A Message to Newly Hired PR Professionals

Dear PR Spammers,

I’m been wracking my brain trying to figure out why you send spam to the people who write blogs you clearly do not read. For the longest time, this practice of yours has made no sense to me, and I finally think I understand why you do what you do.

I think that you think that bloggers have more time than you do. Or, maybe you just think your time is more valuable than that of people who share ideas with the world on a daily basis?

I imagine that you’re scrambling for time between scraping the web for blogger’s email addresses, crafting the perfect non-solicited email to send to those bloggers, and attending lots of boardroom meetings. Put that together, and I can see how your day would be stressful.

I also imagine that your perception is that the bloggers you spam are less busy than you are. How hard can it be to write something original that builds and maintains an audience on a daily basis compared to crafting spam emails?

And I imagine you have the word “junior” in your title and hope to replace that someday with “senior” or “director” so you may be willing to step on a few toes to improve your pay grade.

But here’s the deal: Every influential blogger I know is one majorly busy person. In addition to blogging, they do things like work for startups, craft business strategies, design things that have never been designed before, come up with the ideas that change companies for the better, travel like crazy, write freelance articles, have families, have hobbies, and like to sleep a bit from time to time.

I think if you had a better understanding of the lives of the people you’re trying connect with, you’d come across as much less shallow and, frankly, disgusting.

And get this: some PR people actually get this already. They take the time to get to know people, figuring that quality beats quantity. They’re the ones who’ve mentioned Twitter, Google Reader, and going out into the real-world to meet people from time to time. Get to know them. They’ll show you how to do your job better.

I hope you haven’t found this too insulting. It’s the result of dozens of emails PER DAY that I receive from those of you who show no respect and hurt your industry.

Peace out.

Is Online PR About Messaging, Listening, or Both?

I get the impression the PR firms are currently in the middle on a painful transition from being broadcasters to conversationalists.

By this, I mean that PR folks come across as being good at helping companies determine what their public message should be in order to build trust and sell products or services. While that’s fine, a new version of this is quickly becoming hard to ignore.

It’s a tough concept for many traditional PR people to understand, but that doesn’t make it any less valuable. The term I use for it is, “listening.”

While sitting in a boardroom and deciding what customers want to hear over a bagels and coffee has its place, it’s hardly as effective as listening to what actual customers are saying about your company’s products or services in real time online.

I get the impression that some PR firms have caught onto this concept and are now providing their clients with reports on “what people are saying about you online.” And, I get the impression that these updates are provided at regular intervals such as monthly.

That’s a good start, but it falls way short of what should be happening. What needs to happen is real time reactions to comments rather than simply aggregating pissed off commentaries. You’ll still need to do the aggregations, but you’ll nip a lot more PR disasters in the bud by proving that business can listen and respond.

Wal-Mart's Check Out Blog Fails Authenticy Test

UPDATE: Based on the excellent comments contributed to this post, it looks like this isn’t an intentional case of Wal-Mart gaming the social web, but a technical issue with how their PR firm tracks feed subscribers. Check the comments for details. Thanks.

Wal-Mart claims that their new employee blog, Check Out, is authentic. Here is an example of why that’s not the case.

Earlier today, I wrote a post about how PR firms game the web for their client’s advantage. The post included a quote from Edelman’s Steve Rubel who said that PR firms had learned from their anti-social uses of social media in the past, and went on to day (first time I’ve used the same quote twice in the same day):

Call me an optimist, but in 2008 most in the PR business take a clean approach to social media. A key reason is that when our clients engage, their participation needs to be transparent for it to be credible.

Now I’m going to be a jerk and quote myself from that post (I’ll try not to make a habit of it):

Expect to see many more online PR disasters in 2008 as firms continue to overstep as they attempt to leverage the audiences found on social networking sites.

6 hours later, I believe my prediction has come true.

The New York Times ran a PR piece today (you don’t believe they came up with the idea for this story themselves, do you?) about a new blog from Wal-Mart where buyers present unfiltered opinions directly to a worldwide audience of Wal-Mart customers.

It even goes so far to give the back story about how Wal-Mart has screwed up previous blogging efforts including creating a fake blog about RV users who camp in Wal-Mart lots. Perhaps I’m going too far, but that sounds eerily familiar to Rubel’s “learned its lessons” talking point.

The article explains that Wal-Mart (and Wal-Mart’s PR firm?) have learned their lesson:

The lesson seemed clear: create an authentic blog or don’t create a blog at all.

Gaming Social Media

Wal-Mark CheckOut Blog RSSI checked out the site, and as I often do, decided to subscribe to the blog’s RSS feed so I could give it a test run for a few weeks. However, when I did this, I saw something I’ve never seen before: A random number tacked onto the RSS feed’s URL.

Say What?

If you mouse over the RSS subscribe button and take a look at the feed’s URL, it will look something like this:

http://checkoutblog.com/rss/rss.ashx?id=633401472027920477

All you really need to access the feed is this:

http://checkoutblog.com/rss/rss.ashx

But Wal-Mart (or more likely, Wal-Mart’s PR firm, which I believe happens to be Edelman) is sticking a long string of numbers onto the end of the RSS feed’s URL.

Now, if you refresh the page, you may see something like this:

http://checkoutblog.com/rss/rss.ashx?id=633401476486527797

They’re similar, but not exactly the same, which is exactly the point. Every time you refresh the page, you’ll be presented with a different URL for their RSS feed.

By presenting a unique URL to every prospective subscriber, Wal-Mart (or, more likely, Wal-Mart’s PR firm) is gaming a popular social media site. You’ve probably heard of it: Google Reader.

Google Reader offers a “Subscriber Count” report to their community that helps people figure out which blogs are worth subscribing to. Blogs with large numbers of subscribers would often be considered better than blogs with less subscribers on a given topic.

A search for the Check Out blog brings back the following results on Google Reader:

Wal-Mart Check Out Reader Stats

Normally, this would give you an accurate report of how many subscribers the blog has, but Wal-Mart’s gaming of Google Reader’s social network has hurt the community’s access to valuable information.

Why is Wal-Mart Gaming Google Reader?

Just guesses here:

1. The PR firm did this to obfuscate how many people reading the blog. They’d rather talk about the NY Times story than the dismal readership of the blog they charged Wal-Mart an arm and a leg to develop.

2. Wal-Mart and the PR firm know that this site has little traffic potential but they don’t want the entire world do know that so they worked together to make it harder to measure.

3. This blog is so successful that they don’t want competitors to be able to tell how successful it has become (with the exception of pitching PR pieces to the NY Times business section).

What’s your guess?

Authenticity? FAIL

It seems clear to me that Wal-Mart has failed to become an authentic member of the blogosphere, which is counter to what they said they were now doing in today’s NY Times.

PR vs SEO: Similar Goals, Overlapping Tactics

Steve Rubel stirred up the search engine optimization industry last week by taking issue with some of the tactics used to build links to sites, including creating content aimed primarily social sites like Digg where highly Dugg content secondarily generates additional inbound links to the mentioned site.

Rubel explained in a post titled, “SEO Shenanigans Pose a Clear and Present Danger to Social Media,” how the world will come to an end if SEOs work with clients to create content that people love enough to Digg, share with friends on YouTube, or Stumble. Okay, that’s not exactly how Rubel put it. But he does think that creating content with the sole purpose of increasing search engine rankings is bad for online communities.

Search engine optimizer – including me now – took the bait and called Rubel an idiot for suggesting that what SEOs do is any different from what PR people do for a living. Rubel called the SEO’s counterargument “poppycock“:

That’s complete poppycock. There is no comparison. The reason is that over the last several years the PR industry has largely learned its lessons – often the hard way.

Call me an optimist, but in 2008 most in the PR business take a clean approach to social media. A key reason is that when our clients engage, their participation needs to be transparent for it to be credible.

I guess Rubel is saying that PR used to be an industry full of slime balls using slime ball tactics, but that all changed when we bought new calendars on January 1st.

Of course, this ignores the fact that you can hire PR firms today who will pay Facebook users to say nice things about your company. You can hire other firms who have teams of YouTube users ready and willing to rate your “viral video” high so it will end up on the front page.

Steve, why not just admit that your industry has its share of social misfits too?

Consider for a second that content that effectively generates traffic in links from social networking sites tends to have one important ingredient: value. People won’t link to content they don’t find valuable.

PR firms face a challenge if they guarantee value in an online world. They tell a client that they’re going to run a “viral marketing campaign” where a video will be created specifically for YouTube where a zillion people will share it with all of their friends. Only, the firms have no control over whether something goes viral . . . unless they hire people to be their “friends” to get things started. Sure, the first 100 “friends” weren’t truly organic, but once things got noticed it took off, which is the point of PR right? You’re just trying to help bring attention to a very important message from (__INSERT_CLIENT_NAME_HERE__).

Expect to see many more online PR disasters in 2008 as firms continue to overstep as they attempt to leverage the audiences found on social networking sites.

Using Important Keywords in Press Releases

Anyone putting out a press release knows that picking a good title is critical. Whether you’re trying to reach journalists with your news or go straight to consumers, you have to create a title that’s worth clicking on. Without that, your story will go unread.

So, should you go with something catchy? Something that piques reader’s interests in order to get them to click? Kind of.

Search engine press release expert Greg Jarboe argues that the most important thing you need in your release title and content is keywords. What type of keywords? Terms your target audience would use to describe your news.

Why is this so important? Because press releases will show up in search results. This could be a Google search by someone interested in your news. But more importantly, journalists (including bloggers) set up persistent searches using RSS readers so they’ll receive an alert every time new news that interests them hits the wire. They search for obvious keywords rather than quirky pun-laden titles.

But can’t you have both? Not really. However, as Jarboe explains below, some marketers still believe you can:

Using Top Search Keywords In Online Public Relations

Many people mistakenly believe that search engine optimization and online public relations firms can magically optimize a press release – without modifying any release content – by adding invisible Meta keywords tags. So, they are shocked, shocked to find that their top search keywords actually need to appear high up in very visible locations.
Key points

Invariably, new clients ask me for proof. I point them to an article entitled “Death of a Meta Tag” written by Danny Sullivan in Search Engine Watch on October 1, 2002. Sullivan, the recognized authority on search and search engine marketing, declared, “In my opinion, the meta keywords tag is dead, dead, dead.”

If you want to get the word out today, just give it to people straight. They’re interested in hearing from you, but simply won’t catch your story unless you spoon feed it to them.

The Key to Corporate Blogging is Listening

People LOVE shortcuts, and blogging is no exception.

For example, corporations are trying to figure out ways to effectively market their businesses in (and to) the blogosphere. Part of this strategy involves figuring out who’s influential in the blogosphere. Companies are being built up around providing answers to corporate customer’s questions about who’s most influential on a given topic.

However, there is another way to tap into the blogosphere that doesn’t involve buying new products and services. It’s called, “listening.”

Check out business blogging guru Robert Scoble’s commentary on his experiences explaining blogging to corporations. What he’s really trying to tell them is that they need to listen to conversations:

Will new Blog Council help big companies get small conversations?

Every company I’ve spoken to, from Loreal to Target to Boeing gets that you need to pay attention to the New York Times. I don’t know of a single corporation who won’t return a journalist’s phone calls from the New York Times.

But, how many companies respond to a kid in Australia who only has three readers? How many companies respond to comments made on people’s Facebook walls? How many companies meet regularly with bloggers (the BBC and Microsoft are tonight at our blogger dinner in London — no “blog council” was needed to demonstrate to them why having conversations with bloggers are important).

Listen to what people are saying about you. Let them know you’re listening and thank them for the feedback.

Is that glamorous? No.

Is it expensive? No.

Is it effective? Yes.

Authenticity in Blog Comments and Product Reviews

Jeremy Toeman has put together a great post of seven do it yourself viral marketing strategies that’s worth a read. Strategy #6’s explanation of how employees of companies can contribute to product review or blog comments without coming across as shills or creating an astroturfing scandal was particularly interesting:

When you consider the power of discussions and the individual’s ability to create noise, the less opportunity you have for dumb scandals, the better. As an example, at Sling Media I implemented a strict policy that no employee was to add comments about the Slingbox on any blog or review site (such as CNET or Amazon) without disclosing their employment status. Why? Well, look at the Amazon page for the Slingbox Classic – it’s averaging 4.5 stars from 176 reviewers (at the time of writing). If the company can honestly state that none of them are employee-fed, then they gain a heck of a lot more trust than if there’s suspicion about shills.

Engaging people is important. It wins people over because it proves that you’re listening. However, as Jeremy explains, it can backfire if you’re not open and honest about your relationship to the product or company you’re commenting on.

At it’s worst, we’ve seen PR companies like Edelman – who are paid to be experts at this sort of thing – set up fake blogs written to sound like grass roots blogs praising companies like Wal-Mart.

Personally, I don’t think Amazon’s users would object to product reviews that address the concerns of previous commenters as long as their is disclosure and the post provides value rather than cheerleading. For example, a positive review by an employee could explain that a bug that’s been complained about in earlier posts has been fixed, products shipping after a certain date will no longer have that problem, and earlier models can be updated with a patch. That’s valuable information to people making a buying decision.