PR Isn’t The Enemy

SurrenderOnce again, the last couple of weeks have seen the public relations industry dragged through the mud by a high-profile blogger. This time it was Robert Scoble, first via Blog Talk Radio then again on his own blog. Naturally plenty of other people piled-on, although few were even remotely constructive.

I could go through Scoble’s anti-PR rant line by line, picking his argument apart (and I nearly did), but to do that would be to miss the point of what he’s getting at. 

The public relations industry is plagued by people who spam journalists and bloggers, and play the numbers game in an attempt to generate media coverage.

Is it the norm? I hope not. I’d like to think not. Regardless, it happens and it’s painful – both to the recipients of the spam pitches and to honest practitioners like Shel, Todd and myself.

I’m not going to disagree with Robert. The PR industry does have its share of bottom-of-the-barrel practitioners. Sad but true – every industry does. Unfortunately, the media/blogger outreach side of PR (yes, dear people, there are other sides) involves interacting with the people who have an audience, so these people are highly visible.

Here’s where I agree with Scoble about media and blogger outreach:

  • PR people should find out what journalists are interested in before pitching them.
  • PR people should find out how journalists like to be pitched (and, yes, sometimes that may involve emailing them to ask).
  • PR people should tailor their approaches to people. That includes the medium they use to approach them.

I could get defensive about Scoble’s rant (and for a while I did – hence I’m coming to this late). However, the fact is that there are many bad PR people out there. I see them every day in my inbox, and if you have any kind of following on your blog then the chances are you do too.

The reality is, though, that PR isn’t the enemy. Bad PR is the enemy.

Unfortunately, there’s not too much we can do about them (which isn’t to imply that we shouldn’t try). The fact is, they’re unlikely to be the ones attending IABC, CPRS or PRSA training sessions. They’re not the ones reading the rants against them on Scoble’s site. And they’re probably not the ones reading this post. They’re busy building their next mass mailing for a client who, unfortunately, doesn’t know any better.

The rest of us – the ones with a conscience, who do their best to target their approaches to the people who will thank them for their pitches? We’re left to raise our hands, point out that we’re not all black sheep, do our best to educate others and then go back to doing good work for our clients.

  • You’re right about bad PR. But the same can be said for nearly any industry – it’s simply a matter of the standard people hold themselves too in their jobs. Just look at marketing/advertising. Some of the tactics used by the “black sheep” of that industry are far more deplorable than the annoyance of PR spamming that Scoble is talking about.
    Glad you cooled off before writing this post. You made some great points.

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  • Dave,

    Scoble’s generalized musings hit you like many other PR pros who actually do their homework before engaging journalists like a slap in the face. I weighed in on Scoble’s blog by introducing him to a new search app that hopefully alleviates journalists’ misgivings about misguided PR pitches (eg, PR Spam).

    The new tool is called MatchPoint (www.prmatchpoint.com), and it helps PR types find the “right” journalists by matching their aggregated body of work with the search query — not their job titles or reporting beats.

    While it will not replace lazy PR people, we think it represents a positive step toward elimninating PR Spam once and for all.

    Thanks for keeping this meme alive.

    Peter Himler
    http://theflack.blogspot.com

  • Hello,
    Couldn’t agree with you more Dave.I am not a PR professional, more of advertising/sales guy, but I think the problem is very similar. It amazes me how mass spam/bad sales never stop. You would think that people who play numbers game with a time would realize that their approach doesn’t yield good results in a long term. Spending ample time on prospecting, getting to know the needs of a prospect, be personal and see if there is actual fit always creates better results then sending canned letter to 1000 people at once.

  • I’ve shifted from getting defensive when I read anti-PR statements, to trying to channel the irritation I feel. At the very least, we’re lucky enough to have a constant feedback loop reminding us why we insist on doing good work.

    Of course, I still end up gritting my teeth when I read the latest all-PR-is-evil conversation.

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  • Having an online media room and distrubuting the press releases by RSS will be more friendly both for journalists and bloggers.

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  • PR’s roots though have some interesting roots -some might label as ‘evil’: Just take a look at one of the fathers of PR: Edward Bernays ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Bernays ) or watch a bit of PR history at the beginning of the BBC film, The Century of Self: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=8953172273825999151

    -thanks!
    -J Fowler
    WISELY WOVEN[Creative Media]

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  • Great post and comments. While bloggers are the most vocal, they’re raising points that are relevant to old-school PR and social media alike. We shouldn’t pitch anyone (mainstream or otherwise) without doing our homework, reading their latest posts, columns, etc. and including in our pitch why we think they might be interested. It underscores the need for us to develop relationships with journalists/bloggers beyond simply pitching them so there’s a level of trust. But the “bad” practitioners are in every industry. I’m currently being spammed by all kinds of marketing companies as part of “undisclosed recipient” lists.

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  • Thank you for writing a rebuttal to Scoble’s rant on bad PR. I agree and as a freshly minted PR practitioner entering the profession I cringe at the almost spam tactics in pitching old and new media. The tips you outlined here will make relationships more harmonious with bloggers/journalists.

  • Thanks for defending the industry, Dave. I don’t see how a person can degrade an entire class of working people and ignore the fact that good PR has had a positive impact on the world. (Ex. Obama’s campaign, not-for-profits, community outreach efforts of the NFL, NBA, etc.)

    @ Peter Thanks for posting that resource.

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  • @J Fowler – that may be true, but the role played by individuals involved at the start of an industry doesn’t mean that everyone in that industry should be tarnished forever. As far as I’m concerned, that’s largely irrelevant at this point and does little to further this discussion. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the current state of affairs, though.

  • @Murat – that’s a good point, and is another very valid way of reaching people. Just as emails aren’t right for everyone, and just as not everyone wants a phone call every time, I don’t think any one approach is going to fit everyone’s needs though.

    I don’t see email pitches going away; I do, however, see a GREAT deal of room for improvement in how they’re used, as plenty of people have pointed out to me via Twitter today.

  • I guess I struggle often with how the origins of movements and industries become established – and how those foundations become embedded in the nature of that cultural pool – the question I struggle with in PR is: at it’s core is it merely efficient public communications or is it embedded with a core understanding of human society that betrays us as objects to be influenced or manipulated (yes I am an Adbusters junkie and media ecologist wannabe.

    All in all,though, I think you’re right Dave, that as we abstract a concept or vilify large segments of people (in this case PR folks) we trample on the reality that we are individuals not a conglomeration of our origins or industry.

    That being said, what if Robert Scoble really has something to say to the PR industry: trust is the new currency and there are new rules for the game.
    Social media is driving this flattening of the info-hierarchy and the marketplace of ideas.

    I am desperately tossing around these questions about the nature of PR as I watch multi-national corporations like Monsanto turn PR into propaganda like Edward Bernays original vision.

    Astro-turfing abounds.

    Maybe I need to hang out at your blog more and get a taste of how PR can be used for good.

    Thanks for the balanced and patient conversation.
    Kudos!

  • It’s like any industry – you’ll have your good with your bad, the professionals with the unprofessionals. The problem with PR – bad PR – is that it’s more likely to be publicized because of the nature of the industry itself.
    I’m starting a project with PRNewswire that looks at bringing journalists and bloggers together more, which will also improve (hopefully) ways that these are pitched by PR people. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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