January 27, 2009

Bloggers and PR Are Not Enemies, But Quality Efforts Are Needed

When it comes to the issue of how bloggers should work with companies' public relations teams, I sit in an interesting intersection. From 9 to 5, I help administer my company's public relations strategy, working on customer announcements, product releases and relations with media, analysts and customers. It's only part of my role, but a significant one - to help raise the company's visibility and awareness in key target publications and communities. But outside of work hours, when it comes to the blog, I often find myself solicited by companies' PR teams who are hoping their announcements will hit a sweet spot for the site and its readers. And the two roles can be very conflicting. At the office, my goal can be for many people to write about one thing. At home, often, if I think others have already covered the story, I'll skip it. But that doesn't make PR the enemy - even as I get press release submissions that I never would have requested, see people set unrealistic embargoes that are clearly broken by someone else, or watch double standards be applied.

Yesterday, Jeremy Toeman of Stage Two Consulting, and a strong blogger in his own right at LiveDigitally, asked if bloggers were simply underutilizing PR people. He, very accurately in my opinion, highlighted how many bloggers are choosing speed over correctness, not checking with PR teams to get background data, or even turning down the opportunity to speak with company representatives to gain quotes and other facts behind the standard release.

Simply stated, a good number of bloggers, many without traditional journalism training, are not taking extra effort needed to make their stories more robust, with company input. Some of that is due to a lack of experience. Some of that is due to a lack of time. Other factors may include a lack of interest, and especially, reward. What many have found, including me, is that the traditional ways bloggers measure themselves, with page views, external links and the number of comments, "likes", Diggs or what have you, are usually not impacted in a positive way through the additional work.

In my comments to Jeremy, I said I do reach out to developers behind a service, especially on longer-lead items, where the company has made a personal effort to reach out to me, instead of just seeing my name on an e-mail list. If, instead, I can tell it's practically a form e-mail, the additional effort to get background data, quotes and an interview is essentially lost, as my story will be just one of many that hit the Web at the same time - so it'd be just as useful to simply get a login to the site and start making screenshots. Marshall Kirkpatrick of ReadWriteWeb concurred, saying there is "little incentive in terms of pageviews" to do the additional research. Robert Scoble, who does some of the most-direct reporting with videos of entrepreneurs in his work for FastCompany, said there is "not much homework being done, just a lot of repurposing press releases," adding it's not just bloggers who err this way, but many in traditional media as well.

Putting my work/PR hat on, I can see the trends as well. Just a few years ago, the best way to distribute a message was to set up a series of conference calls and analyst visits weeks ahead of a launch, and provide customer references. Now, given the dramatic reduction in media outlets, and rise in people vying for attention, it could be just as effective to send an early version of the press release out and pick a date for folks to write about it. Some will want the executive interviews and customer quotes, but not all. There are just too many stories to be written and not any more hours in the day, and as with bloggers, the media wants to be first. Provide a date, and some will post at midnight Pacific. Others will post at midnight Eastern time, meaning their story lands up to six hours before the official press release and Web site updates.

So yes, things are changing - and with change comes strife.

Not every public relations firm is an expert in dealing with bloggers. Some are waking up to the blogging phenomenon and, guessing at the influencers, are simply adding blogger e-mail addresses to their distribution lists, without taking the time needed to se what it is each blogger covers, learning their focus areas, or personalizing an angle. Others are aggressively hustling the top two to five names and ignoring the second layer - which creates stress for those pursued, and resentment for those who are ignored.

But the issue is a two-way street. Bloggers often want the respect given to traditional media, and want to be counted as journalists, but it is a select few who are leveraging the resources available - taking time to ask questions of the company and getting quotes from executives. Is it because executives aren't trusted? Is it because bloggers don't want to look biased in favor of the company, but instead, neutral? It can't possibly be because they didn't think to ask, or are lazy, or just wanted to get a post out the door before moving on to the next one, right?

On LouisGray.com, there are definitely times when we get the chance to speak to the developers of a service to gain quotes and their take on the news. You saw that with the launches of Plinky and PeopleBrowsr, Scrapplet, Gnip, Glue and many others. You've also seen launches of new products where we've been trading e-mails with the companies for weeks or months, like with Feedly, Toluu and Socialmedian. But we don't do this every time. Sometimes, it's because we never got the chance. Other times, it's because all we got was a press release and a launch date, and not being overly impressed with the product, it didn't seem worth the effort.

For me, much of the traditional public relations activity, owned by a PR firm, is being done by the founders of the companies I talk to themselves. Instead of asking a PR person for help, I'm going straight to Jason Goldberg or Bret Taylor, Caleb Elston or Alex Iskold. The traditional PR function of shaping a message, choosing targets and scheduling interviews is often done solo - but the rules still apply. Bloggers want to get a unique story, and companies want to reach as many people as possible - so yes, there is a conflict.

The solution is for bloggers to understand the goals of the PR firm and company, and for PR firms and companies to understand the goals of the blogger. It would behoove PR firms to learn how to reach out to bloggers as individuals and tailor a message, even if it is a simple feature enhancement or milestone. It would behoove bloggers to go beyond the headlines and try to really understand a product - to kick the tires, providing feedback, positive and negative. Bloggers don't like feeling like a number, and PR people don't like being ignored if they have made an executive available.

As bloggers, taking the time to speak with an executive and getting a customer example or a use case can be not only a good way to get a unique story, but also to get a personal relationship that goes well beyond a press release. Truth is - the more you know about a product, the more likely you are to end up using it yourself anyway.

As PR reps, understand many bloggers have day jobs, and they don't always have the flexibility to answer you in your 9 to 5 window, so you will need to be open for calls at 10 p.m. as much as 10 a.m. Trade e-mails with me at 1 a.m., and you've practically got a partner for life. And do your homework. It's just as important for you to know what it is that I write about as it is for us to know what it is that you do and where you used to work. The blogging community can be your best mouthpiece for getting the message out quickly, and your worst enemy, should you end up ticking them off.

There has got to be a move to quality on the blogging side. I would much rather have longer-length posts from me and the team than quick hits that get out 15 minutes before the next guy. And companies should reward bloggers who take the extra effort by highlighting the reports on their site as they do traditional media reports. But there has also got to be a move toward quality from PR firms, who in stressful times these days, are scrambling to make headway in a very tough environment. PR companies and bloggers could work together as partners to deliver their readers stories that are relevant, sourced, and robust.

Or... we could continue to ignore each other and point fingers, and from that, nobody will grow.