Last week the PR blogosphere lit up with a debate on whether or not media pitching is now a broken system. Steve Rubel's post touched off a flurry of comments and backlinks on other blogs about how PR professionals currently contact the press. Citing many reasons, Wired's Chris Anderson and Lifehaker's Gina Trapani (creator of the official PR Spammers Wiki) gave before they outed bad PR professionals via their e-mail addresses, Rubel takes it a step further pointing out journalists and bloggers enjoy the thrill of the chase and self-discovery when it comes to finding news or information about a company, product or service and asks does it make PR professionals obsolete? Rubel points out that if we don't adapt, we may be.
Steve, I couldn't agree with you more.
This conversation though got me thinking about the nature of media relations had how the last nine months indicates a shift (if not a departure) from the traditional outreach plans and the overall state of public relations. Some observations:
1. Journalists and high-authority bloggers' inboxes are out of control. It used to be "No follow-up calls." Now it's turned into do not e-mail. The worst part of this is that the bad PR apples are spoiling the bunch. If you take the time to craft a perfectly relevant pitch only to have it never to be seen by a journalist you know would be interested because of all the "off-topic pitches" in their inbox - that's annoying. The fact there's really no way to follow-up except to call or send a follow-up e-mail is equally annoying. No one's happy here (especially if you are representing a new client and they are just trying to make introductions and send contact info so a journalist knows how to reach you or your client directly - it is about building relationships).
2. PR people (and clients) are reluctant to change old habits. Yes, let's admit this. I do see progress being made. People are using twitter to announce press releases just posted to a client's blog and in their online newsrooms. Some journalists are beginning to use Peter Shankman's HelpAReporterOut.com (HARO) and of course there is always ProfNet for inquiries. But echoing Steve Rubel's observation about self discovery, PR professionals need to take a strong look at how we are advising clients to disseminate information. I don't believe the press release (in any form) is dead, but working at an integrated agency has taught me to consider other options. Blogging, interactive tools and even guerrilla marketing and WOM tactics are increasingly discussed when developing strategic communication plans and outreach strategies. The challenge then becomes how do we attract media and key stakeholders to experience and learn our client's business? It's about staying above or out of the noise (the creation of good, relevant content).
3. Corporate communications is having an identity crisis. How does this fit in? In my experience, agencies are rarely reporting to or working with in-house corporate communicators. This means there is a great deal of time in agencies spent trying to understand the goals of the client who may be unable or unwilling to listen to alternative methods for reaching the press. In recent years, several high-profile and Fortune 100 companies have completely restructured or done some very strange things to their corporate communications divisions. Last December, Chrysler fired the head of PR and reassigned their corporate communications division to report to their human resources department. At some companies, corporate communications is solely devoted to internal and employee communications with heavy emphasis on analyst and financial relations, while all "external press relations and communications" are left to agencies or the CMO. What has happened to corporate communications in corporate America? Do CCO's or Directors of Communications still have seats at the executive table? Or have agencies become the substitute for strong public relations initiatives outside of the marketing division?
4. The agency structure makes it hard "to get it right" every time. This is the hardest one of all. Many of the comments posted in response to Chris Anderson's blog post and open letters from PR people to Gina Trapani following the creation of the PR Spammers Wiki indicate that some of the e-mail addresses listed were young PR professionals (AAEs or ACs) who did take the time to try to learn as much as possible about the editor or blogger before pitching what they thought was relevant information. The reality of it is that very few agencies (boutique or large PR houses) take the time or have the time to review the media lists created by less experienced employees. There seems to be a perpetual "passing of the buck" on media list oversight and accountability by account directors, account supervisors and even yes, vice presidents.
The current system is an imperfect system. Mistakes are made. Repeat offenders should be outed and punished on a wiki or blog. BUT there should be room for error and more importantly redemption. One bad pitch SHOULD NOT end a PR person's career unless it is libelous or breaks other laws (dissemination of trade secrets, etc.). Keep in mind that media relations is a two-way street. PR professionals deserve one warning about potential spamming before being listed on PR blacklists. Anything less than a warning and condemning the whole profession (read: "I've had it with PR people") means that we need better rules of engagement - not diatribes (yes, like this one) that bemoans the current state of the industry.
Agencies information and quality assurance issues aside for a moment, we now live in age where virtual contact is a substitute for handshake, where vcards replace business cards, and even if a journalist is my "friend," I still must respect the rules and hopefully recognize that I should not be pitching them on Facebook (unless they say its OK), the same way I would not want to receive questions about a client on my wall (that's not OK, by the way. E-mail me).
My thoughts on what we can do to fix the pitching system later...what are your thoughts on the current state of media relations?