Public Relations Tactics

Bob Garfield: Shut up and listen — or you’re doomed

November 11, 2009

If you do public relations the same way that people have done it successfully for centuries, Bob Garfield has a simple message: You’re doomed.

Garfield, an Advertising Age columnist, broadcast personality and author of “The Chaos Scenario,” opened with that statement during his Tuesday luncheon speech before almost 3,000 PR professionals and students attending the PRSA 2009 International Conference in San Diego. The lunch was held in collaboration with the College of Fellows.

PR professionals who don’t change their ways face extinction because of the digital revolution, Garfield said.

“The digital revolution isn’t some kind of news magazine headline,” he said. “It’s an actual revolution yielding revolutionary changes including, but not limited to, the disintegration of the media and marketing infrastructures that have worked in perfect symbiosis for almost four centuries.”

As the Internet has spawned countless pages that deliver an unprecedented amount of news and information, traditional media are suffering, which means Garfield, who makes a living as someone in the media commenting on others in the media, is particularly ill-fated, he said.

“My plan B is to be a buzzard feeding on the bloated corpses of your industry,” he said.

The good news
PR practitioners have more dignified options, Garfield said.

“In fact, I would say that as PR professionals, you are uniquely situated not only to survive but thrive in the micro world.”

While the bad news is that there will be fewer and fewer venues to land a placement that reaches a mass audience, the good news is that there are almost countless venues overall, and your clients will want you to reach them, he said.

“But like every other institution in the mass world, you have to begin with a fundamental change in your culture and your business practices,” Garfield said.

Shut up and listen
That change is to employ what Garfield called “Listenomics,” or to “shut up and listen.” Listen to your customers, audience or electorate, he said.

“Every institution that has formerly dictated from the top down must begin treating its constituencies not as the anonymous hoi polloi, but as genuine stakeholders and partners.”

It’s important to embrace digital tools that can help you forge relationships with your audience in new ways, Garfield said.

Your audience uses blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other social media to talk about the organizations you represent, and that presents opportunities.

The No. 1 priority in using social networking with your audience is to avoid making them angry, Garfield said. “In a connected world, they have far more sway over you than you have over them.”

Collaborate with your audience
If you can harness that sway and use it to your advantage, then you can reap big rewards.

As an example, Garfield talked about Lego Mindstorms, which combine the traditional Lego bricks with electronic and mechanical parts that let users make their own robotic creations.

Mindstorms were too complicated and expensive for Lego’s target audience of kids and teenagers, Garfield said. But Mindstorms were embraced by adults who are “total geekazoids” and use chat rooms, blogs and other social networks to discuss the product.

When Lego began to update the Mindstorms about five years ago, it created an ad hoc users panel to serve as co-designers of the next generation of the product.

“These pitiful dweebs flew to Denmark on their own expense … and they worked with Lego designers,” Garfield said. “And then when they left Denmark, they continued their collaboration online. For 14 months these volunteers reinvented the brand.”

The Mindstorms users who helped redesign the product also helped Lego market it.

“These folks were zealous before they were recruited,” he said. “Afterwards, in those same social networks, they were emphatic evangelists for the new line, and Mindstorms has become the most profitable line in Lego history.”

Talk is cheap – and priceless
For PR professionals, the most important aspect of the Internet today is word of mouth, Garfield said.

“In the digital age, word-of-mouth is no longer some unpredictable adjunct to the glorious efficiencies of media and mass marketing,” he said. “On the contrary, word of mouth is increasingly at the heart of spreading good or bad news. The Internet is a word of mouth machine.”

Google is one place where you can see how powerful word of mouth can be, Garfield said. When you type in a search term, the results Google links to are determined in part by contextual relevance but also by how many others who searched for that term went to given pages.

When Garfield launched in 2007 to give customers of the cable TV service a place to vent complaints about poor service, the site became one of the top links that showed up in Google searches for the Comcast name.

The shame eventually pushed Comcast to reach out to people who posted on and try to resolve their complaints.

“Isn’t it better to invite the disgruntled to come to you with all their fury? Then when you attend to their issues, you use their energy to flip them,” Garfield said. “It’s like jujitsu.”

Tschotschke 2.0
Another way that companies can connect with their audiences in the digital age is to use widgets, which Garfield said are a modern-day version of the branded refrigerator magnets, fly swatters and other items that companies have given away for ages.

Widgets are transportable software applications that sit on a computer’s desktop. Creating branded widgets that people find useful are a good way to reinforce your brand, he said.

For example, UPS offers a widget that people can use to track shipments, while Southwest Airlines offers a widget that can automatically let people know if a low fare for a particular route becomes available.

“In terms of the convergence of branding with Web 2.0 technology, the widget might not necessarily be the Holy Grail, but it’s pretty grailish,” Garfield said.


Erik Battenberg is a freelance writer based in San Diego.


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