The surprising survival of blogging

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.

Pixabay (Creative Commons)
Pixabay (Creative Commons)

Blog is an ugly word, invented in late 1997 by combining web with log to describe diary-like journals published on the internet. Weblog was soon shortened to blog.

That was in the early years of the web, which had gone public in the early 1990s. Despite the best intentions of its inventor, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the early browsers (Mosaic and Netscape Navigator) lacked an edit button. They were just that: browsers of content designed by someone else.

That’s why blogging was exciting. It opened the web to ordinary people at a time when there was no Facebook, no Twitter, no YouTube. Black then blogging was social media, joined soon after by Wikipedia (a website anyone could edit).

I’ve been blogging about public relations since late 2001. There were only two or three of us in the world who shared this category back then. That longevity means little, but it does give me a perspective on what’s changed over the past two decades.

Today there is so much more to social media. We turn to Twitter for conversations; Facebook for friends; LinkedIn for professional insights and connections. Visual communicators have YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat to share their stories. The favoured device is the smartphone rather than the laptop or PC.

Given this choice of channels, what can explain the continuing surprising survival of personal blogging?

Each Friday for the past twelve months I’ve pulled together a selection of posts under #ThisWeekinPR. At the outset, I worried about finding enough quality content.

Instead, even through the traditionally quiet months of December and August I’ve found the opposite problem: my list grows longer and longer and needs pruning before publication each Friday morning.

There are limitations to my approach. Sources are drawn from my network and my network’s network, so there’s an inevitable filter bubble at work. But until an algorithm can do it better, most people seem to appreciate being selected for inclusion by a person rather than a machine – and those that don’t agree with my selection know where to direct their complaints.

From fewer than a handful of regular public relations bloggers to a large pool of talent, this explains why the process of curation (or filtering) is important. A decade ago, Clay Shirky presented this in a brilliantly simple way. The world had shifted from ‘filter-then-publish’ to ‘publish-then-filter’.

YouTube exemplifies this transition. There’s more video content uploaded than we can possibly watch in our lifetime. So most of us sensibly ignore all of it until we’re alerted to quality, relevant content through recommendation or through the filter of a Google search (Google owns YouTube).

It’s another version of that old philosophical conundrum about a tree falling in forest with no one around to hear it. If you’ve published your content but no one sees it, does it even exist?

A combination of social media sharing, Google searches and ‘the long tail’ mean that good quality content tends to find its place. But the process can be long and unpredictable, so blogging does not offer the instant gratification of other forms of social media.

Why then should practitioners and students consider blogging (apart from seeking inclusion in #ThisWeekinPR and our #prstudent #bestPRblogs contest that resumes in October)?

Consultant and author David Sawyer argues in his book RESET:

‘Writing a blog is the single best thing you can do to teach yourself how to rank highly on search engines. But don’t write with SEO in mind. Share your best thoughts with the world and build a community around them: you’re writing for readers, not Google.’

In public relations, we act as professional advisers. The assumption is that we should know what we’re talking about. Which forms of content will resonate with our community and therefore rank highly on Google?

There’s no lack of channels to choose from, so it’s worth considering whether to post your content to an existing network (whether LinkedIn, Medium, Facebook or another) or whether to build and manage your own site. Experts have strong opinions on this. Stephen Waddington and Stuart Bruce both regularly make the case for owning rather than renting your presence on the web. Those who rely on Facebook have been hurt by changes to the news feed algorithm changes that make it harder for organic (as distinct from paid) content to be shared widely.

Home ownership is not free, though, even when you’ve paid off the mortgage. If you don’t maintain your home, it will deteriorate over time. How many have set up a blog and set out with enthusiasm only to leave it abandoned? The problem is, these blogs are the equivalent of a house with ivy growing over the windows. They have a negative reputational value if you’re advising your company or clients on content strategy. (I’m guilty of this too: my PR Studies site lacks loving attention and a lick of paint as I’ve focused for the past decade on Behind the Spin and now PR Place.)

So what should you do if you want to blog but lack the commitment to maintain your property?

Despite the risks of renting over owning, LinkedIn Pulse is currently a good choice for professional insights. You have a ready-made network and your posts and comments will be integrated in a way that’s no longer true when you post to a blog but then share this to your social media channels, resulting in conversations split across several channels.

Best of all might be to pitch your ideas to an established site or put your energies into a group blog.

Two good, niche examples from within our sector are:

  • Comms2point0: a community site for public sector communicators that consistently introduces new writers and fresh perspectives
  • Ulster PR student blog: A group blog by Conor MGrath’s students, which is about the collective rather than the individual

PR Place is an emerging site that also hopes to introduce more voices sharing their perspectives on careers, courses and professional development in public relations.

Some concerns remain about what we used to call the ‘blogosphere’. Does success come to those who shout the loudest? Do male voices tend to drown out female? Do the consultants overwhelm in-house practitioners? Is social media influence a poor proxy for real-world influence?

I often include Amanda Coleman’s posts in my round-up because she counterbalances all these trends. She blogs quietly and reflectively; she’s a senior in-house practitioner working in a very challenging sector. She’s recognised as an industry leader, but is modest in presenting her own achievements.

What’s surprising is that after 21 years there’s still a healthy space in which to hear such voices.