Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Cut Me Off a Slice of That

This is a little off topic, but it was revealed last week that the Bush Administration spent $1.6 billion (with a B) on public relations over the past two and a half years.

The money was spent on a variety of efforts, from ad buys to paying for consultants to underwriting the writing of conservative commentators. My first thought was "where can I get me some of that?" But this is not the forum for delving into the politics of this spend, and no one wants me to go off on a rant of my personal views, but I did find some of this flackery to be interesting.

In particular, the $250,000 given to Armstrong Williams (as well as other money spent on other columnists) to tout Bush's No Child Left Behind policy, which gets into a growing area of PR/marketing called "Word of Mouth Marketing," or WOMM.

This practice first came to my attention a couple years ago when it was revealed that some firms were paying teen 'net denizens to talk up products within their online peer groups. Researchers had identified influential personalities and paid them money and with free swag to drop mentions of certain products.

Since that time, the ethical considerations of WOMM have been raised. Does enlisting teens and targeting a teen audience violate the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), for example?

I'd be remiss if I didn't point to some of Alan Chapell's thoughts on this subject.

The world of PR is changing. Issues that weren't a concern even a year ago are now emerging as a potential boon to buzz-building, or potentially damaging to credibility. One-on-one communications is becoming more and more important, but how this is carried out can be the difference between success and failure. Bush gets caught paying off supposedly independent voices. His credibility takes a shot. Marketers get caught paying teens to tout their wares. Credibility takes a shot.

It's likely that the strategies and tactics employed to create word-of-mouth buzz will evolve quickly in the coming months. There is no real book of precedent to build upon here, so it will take creative thinking to accumulate a set of new practices, and a lot of trial and error to determine what works.

Recommendations: What a great opportunity to innovate, but while throwing caution to the wind in a brainstorm session is fine, before moving forward with any new strategies, it is incumbent upon decision makers to do their best to follow each to its manifold end result and figure out which contingencies may result in a loss of credibility. Trust in communications is essential, and we do ourselves and our clients no favors when, enamored by a newly minted brainchild, we fail to conisder all possible outcomes.


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