PR pros have long had a certain relationship with traditional journalists, but bloggers have different expectations.
Many PR practitioners have worked long and hard to build respect for the profession as a business asset - for both media and clients - and to shed such labels as "flack" and "spin doctor." By and large, the relationship between PR and traditional media is symbiotic - it's a measured dance in which rules of engagement are generally clear and honored. Now, PR must intersect the blogosphere, which is somewhat at odds with the industry.
"It is a combative relationship - like it or not, unfair or not," says Rafat Ali, editor/publisher of PaidContent.org, MocoNews.net, and ContentSutra.com. "Bloggers want 100% access, and PR people want control. The level of transparency that bloggers think they should [get] is higher [than the level media expect]."
Bloggers with roots in journalism tend to acknowledge the value of PR and understand rules established in the traditional media world. They're generally tolerant and well suited to help PR people adapt to the blogosphere.
"Generally, [PR people] help me do my job," says Tom Foremski, editor/publisher of Silicon Valley Watcher and a journalist for more than 25 years. "People who know what I write about are judicious about the stories they bring me - [that's] what everybody wants."
Ali, who only hires journalists like himself, thinks it's sensible to have in-house teams dedicated to working with bloggers. "Our experience is that internal PR people are better than agencies from an information point of view," he says. "There are exceptions. You have to know bloggers, the industry, and dynamics. Bloggers expect direct communication."
Foremski notes that "media is changing" and wonders how PR will evolve. "I don't see too much change in PR," he says. "The point [of blogging] is to be consistent about delivering information - not controlling. In a way, PR has to get back to public relations. It's been doing too much media relations."
Gizmodo features editor Wilson Rothman has built many good PR relationships over the course of eight years as a technology reporter for such publications as Time, Money, The New York Times, and Wired. His view of PR is positive, but the ways in which he works with PR people have changed.
"Before blogs, if someone didn't give you information, you didn't get it," Rothman says. "It was about personal relationships. I get along with [many tech PR people]. Tech blogs emerged because there was suddenly access to information. Tension [with PR also] emerged. We love to make deals with PR people, but if their client has a leaky source in Taiwan, we're going to find it and publish it. We wouldn't be doing our jobs if we didn't."
Issues of relevance
Some companies are reluctant to engage with the blogosphere, which can definitely be detrimental. However, blanketing bloggers with untargeted, irrelevant pitches and releases can fuel negative perceptions of PR even more.
Gawker managing editor Choire Sicha has worked for newspapers, including The New York Observer and The New York Times. Being "inundated with bad pitches all day" negatively affects his opinion of PR. "I play this game with a friend [at] The New York Times where we send [each other] the worst headlines from press releases," he says. "The worst stuff comes from top-tier places, as well as places we've never heard of."
With few exceptions, Gina Trapani, editor of Lifehacker (who wasn't trained in journalism), has had "terrible" experiences with PR - primarily because she gets so many irrelevant press releases. In fact, she has created a filter to ignore PR messages automatically.
"It took some time for me to wise up to the fact that pretty much every e-mail message that starts with 'For Immediate Release' is almost guaranteed to be something I'm not interested in," she notes via e-mail. "I review software on my blog, but I continually receive messages about how Company X hired a new CTO or got another round of funding - nothing I'd ever post about."
Sicha thinks his perception of PR - "unreliable, back stabbing, unloyal" - is probably the same as PR's perception of him. "Incorrect or not, [the general perception is] hard to overcome," he says. "We think they're trying to work us, never telling the truth. We don't always understand their motivation. Also, they're really jargony, and we don't know what they're pitching."
Sicha does have some good PR relationships, noting that most New York practitioners are "pretty savvy." He likes "friendly, earnest" PR folks who get what he does and who make an effort to cultivate a relationship.
"We respond to overtures of friendship and honesty," Sicha notes. "Content on message and non-human interaction is deadly. [The PR people] I've had success with [are] not faceless shills. They'll also tell me the stuff off the record that I want to know."
Huffington Post founding editor Roy Sekoff, who was a journalist, says his view of PR is "basically very good" and practitioners are "helpful when they present a client in a[n] honest, fresh [way that demonstrates they] understand what works best in our milieu."
Sekoff thinks credibility is the biggest problem, noting that bloggers (and readers) don't like hard sells or feeling snowed. "Trust comes when [PR people] shoot straight," he says. "If you're trying to sell, it'll die. Publicists are getting hipper to possibilities and to how they [must] change."
PR in the blogosphere
Sure, there are hundreds of PR-specific blogs out there, but here are the non-PR blogs that are mentioning the industry the most.
Name of blog Web site address Number of posts that mention PR*
Center for Media and Democracy www.prwatch.org 284
Jalopnik www.jalopnik.com 127
PalmAddicts www.palmaddict.typepad.com 123
Ramblings of Silver Blue www.thesilverblue.com/wp 115
Joystiq www.joystiq.com 108
Defamer www.defamer.com 105
Jossip www.jossip.com 104
Weapons of Mass Discussion www.massdiscussion.blogspot.com 83
Silicon Valley Watcher www.siliconvalleywatcher.com 76
Engadget www.engadget.com 65
*Refers to number of posts within the past year that mention the terms "public relations," "PR," or "flack"
Source: Nielsen BuzzMetrics