Sneaky PR People Discover Blogs
from the will-it-get-worse? dept
by Mike Masnick
Ever since Techdirt began six years ago, we've stated that the site wasn't going to just spit out PR-approved summaries of stories. It's not that we're against PR - it's just that, too often, the "PR-approved" versions are clearly spun, and we're not fans of spinning. We want to talk about what's actually happening. I have nothing against PR people or press releases. In fact, I think they're a necessary part of getting some much needed publicity from trade magazines and reporters. However, Techdirt was always about digging deeper than the corporate spin.
With that in mind, I wrote up our "rules" for submissions to the public site - where I tell people not to submit press releases. For years, people have ignored these rules, and we (generally) ignore the submissions. In recent years, however, as Techdirt and blogging in general have become more popular, there have been some changes. First, it's no longer regular readers submitting the press releases. Now it's the PR people themselves - and they clearly submit stories without having read the website at all.
For example, we recently received a submission by a PR person about her client's employee monitoring software - when we have written many times over about why employee monitoring software is bad. It encourages a workplace of mistrust and paranoia, and doesn't do anything to actually encourage workers to work any harder. Anyone who read Techdirt regularly (or even did a search) would know this, and know not to bother submitting a story about a new employee monitoring product.
It's pretty easy to weed those people out. They usually submit an exact replica of an entire press release (also showing how little they understand the regular format by which we blog on Techdirt). However, in the past few months, I've noticed that PR people are becoming much more active in dealing with Techdirt (and, I presume, other blogs). I will jokingly blame my friend Phil Gomes - a PR person who actually does get it - for writing an article last year alerting PR people to the blog phenomenon. Since that time, the PR people have been acting with more interest towards blogs - but not always in a good way.
Sometimes, the interactions are fine, if a bit odd. When I complained about the decidedly non-business 2.0 decision to lock up all Business 2.0 content behind a walled garden, I was contacted by a Business 2.0 PR person, and given a free code to give me access to the site. She then told me that I could give out the code to all my readers - and that for any article I wanted to link to, I could contact her, and she would give me an un-walled-off URL. This all seemed very strange, and against the point, but her job is to keep the "press" happy, and apparently, Techdirt is considered close enough to being the press for Business 2.0.
However, sometimes the interactions show exactly why I dislike dealing with many PR people. A couple of months ago, I wrote a story about a very large, very well known tech company that was working on a new technology that was fairly difficult to build. In fact, there were many within the company's management who weren't sure the company should be working on the technology at all. However, recent breakthroughs suggested the company may have gotten somewhere and the technology had potential.
Around the same time, I had seen a ton of articles about a small startup that was also working on similar technology. The articles didn't have enough substance in them, and felt "spun" to me. I didn't post them, because I wanted to wait until there was more proof that the technology was actually going somewhere - something that did appear to be true from the larger company.
Over a month after my original post on the topic, I received an email from someone using a personal email account, who didn't identify himself as being associated with any company. He wrote that he "couldn't believe" I hadn't heard of the overhyped startup I had read about, and that they were going to "beat [big tech company] by a country mile" with their version of the technology. This struck me as suspicious, because the post was long gone from the front page, and the writer did not reference the post at all. Despite posting an average of 20 to 25 stories a day, he simply assumed we would know which post he was talking about.
I wrote back saying that I had heard of the startup, mostly due to an overwhelming amount of somewhat hype filled press, and that I didn't see why I should post the story until there was more evidence that the startup had actually done something.
Apparently, I hit the jackpot, because the guy wrote me back very quickly to brag about the fact that he is the one who created all that hype - as if that's supposed to make me feel any more inclined to post more hype about his employer. He also went on to brag about how he made another startup famous. Once again, bragging about his own accomplishments in generating PR does little to convince me to post stories about companies he represents - and actually has the opposite effect. If he had the slightest idea of what Techdirt was about, and could contain his own ego for a moment, he might have realized this.
Worse, the second startup that he apparently made famous also happened to employ a friend of mine for many years as a top executive. So, I dropped my friend an email to ask whether or not the sneaky PR guy was correct in claiming that he "made" the startup famous. My friend admitted that he was good at getting press, but the famous founder of the startup had a lot more to do with making the company "famous" than any PR person did.
Still, this whole experience got me thinking about blogs and PR people. Clearly, the PR folks are learning about blogs - but they're often approaching them the same way the approach the regular press - spinning them - and that's a huge mistake. I am sure that some bloggers fall for the press release spin (and, in this case, I saw a few big name bloggers that had posted gushing stories about that startup) just as many reporters fall for it. However, part of the appeal of blogs is the fresh personal voices that get around (or rip apart) the corporate spin. Just throwing corporate spin into that mess is not a good idea, and is likely to backfire in the long term.
At the same time, more bloggers should be aware of people like my PR emailer, who chose not to identify himself with his original email. This seems unethical to me, and gives me an impression of what I should expect from future dealings with this individual. However, bloggers should keep their skepticism radars on from "anonymous" readers touting things without much substance.
A smart PR person will do more to cultivate a real relationship with blogs that are relevant and likely to write about their clients' products and services. They won't try to bully the blogger by saying things like "I can't believe you haven't heard of company X...", but by saying, "Another company you might want to check out in this area is company X" and admitting what the relationship between the writer and the company is. Don't push the blogger, but keep them informed and answer any questions they might have.
For example, following a post I made about Volvo and the Volo Auto Museum in Volo Illinois, someone from Volvo contacted me to explain their side of the story - which I later wrote about. He was very friendly, and explained their side of the story - and left it up to me what I wanted to do with it. The folks from the Volo Auto Museum later responded themselves, and gave me more on their side of the story (which was quite different than Volvo's side of the story). However, I came away from the experience feeling better informed about the matter, and in a much better position to report on it in the future. Neither side was bullying or misleading. While they clearly tried to spin the story in their favor, I knew where the bias was coming from and could adjust their stories accordingly.
Hopefully, future exchanges with PR people will be of that nature, but I fear they may not be. The PR people have discovered blogs, and so far, the results have not been pretty.
Addendum: After I wrote the above, but before I posted it, Mitch Kapor got quite a bit of attention for another case of PR people misunderstanding what blogs are all about. Should we expect more stories like these or can we hope that more PR people will get a clue?