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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

PR Blacklists -- Treating the Symptoms

Well, I've been roped into the PR blacklist discussion. I know it's my own fault for getting involved in an interesting discussion with Mack Collier about his take on the issue.

As I've thought about this, my feeling is the actual issue of blacklists is a small piece of a larger picture.

And before I get into what I think that bigger picture is, let me lay down some definitions for this argument. I'm going to be talking about actual 'bad PR' in which the PR person is doing targeted outreach in hopes of getting coverage. Spam is when the recipient is part of a numbers game with a goal of getting content to as many people as possible regardless of who they are or what they cover. When PR crosses the line into actual Spam territory, they are past help and should be treated accordingly. No amount of education, training or public humiliation will stop spammers because they've found a profitable way to abuse the system.

Challenges for Bloggers

Yesterday, Mack called me out on my statement that "email creates a low barrier to entry and so bad pitches will always happen." Blaming the technology, he said, is just a way to pass the buck. I agree with him, and I don't. In terms of actual pitching, I do agree that the responsibility should be on the PR practitioner to follow the guidelines set up by the media or blogger. Especially the issue of selecting the right email address to use when sending a pitch. Unfortunately, Bad PR happens when people either don't have the skills or interested in building a credible reputation, or are simply lazy.
(Photo by alcomm)

Because of those real-world factors, I disagree is that bloggers should expect their guidelines to be followed. My experience in online gaming (please bear with me, it is relevant), both as a player and admin, has taught me a very important truth. Creating a rule against any action allowed by the technology is futile. You end up spending too many resources on enforcement, which is never comprehensive. Bloggers who insist that they be pitched perfectly according to the rules they've defined will have to spend time on enforcement. In terms of email, the system is designed so that you can send a message to anyone, provided you have their address. The recipient has no power to prevent email being sent to them. The work-around that was suggested is to filter out emails based on domain, that's the prerogative of the blogger if that is how they want to enforce their rule. However, posting the list of their blocked individuals or domains doesn't help them enforce the rule any better but becomes counter-productive to their cause by escalating the conflict.

The technology isn't to blame for bad PR but if bloggers intend to rely on an inherently insecure technology they must recognize the vulnerabilities.

Challenges for PR Industry

Now, I'm not trying to let the PR industry off the hook. Like I said, if PR professionals are looking to pitch media of any sort, they should take responsibility for their own actions. But, let's explore the motivations for those actions. One of the words buzzing around this conversation is 'relationships.' A great word, and indeed a great concept. PR should build relationships with media. Period. Period? I suppose if you subscribe to the Rolodex theory of PR, then these relationships are a PR persons most important personal assets. They will form the basis of their career, in the long-run.

Pragmatically, all PR people have another set of relationships that are also important and can exert just as much pressure. These, of course, are client relationships. Whether it's an agency with outside clients or an internal PR department with management as their internal client, time and energy goes into building solid relations with the people paying the bills.

Leaving PR people doing a delicate balancing act somewhere in-between media and clients. Why? Because the two groups typically have differing goals. Media on the one side wants to be left alone until something relevant and newsworthy can be sent to them. Clients on the other side want their story to be disseminated as often and as widely as possible. Deciding which group to please or when to push back on opt-in communications, is determined by the metrics PR uses to measure success.

Challenges for PR Junior Staffers and Pros

Another phrase that I've seen floating around this topic is 'junior staffer'. If we aren't blaming the technology, let's blame the new guy. Ouch, that came off harshly. In fact, many (smarter than me) PR people haven't been blaming the junior PR recruits but saying that firms don't train them appropriately. This is a valid point. Having studied PR in college, I can attest that media relations/pitching is not on the syllabus. Training new entrants to the PR industry is important, especially in the hyper-sensitive world of today.

And yet training is only half the answer. The other half is more complex. Let's dive in.

Relationships -- This word keeps popping up. In the context of a 'junior staffer' relationships are likely to be more theory than practice. First, they probably don't have a professional network built, or a media network, so the skills and understanding of its value is not necessarily in place. Second, the media outlets junior people typically get assigned don't always require long-term relationships to be built. They may only pitch these places for a single campaign and then move on.

Newsworthy -- Nothing is more important to media than getting stories that are newsworthy. And one important aspect of being newsworthy is also being timely. When you have news worth pitching, you've got to get it into the media's hands. This is great if it applies to staple publications or sites that you've spent time building relationships with. But what about the news that applies to an area you haven't had the need (or time) to build pre-existing relationships with? Suddenly the shelf-life of your news is conflicting with the time required to form a relationship. Doing the research to appropriately pitch the story is still the right step but even when done correctly it's still a cold-call pitch.

Metrics -- Geoff Livingston, at the beginning of the Twitter conversation, said that most people outside PR don't realize how difficult earned media can be. Even when you've done the research and have a newsworthy pitch, getting placement -- especially in print with limited space -- can be long and frustrating. Yet the metrics for a successful PR campaign are how many clips were generated.

The sad truth is that too often clients don't see the value in 'Opt-in' communications. You've probably run into the arguments of "It doesn't cost us anything to send more" and "We don't want to miss any opportunity, regardless of how infinitesimally small." When being measured in terms of how much placement you're able to get, not pitching a media outlet is often an unacceptable practice. At best that means a note recognizing that the journalist/blogger doesn't typically cover this space but they might be interested in this product anyway; at worst a blanket mailing to all media with no personalization or research into areas of coverage.

All the training and discussion of best practices will be secondary if PR people feel their success is only tied to their ability to secure coverage. If building relationships goes unnoticed to managers and clients unless they can be leveraged into coverage, then they are not truly being valued at an institutional level.

Good Compromises Leave Everyone Unhappy

In keeping with the challenge that Mack gave me, I'm not just going to layout the problems. Here are some compromises bloggers and PR professionals can make to move forward and hopefully relieve some of this tension.

Bloggers -- Force opt-in communications. It may require that you sacrifice having your personal email address online if you really don't want to receive pitches to it. Even on a personal site, if it's posted online, it's public. Once you've taken email out of the equation what can you to do still rely on PR to help scale your resources for discovery, that you will need as you grow?

  1. Social Networks -- Some bloggers/reporters have already indicated they prefer to be pitched on social networks, with facebook being the one I hear most often. Since you control who is in your network, you can decide which PR firms or individuals you want to be pitched by.
  2. Twitter -- Microblogging tends to encourage conversations more than pitches. My personal connections with a number of PR people on Twitter has never been overwhelmed by pitches (but I'm not really their target either). By choosing who you follow, you are mostly in control of the content you get. In fact, if you are not following someone they can't send you a DM, through if they @ message you, it will show up in your timeline.
  3. Blog Comments -- Requiring PR people to come to your blog and leave a comment tying their product to something you've already written with information for you to contact them. The public nature of the comments means that most Bad PR (not actual spam) will shy away from this kind of scrutiny.
  4. RSS Feeds -- Marshall Kirkpatrick of RWW has already said he prefers to be pitched this way. I think that this is a under-appreciated channel for pitching. Bloggers should be able to request 'pitch feeds' that they can monitor for news that is interesting to them.

PR Industry -- Show the value of opt-in communications. One thing I will credit the PR Blacklists for is providing a tangible way to show the damage that can be done by indiscriminate pitching. If you've been looking for a way to convince your clients/management that you should not send a pitch to every media publication or blogger available, use these lists to your advantage. If you really wanted to go for the gold, build your own internal list of double opt-in media beyond what the PR databases indicate. (And, set-up a 'pitch feed' for your clients that you can provide bloggers and media so they'll always be the first to know when you have new information available.)

And, once you've set up your opt-in process, institutionalize the value of relationships. One of the points that jumped out starkly was Gina getting pitched by multiple people within a single agency with no communication between them. I'm not familiar with any PR software like SalesForce or Eloqua that facilitates relationship management but maybe it should exist. Beyond the logistical value, recording interactions with media allows the agency to continue relationships after individual people leave. Knowing the history of what's been sent to them, and what they've covered, saves each person from re-inventing the wheel with each media contact.

Junior Staffers -- Get a mentor. This can be your direct manager who can advise you in the work you do day-to-day and give advice on how to improve. Or it can be someone you are not directly accountable to, which can make asking awkward questions a little easier. Or it might even be someone outside your company with whom you can have regular contact. Once you've found someone, be sure to ask the long-term questions about building valuable relationships, not frustrating media with your pitches, and how balance client and media relationships. Then, be sure to keep your mentor informed of your progress. They'll want to know the results of their efforts in providing you with guidance. This won't solve all your problems but at least gives you a real person to try and sort them out with.

Overall, I recognize that the conflict between public relations and media doesn't help either side. The true professionals on both sides do want to see positive change in the way things are done. I hope that I've been a constructive voice in this larger discussion as well. tag: PR+Blacklist

Update: Todd Defren from SHIFT Communications has a great post with 7 promises PR professionals interested in improving their own blogger relations can make.


Mack Collier said...

Something that no one has touched on is, we are arguing this issue from the POV of 1% of the bloggers. The 1% that gets several thousand visitors a day, and playing the percentages, gets several dozen or hundred of bad pitches a day.

But for the other 99% of the bloggers, they don't get as upset about bad pitches (because it's not really a problem for them because they get so few), but on the flipside, there's no real incentive for them to care if PR firms get their act together or not. This is what I was talking about with the possible 'Blacklist bloggers' idea. My guess is most bloggers in the 99% could care less if they are blacklisted by PR firms, and many would probably volunteer for it. Simply because we rarely, if ever, get pitches from PR people that lead to post ideas. At least I don't.

Where I get my post ideas from are friends and people I have developed relationships with online. THAT is what PR agencies need to wrap their heads around, if they want to get me to blog about their stuff, then they have to take the time to build relationships with me.

I only have so much time and can only write about so much stuff. If Geoff and Ann Handley have both already told me about something cool and I want to blog about both their ideas, when the PR guy that I've never heard of pitches me on a post idea, guess who is going to be odd-man-out?

But to many PR firms, it's far easier to amass lists of bloggers, and blindly pitch them, hoping someone will bite. It was like that in 2005, and it's still like that today. Until that changes, we are still going to have bloggers talking about blacklists, and PR bloggers getting mad about it.

Chris Kieff said...

In my post from yesterday I suggest that PR people pitch the 99% of the rest of the bloggers. Because some of us will be excited to receive any pitches. And I've got a much better shot getting the A List bloggers to write a post than any PR pitch ever will.

You can read my post here:

Jed Hallam said...

As a PRO it angers me to see pitches put to people that are good (but not for that person), bad (not for any person) and ugly (really shouldn't be in PR).

Everyone in PR will admit to having done this once, but it seems like some PROs believe that they can forge a career flinging enough at the wall in the hope that some might stick - it might once, it might twice, but you'll never have a relationship.

Ah, the elusive 'relationship' word, isn't it this word that should hold PROs and journalists together (be it blog, print or broadcast)?

As Jeremy Pepper said; more needs to be spent on training and more emphasis placed on the value of relationships. And Todd's 7 Promises should be adhered to... Although there are a few PROs out there that already have the 7 promises set as 'common sense'.

John Johansen said...

Sorry I haven't had a chance to respond until now.

First, I like the point that both Mack and Chris make about the 'other 99%'. That's an angle that I hadn't thought about, presumably because it's not a problem for them.

We can hope that as PR moves out into the wider blogosphere (away from the A-list) that they'll take the concept of relationships with them.

However, my counterpoint is that relationships don't scale. It might seem obvious to build relationships with the 5-10 top bloggers in your space as a PR person, and spamming those people will never get your clients into print. But it's much harder to develop relationships with 500-1,000 smaller bloggers through-out your entire space.

PR has always gone for the gatekeepers. Even in blogging there are gatekeepers, and if they don't actually control what you think they certainly influence what you think about. By getting a hit on a large, mainstream blog the niche bloggers in that space are likely to pick it up and write their own post on it as well, sans PR relationship.

Which, I guess brings us right back to the top. If you're going to pitch bloggers, be they A-list or otherwise, know who they are, what they want, and how to get it to them. If you can't (or won't) do that then you've failed. And made it more difficult for everyone else.