Brad Reese, PR's Worst Nightmare

A corporate blogger's handbook for the darker side of social media

Let's face it, Brad is a controversial guy. Brad loves looking for the smoking gun, and if he found his true calling as a blogger a few years earlier than he did he would have been a founder of the Drudge Report.

PR teams really hate Brad. In fact many have policies, or want policies, specifically about how to deal with Brad and others like him. See when you get on the bad side of a company, especially in a tight-knit community like tech, or even more so in a sub-segment like networking or Linux and you insert a volatile, disruptive, and rather cheeky figure like Brad you evoke the most visceral response possible from a PR or Corporate Communications team- they blacklist you.

It sort of works like this, if the journalist writes positively about the company and sugar-coats things they get access. If they take a contrary opinion, over time they lose access (unless they write for a big-name publication.) They don't get the pre-briefings before the big stories, they don't get access to the CEO or business leaders, they don't get insight. In the PR teams eyes they cannot be entrusted with such access and the PR team wants to make the journalist's job harder and wants to protect the corporate executives from being exposed to such rigorous questioning/examination.

This used to work quite well, because the mid-size publications had to bow to the advertising pressure and sometimes legal pressure that could be inserted by a large company, and with a few journalists in a mid-size industry no one could afford to be without access. But the rules changed... blogging and social media came about, and people got their voice. Even us ordinary ones...

After introducing a product line about 18-months ago I first ran into Brad. Brad was fanning the flames in a rather heated discussion between myself and a member of the CTO's office at Nortel. I was having a blast, and I am pretty sure my sparring partner was too with the few verbal sparring rounds we went. I can't remember the exact reason, but Brad said something that irked me a bit and I picked up the phone and called him. Within the first five minutes we were laughing about it, I think he even made a small factual change.

But Brad also commented, 'In several years of writing this you are the first person from your company to proactively reach out to me.'

After that, I never had a problem with Brad's coverage. I'd comment on his blog, have a few debates, be challenged, but I joined the conversation. 

First Rule- with appropriate attribution for this to a conversation I had with Robert Scoble- Be part of the conversation. People change how they speak when they know you are listening. Don't make a policy that says, "Thou shalt not post on Brad's blog" you are just encouraging him! Instead make a policy that says, "Let Brad know you are listening and join his conversation."

Second Rule- if you participate, you earn the right to shape and re-frame. By being part of the conversation you can set the pace, tone, and direction. You earn that right by being present and your presence. This is not for the faint of heart, and this, no offense, is not for the 'relations' folks, but get the domain experts- get the engineers, the product managers, the customer support team and have them engage. Have the executives and CTO types reach out, make a call, be part of the conversation - then, and only then can you nudge it your way.

Third Rule- you cannot control the conversation. I have heard the following phrase too often- "we must control the message!" This usually translated to, "don't brief anyone, don't comment on a blog, don't discuss anything in a forum, watch the conversations happen without you." This viscerally disembowels rule 1, and thus should never be done, instead the only way to control the message is by being part of the conversation and being accurate, credible, and having a little bit of 'flair'. You have to have a personality, one that comes across through your dialog and your witticisms.

Final Rule- Be Open. Just admit a mistake, most people will get right over it. If your product had a defect, admit it- they all do. If you had a bad quarter and sales were down because a competitor out-executed you, own that too. The public, the press, the bloggers, and even random forum trolls can read right through the corp-speak, so don't use it. You'll be well rewarded in the end as much as it may be painful at the present.

If you are a PR team reading this, call Brad. Brief him on your next announcement a few days in advance. He will still run over you in the blogs, just expect it. Brief him again the next few times. Have some empowered engineers, business leaders, and smart-people call him- I think he'd appreciate it. Maybe in 3-4 months, after both sides work on re-establishing a relationship he'll be a bit kinder on some posts. But right now, he gets the readership he wants without your input, so join his conversation - even if its a hard one.

The journalist is the PR team's customer: so this doesn't only apply to Brad, he's my case-study here, this really applies to anyone that covers you, you want covering your company, or you wish would cover it differently.


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