On Tuesday Chris Anderson the editor in chief of Wired magazine wrote a blog complaining about PR people. He has a point there is a significant problem on both sides of the PR equation, editors and PR people alike have sincere difficulties navigating the current model. Chris went a little to far I think and outed those PR folks who he felt had inappropriately pitched him over just the last 30 days by publishing their emails addresses. This is the power of social media, one can have an emotion and express it immediately on one’s blog. While I don’t think Chris’ tactics were anything short of childish, I do think those same tactics have started a firestorm of open dialog. The blog “bashing” kind of scrappy insults and some truly thoughtful input. Check out the blog post and the over 300 comments it is quite interesting. His reaction and outing might all be worth it to create change.
From a personal perspective there is a real down side, I was on that list. I was shocked and surprised but alas there is my email for all to see, spammers et al. It was embarrassing and a real punch in the gut. So why, you are asking am, I sharing this with you? Well because the discussion is worthwhile AND there is a lesson in crisis management.
I have talk about the elements of crisis management on this blog, and here I am in one. My email is being blocked by the publications I need to reach, many ISPs took Chris; spamming accusation seriously and I am now black listed on many accounts making my job almost impossible to accomplish. But more importantly my name was besmirched.
So what do I do, call Chris a jerk or take responsibility. I was thinking to myself what I would recommend to my clients? It would be to take publicly take responsibility and not offer excuses but look for solutions. So below is that effort. I also posted what you see below as a comment to Chris’ blog becoming another voice as part of the chatter responding the challenges he posed.
It was a very nice gesture to receive and email back from Chris this morning, commenting on my comment, he said:
“Just a quick note to thank you for the thoughtful comment. One of the best, I thought.”
My Comment Posted on Chris’ Blog:
Mea Culpa. I am on the list. And I have to say I felt shame all morning. I know better, I have been doing this for over 20 years. I even wrote a book. The PR climate is challenging at best these days, but I took a short cut, which will get you in trouble no matter what business you are in.
Bottom line is I made an error in judgment and have to face this rather loud unruly music as a result. But I think this dialogue is a good one. We have heard what Chris and many other editors have contributed here. And beyond the comments here I have personally heard from many long time PR folks who are tired of being berated by overworked editors for the methods we use to contact them. I was at a PR function last week and the Los Angeles Times editor said “PR people should be seen and not heard.” Judging from that comment combined with Chris’ blog post the level of respect PR folks can expect from today’s editorial community is quite low indeed. This is not a complaint, it is simply an observation. But it is hard to take sometimes.
The PR industry is broken.
Here, from my perspective, are some of the challenges today’s PR professionals face:
- Client budgets are often quite low yet their expectations are off the charts. It is almost impossible to do the level of due diligence that editors are demanding given these smaller budgets. That is not to say that editors should not be demanding the research –of course they should. But should an editor go off the deep end because we sent and iPod pitch instead of a gaming pitch. Well maybe, because at the end of the day he doesn’t cover iPods, and it is understandably frustrating to constantly receive pitches that aren’t relevant.
- Editors are overworked and many cover too many industry verticals because budgets at publications are tight and downsizing has been a regular occurrence. So, most editors are taking on way more than in the past. The Los Angels Times used to have over 1200 editors they now have 800. The news hole hasn’t changed that much, yet there are less editors to fill the same space. The other problem from downsizing is reporters change their beat quite regularly, so tracking them has become more difficult. Within this challenging environment, in an effort to keep editors up on our client’s products we likely overdo it from a pitch perspective (both in number and email length) in part because it is more and more difficult for editors to take the time to respond.
- There are fewer publications to garner coverage from, especially from a traditional hard copy magazine perspective. Most clients don’t perceive results on Blogs or online publications as “real” coverage. So more companies, with more PR people, and fewer editors receiving 100s of emails per day equals a big problem.
- Many of our clients have multiple vertical markets and therefore multiple publications beyond the tech trades. Once again the sheer amount of time needed to do due diligence on each reporter is not something that most budgets can accommodate.
- The PR agency model (given current budget ranges) does not allow for experienced senior personnel to be doing media relations. Agencies in turn are under huge pressure to make a profit, especially public companies. The result: more junior people executing most media relations programs. This business paradigm does not offer an environment conducive to the demands of the editorial community. These are precisely the demands that Chris is making.
- By the time a PR person is senior enough to know all the right editors and understand their likes and dislikes they are so burnt out by this environment that they leave the industry, and the cycle of junior employees starts again.
- Agencies with many small clients have to cover too much editorial ground. It is harder and harder for agencies and even freelancers to specialize in a particular vertical niche and still survive.
So what is to be done? Is it up to us as PR professionals to manage our client’s expectations for results? Yes! For example explaining the news environment, setting placement expectations etc. Yet clients look at the thousands of dollars spent each month (whether it is 3$K or $30K) and have a boss to whom they must justify that budget. Even if we share with clients that, for example, the half page coverage placed in BusinessWeek was equal in ad dollars to more than 2 years of PR budgets spent, still does not make up for the one month where coverage did not appear. So, is it always possible to set proper expectations? Unfortunately no. Sometimes the cost of doing business forces us into a corner and perhaps into making mistakes. But there is an opportunity to change this… perhaps it is time to simply be that broken record to our clients and offer continual explanations and recommendations of the reality of market conditions that perhaps the “news” they are creating is not enough. If the company still pushes for pursuing bad stories we walk away from the business. That is a hard road, because there is always an eager PR pro or agency that is willing to pick up the business and agree with the client that the “other” PR firm they hired didn’t know what they were doing.
Back to this particular matter, despite the fact I made this list, I recommend searching the publications site first using relevant keywords to see who is writing about the client’s topic. Read the articles and send an intelligent well thought out pitch based on what the editors has written about. Use services like Vocus to validate or find the email for that editor. (See my blog post about There is NO “free publicity” http://credibilitybranding.typepad.com/blog/2007/04/there_is_no_fre.html ) Did I do that for Chris, no and he is right to be upset.
I do think Chris’ particular response is a little extreme, but he is in the PR game too, he is creating controversy for his publication and his book. And look its working, I heard about this post because a writer from the New York Times was looking for a comment (he spammed Chris’ email list) for a story he is writing. This post has also been passed on to other bloggers and has become the story. This is good PR. But, more importantly it has prompted the chance for an open dialog. Chris’ blog post and the level of frustration found in the comments at this blog post would not have happened had there not been something fundamentally wrong. I am in the middle because I took a short cut and now have to face the repercussions. What I do know is that I will use this as an opportunity to take a closer look at how I do PR and will scour my lists and think twice before I send my next pitch. So thanks Chris for the opportunity to take stock and do better.
However all that being said, I think the method of the “outing” was a little mean spirited. I had to take a moment, to overcome the shock of seeing my email address on this list. Then I looked at the pitches I sent Chris. I have only sent him three emails in the two years of outreach (found in my outlook sent items); two in October (one was sent twice in error) and one in September. Wow is my timing crap or what? Now I am being outed to all Conde Nast publications and chastised by over 300 commentors on his blog. Not to mention the anticipated onslaught of spam email I am expecting. And all for three emails? And they were pretty good pitches, newsworthy well written just sent to the wrong editor, which was definitely a bad choice on my part.
There must be some middle ground here… I hope we can take this opportunity to start a true dialog and stop bashing each other; perhaps we can take some action that results in changes that will help us all.