PR in the Age of Consumer Control

    March 14, 2006

Google. The effusive praise this deceptively low-key search engine elicits is maddening. I used to mock Google. Now I seemingly won’t go to the john without it.

Luckily Pete Blackshaw is helping me look at search in a whole new light. “In categories such as automotive, electronics, and healthcare, most purchase behavior starts with search,” says Blackshaw, chief marketing and customer satisfaction officer for Nielsen BuzzMetrics.

In a recent presentation to PRSA’s Cincinnati Chapter, Blackshaw compared search to what P&G calls the first moment of truth, or the first interaction a customer has with a product. More and more, this moment takes place online before a consumer steps foot in a store. Search engines can commoditize any product or service-consider a six-figure machine tool. Based on a few key specifications, a company can whittle down a list of vendors before ever contacting a manufacturer.

Searching for Brand Equity
The above supports the importance of search engine optimization (SEO), but the real opportunity for public relations lies in social media relations. Consumers are creating the first moment of truth online. Jupiter Research notes that 26 percent of the top search results for the world’s 20 largest brands is consumer generated.

Pontiac, or their agency, knows this and had the chutzpah to push customers to Google to learn more about them. The Iams Company and Wal-Mart won’t follow Pontiac’s example anytime soon.

Bottom Line?

As consumer-generated media continues to morph and challenge mainstream media, we risk serious impact on our clients’ brands and our own future if we do not engage this audience.

Edelman’s over-analyzed interaction with bloggers on behalf of Wal-Mart is simply online media relations in a Web 2.0 world. Blackshaw calls it “PR in the age of consumer control.” I call it social media relations. Edelman’s actions were above board. The industry’s ad nauseam discussion over this just shows how much we have to learn.

There is also a PR opportunity in SEO, but it’s a subset of what we do online. Search relevance is a benefit of strong messaging. SEO should be a gut check that your content is on message. The danger in SEO is it tends to focus more on a client’s site and its competitors. We need a broader view of SEO that includes employees and customers; each audience can impact search results. Public relations can easily bring that broad view to this important discipline.

Blackshaw offers more insight into the impact search has on brand in his recent Click Z column on defensive branding.

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Kevin Dugan is the author of the popular Strategic Public Relations blog. Kevin is Director of Marketing Communications for FRCH Design Worldwide.

Visit Kevin’s blog: Strategic Public Relations.