Tell it like it is, PRWeb

4 February 2006

Sometimes, when the red haze settles on a blogger and the rant spews forth it's a bit disappointing when they apologise 24 hours later. David McInnis, CEO of PRWeb, should really have stuck to his guns after deciding that journalists are like lemmings and went public with his thoughts:

Next, let’s not kid ourselves. There is nothing sacred or holy about journalism anymore. For goodness sake, it has been the biggest product placement network going for close to three decades now. Turn on any network morning show, if you can stomach it, and you see one product placement after another. They are largely able to get away with it because it is so carefully orchestrated. Apart from being the ultimate in product placement, journalists today seem more like lemmings chasing the same dozen stories on a given day. What happened to variety?

PR Steve Rubel decided that this may be time for another boycott. For some strange reason, Rubel thinks you should use a service based on what the vendor says about it, not whether it actually works or not. Does PR do that to you after a while? Do all those years working on the message mean the message becomes the medium?

I can see Rubel's point. In general, it's considered good business practice not to insult your customers. At the same time, when someone gives their honest opinion, it is refreshing, and better than having everyone self-censor because someone might just take offence.

McInnis need not have worried about backtracking in a subsequent post on two counts. Strictly speaking, journalists are not customers of these press-release distribution services - those are the clients and agencies. I don't much care if the service is good or bad from them. If all that the feeds contain is junk, they just get pulled out of the RSS aggregator. No complaints. No "why doesn't this work better?" calls to the company. They just go.

I have to say that PRWeb tends to be stuffed full of more junk than the two large distribution services BusinessWire and PRNewswire. I don't lay the blame at McInnis's door. In being a free service to many, you are going to get a lot of stuff that people would not bother with publicising if they had to pay real money for it. The big two, however, have the advantage of "matter of record" status for financial announcements. That makes them difficult to dump even though there is a lot of guff stuffed in between the more important releases. However, the minute I find a better way of getting that source information, all those feeds are going in the bin. On any given day, more than 1000 entries are sitting unread in the PR group in NetNewsWire. And old releases roll off the end pretty fast. I skim through that lot maybe once a day, often less frequently than that, just to check I haven't missed anything. And that is where McInnis's comments ring true.

Product placement is a large part of the output from TV, newspapers and magazines, although it is a long way from being all of it. We spend a lot of time shoehorning product launches into news-form stories, and it's not a good fit in general. The day something is "announced", you are not going to get that. All you have are the claims and, if you push a bit, counter-claims from the competition (although, courtesy of the PR filter, company spokespeople have become increasingly cagey about being publicly sceptical about their competitors' launches) and analysts.

However, the process is quite artificial. It's not news as I would care to define it. The chances are that the bigger customers have been told all about the product weeks or months in advance. Certainly, in the trade sector, one of the considerations in deciding whether to write about a product launch is to weigh up whether everybody who might care already knows about it. Then you have the arbitrary launch dates; briefings under embargo possibly weeks in advance; and in some cases PRs trying to negotiate over cover slots, prominence or position.

To a degree, this all worked in the past, because people did want to see or read this content in magazines and other media. Ideally, they wanted impartial reviews, but that kind of thing has to wait until someone has tried it out. And, frankly, the review only works for certain classes of product. You can review a word processor easily because just about anybody who can use a computer can do that; evaluating a $100 000 chip-design tool implies you have a $1m chip to design in the first place. That is where the Internet and the user-written Web comes in. People with an interest get to do their own analysis and recommendations. As journalists, we can concentrate on pulling together that kind of input with other information that companies are less forthcoming about, such as delays or problems. Old-fashioned news, basically.

Similarly, there used to be a good reason for hacks to chase the same story. Circulations never overlap 100 per cent, even though there may be high overlap in some fields, particularly in controlled-circulation media. You want to make sure you have all the important stories covered. And, of course, you always believe you have the best approach.

Again, the ability to digest news from many different source through one tool, such as an RSS aggregator, makes this behaviour much more difficult to justify. I don't think you are going to get a gentleman's agreement whereby one group of journalists will always cede a story to another because it might be closer to a story - you would never get that level of co-operation even if it was healthy. But, the changes in user preferences means that chasing exclusive stories will take precedence at most media outlets. The herd instinct is not good for webstats.

McInnis is clearly thinking ahead, having realised that direct-to-consumer company announcements will become the mainstay of his business. If you take the trends outlined above and project them onto what that means for the press release, the conclusion is pretty clear. Most releases are useless to journalists because they announce things we will never write about and, because they are distributed widely, there is no possibility of exclusivity. But there is a user community that could be interested.

PRWeb and other distributors have a problem in that the material supposedly going to the consumer is not just bland and uninteresting, but often impenetrable. The advantage of the traditional model was that journalists are prepared to translate releases in plain English - often just to work out what the company is banging on about. The consumer or blogger audience has a far lower tolerance for opaque content. That will have to change if these companies are serious about a direct-to-consumer business. But I don't expect to see innovations from the distributors for journalists on the press release side of things. It will all be for the consumer, although I have my doubts as to whether the consumers will like what they get unless PRs change their ways.