggers have written about, usually after spotting them in the MSM in some form. I see a lot of value in that, but I don’t share the excitement others have for placing bloggers under the umbrella of traditional mainstream media. That’s a personal view, but it grows out of a concern over having information be adequately vetted. That isn’t happening in the b-sphere — at least not in a way the average Joe can recognize.

    Is the b-sphere a good place to see what interests readers? I’m not so sure of that, either. It is a good place to see what interests bloggers, but we’re a pretty self-absorbed lot.

    I tell my students to read bloggers because bloggers do a lot of research on our behalf. These are people passionate about topics, and they love to expound on those topics, then link us to useful stories, but even then I see little or no balance in viewpoints or link distribution. But most bloggers are not at your level, Jill. Most are not disciplined writers who can see the world through an objective eye.

    There’s a whole lot of nonsense in the blogosphere alongside the legit commentary. And most people don’t seem inclined to sort it out. So what I see them doing, with increasing regularity, is tuning it out. I’m not the only one concerned here. Check the link to the Guardian referenced in Judy’s comment above. I’m hoping Jay checks it out, too, so he can see I’m not the only one who doesn’t “get it.”

    I’m puzzled myself about how often the MSM turn to bloggers for comments — flattered at the same time, as I’ve been called 4 times in the past month.

  24. Jill says:

    Well – I understand your comment, I accept what you say.

    I guess I don’t like to think of myself as that unique, plus, the blog company I keep is primarily with those who do primary source writing – that’s very important to me. I use blogs to find what others think is news – those “others” being bloggers.

    I don’t follow the national blogs much at all (Kos, Malkin, Huff Po) – because of my interest in original reporting on blogs. But I am aware of the small proportion that leaves me with.

    Though – I have to tell you, Bill! I have almost 300 blogs in my RSS, and probably 100 of them are Ohio and many of those are political. Yet, maybe 20 or so of the Ohio ones do primary source reporting on a regular basis.

    This post is an excellent example of what I look for and love to see:

    Thanks for responding.

  25. […] Steve is blogging regularly again, and some minds think a resurgence may be in the works. […]

  26. […] There’s a disturbance in the blogosphere. Feel it? « Tough Sledding See Shift #2 […]

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