Useful Labels

    January 9, 2006

I scoffed when a representative from Lake Superior State University, appearing on MSNBC’s “Countdown” (my favorite cable news show) issued the university’s 2006 “List of Words and Phrases Banished from the Queen’s English for Mis-Use, Over-Use and General Uselessness.” Among this year’s choices: “breaking news” and “talking points.”

The university has been presenting the list since 1976, making its selections from nominations submitted by just about anybody. I gave up on the list last year when it included the word “blog” along with this rationale for wanting to ban the word:

Many who nominated it were unsure of the meaning. Sounds like something your mother would slap you for saying.

“Sounds like a Viking’s drink that’s better than grog, or a technique to kill a frog.” Teri Vaughn, Anaheim, Calif.

“Maybe it’s something that would be stuck in my toilet.” Adrian Whittaker, Dundalk, Ontario.

“I think the words journal’ and diary’ need to come back.” T. J. Allen, Shreveport, La

The first two comments suggest a word should be banned if some people don’t know what it means and don’t like how it sounds. By that standard, we’d eliminate 30% of the words in the dictionary. It’s the last comment, though, that warrants some discussion. It seems to have become a popular notion that more general terms should be used to replace specific labels with narrower meanings. In this case, a “journal” or “diary” could be on paper as easily as they could be online. Paper diaries record intimate thoughts, often that people wouldn’t want shared. Blogs use blogging software and incorporate the technology enabled by the software, such as commenting, trackbacks, and the like. Say “journal” and people will wonder what kind. Say “blog” and people will know just what you’re talking about.

The same reasoning bubbled up in my mind when I read a post yesterday from Chuck Tanowitz’s Media Metamorphosis blog in which Tanowitz expressed his disdain for the term “blogger relations:”

During a recent lunch conversation with John Cass, he and I argued over the term “blogger relations.” Personally, I think it’s a lousy term. He believes it’s the hot term of 2006.

I’d like to suggest another: Open Communications. I’m thinking about this in the same vein as Open Source, that is, a way for everyone to contribute to the conversation. It’s a way of simply better expressing what is going on today, and giving a label for corporations to attach to this to differentiate it from traditional PR, media relations and advertising.

At a certain point all of this becomes one and all falls under the general “communications” umbrella, but we’re not there yet.

For now, it’s all about being Open.

From where I sit, “blogger relations” has specific meaning. It’s the alternative to “media relations,” coined because public relations practitioners cannot approach bloggers the same way they can pitch media. Blogger relations should, of course, be open. But there’s more to it than that. It is a useful term, for now, as the principles of employing blogs in a public relations context are defined and codified.

The author of the Clogger blog (I have no idea who he or she is; there’s no profile on the page) suggests that any corporate blog is an example of blogger relations:

Clogs don’t exist. Blogs don’t exist. The corporations are pumping money into blogger relations strategies that are only serving to inform a closed network of other corporations what they’re up to. The information survives forever in a closed loop.

Again, this post suggests broader meaning than intended. It’s like suggesting that “media relations” is everything an organization says publicly, since the media might pick up on it. While that may be true, “media relations” refers to a defined set of strategies for maintaining positive relationships with the press.

Even terms that are worthy of disparagement can be traced back to a meaning that was useful. In the corporate world, the word “paradigm” is one that evokes laughter and eye rolling. Originally, though, it had a specific meaning that was useful. It was only after every insignificant change in strategy was dubbed a “paradigm shift” by jargon-happy executives that the word fell into disrepute. Still, if a business undergoes a genuine paradigm shift, consistent with the original definition, I have no problem with using the term to define the action. I’d be equally happy to see a company genuinely empower its employees and achieve world-class status.

In the end, though, all this discussion about whether we should use “blogger relations” or “open communication” sparks two conclusions:

1. Complain all you want. The words are part of the vernacular and aren’t going anywhere.

2. Focusing on the labels instead of issues of substance undermines credibility. This was Joan Didion’s argument in an essay from her “White Album” collection in which she chided the feminist movement for wasting its capital of specious issues like getting people to say “camerawoman” when it could be striving toward equal pay for equal work.

I do hate “clog” as a term for corporate blogs, though. I always thought those were wooden shoes.

Shel Holtz is principal of Holtz Communication + Technology which focuses on helping organizations apply online communication capabilities to their strategic organizational communications.

As a professional communicator, Shel also writes the blog a shel of my former self.