Elizabeth Albrycht is a U.S-born woman who lives in France. Of course, she’s not alone in this situation, but she still has a foot on the other side of the Atlantic ocean, with her PR agency, Blogging Planet. She edits a blog about her activities, CorporatePR, where she speaks about the effects of technology on work, society and democracy, and of course of the evolution of corporate communications. Elizabeth is also the author of another blog in the Corante galaxy, Future Tense where she explores the future of work. I decided to meet Elizabeth to discuss the status of the usage of blogs inside companies both in France and in the U.S. Here is the — long (1,800 words) — result from this conversation which was held by e-mail and over the phone.
Roland: First, why did you choose to come to France and to live there?
Elizabeth: I had always wanted to live in France after visiting it on a student exchange when I was 16 years old and falling in love with the country (it was my first trip to Europe). About three years ago - a coup de foudre - I met a wonderful Frenchman. A year later we decided the cross-Atlantic commute was painful (he lived in Paris, me just outside of Washington, DC), so I decided to move. It was relatively easy given I had been working “virtually” from my home office for nearly three years already. I figured a few more time zones wouldn’t be that big of a deal…and they weren’t after my clients got used to the idea.
Roland: As you kept your PR agency in the U.S. at least so far, you know the corporate communications market on both sides of the ocean. Can you tell me if the usage of blogs inside companies is similar in France and in the States?
Elizabeth: When I moved, I had a business partner in California, Jen McClure, with whom I had a agency, Albrycht McClure and Partners. We had been in business for two years under that brand, but had known each other for one year longer. We actually met as independent consultants, each advising the same client (on different matters). We realized we had many of the same philosophies and complementary skills, so we decided to team up. The interesting thing about this is that we worked together for a year before ever actually meeting face-to-face! This was around 2000, and there were increasing numbers of refugees from Silicon Valley setting up independent consultancies and networks, so it wasn’t altogether rare. From what I have seen here in France, it is much more difficult to set up that type of arrangement, for both legal and cultural reasons. Of course, we just set up Blogging Planet in the same manner, so things are moving along here as well!
Given all of the events over the past year, particularly our launch of the New Communications Forum in the US (a 2-day conference for PR and marketing professionals to learn about blogs, wikis, RSS and other new communications tools), Jen and I have decided to take two different paths. She is going to focus on building the New Communications Blogzine (a bi-monthly eNewsletter/blog hybrid she launched after the Forum) and other endeavors focusing on new communications tools education. I have formed an alliance with Guillaume du Gardier of PR Planet in Paris and Neville Hobson of NevOn in Amsterdam to provide training and consulting to global organizations on using new communications tools to build networks.
As regards the differences between the French and American agencies and blogging:
I think the US is further along in the awareness and initial adoption of corporate blogging than France. But I suspect the two countries are relatively close on political and consumer blogging these days, particularly following the events of this summer (esp. constitution). Endeavors like Skyblog and increased mobile blogging (which is much more difficult in the US given its wireless infrastructure is behind technologically to Europe’s) are increasing consumer adoption faster here (I would presume to say - I don’t have numbers to back this up). Also, it seems that the mainstream media is much more accepting of blogging here than in the US, where traditional journalists treat bloggers as the enemy.
As to why the US is further along in corporate blogging, I think one of the growing reasons for that is that there is a strong cadre of PR/marketing bloggers - mostly independents - who are pushing this along. As independents, we can take more risks and more easily take on the role of evangelists. You don’t find most of the big agencies taking on this role in the US. As France has fewer (vocal anyway) independents, you have a few lonely evangelists in the PR/marketing space. I am not saying, of course, that the role of PR/marketing bloggers is the critical thing. A list bloggers like Loic le Meur here and Robert Scoble in the US certainly are pushing things along as well. But it is increasingly falling to the marketing/PR dept. to figure out how to make blogs work on a day-to-day basis, and as more people share their experiences, adoption increases.
Roland: When did you start blogging?
Elizabeth: I started blogging in August 2003. I can’t remember exactly when I found out about blogs. In fact, I think I was reading them before I knew what they were. In August, I read about TypePad accepting beta customers, and decided to become one. I had a sneaking suspicion that blogging was going to be important for communications professionals and felt I needed to figure out what it was all about. After a few months, I was hooked!
Roland: And do you have readers from all over the world?
Elizabeth: Yes! That is one of the beautiful things about blogging. I have met people from all over the world via my blog, including my two new business partners. For example, last year I took a provocative position on outsourcing for PR/marketing to India. I thought it was doable and that PR people should be thinking about it. Most people thought (still do) that it is impossible. Given my experiences of global PR service provisioning, I still think it is doable. But the interesting thing was the PR people from India who contacted me via my blog comments and off-blog to talk about the state of PR in India! That was very cool.
Roland: Do you think that your blogs have modified your business?
Elizabeth: My blog has completely transformed my business. Before I started blogging, we were a traditional PR agency that encouraged the use of online tools (eNewsletters, Forums, etc.), but our primary work was launching companies and products. We were endlessly frustrated by the increased difficulty of doing that job given that our channels of communications had become polluted by spam and inept PR people. To me, blogs represented a brand new channel for PR/marketing that, used appropriately, could be incredibly powerful. Before I started blogging, I was a completely unknown PR person who wasn’t connected into any major networks of influence. Today, I have a reputation as one of the top PR bloggers, I have co-produced a conference, I am being invited to speak at other conferences, my articles are published and people actually want to hear what I have to say! At the same time, I have been able to embark on an intellectual journey of trying to understand the social effects of these technologies and when they mean for more collaborative forms of work and community. I have been working on developing a new communications model or framework that tries to describe how these tools fit together to help people and organizations build networks of influence. It is incredibly challenging and rewarding work.
Roland: And how do you see the use of blogs for corporate communications, by well-known brands for example?
Elizabeth: I think blogs are the tip of the iceberg as it pertains to how organizations will use participatory communications tools (as I like to call them). While blogs can be powerful communications channels, they won’t work for every company - perhaps not even a majority of them. I think we are going to see a hybridization occur, with certain attributes of blogs, wikis, RSS, podcasts, tagging, and social networks merging to create new tools, for example. I think you are also going to see these technologies bolted onto traditional supply chains and knowledge management tools, creating entirely new ways for organizations to coordinate and collaborate. That is why I am more interested in looking at the phenomenon of these tools from the standpoint of network building, vs. the tool itself.
Roland: Finally, what are your current projects?
Elizabeth: I have invested most of my time over the past several months into better understanding the current theories and practices of cooperation, so I can better decide what tools should be applied in what way to what types of business dilemmas. I firmly believe that communications is at the heart of the future of work, where globally distributed work teams from a variety of organizations gather together to work on projects over a discrete time frame. In order to do this successfully, we need to understand the nature of group dynamics so we can design online work environments that support the success of a the project. I am seeking to combine my knowledge of mass communications and marketing and the new participatory communications tools to this problem.
My partners and I formed Blogging Planet to focus on helping companies understand new communications tools. This alliance is evolving to focus more strongly on future of work related topics. At the same time, I am exploring the future of work via the new Corante blog called Future Tense. I have brought together a group of people from a variety of business disciplines to have a public conversation about the challenges, opportunities and pitfalls of the evolution of work.
Given the state of adoption of these tools, we find that our work with companies today is primarily in training. For example, we have recently done a series of workshops for a variety PR agencies in Europe and a selection of their clients. I will be presenting two one-day seminars on new communications tools for the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) in Sept and October in the US. I’ll also be speaking at a conference called PharmaBlogging in November in Philadelphia. We have a teleseminar series in development as well as some in-person events in Europe.
Roland: Well, it seems you’ll be busy for a while, so thank you for taking the time to speak with me.