29/06/2006

Second Life conference, BBC editors and customer service PR nightmares: This week's PR Business column

Virtual conference is game on

Just when you think that you've got your head around the online world and the possibilities of blogs and Wikis, someone has to come along with literally a whole new world for you to think about: Second Life.

Second Life is an online world which is free to enter, has its own currency with an exchange rate to US dollars, and has over 200,000 almost 300,000 registered players.

Last week it hosted its first conference about marketing in the virtual world. People wanting to attend signed up (basic subscription is free) and pottered along to the coordinates in the world.

Speakers included a representative from American Apparel, the trendy clothing chain that recently opened a store inside the game, and was moderated by a senior editor from the Harvard Business Review, Paul Hemp, who has written about the concept of "avatar based marketing".

Neville Hobson, one of the presenters of the excellent PR podcast, For Immediate Release (FIR), was so impressed by the whole experienced that he urged all professional communicators to check out the online world. He has also, with podcast partner Shel Holtz, set up a shop himself to promote the FIR show in the game.

BBC editors blog

Meanwhile, in the suddenly slightly more reassuring world of plain old blogs, the BBC News editors have gone public with their own offering. The blog will give PRs (and everyone else, for that matter) an insight into the editorial decisions and thinking of the teams behind programmes such as the Newsnight and Panorama.

Helen Boaden, the head of BBC News, came in for some flak from journalists and bloggers for her condescending attitude to "citizen journalism" at the We Media event hosted by the Beeb earlier this year (to paraphrase: "everyone's having fun now, but pretty soon someone'll lose an eye and then we'll all be sorry") and her fingers-of-one-hand reading list of blogs.

But a couple of months is like an age these days, so between the launch of the BBC's Web 2.0 re-design plans and the unstoppable march of the great unwashed blogging citizenry, I guess she's decided to join the fray. Ms Boaden announces to BBC readers, viewers and listeners: "We want to know what you think."

As the experience of the Guardian team with Comment is Free shows, however, offering that kind of invitation to your public is a brave decision and can be very demanding.

Customer service is PR

Peeved customers used to vent a little steam by writing to the consumer affairs editor on their favourite newspaper, or perhaps to BBC Watchdog or Which? Magazine. Increasingly today though, people realise that with the power of the web at their disposal they can get satisfaction faster by exposing poor service themselves.

AOL came under the social media spotlight when a blogger who had heard a lot of complaints about its customer services recorded an amazing conversation with representative as he tried to cancel his account.

He posted the conversation on his blog and the story was picked up by host of others with similar experiences, validating and amplifying this example of poor practice. It wasn't long before US broadcast news picked up the story, which itself ended up on YouTube video community website.

Meanwhile a Comcast engineer at a customer's house had to wait an hour on hold on his own company's helpline and fell asleep. The customer videoed the slumbering fellow and posted the video on YouTube. It's had over 370,000 viewings in a week [532,785 by this morning].