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.


  • At 2:25 PM, Blogger Art by Falco said…

    well written and creatively designed blog

  • At 10:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…


    While I understand the grumblings of my PR colleagues, there is a world of difference between PR WOM and what Dave's company, and other WOM firms, do. I work with Dave and his team and they are terrific. WOM is a defined marketing discipline that includes elements of PR but goes well beyond what our industry has offered in the past.

  • At 7:19 AM, Blogger Paul A. Holmes said…


    My point would be that it's what our industry should offer in the future. WoM -- real, organic, authentic WoM -- is about telling your story to influential third parties and then hoping they will go on to tell that story to others. If that's not PR, I don't know what is. (Unless we want to be defined and limited by the medium we use, which makes no sense to me.)

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