Holmes Report Blog

The Holmes Report blog focuses on news and issues of interest to public relations professionals. Our main site can be found at www.holmesreport.com.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Buzz Brouhaha: It appears that one of my recent articles has stirred some unintended controversy. Hard to believe, I know, because I’m famously moderate in all my views, but there you go…

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a review of the book Grapevine: The New Art of Word-of-Mouth Marketing by Dave Balter, founder of BzzAgent. It was, for the most part, a positive review: I have some issues with the company’s employment of agents to talk up products on behalf of clients, but at least there’s no deception involved—no paid actors pretending to be ordinary people—and BzzAgent has added considerably to the body of knowledge about word-of-mouth marketing, through third-party research and this book.

Apparently, not everyone was happy with the article, however. On his blog, Balter writes: “The article focused almost solely on BzzAgent, which according to [Word of Mouth Marketing Association CEO] Andy [Sernovitz], has upset many PR practitioners in the WOM field who felt ‘left out’ of a story published in one of their industry periodicals. Such disappointment is frustrating, particularly given that we hadn’t even been interviewed for the report, and weren’t even aware that it was coming out. Yes, a possible case of sour grapes, but BzzAgent has never intentionally marginalized other well-intentioned WOM practitioners, nor have we sought exposure at their expense.”

I haven’t heard any of the sour grapes Balter is referring to, but if there are people out there in PR-land who feel that BzzAgent is stealing their glory, my response is this: write your own damned book.

The Holmes Report is focused on thought leadership. Thought leaders speak out about issues, they have something to say, and sometimes they write books. To the best of my knowledge, no one from the PR industry has written a book about word-of-mouth marketing, their vision of its future, the role PR people can play in it. I’m not even sure I’ve seen any robust original research into the power of word-of-mouth from a PR firm, except for Edelman’s Trust Barometer work, showing that the word of a friend or neighbor is nowadays more credible than mass media.

I’ll go further. When I talked to PR people about WoM for a feature article a couple of years ago, I found for the most part a less than sophisticated understanding about word-of-mouth as a discipline. “We’ve always done word of mouth,” PR people would say. “Give me an example,” I’d say. “Well, we did this publicity stunt and people were buzzing about it for weeks after,” they’d answer. Not exactly next generation thinking.

I’ve talked about the lack of thought leadership in PR before. This is a classic illustration. I don’t know Dave Balter, but he took the time to turn out a coherent story about his company and a set of ideas about what works and doesn’t work in word-of-mouth marketing--challenging some of the conventional wisdom in the process.

Anyone else who has done the same--inside or outside the PR industry--should feel free to tell me about it, and will get the same consideration.
Ignorance is Bliss: Could it be that British journalists are even more holier-than-thou than their U.S. counterparts? They are if this pompous, self-righteous missive to the Financial Times from an ITV News reporter is any indication.

Keir Simmons apparently resides in a pink and fuzzy fantasy land in which reporters are noble seekers after truth, obstructed in pursuing their holy mission by public relations practitioners whose job, naturally, is to obstruct and obfuscate. (Simmons was responding to a column by John Lloyd, who made the contentious suggestion that both journalists and PR people could benefit from better mutual understanding.)

It’s tempting to suggest that anyone who sees the world in such stark black-and-white terms is too naïve to be trusted with something as important as informing the public. It’s equally tempting to suggest that willful ignorance—“Journalists don't need to understand PRs, it will simply damage our work”—is not a useful personality trait in a so-called seeker-after-truth. Nor is intellectual laziness.

If Simmons did take the time to understand “PRs” (a bizarre British-ism for PR people) he would understand that the only good PR begins with a commitment to the truth. Any PR executive who doesn’t have such a commitment will do more harm than good to his or her client’s good name. (And yes, I know there are a lot of bad PR people—and bad clients—out there.)

Tony Snow is about to learn that it’s a lot easier to spin and lie as a reporter than it is as a public relations guy, and as a consequence his new job is going to be a lot more difficult than his old job.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Snakes on a M*th*rf*ck*ng Plane: Remember all the hype that surrounded the marketing of the Blair Witch Project, which was presented as the first example of a movie that used the power of the Internet to generate buzz. Well get ready for Snakes on a Plane, which is an example of next generation movie marketing, in which the Internet becomes a tool for collaboration between the film-makers and their audience. And like BWP, SoaP offers interesting lessons for marketers of other, more mainstream products.

For those of you less excited by lowbrow pop culture than I am, I should probably begin with a little background. Snakes on a Plane (SoaP, as it is now known in the blogosphere) had its genesis before the events of 9-11, and was shelved after the terrorist attacks, which put a damper on movies about terror on board jets. But it was revived and eventually wrapped at the end of 2005.

But the movie scored some early publicity when screenwriter Josh Friedman—who was called in to do some rewrites—blogged about it: “I ask Agent the name of the project, what it’s about, etc. He says: ‘Snakes on a Plane.’ Holy shit, I’m thinking. It’s a title. It’s a concept. It’s a poster and a logline and whatever else you need it to be. It’s perfect. Perfect. It’s the Everlasting Gobstopper of movie titles.”

Others shared Friedman’s enthusiasm for the title and the concept, and Snakes on a Plane became an online phenomenon, with blogs dedicated to the movie, fan fiction, fake promotional posters and audio clips, parody films, and songs.

All of the Internet buzz prompted New Line to go back and film some additional footage, and to incorporate a line suggested by one online fan, with Jackson announcing: “I want these motherfucking snakes off the motherfucking plane!” It also generated a contest on Tagworld, a site for unsigned musicians, offering the winning artist a chance to have his or her music featured in the film.

SoaP could be the first movie produced as an act of collaboration between moviemakers and fans.

In an interview with Time magazine, Jackson gave his perspective on the fan phenomenon: “Personally, I think it’s great. They saved the movie.” When the actor first signed on, he and director David Ellis agreed that people who like the title are probably not easily offended. But when Jackson arrived for shooting, the script had been neutered to garner a PG-13 rating. “They restricted my cursing and restricted the gore. It was kind of a waste of time.”

“I have no ego,” says Ellis. “You have to be smart enough to collaborate with everybody when you’re making a movie, so why not work with the people you’re making the movie for?”

That’s a philosophy that could be extended across a wide range of product categories.