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Food Network and the Internet Part Three: Blogs
Thursday, December 27, 2007 | posted by Mike

Welcome to part three of a four part series: Food Network and the Internet...a short and (hopefully) not too wonky look at how the Food Network's current and possible future online strategies. This part will focus on blogs. Scroll down for parts one and two.

On to a topic close to my own heart…blogging. One question that has vexed countless PR and Advertising professionals is how does one approach, work with and respond to content generated by bloggers (and message board posters, though they’ve been around for a while now). I can speak from personal experience that the Food Network (and a number of other shows/outlets) has done a very good job of interacting with blogs like TV Food Fan. They’re proactive in that I get all of the press releases and notices and they’re reactive when I have questions or requests. Despite the fact that I could run this site for 10,000 years before it’s seen by as many visitors as one issue of People, I’m not given the bum’s rush. I’m not sure how much they interact with other sites, but my strong guess would be that they’re equally helpful to any site that offers fair commentary on the Network.

So dealing with external blogs is one thing. But what all companies really want – and the topic of countless (mostly mind-numbing) conference sessions to which I’ve given entirely too much of my life – is an “official” blog that allows you to get your point of view out and respond (if necessary) to any conversations in the blogosphere. Car manufacturers and tech companies are often cited as the most successful sources of these blogs, which often feature high- or mid-to-high-level executives speaking directly to the reader in a personal, familiar voice. And they work because the people the companies choose to put out there are suitably wonky and knowledgeable, and so the reader gets good, insightful perspective. What these sites are not: PR flaks trying to pretend to be a blogger.

Food Network has taken only measured steps toward official blogs, and their efforts have not been strongly advertised. We spoke a while back about a blog run by the members of the Food Network kitchen, which fits nicely into the “behind the scenes” category and could conceivably have been quite entertaining. Actually, it is pretty good when it’s active and has something interesting to talk about, which isn’t very often, unfortunately.

The most logical choice for bloggers would be any of the on-air talent that possesses a familiarity with the Web and a conversational tone (and, frankly, enough time on his or her hands). In the time since I’ve been running this site, there have been a handful of good candidates. Alton Brown could do it, but does most of his talking over at his own site. George Duran actually had a blog on FN.com for a while. Chris Cognac had the Internet experience and writing chops. One of the supporting cast-members (GEOF MANTHORNE!!) of Ace of Cakes would be a perfect candidate, especially if it took the form of the semi-bitchy workplace blogs you see from some unfortunate office drone.

The problem is, as I have learned the hard way, blogging requires tremendous discipline and often languishes if it’s not mandated. The most consistent official blogs in food TV have been the Top Chef crew, whose posts come out like clockwork.

In the end, blogs by the talent are going to generate very good traffic and increased appreciation of the show. They’re a no-brainer. But we all know that the development of the Food Network brand is just as important as any of the individual show brands.

Another option – one that the Food Network has tried – can be a bit more delicate. There is always the possibility of bringing an outside blogger in-house or hiring a full-time blogger. FN went with the first option when they ran Adam Roberts of The Amateur Gourmet during the past season of Next Iron Chef. The results were good, but mostly because there likely is not a better, smarter or funnier full-time food blogger out there.

It looks like he was given quite a bit of leeway in what he wrote. That’s a good thing and a necessary thing for someone who would go back to their own blog with their independence. Because, that’s the thing…a blog run by a company – even if it claims “independence” – is a blog run by a flak. And, as such, it’s another PR/publicity organ – no more and no less.

Lest it sound like I’m saying this in a pejorative sense, I’d like to clarify that my day job is to be a flak. And I’m friendly with a former co-worker who runs a large company’s blog. He’s a flak, too, but he’s up-front about it and does a good job of writing from the perspective of a company employee and public relations representative while still preserving his individual voice and not lapsing too much into corporate-speak.

All of this illustrates the challenge for Food Network (and any other such entity) when they try to set up a blog. You can’t just take an existing blog like TV Food Fan, plop it down on FN.com and call it a Food Network blog. It would likely not work, and it would result in an awkward “I’m independent…but be sure to watch Food Network!” vibe. Likewise, you can’t just tell an intern in your publicity department to start blogging away.

For this to be a truly useful and truly credible blog, it would need to come from someone interesting, authoritative, able to communicate with the public and with an obvious bias. Why this last point? Because it doesn’t make sense to pretend objectivity. So, if I were looking for someone recognizable to be the official Food Network Blogger, who would it be? Easy: Bob Tuschman.

Yes, he’s probably too important to be fooling around with a blog. But the truth of the matter is that the most compelling “official” blogs are all run (and actually written…no cheating by handing it off to work the PR department!) but high-level officials who are able to use the venue as a way to communicate the big picture to outside readers.

If you’re going to do something like this (and I think it’s a good idea but not something you must do), don’t delegate it to someone without enough “juice,” don’t bring someone in from the outside who lacks the credibility and don’t rely on your talent, who are rightfully more interested in their own development than the Network’s. Put it into the hands of the person who can actually give something of value to the readers.

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