From blogging to thought leadership

About the author

Richard Bailey Hon FCIPR is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

Weblog or blog. How old-fashioned it now sounds. So it’s time to revisit and reconsider the original concept.

Blogging was an answer to a problem: the gap between Tim Berners-Lee’s vision for a read-write World Wide Web and the version that came about with the the first popular browsers, Mosaic and Netscape Navigator.

Consider that word: browser. We were passive consumers of information published by others. In its first version, the web (we’ve since lost the capital letter) lacked an edit button. We could browse information, but could not easily create it. This was not the read-write web as originally conceived.

So the great achievements of the early years of the web involved mass participation: Wikipedia – the encyclopaedia created by us – with its prominent edit button; and blogging, personal diaries created by anyone. Welcome to Web 2.0!

Two decades on, what have we learnt, and what’s the state of blogging?

The content creators are still there (I’ll return to them later), but where are the readers? With the emergence and dominance of social media, the conversation has shifted to other channels. Some have concluded that their content should follow the conversation, rather than the other way around, and are directing their efforts at Facebook or LinkedIn posts – or are focusing on sound, photos or video. (Others point out that it’s best to own your own property and not to give up control or ownership of your content to a social media giant.)

Then there are the problems of distinguishing blogs from news. What’s HuffPost – the blog-based news site for the internet age? Is it an aggregation of blogs, or a newspaper with opinions? Is it a blog post when a BBC reporter writes a piece of commentary on BBC News? Has a movement that started with amateurs been handed back to the professionals?

I’ve been gathering my ‘pick of the posts’ each week at PR Place. So after three months, I feel able to provide a snapshot of the health of blogging amongst public relations and communication practitioners. There is a pulse.

But I no longer find ‘blogging’ a useful concept. By setting out to find quality opinion and insight in our field, I do not only find myself subscribing to blogs and browsing feeds (there are some who will find those terms curious).

Writers and thinkers do still express themselves on their own blogs. But they also write guest posts on others’. They also publish on established sites such as membership body websites or appear in edited and aggregation sites such as Influence Online. It’s less about the medium (thought Medium has given new life to long-form blog posts) than about the message.

So I’m not looking for blog posts. I’m looking for opinion, insight and commentary that, in my judgement, will resonate with others. This could be from practitioners; it could be from academics and educators; it could also be from reporters covering our patch.

Now that blogging is no longer the defining concept, what should replace it? What defines the purpose of blogging as distinct from its process?

Some write in order to make sense of the world. I’ve heard this rationale from Johanna Fawkes, an academic, and read it from Rachel Miller, a practitioner. Amanda Coleman is a prime example of blogging for professional development as she reflects in public on the challenges of her role in public sector comms.

Others write to share insights into specific areas, such as analytics or evaluation. Two practitioners are currently providing must-read masterclasses in influencer marketing: Ste Davies and Scott Guthrie.

What’s their motivation? Consultants and independent practitioners are motivated to share insights as their blogs, websites and social media are their shop window. Besides, all PR practitioners provide advice to organisations about their relationships, reputation and media channels so it’s hardly surprising to find plenty of expert commentary in these areas.

It’s harder to identify in-house practitioners who are equally motivated to share their challenges and insights.

I’m also conscious that the balance each week does not reflect the gender balance in the industry (close to 70/30 in favour of women), nor does it always reflect a balance of public, private and third sector perspectives. My defence is that I’m seeking quality, not quotas – and have published my details along with an invitation to help me discover new voices that I may have missed.

To answer my own question about the defining characteristics of blogging, I’m looking for examples of thought leadership in our field.

I’ll be returning to this idea of thought leadership in a future post. But first, I want to take a look at the state of student blogging in a follow-up article (see, I avoided the word ‘post’).