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Dennis Crowley had himself a good week. Back-to-back write-ups in The New York Times aren't too shabby by anyone's standards, but they're particularly pleasant when you're 27 years old and the two stories were on, respectively, your grad school project and your fledgling tech-gizmo company.
More impressive is how he did it: Crowley didn't heckle reporters or send swarms of press releases. He simply told a friend. The friend happened to be a blogger who wrote about the project, a human Pac-Man game played out in the streets around Washington Square Park. When other bloggers, including Gawker, began picking up the story, the event suddenly landed squarely on the media map. Next thing he knew, he and his buddies were dressed up in colored felt on the front page of the Times's Sunday Styles section.
"Once it was picked up by a blog, it went out of control for five days," Crowley told me recently when I called to talk about his sudden fame. "It was crazy, the amount of press we got. If anything, we were pushing them away." Five days later, his start-up company, Dodgeball.com (a sort of "Friendster for the mobile phone"), received a friendly write-up in the Times's Circuits section. Reuters, Time, Newsweek, Wired, and a handful of other major media outlets also covered it.
To receive this much press without lifting a phone or a finger may mark a first in the annals of grassroots PR. Companies spend millions for the kind of publicity Crowley got; he spent $400 on user fees for increased traffic to his website. Anyone at Edelman would kill for Crowley's good fortune—or perhaps for his Rolodex of blogger friends.
Word-of-mouth is still the best form of publicity, but word-of-blog may be becoming a close second. Once the province of rambling writers, the blog no longer plays a bit part in the news-making process. Nor is it simply a digitized version of "Page Six"—a gossipy portal for name-dropping, muckraking, and skewering celebs. Blogs have emerged as a filter for the good, the bad, and the trendy—less "a genuine alternative to mainstream news outlets," as Lev Grossman and Anita Hamilton wrote in a Time piece on blogging this week, than a publicity portal to mainstream news—what The Atlantic's James Fallows calls "information middlemen."
Though most bloggers are everyday folks with day jobs who write a stream of consciousness about whatever interests them, a good portion consider themselves on the vanguard of what's new and hip around town; they've got self-conferred Ph.D.s in trend-spotting. But these bloggers aren't just idle narcissists; they're being increasingly viewed from the outside as viable sources because they have solid track records at manufacturing that which every publicist and product-pusher desperately seeks: buzz.
And the press has taken notice. In the constant search for the latest trend, gadget, or fashion craze, an increasing number of journalists are checking out blogs and related websites like Craigslist for story ideas. Scrolling through blogs is a whole lot more fun than sifting through emails or press releases—especially when you're reading the words of a colleague (many bloggers are freelance or former journalists and vice-versa) instead of the anonymous marketing copy of a pushy publicist.
Major companies' PR reps are also paying attention to the power of blogs. Nike recently struck a deal with Gawker Media to advertise a film series titled "Art of Speed." Google gave out sneak-peak Gmail accounts to users of its Blogger program. And HarperCollins reportedly has someone on retainer to tell bloggers about their books.
"Eventually every company will have a blog," said one blogger I spoke to, who confirmed that many event and concert publicists shell out comp tickets for those with enough blog cred and will send complimentary copies of almost anything. A handful of bloggers even won press credentials to this summer's Republican Convention (No word yet if there will be "blog tents" at the Athens Olympics).
On the surface, it looks like a win-win-win situation: Publicists get to plug their new product; journalists get scoops and come off as hip; and bloggers get bragging rights about a surge in hit counts.
But it's a careful dance between bloggers and publicists. Bloggers know they'll become irrelevant if they lose what drew readers to them in the first place—their independence. And publicists worry about creating what Cathryn Davis, director of Deussen Global Communications, calls a "backlash." "I would be crucified if I pitched my products to blogs," she says.
Another concern: Blogs create great buzz, but they're not always a reliable barometer for a story's shelf-life. Just because bloggers anoint something as trendy doesn't mean that it warrants above-the-fold coverage. There has been such a glut of blog-driven articles about new crazes (kickball, dodgeball, "big brother foosball") that it's up to the reader to sort which are genuine (say, a story on Friendster in 2002) and which are fleeting (a story on smart mobs in 2003).
Too many items that catch the blog buzz fall into the trucker hat category: quirky and retro, reeking of in-your-face irony. They're cultural ephemera that never should pass what's called in journalism parlance the "smell test." Yet they still make it into print. A human Pac-Man game is an interesting concept, but it was neither new (UC-Berkeley did it first) nor deserving of front-page treatment. Crowley's the first to admit that the project, despite the press it received, was not intended as a grandiose event but rather a short-run fling (he played only twice). Anyone could whip up something like this and, in Crowley's words, "get the same five people to publish" stories about it.
Crowley's either a marketing genius or a product-peddling opportunist, depending on your vantage point. But as he put it to Time Out New York last December, "I'm just trying to build cool things that people can use." Bloggers were impressed, and they unwittingly—and successfully—served as his de facto publicists, his middlemen to the mainstream media.
Are blogs "the best thing to hit journalism since the rise of the political pamphlet," as James Wolcott proclaimed in Vanity Fair? Probably not. But they may be the best thing to hit public relations since the advent of the fax machine.
Lionel Beehner is the research editor of the New York Press. He writes about media, comedy, and cultural affairs in New York City.