Quelle surprise: another PR blacklist

11 May 2008

If there is one post that's worth reading on the issue of the Gina Trapani PR blacklist it's Jeremy Pepper's. While the priests of the social media press release whiffle on about transparency, accountability and some other eye-crossingly dull commentary that roughly approximates to "we didn't do it and if we did, we're sorry", Pepper gets right to the point and leaves enough room to tell bloggers they need to be careful what they wish for. As I've written before, if you think receiving irrelevant emails is a problem, wait until you get the phone calls.

I'm sure there are plenty of PRs who feel Trapani crossed the line, as they claimed about Chris Anderson of Wired. But while email remains the main delivery mechanism for emails, it is going to keep happening, so get used to the idea of the blacklist. I fully expect another one of these situations to blow up in the next three to six months. And you will have another round of posturing. Why? Because people start banging on about transparency and ethics and training without ever examining what the core problems are. This is where I disagree with Pepper: more training will not solve this problem because I believe it is ingrained in the way that PR is bought and paid for.

It just sounds stupid doesn't it? PRs routinely send out badly targeted rubbish. Not all of them and not all the time. But you don't have to look far to find it. How come? For years, it was never an issue. Hacks quietly seethed about it but did very little about for three simple reasons: one is that the horse might actually learn to sing and one of the no-hopers topping up the inbox will do something interesting; second is that, other than filling up inboxes, these releases are not doing that much harm; and third, complaining about it never actually had an effect.

The reason why the trash just keeps pouring in is the result of the first reason. Throw enough stuff at the wall and eventually something will stick. Actually, that's not quite true: there is some stuff that I have routed automatically to the bin because it's never going to come good. Don't worry, if you're a PR and reading this, it's probably not your stuff.

Here is where the bloggers need to face up to reality: if you have a position of influence, someone somewhere is going to want to influence you. They are probably paying people to do that job. But it's worse than that. The people they are paying probably only have five minutes, if that, to spend on influencing you. That's because it's a numbers game. There will be a core list of people who will get a lot more time spent on them because a result in their magazine or blog will net more exposure than going to Johnny C-list. The rest will probably be culled from a media directory or a fairly low-level account executive sifting through sites and media packs to get contact details and then matching them up with clients. (I don't know this first-hand - PRs may see this differently, but this does not feel as though it is too far from reality).

This is where it really starts to go wrong. The second issue, as far as I can gather, is that the tools for PR are pretty ropey. Not even that good. It seems that it is very difficult for PRs to customise how they send things to individual bloggers and journalists because the standard tools they use just can't handle the idea of sending out individual messages and formats even if they wanted to. And they don't want to, because there isn't the time to do it for more than a few. With more media outlets in action, the proportion of people getting the personalised treatment is just not going to go up. So, most people get the cookie-cutter pitch and release and deal with low-level account executives who just don't know the client or the media they are trying to sell to.

The sensible thing for PRs to do would be to restrict the number of people they actively try to promote to and put more resources into dealing with reactions. Bloggers are good at picking up on stuff from each other. Why not use that? However, I can see a problem here that probably explains a lot. As I understand it, clients don't actually pay for reaction, they pay for set jobs, such as bunging out three releases a month, or whatever. And those releases go to a list. And when they've gone out, a pile of time is spent writing reports on who got what and what they did with it. This seems to lead to the temptation to push stuff out as widely as possible because it's a numbers game: the more people who get the stuff, the more likely something - anything - happens that can then go in the report. From what I've gleaned from PRs over the years, those reports are more important to keeping clients than what you might think is the core job: getting publicity.

A second, probably easier path is to push more of the material to channels such as RSS or even Twitter. People can then choose to sign up for those streams of stuff and unsubscribe just as easily: not something that is easy to do with the bulk of emailed material. Personally, I would much rather that all press releases I dealt with were channelled through RSS, preferably using full feeds. Email could then be restricted to introductions and invitations. However, I can see the problem here. Because it's so easy to unsubscribe, there are going to be plenty of companies who don't actually have what amounts to a media-distribution list: everyone just gets bored and goes away. So, again, that's probably not going to happen.

3 Comments

This is and will be a reoccurring argument. As a 15 year vet of the journalism/PR/comms biz, I find that this business is all based on "the process." What's the process to win business? What's the process to keep clients happy? What's the process to "get clips."

Long story short, when it comes to pitching the "media" (social, new, traditional, whatever you want to call it), the process is simple. Build relationships. Share something of value. Prove you're a reliable source. Read who you pitch and read them often BEFORE you pitch them. Finally, throw away the damn cookie cutters. They only worked in the late 90s when we were all pitching dumb ass websites with absolutely no business model behind them.

The PR business isn't hard. PR's just need to think things through. Stop worrying about checking stuff off the list and blasting things out via email with a shotgun approach. Think sniper. Think tactical. Think smart. Just, for the love of pete, THINK!

It would seem that being a 15 year vet of the journalism/PR/comms biz basically is just like being in the gaming business in Las Vegas working as a Casino Manager. It's never really how prepared and ready you are to perform your job.

There is always someone networking and resourcing their own position that at times will gets them the promotions and/or publicity to make more of a splash than a ripple in the tide of business.

By learning to network and resource your position and interest's it will surely give you the upper hand. You always have to be the one who is thinking outside the box to make a difference in your own career and others. Stepping on others to make your way up the ladder always comes back to bite you!

We are going to have to start cutting back on the bitch-and-moan syndrome. Everything is changing. We all have to cope with the annoyance of life until a real system is in place.