Journalism, Responsibility, and Engaging Consumers

Recently several prominent bloggers were invited to the Microsoft campus to sit down with Bill Gates for a fireside chat style discussion. Participants included Jeremy Zawody, Michael Arrington (Techcrunch), Liz Gannes (Gigaom), Niall Kennedy, Chris Pirillo, Molly Holzschlag,  Evan Williams, Shaun Inman, Steve Rubel, and others.

The blogosphere is buzzing today around a discussion about the mostly softball questions that were presented to Gates.  (Check here and here for two examples) Arrington says on Crunchnotes:

I interview companies every day, and there is only so far you can go with the tough stuff. People just shut down or go into PR speak when you go to far.

I’m not concerned about not getting invited back by asking a tough question, I’m concerned that I won’t get an interesting answer.

Scoble has an interesting response that hits the nail on the head.

Truth is that getting access to tech industry leaders is so rare that most people, if they do get access, turn into softies. Why?

Well, let’s assume I paid your round-trip airfare, hotel, bought you nice meals, and gave you some nice swag. Wouldn’t you be feeling just a little more generous toward me? But, now, let’s say I set it up so that every year I’d do the same thing but I’d put little hints out there that you wouldn’t get to come to next year’s shindig if you made any trouble.

What Scoble is getting at (or at least what I would be if I was saying this same thing) is that this is one of the tricks of the trade for community relations. Giving select community members direct access, yet minimal access to a personality that’s a rock star within the community creates almost certain positive interaction and feedback. This works wonders for the spreading of positive buzz as well as keeping internal colleagues interested in continued participation with the community.

But this is short-term burst that will likely mean nothing in the long-term. The point of engaging your consumers is several key things:

  • Build a relationship
  • Break down the barriers between outside the company and inside the company
  • Creating trust between both parties
  • Generating new, fresh ideas for the company
  • Helping to generate ideas for exciting and growing the community base

When I was at LEGO, I went out of my way to find ways to create positive engagements between employees and community members where there was a level of honesty and comfort. As the community manager, my job was building connections, setting up meetings, and connecting community members with company employees and execs. But during those meetings, my goal was to help community members feel comfortable enough in the presence of the “rock stars” to still be able to ask the tough questions.

These tough questions (and the ensuing discussion) are a crucial part of the exchange for a number of reasons:

  • They build a high level of trust through an open and honest dialogue. After all, you don’t show up expecting to get have an open and honest discussion with high level executives. But isn’t that open and honest discussion the point of inviting community members rather than journalists?
  • We all learn more and get more from conversation that challenges rather than conversation that remains all too friendly. This goes for both community and company.
  • Community members often feel (or should feel) like they have an obligation to represent the overall community. Since a company can only invite a few people to these private events, the community members carry the weight of the community on their shoulders. By not encouraging a realistic, in-depth conversation the company is basically helping the key players they invited to lose face in front of the larger community.
  • Employees, especially execs need to be presented with the reality of the outside world. All to often they get stuck in their offices too far from real customers. When you don’t push them to leave their comfort zone, they get to continue hiding  from the realities of the real world.

Now inevitably community members will attend these select group meetings and lose their nerve. No matter what they intend to, perhaps they get tounge-tied and forget to ask their questions. Even people like Scoble who are used to working with high-level execs can get star struck.

It’s also really hard to just keep your bearings when you meet someone “important.” Remember when I ran into Steve Jobs on a street corner in San Francisco? I became a blubbering idiot. Couldn’t think of a good question, or a good comeback to his insults. I’ve been thinking of them ever since.

Plan for that, it’s going to happen. Prepare the execs for the follow-up. Let the community members know that it’s OK to send additional questions after the meeting. After all, you should be building relationships, and relationships don’t start and stop with one meeting.

Personally, I feel disappointed by the folks invited to this private session. In my view, these were “community representatives”, but the reality is they acted like just another set of business people who were primarily focused on their own business goals. And Microsoft’s community team unfortunately let the community and the company down by not helping drive a more open and honest interaction. I actually place more blame on Microsoft than on the bloggers.

Some may make the claim that these folks were more journalists than community members. But if that’s the case, then there’s a different set of concerns, still related to softball questions. If these folks are “journalists”, then they suffer from the same (rather large) problem that today’s professional/traditional journalists suffer from – the lack of the follow-up question and the risk of loosing their access. Watch the next press conference with President Bush, and look for the follow-up question. Look for reporters saying things like “Excuse me, Mr. President. I’ll ask my question again because I don’t think that you were actually answering my original question with that answer”. It simply doesn’t happen.

If these bloggers are “journalists”, then it’s a sad day. Bloggers were supposed to bring reality and honesty back to journalism since traditional media has failed us.