Righting The Ship In The Public Relations Industry

by Jason Falls |

PRSA Digital Impact ConferenceTomorrow I will be a part of a panel discussion at the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) Digital Impact Conference focusing on blogger outreach. Wednesday, a special, live BlogTalkRadio edition of, “For Immediate Release,” the outstanding podcast from Neville Hobson and Shel Holtz, will put several interested parties at the table to discuss the same issue, specific to PR spammers.

Preparing for the week, I’ve put a great deal of thought into what I can contribute to the conversation with the end goal in mind of making the environment better for everyone involved. As much as Gina Trapani’s PR Spammers Wiki and Chris Anderson’s list of banned email addresses were, in my opinion, childish and unproductive, I don’t want them to be bothered by lazy or ignorant public relations professionals any more than other bloggers or journalists.

One of the reasons I’ve been asked to participate at the PRSA event tomorrow is because I’m outspoken. I’m also not afraid to point fingers. But I honestly do so in hopes of confronting the problems and finding solutions. I’m a smartass, but one with good intentions.

It is my full intention to tell PRSA officials there that they (along with organizations like IABC – the International Association of Business Communicators) should shoulder a good deal of the responsibility for fixing the problem of PR spammers. Jeremy Pepper is right, the solution to the problem is education. And we don’t have time for some of the great PR professors out there to do it for us.

PRSA is putting on the Digital Impact Conference, so they’re not exactly sitting by the wayside, doing nothing. But look at the last several weeks worth of PRSA Issues & Trends (daily emails) and the latest PR Strategist. See anything about blogger outreach? Me either.

The Louisville IABC chapter is conducting a social media boot camp next week, to which I have been asked to contribute. I believe it’s the first such activity for that chapter. The Louisville PRSA chapter has done exactly nothing in regards to new media sans participating in a teleseminar with Paul Gillin last summer. So the lacking is not just at the national level, but at the local activation as well.

In my opinion, the way the public relations industry responds to the problem of PR spam over the course of the next six to 12 months could make or break our profession for the next decade. Why are our professional organizations not prioritizing this?

And PR spam doesn’t just apply to bloggers. Traditional media members don’t like the half-assed approach any more than new media outlets. Like my opinion of the social media press release, this issue is not something for bloggers only. Public relations outreach needs to get better for ALL media, not just new media.

Until now, PRSA and, to a lesser extent IABC, have done little to recognize there’s a problem. If they don’t, and don’t do something about it soon, the public relations profession is in a world of hurt, Andrew Cohen aside.

The media database companies, like Cision, Vocus, Marketwire and Burrells Luce have tried to provide guidance, but haven’t done enough. Margin notes in an individual profile buried deep within a massive database simply won’t be seen. And certainly not by entry-level PR noobs working on tight deadlines to reach hundreds of outlets. No amount of webinars can overcome immediate client need and large scale distribution.

(Disclosure: Doe-Anderson is a Cision client, they invited me to speak at the PRSA event which they are sponsoring and as part of a panel they are conducting. But it’s not like I haven’t called them out before.)

The technology is there. Put it to use. Perhaps the preferred method of contact, complete with margin notes on preferences, is all that can be exported to a spreadsheet. Maybe functionality can be added that walks list-builders through a number of questions to determine the right contacts for a given outreach – sort of the eHarmony approach to PR contacts.

John Cass and I offered other suggestions for them here and here. However, I would challenge each of them to do one important thing better than they have been: Get the media contact on the phone and ask them if they even want to be listed. I’ve never been asked if I want to be in anyone’s system, yet I’m in at least two of the said service’s databases. Just because someone is a media member doesn’t mean they shoudn’t have a choice in being approached.

While not ordered as such in this tome, the first and most important group responsible for improving the public relations industry are the practitioners themselves. PR people need to recognize we operate in a new media environment that requires new media skills. Technology offered through the media database companies and the Internet to date has made us lazy. Now it can make us more efficient and proficient, but only if we understand that it should and grasp the opportunity.

First steps?

  1. Get back to the basics of communication theory. The most effective communication is interpersonal. One-to-one relationships with media members (new and old) is the best way to transmit messages. However, trust is an important element of that. You will trust they will listen and consider. They will trust you won’t waste their time. It’s a tradeoff that, if respected on both sides, leads to happy media members and PR folks.
  2. Learn RSS. If your clients or organization is or can publish news releases and media-targeted information via Really Simple Syndication, your media outlets (as they become RSS-savvy as well) will opt-in to your news on their terms. Then you can spend more time focusing on the relationship than the message delivery.
  3. Refine your outreach. My mother is a communications officer for a state transportation district. She reports that anywhere from 40 to 60 percent of her time is spent on her media contacts – culling lists, double checking information (via telephone or face-to-face exchanges), calling on them in person. While serving the media in seven rural counties in Kentucky shouldn’t warrant that much time and should be easier to manage than she makes it, effective outreach is imperative for someone who often has news of road closings, traffic situations and hazardous conditions. Your client/organization is that important to you. Spend 50 percent of our time on your lists and see how much better your hit rate is.
  4. Recognize that new media is essentially no different from old media. The traditional folks just haven’t complained as loudly about your shortcomings. They don’t like press release blasts and borderline relevant emails any more than Gina Trapani does. Their training and our laziness has lulled them into the habit of just tolerating our efforts. Change the way you approach the old as you figure out how to approach the new.
  5. Just don’t send email blasts. If you can’t handle the outreach on a more individual, personal level, either plan for more staffing or refine your lists until you can.

And last but not least, the bloggers should have some responsibility here, too. Just because you may not be a trained journalist or don’t consider yourself such, or even think PR people are nothing but used car salesmen and lying spinsters, these do not mean you aren’t a media outlet that might be a target for PR outreach. As Rick Calvert of Blog World & New Media Expo wrote, “If you are a professional journalist, or editor covering a particular industry or topic then part of your job is fielding PR pitches for products in that industry … Will you occasionally get pitched something that is irrelevant to you or that is personally uninteresting to you? Of course. Too bad. Get over it or get a new job.” Yes, he referenced professional journalists or editors covering a particular industry, but if you blog about an industry, you are a journalist for said topic, like it or not; qualified or not.

Understand that not everyone is a Web 2.0 whiz who understands the pull mechanism of RSS feeds and knows no better way than the push technique of outreach. Also know that many public relations folks are genuinely well-intended and not irresponsible in their approaches. Yes, we have a wide-spread issue that needs to be addressed and solved, but as you can tell from this and other posts, we’re doing just that.

Our Dénouement

More than anything, I long for journalists of all walks of life – traditional, mainstream media and bloggers, podcasters and new media folks as well – to understand, respect and even value the pubic relations professionals they deal with. Many do. Some don’t. And frankly, the laziness and ignorance of many PR professionals proves some don’t deserve it.

The only way this ideal will ever happen is if public relations professionals step up and improve. The responsibility lies squarely upon our collective, and individual, shoulders. Because, however, the media database companies and professional organizations like PRSA and IABC depend upon these individuals for their livelihood, they should step in and lead the vital effort required to get where we want to go: Teaching the new and re-teaching the old how to succeed in the new media environment.

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About the Author

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for Elasticity, one of the world's most innovative digital marketing and public relations firms. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).