PR shifts to Community Management

There is this meme going on about PR, and how the A-List tech bloggers have basically become their mouthpieces. Press-release release machines, if you like.

But I think PR people are getting quite wise to the fact that they can't just issue press releases and expect bloggers to care very much about them any more. So they've turned to "community management" instead.

I'm noticing this more and more, especially in very "social" financial services sites. Debbie Pfeifer at Wesabe has been doing it for ages. She sends out these friendly emails and responds immediately when you send back questions. Of course it is really PR, but its more sophisticated than the normal press release. Debbie makes sure that I (and I know quite a few other bloggers) see and care what Wesabe is doing. No mass mailing here.

And yesterday, I got my first email from Kelly Yahr, Community Outreach Coordinator at Virgin Money. As I said in my response to her, I was interested and impressed that such a role even existed at Virgin Money, and I'll look forward to some ongoing discussion with her as well. Especially if she plans to really open the kimono and let us see what is going on inside Virgin Money, as Wesabe often does.

But all this is so very interesting, because it points somewhere quite new, I think, for financial services. It marks another shift in the way that institutions deal with the market. In the old world, a bank gets its messages to customers through mass media channels. In the new, one reaches customers one at a time, through various intermediaries, including bloggers.

Now, I am not aware of any "Community Outreach Coordinators" yet at any major institutions, and such efforts to reach influentials is limited to the piecemeal efforts of various press offices. Sometimes, the people who manage the press don't even know they have bloggers in their institutions!

That is not true here at the bank, thankfully. But what we are doing is so new, at least from the perspective of looking out from an institution, that everyone is having to rethink a bit to get their head around the new challenges and opportunities that arise.

I don't imagine it will be long before banks are employing Community Outreach Coordinators themselves. Of course, it is PR, but ever so much more sophisticated than a press release. With bloggers, you first have to build a relationship, then tell them something new, and only then, if you have picked a topic you know they are interested in, will they write anything.

All a lot more effort, really, than spraying a press release. Because you have to know the person you're reaching out to pretty well to have much success in actually getting the message out. And getting to know people well is a skill that we, as banks, are having to learn again from the ground up.

So I think that we'll soon see banks hiring these "Community Outreach Coordinators" to build rapport with intermediaries who aggregate eyeballs. Then they'll use those relationships to get much more sophisticated messages out the door than is normally possible in a 15 or 30 second ad spot.

One final question is in my mind, though, is what use HSBC's  or Citi's Community Outreach Coordinator will make of a competitive bank's blogger like myself? Will they just ignore me, or take a leap of faith and realise that the community is powerful regardless of who is in it?

8 Responses to“PR shifts to Community Management”

  1. August 15, 2008 at 8:10 am #

    This is an easy one to get a feel for James. Try going to the media relations section of a large bank and see if they’ll talk to you.
    I tried this with RBS during the ABN takeover battle. They’ll only talk to proper “journalists” apparently.
    I thought a blog was a journal and as we write one, doesn’t that make us “journalists”?
    So, what’s the difference between a “journalist” and a blogger?
    Probably the amount of free lunches on offer…
    Go on give RBS a try. Call Carolyn McAdam, Group Head, Media Relations a call on 0131 523 2055!

  2. Aden Davies
    August 15, 2008 at 6:38 pm #

    If we (HSBC) did appoint a ‘Community Outreach Coordinater’ or the like I would hope they would be all ‘web2.0ed’ up and would realise the power of the financial bloggers, or mouthpieces, irrespective of who they work for. The so called death of the press release by brandstreaming etc. is an interesting development and I look forward to seeing which banks gets into it…any plans for your bank to get a friendfeed account? 😉

  3. August 19, 2008 at 6:44 am #

    Hi Aiden,
    No plans at the moment, but something that is at least on the radar. You?

  4. Aden Davies
    August 19, 2008 at 12:35 pm #

    Not that I am aware of…yet.

  5. August 19, 2008 at 8:24 pm #

    Blog is a generic term, there are some that reach millions and some that reach dozens. Any blog with a few thousand readers ought to be taken as seriously as any other niche publication.
    For a non-negligible number of blogs, that means taking them very seriously. Especially when you you consider how common it is for them to trigger press stories. Mainstream journalists are lazy people – they’ve always taken the commentary of informed insiders and rewritten it for a general audience. And increasingly those insiders are self-publishing… Morgan Stanley’s Stephen Roach has his personal “blog posts” (technically they’re commentary, but it’s a defacto blog) mentioned in the FT fairly frequently.
    If you matter, your blog matters 🙂 !

  6. August 19, 2008 at 9:58 pm #

    Apparently brandstreaming is trademarked 😀

  7. August 27, 2008 at 5:55 pm #

    One comment from an old PR pro… actually a REAL pr/media relations person succeeds based on relationships, not “spraying” press releases. So the community outreach is new paint on an old house. Okay, it’s a new house, but it’s still a house. With WiFi.
    You described it perfectly:
    “Of course, it is PR, but ever so much more sophisticated than a press release. With bloggers, you first have to build a relationship, then tell them something new, and only then, if you have picked a topic you know they are interested in, will they write anything.”
    That’s pretty much how serious PR works with MM too.
    Frankly I think most serious bloggers are easily as discerning as MM, and it’s a challenge for people who grew up old school to wake up and smell the Internet Coffee.
    Once they do they realize it’s like alot of things – it’s about relationships and authenticty.
    IMHO.
    Winter

  8. September 2, 2008 at 2:19 am #

    I think this is the future of information dissemination for banks. Bankers are slow to move because they worry about the “negative comments” too much. They need to realize that the way to build a quality brand is to let your customers do it for you – and they will given the opportunity. One bank I started a few years ago has gone web 2.0 with an interactive blog it is really great. You can visit at http://www.choicebank.com – it is a small community bank – but it is a start. All banks I work on now that will be a recommendation. Great article. Thank you,

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