Five years ago, a major consumer brand - Brand X - had a problem. It was about to embark on a product launch across Europe, and was nervous about the reception from the press. Media coverage in the US had been lukewarm when it had launched the revolutionary gloop a few weeks before, and it suspected the internet had something to do with it.
It was right. Journalists who had attended that launch had taken a unified course of action when it ended. They had all gone back to their offices and typed 'brand x' into Google.
The company's own website had no details of the new product. Speculation was rife on the web, but ill-informed. The only extensive coverage was a spoof article about the product on satirical website The Onion. With headlines like 'Wal-Mart cuts 13,000 of what it calls jobs', The Onion mocks business, politics and people, and hardly sets out to be an authoritative source of information for hungry hacks.
We set out to turn Google into a list of links to positive coverage of the product. More than 400 influential bloggers in the male-grooming space were identified - there really were that many, even in 2005 - and sent gift packs with samples of the gloop. Crucially, each was contacted individually, with a letter saying that since they wrote about this topic, we thought they would be interested in the new product - but that by accepting the sample they were under no obligation to write positively, or, indeed, at all. We simply thought they would like to be able to write from first-hand experience.
The consequence was that a Google search following the European press launch presented coverage in blogs and forums that was 82% positive.
It created the backdrop we needed to establish popular sentiment around the product that journalists could choose to reflect, and it went on to become a hit - due to subsequent things we had nothing to do with.
Those first steps for a product as it emerges into the glare of public attention are crucial. Get them wrong, and you will struggle to get further. Get them right, and you still have a long way to go, but you are off and running.
The experience taught us important lessons: that digital marketing can learn from traditional techniques; that digital isn't just about direct communications; and that the fulcrum of PR had shifted from seeking directly to influence journalists to influencing those who in turn influence journalists.
A report from George Washington University and PR software and service provider Cision, published at the end of last year, brings us up to date.
The report emphasises the importance of social media to today's journalists. Not only do they use social media to promote what they write - 64% of them maintaining blogs, 57% using Twitter - but they use them to research the stories. Almost as many (89%) use blogs as use corporate websites (96%) when writing a story.
Two-thirds use sites like Facebook, Flickr, Wikipedia and YouTube, and almost half use consumer forums.
Significantly, the research shows that, while they don't generally regard news from social media sites as being as accurate as that from traditional media, journalists still use it, as part of the exploratory work in composing a story.
Since the invention of cut and paste, PRs have been aware of the power that digital channels add to their press releases. However, social media has fundamentally altered the ecosystem of influence that powers the communications business, and Google has created a window into it. In PR, as elsewhere, it's a mistake to assume that using digital channels is appropriate only for reaching digital consumers.
Andrew Walmsley is co-founder of i-level.
30 SECONDS ON ... The Onion
- The Onion - 'America's best news source' - is a publisher of news-based satire. Its original weekly print tabloid now stands alongside the website, theonion.com, and several spin-offs.
- The Onion has about 10,000 subscribers to its print edition and a total print circulation of about 400,000, via distribution in eight US cities. It claims more than 3m readers online each week.
- It has published satirical news-style videos online since 2007 under the Onion News Network banner.
- Stories on the site have been taken seriously by news organisations on several occasions; last September, two papers in Bangladesh published a translation of its report that Neil Armstrong had admitted his moon landing was an elaborate hoax.
- In The Onion's fictional history, it was founded in 1756 as the Mercantile-Onion; last year, it was bought by a Chinese conglomerate, Yu Wan Mei Amalgamated Salvage Fisheries and Polymer Injection Corporation, but put up for sale again a week later.