Freewheeling and uncensored, web logs (blogs for short) are sparking lively and passionate online discussions on just about every conceivable topic.

Part of what marketers call “consumer-generated media,” blogs are personal web sites that serve as online diaries and discussion boards. Content is king on blogs, which use free or inexpensive software downloaded from a plethora of internet sites and vendors.

Initially dismissed as lacking credibility or of limited use, blogs quickly became mainstream when presidential candidate Howard Dean used his blog successfully to raise dollars and volunteers.

Now, bloggers are breaking news stories and challenging the powerful. For example, bloggers helped bring down Dan Rather, Sen. Trent Lott, and Armstrong Williams–the commentator paid by the Bush administration to promote the No Child Left Behind Act in his columns.

As a recent white paper on new communications and word-of-mouth marketing issued by Edelman and Intelliseek points out, “If bloggers were able to establish an influential presence in a national presidential election in a few short months, where will they turn their attention and scrutiny next?”

With an estimated five to 10 million bloggers building online communities and churning out new newsletters, opinion pieces, commentaries, videos, photographs, audio files, and other media every day, bloggers are starting to take control of the consumer agenda.

Because blogs aren’t controlled by corporate or institutional marketing and PR types, many consumers–tired of our advertising-saturated culture–view them as more credible.

The real power of blogs, experts say, lies in the immediacy of the postings and the instantaneous links to other sites and news sources.

Blog entries are posted in reverse chronological order and tend to be short, sweet, and to the point. A chatty, informal style is prevalent, although the most popular blogs tend to have breaking news, inside gossip, and otherwise fresh content.

Representing viral messaging and relationship marketing at its best, blog postings can reach a fever pitch in minutes and hours as the online community quickly shares favorite entries with each other.

That’s because RSS (Really Simple Syndication) technology enables bloggers to syndicate posts throughout the internet community.

Educators are using blogs not only as a teaching tool for students, but also to keep parents and other stakeholders informed of class activities, homework assignments, and other topics of interest.

Bob Houghton, an associate professor and blogologist at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C., requires all of his education students to create a blog site and post weekly reflections of their work using blogger.com.

Houghton notes that beyond sharing text, comments, and reactions, “a richer blog world” is evolving to include audio, video, mobile, and photo blogs.

Houghton said I would love the feature on his blog that enables students or other faculty members to dial in from a cell phone and leave a message or short discussion points with team members who might have missed a class or meeting. He’s right–it’s cool. (Check it out at the link to the right).

The key to building an effective blog is to view it as a relationship-building tool that will help you engage your stakeholders in new and important ways.

If you’re looking for a new channel to shove information down the throats of students, parents, or taxpayers, forget about blogs.

Blogs work because they’re fueled by passion, not PR. Trust, transparency, and truth are the three values effective bloggers must espouse if they want to remain credible (and not get totally trashed) online.

If your web site is serving as an official school, district, or university blog, say so and let readers know what your role in the organization is.

Bloggers love to “out” fake reporters, data, and other bloggers. Remember the Republican operative who posed as a bona fide journalist using a fake name? Bloggers revealed his true identity and added fuel to the already simmering fire regarding the White House’s unethical practice of paying journalists for positive press.

This doesn’t mean that blogs are filled with accurate and factual information. Quite the contrary: Blogs can also be a PR person’s worst nightmare–just ask former CNN news executive Eason Jordon, whose off-the-record comments regarding the Iraq war were blogged worldwide.

If you’re not willing to engage in dialog with your stakeholders, don’t start a blog. Blog readers expect to post reactions and feedback when you post your opinions, and they love feeling “in the know” about breaking news.

You also need to think through the monitoring, tracking, and customer service aspects of blogging before jumping on the bandwagon. Who is going to post fresh content daily? Who is going to monitor and respond to feedback?

And, if you don’t want students or teachers creating personal blogs and linking them to your school or university home pages, you might want to draft a blog policy that addresses blog creation, posting, linking, commentary, and response.

Even if you don’t want to blog yourself, it pays to have someone in your organization track blog chatter.

As the Edelman white paper on blogs notes, “When corporate reputation and news issues emerge, blogs can serve both as the vehicle by which information spreads and as a source for ‘early warnings.'”

You also need to keep your target audience in focus. Although blog use is increasing across all demographic groups, the typical blogger is male (57 percent), educated (39 percent have college or graduate degrees), middle-class to affluent (42 percent earn more than $50,000 per year), have high-speed internet access (70 percent) and are long-time internet users, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

In other words, these are savvy customers. And while women trail men in blogging, it’s not by much.

Your goal isn’t to engage in conversation with the CAVEs (Citizens Against Virtually Everything) who rant incessantly about everything. Your goal is to engage in thoughtful dialog with stakeholders in the same manner you would a valued business partner or colleague.

For more information about blogs, check out the resources below.

See these related links:

Bob Houghton’s blog
http://ceap.wcu.edu/houghton/EDELCompEduc/CH1/blogthinking.html

Lawtech Guru blog by Jeff Beard
http://www.lawtechguru.com

Corporate PR blog by Albrycht McClure & Partners Communications
http://ringblog.typepad.com/corporatepr

Trust “Media:” How Real People Are Finally Being Heard
http://www.Edelman.com

Nora Carr is senior vice president and director of public relations for Luquire George Andrews Inc., a Charlotte, N.C.-based advertising and public relations firm. A former assistant superintendent for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, she is nationally recognized for her work in educational communications and marketing.