Why I've blown the PR gaff

by admin on December 4, 2008

in General,Innovation

Danny Bradbury took the time to shoot a well thought through response to my ‘PR is so over‘ rant. (And thanks to all who agreed or not, often making reasonable points.) It suddenly dawned on me why I was saying what I was, which goes way beyond my ire at the PR industry. Rather than post a long comment, it goes like this:

@danny – you are very charitable but then your writing remit is much broader than mine. I’ve come to the realization that I don’t really want to be pitched. Mostly. I don’t need to be because most of the time I’m generating my own stuff as a blogger, not a journalist of record even though many PRs don’t know the difference.

Surprisingly, it’s far easier and quicker for me to deal with the Twitstream than it is any email and holds the potential for some real innovation. I pointed this out to a client yesterday when discussing e-book formats and how my Twitter followers came up with half a dozen ideas in less than 5 minutes. All goodness and validation of Laura Fitton’s view of the medium.

What’s happening in my world goes something like this: “I see you’ve been writing about XXX and I would like you to introduce you to….” followed by: “I just wanted to check in and see if you got….” and then “Tomorrow is really the only time YYY can talk to you…” It’s wasted time and effort as it’s mostly tangential to what I am really trying to get done. The client is paying for this effort and I’m paying in attention. Since the attention economy is so valuable, I have to be selective where I pay out.

At one time I tried to be polite and respond saying: “Thanks but I don’t have an interest in that area” or pass on to colleagues only to find most of them had been spammed as well.

After a while email management became a nightmare and yesterday came the point where I realized we have better ways to do this stuff. Admittedly the catalyst was a particular piece of PR dopery for which I sent out an email to that firm’s CEO entitled “Your people are asswipes.” PRs have been on about these new tools for a while. If that’s the case then use them rather than keep blowing smoke up my ass.

And yes, I am becoming intimately acquainted with my spam filter.

If people want to know what I’m about then my About page is reasonably well updated. As for feature lists – no way. Those days are way gone for me. I haven’t put out a pitch call in at least 5 years. Why would I do that and then lose the element of surprise followed by the inevitable “Why didn’t my client get mentioned…” emails? In any event – what’s google for? Run a search on ‘howlett + ???’ and if you’re relevant you’ll see it in the searches. Why should I have to do the work when it’s already been done?

I guess what I am really saying is that the world has changed for me. My days as a news hounding, analyzing hack are over and have been since shortly after 9/11. I’m in a couple of narrow foci and most the time know where I need to go to find out the stuff I need to know. My network is incredibly efficient at keeping me abreast of those ‘must know things’ and is way smarter than any PR. Mostly.

It’s a different world. My network wants to get an understanding of what the real world is like, not what a PR wants me to regurgitate. In the coming days, my immediate Irregular network will be fielding briefings that we have self organized. The smart people in the industry know where the influencers are and where they’re unsure can call on us to help find them. It’s not a numbers game but an opt-in arrangement. That’s all goodness.

To the more general point about email, I’ve been following Luis Suarez on this topic for months. At first I thought he was mad but then so many people I know say that despite best efforts, they’re drowning in email. I know their pain.Guess what? He’s presenting on that topic in the Netherlands this week. Good for Luis and inspiring. He works for IBM, one of the most email driven companies in the planet.

All of which makes it far harder to get me interested in what vendors are saying but that’s OK too. My readers are way too smart to be fooled by pitches dressed up as blog posts. They deserve better. So if I can move the needle a tiny fraction and get those who want my attention to become inventive and innovative then I’ve done my job. That requires taking a position. It isn’t the first time and won’t be the last, but it sure as heck is getting attention. All goodness.

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Danny Bradbury December 4, 2008 at 4:40 am

I have to say that most of the time I've seen PR agencies try to do innovative stuff in 'social media' (still dislike the term), it's fallen flat for me. But then as a journo I get the feeling that I'm not the audience, as the agencies are inclined to go straight to the clients' target market with this stuff.

If they want to boost their retainers doing direct-to-customer SM like that, it's fine by me, (although I still question whether CIOs really give a stuff about things like this). But I don't like the idea of PR agencies targeting me with social media. I don't think any of us have figured out the boundaries in social media as far as PR-journo relations go.

I prefer to firewall the old-school (email) and new-school (Twitter et al) channels. For me, Twitter is about direct contact with the smart folks I know (or, more likely, know of) and whose brains I like to look inside. Those smart folks include a lot of PR people, too, but I wouldn't expect a vanilla pitch for their client's latest mousetrap in a tweet. It would ruin the party for me. I look for other insights, or the occasional interesting link.

As an experiment, I did once try reply-tweeting a PR guy that I know and respect a lot, to see if he’d be interested in having his client talk to me about a feature. I got no answer. He’s normally v fast to come back by email, and so I suspect he didn’t see it. I reverted to email channels for subsequent articles. Nailed an interview every time.

In terms of PR-journo relations via conventional channels, I've come to accept the fact that there's always going to be a lot of stuff that isn't of use to me, but it doesn't make me want to turn off all pitches altogether. The trick for me is to find useful ways to filter and spot it, and I think I've got that down pretty well at this point. Most of the stuff that does interest me lies in the specialist (security/cleantech) areas that I write about, rather than in the more generic spaces.

I accept fewer than 1% of the unsolicited invitations I get to speak with people, but I'd still be foolish to miss the good stuff among the dross. I'll often get people offering me interviews with high-ups, or with arch-geek engineer types, that end up being very useful. I'd feel like I was throwing the baby out with the bathwater if I ignored everything. And when I click with a person that I find that way, then I've made a new contact (and normally get their skype or email addy).

It's also worth pointing out that I've started asking those interviewees that really impress me whether they're on Twitter, and most of them aren't, and won't be any time soon. They're still incredibly smart, and knowledgeable. I'd be missing out if I used Twitter as a benchmark for my go-to list.

I don't actually use the features list blog as a means of soliciting info. I used to use Sourcewire, and then used a PHP-based system I developed in-house. But then ended up spending huge amounts of time wading through all the pitches, most of which said exactly the same thing about different companies. Then I thought 'why am I doing this?'.

Now, I use the features list blog mostly as a way to avoid answering the same 'what are you writing' questions. The assistant manages it all, so it doesn't take up any of my time. It's password protected, which means that fewer agency folks can be arsed to log in, and that's fine by me. But it means that I've done my bit, and met people halfway. If people contact me asking for feature briefs, I send a boilerplate reply giving them the password and then the onus is on them to make the effort. If they don't, I lose no sleep.

Like you say, I think a lot of this is down to the difference in business models between full-time, focused bloggers like yourself, and journos. That's something I'm more interested in talking about than the old 'PRs are crap/No they're not' chestnut.

The biggest difference probably isn't between you and your full time ZDNet colleagues, but between you and freelance journos like me, who get paid by the word and have to write on anything and everything, and be seen to quote X number of people in the article (even though I could often write them without speaking to anyone).

How do you talk to majority of the people in your network? Phone, or Twitter, or both? My problem is that I'm handling such a high volume of interviews that I can't just phone someone up on spec. Too much phone tag, too many time zone issues. I'll often have preliminary discussions with contacts via email before getting my assistant to set up a time for a call with them, but if I didn't have the rigid structure (which requires email for the setup, especially between time zones), it'd all just fall apart.

The assistant will often go through the PR folks because they have a better time tracking down the execs that know what I need to know. It feels weird and pompous a lot of the time, doing it in such a rigid manner, but I've learned to live with it. When I'm doing more investigative stuff (Romanian hackers tend not to have PR companies or public email addresses, oddly) the model changes, of course.

This difference in working and revenue models is one of the reasons that I'm such a shit blogger. If I've got an interesting idea, I go and flog it to an editor, rather than blogging it for free, because that's how I earn my dough. That leaves me with little to blog about (and frankly, not much time to do it). So I update the blog every three months and feel bad about it. I'm considering turning it into a blog about tools for journalists and writers, (because naturally that’s something I’m interested in), and having another crack at it.

It would be easier to blog about industry stuff if I was making my money speaking and doing analyst gigs. I've often thought about taking the indie analyst route, and have a huge admiration for folks like @monkchips for that – he's a smart cookie. But I'm too chicken to make the jump, don't want to burn the airplane carbon or be away from the family too much, and I like my regular editing gigs (especially in troubled times like these). So I'm likely to continue on the journo route for a while yet. I speak to a bunch of interesting people and get to work in the local coffee shop.

Hey ho.

Incidentally, as an aside: I ran across Seriosity recently. Its Attent idea – attaching value to email, much like organisations have voluntarily attached value to carbon – is interesting, but broken, because so much more of us now communicate across organisational boundaries, and everyone would have to play ball. You'll recall Bill Gates positing something along these lines a few years ago, and daft governmental discussions around email tax (god forbid).

But I secretly relish a world in which the boiler-room agencies have to decide how much they want to pay to contact you, (even if it's in Attent's Serios, rather than real money). Gives the term 'attention economy' new meaning. Back in the dead tree days I considered setting up a premium rate fax number to receive press releases on.

Anyway. That’s about 1300 words, and you now owe me $650.

Daniel Epstein December 4, 2008 at 10:34 am

In your own words, sorry for blowing "smoke up your ass" this morning! "Pitched" you via ZDNet. Now I feel stupid. Reverting to Twitter.

Do you think Sage is hooked into social stuff?

Ruby Quince December 13, 2008 at 3:29 pm

Excelllent post – i'm making sure everyone at Bite PR see's it, and including it in our guidelines for communicatiing with bloggers. Let's hope we get it right!

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