What goes online

For all the marketing community’s squawking about online communications in 2005, the sagest commentary might have come from an unusual place - the comments thread at Gawker.com.

For all the marketing community’s squawking about online communications in 2005, the sagest commentary might have come from an unusual place - the comments thread at Gawker.com.

A repeated – and undeniably misguided – attempt, by a Weber Shandwick employee, to get Gawker to write about client Kentucky Fried Chicken's "Ultimate KFC fan contest" impelled the commenter to deliver the goods.

There are almost too many ways to explain why this pitch was a waste of everyone's time. Gawker's constituents consume things other than KFC: Hipsters (ersatz-idiosyncratic beer), the media (they only lunch, they don't eat), and lowly assistants (too poor for sustenance).

Gawker is also notorious for excoriating bad PR moves, with such industry-championing headlines as "Retarded PR Events," "Ridiculous Press Release of the Week," and, "Moron Publicist of the Month," an approbation given to the aforementioned WS employee.

But that's not the reason why this spoke volumes about the pitfalls in pitching blogs. What it highlights is the persistent failure to abide by the sacred PR cannon: "know who you are pitching."

That fact was obvious to one Gawker reader, who offered this comment on the pitch: "I can almost guarantee that [the WS employee] has asshat bosses who yell at him and ask him why the KFC story didn't get more pickup, so he ends up at his desk at 10 pm, quietly weeping, trying to get anyone at all to write something about the contest.... Flacks like Brandon are stuck having to do this day after day after day, and I can virtually assure you he knows what he's doing is wrong, but the pressure to keep one's job is too much to not do it at all."

Perhaps that was a bit too harsh. After all, this sort of incident is neither restricted to one PR professional, nor one weblog. Everyone has been shamed into thinking about what blogs mean to them. This simplistic, yet miraculous piece of software is clay enterprising citizens to sculpt into something special. Ditto for marketers. So, in an industry so consumed with transcending the media relations mantle, I must ask, is this the best you can do?

Such an encompassing topic like pitching blogs is hard to drill down to a coherent simple point. But here it is: there will be a number of blogs that cover your industry, company, or line of work that you should pitch without hesitation, as you would the mainstream media. Weed out the blogs that do not fit into that category and leave them alone. The key is research. And by research, I certainly do not mean having your assistant compile a list of e-mail addresses from Feedster or Technorati's top blog lists. You do realize that those recipients of your buckshot pitching treat your entreaties like a 5 pm telemarketer call.

Take the words of these professionals: Yahoo employee Jeremy Zawodny who was fed up with the unsolicited pitches he received from PR agencies that he proposed compiling a PR agency blacklist. Cranky pants Jeff Jarvis simply said that companies should buy ads, not pitch him or other bloggers. It's important to note that not only is this broad pitching annoying, it's embarrassing for you. Bloggers, like Gawker, will become irate enough to shame you.

If you don't believe me or them, check out the words of Kate Hopkins (a popular food blogger at Accidental Hedonist, which Time and the UK Observer have praised), who made fun of a garbage bag manufacturer for trying to pitch its plates division to anyone who mentioned food on their blog. Hopkins wrote of other food bloggers, in sympathy, "You've spent precious time working on your blog.... You've been hammered by requests from Hefty-Trash bags to pimp their plastic plates."

The volume of undesired pitches got so bad that Hopkins created a separate page on her blog that discusses PR protocol. The key point is, "If you want to send me a product to review based only off a specific marketing strategy, you might want to save your postage."

"I would say that probably 50% of the pitches I see I have dismissed outright," Hopkins told me, via e-mail. Hopkins says she has been wary of PR pitches because, besides fear of eroding trust as an unbiased source, that "it's sufficient to say that there are some PR agents who either don't understand blogs or don't understand the people that write for them."

A good number of these bloggers you are pitching have full-time jobs and pursue blogging as a labor of love. One might even be a kid who already knows everything, thank you very much. So, if their inboxes are deluged with inappropriate or unsolicited pitches, it's not something they, like mainstream journalists, will cheerily chalk up to the cost of doing business.

Remember – most bloggers are potential customers with megaphones and their hearts on their sleeves. Unless you believe in the principle that repetition (via press release) will burrow your client's or your products' name in their minds, they're liable to treat your offerings like any nuisance: ignore them.

What goes online is PRWeek.com editor Keith O'Brien's bi-weekly column on how technology is changing how companies interact with and position their wares to consumers. The focus of this week's column, pitching blogs, is the first part of a two-part entry. Keith can be reached at keith.obrien@prweek.com.

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