Archive for the 'Snake-oil' Category

Come on PR, you can do better than this

Somehow, somewhere, one of the email addresses I use at work has got itself onto some kind of PR mailing list. How this happened I’m not exactly sure, but it’s the only explanation I can think of for the sudden influx of assorted press releases landing in the inbox each day.

Given that the address in question is a PR address, I doubt they’ll be getting coverage any time soon.

Interestingly, I’ve had a few colleagues and fellow PRs mention that they’ve been getting assorted press releases as well. There are clearly a few people out there in my chosen industry who haven’t done their homework.

It’s a tad depressing, to be honest, to see such bad PR first hand on a daily basis. I don’t want to indulge in a round of PR bashing – it’s not overly constructive for one thing – because I also see much more good PR than bad PR on a daily basis as well.

Nevertheless, my heart still sinks at the idea that there are PR people and companies who still think a mass mail out to all and sundry is an effective way of working. Sure, you’ll probably get a bit of coverage but, by the same token, if you throw a handful of tennis balls into a crowded street, chances are you’ll hit a couple of people.

Once, in a hurry, I did a mass send-out cobbling together a list from assorted sources. The pick-up was poor. I’ve since gone back to that list, made individual dialogue, established what form of contact and what type of stories they’re looking for, and the response has generally been a lot more receptive towards whatever I’m doing. I know, bad me for taking the lazy way out.

In many respects, I have some sympathy for Charles Arthur and others who’ve been known to lose it on occasions with PR. If you’re on several of these lists and constantly get an endless stream of emails, it can get very irritating. I’d never completely give up on emailed pitches though. During my full-time newsroom days, every now and then, amongst the dross, you’d find a little gem. Sure, it’s not substitute for actually going out there and getting stories, but it always a welcome surprise.

It still doesn’t excuse the arbitrary mail-out lists though. Part of me pities the companies who hire whatever firm it is that sends out these releases. The other part thinks that if they’ve chosen such a bad PR representative they deserve to see their cash go down the drain.

It’s so easy to do lazy, bad PR (then again, it’s also easy to do lazy, bad journalism). You wonder what they must do at work all day. Checking that you’re actually contacting the right person? That surely shouldn’t be too hard, no? I still wonder how this work email got onto the PR list. It’s not exactly easy to mistake for a journalist’s address.

Every now and then I consider emailing them back pointing out, politely, that they’re contacting the wrong person. Then again, I’ve had somebody insist I was the right person and got angry when I pointed out I couldn’t give his release coverage (reminding me somewhat of that woman from the Apprentice last night who insisted on arguing with the customer).

And then you occasionally get the truly impressive PR fails. Like today, when I emailed one of the random releases back, again politely pointing out they were going to the wrong place. I got an out of office. Ten minutes after we’d received the release.

Thankfully I know enough people in the industry who are doing inspiring stuff. My colleagues for one. Or the people I meet at varying networking events. But then it’s always the bad examples that drag down the industry’s reputation (justified or otherwise), and cause journalists to tut and sigh and roll their eyes and declare PR to be useless.

Generally speaking we’re not useless. But when, as a PR, you get pitched with hideously bad PR you wonder how these people managed to land a job in the industry. Or if they’ll still have one in a couple of years.


Just *what* do you want?

If, in the future, we’re all going to be sat at our desks blogging, Tweeting, Flickring and whatnot, for the rest of eternity, we’ll probably need e-numbers to get through it.

Whether or not that was one of the reasons behind Skittles taking their home page all social media-like, we’ll never know. But they are one of the more high profile brands to experiment with the various tools online. Whether it’s worked or not is another matter.

To recap: anybody logging into their Twitter last Monday would have probably found a slew of tweets with the hashtag #skittles. These were then fed into the Skittles home page which was updating all mentions of the sweet on Twitter.

After a while people started cottoning onto this and includes tweets about paedophiles and the like to watch them get onto the home page. Social media types are a nice bunch, but we do have a somewhat borderline/evil sense of humour.

Regardless, Skittles were THE trend on Twitter that day, even if it’s difficult to say if this takeover was a good or a bad thing. In the short-term, it definitely worked. The brand was being talked about and I’d imagine there’s a high chance consumption of the rather icky sweet went up among users of the mircoblogging tool.

But there’s still one nagging question here – just what exactly were they hoping to achieve?

Yes, it was a bold move. Yes it was reasonably innovative for such a mainstream brand. Yes, it got them talked about for a short period of time. But, to be blunt, what for? And what now?

Currently their homepage brings up their Wikipedia entry. Which is nice but, um, what precisely are we meant to do with it? Sure, it’s more informative than a garish flash page, but if I wanted to find out about Skittles on Wikipedia I’d, well, go to Wikipedia.

At Econsultancy, Patricio Robles is similarly nonplussed:

“What exactly did Skittles reinforce by turning its homepage into a Twitterstream? That’s the $64,000 question the people in charge of the Skittles brand should be asking themselves because the truth is that buzz doesn’t build, reinvigorate or reinvent brands.

A coherent message does.

I think that’s something marketers need to keep in mind when they experiment with the ever-growing world of social media. If brands see social media as little more than a cheap tool for getting some short-term attention, they might as well stay home. Branding is a long-term game.”

And that is really the problem a lot of brands or companies have with the internet in a nutshell. Most media people have probably been in at least one meeting where somebody asks “Can we get this on the internet / blogs / Twitter?”

Even if it’s the kind of thing that fits well with any given social media site, the ‘what now’ question remains. Skittles have got some great short-term publicity and have shown a lot more social media savvy than a lot of other brands, but now that they’ve got Skittles out there in social media, what do they intend to do with it?

This may well be part of a slow strategy to get Skittles out there bit by bit. If it’s just doing it for the sake of, well, doing it then they’ve got their buzz and then, a few months down the line, everybody will have forgotten about it.

Building a social media presence, be it for your own work, a brand, a personality, a TV show, or whatever isn’t just a case of putting it out into the internet and leaving it.

Sometimes this does work, admitedly, but this usually means you’ve got a simple little thing that users love and start doing their own thing with.

But more often than not, the brand is thrown out in a great blaze of glory and is then sadly neglected when it’s this second step on continual engagement that can yield the greatest benefit in the long run.

And on a slight tangential note, if you want an excellent guide on how to pitch your brand across Twitter, Kai Turner’s post on Mashable is one of the best possible pieces you can read.

Bad PR: Coming to a Twitter feed near you

Another day, another Twitter application springs up. And while Tweet Manager looks useful, it’s also a somewhat dangerous, especially if used by PR agencies or companies  who know nothing about the web and social media. Or, worse still, think they know about social media.

On one hand, Tweet Manager is useful for the prolific Twitterers to manage their accounts. You can auto-post a Tweet at a pre-set time, set up an autoreply (useful for holidays) and manage multiple accounts.

The latter is especially useful for people who handle several brands or feeds across Twitter – or want to perhaps split their personal and professional Tweeting, while the pre-set Tweeting could be very useful in certain circumstances.

But it’s some of the other services that are, as Steven Davies, who first flagged this up, just asking for it. Namely mass messaging.

This feature enables you to send a message to up to 1,000 users at any one time. Again, there are times when it could possibly be useful (a major announcement perhaps) but it’s essentially the Twitter equivalent of sending out a mass mail press release, and probably much more annoying.

Then there’s auto-follow, where the application will follow anybody who Tweets a specific word.

This is already a pet irritation of mine – I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve followed me (probably after a TweetBeep alert) on the basis that I’ve Tweeted a keyword.

Example in point. Not so long ago I Tweeted that I’d had so many emails in a day, my BlackBerry’s vibrate function had caused the device to throw itself off the table. Almost immediately somebody who offered ‘BlackBerry solutions and training’ started following me. Thanks for that.

So, put them all together and it’s now easier than ever for PR people to start spamming Twitter and giving the rest of us a bad name.

Imagine the pitch – a PR agencies pitches to a brand, with no real knowledge or experience of social media. They tell the brand they can set up an account on the hot new site that the whole media is talking about: Twitter.

Not only that, they can also make sure that they track everybody who talks about their product and then hit them all with targeted info (read: mass message).

Brand goes away convinced they’ve cracked the internet. PR then spams the hell out of people who just happen to have mentioned the word, regardless of it they have any interest in the brand or not. You can see where this is going, can’t you?

Just *being* on Twitter is not social media. Autoposting and not engaging is not a social media strategy. They’re fine for news feeds (which in themselves are quite a useful thing to have on Twitter) but not for a genuine Web 2.0 strategy. And mass messaging definitely isn’t a social media strategy.

The sad thing is, there’ll probably be a few PR people and.or brands who genuinely think that they’ve now cracked Web 2.0 because they’re posting stuff on Twitter. And then there’ll be those who know they’re not but will do it anyway.

Ok, this isn’t a Demya-type service – and I’ve no doubt that Tweet Manager was built with the best intentions in mind (and they ask users to use the service responsibly), and it does have some useful features. But we’ve already got enough problems working out how to fix email and PR. Let’s not have to do the same with Twitter.

Demya – a spam tin with a different label is still spam

Spam comments, as any regular blogger and forum user will tell you, are a right royal pain in the arse. While it’s a way of life on teh interweb, it doesn’t make them any less irritating to delete, especially if you get hit by a plethora of spam comments, which is what happened to Lewis yesterday.

He started off by Tweeting that he’d been hit by an unusually large amount of spam. He Tweeted his further investigations, and uncovered the source – a company called Demya who, for the princely sum of £75, promise to publish 100,000 forum posts promote website, products and service. They stopped short of offering to love you long time.

And how do they promise to do this? By going out into communities, engaging with bloggers and forums, or even just alerting relevant people to the product? No, they’ve gone for a much more simpler option:

“We use special software to automatically register on forums worldwide and post promotional messages.

Your message will appear to be a normal post on forums. Different usernames are generated by our software so that each forum registration and post appears to be unique. You can ‘rotate’ pre-written messages and publish multiple promotional posts.

This is the most advanced level of penetrating online established communities.  We can target communities based on your campaigns keywords.”

They’re not overly picky about which clients they take on either:

“Do you Promote Gambling, Dating or Viagra Campaigns?
Yes, we don’t care what the website, product or service is that we are promoting. ”

But, get this, their services are completely and unequivocally NOT SPAM. Ok?

We do not “spam” forums or emails. We use an automated system that registers on hundreds of thousands of forums for legit accounts and posts your custom messages automatically. “

Funny that. I could have sworn that sending out an automated system posting hundreds of messages out on random forums and blogs without any thought for the content is, well, spam.

You can take a tin of spam, put a label on it and call it ham. But it’ll still be spam inside. The same goes for the online version. No matter how many times you say “hey, this isn’t spam” doesn’t change the product in front of you. Spam. Or, as Helen Lawrence rather nicely lists it:

“There are a zillion things wrong with this.

  1. It’s spam. Spam, spam, spam, spam. Forums are not the place for marketing messages.
  2. Contrary to their site’s claims, this kind of activity will actually push you down lower in search rankings.
  3. Even if forums were the place to send out marketing messages how the hell are you supposed to monitor 10,000 possible conversations (most of which will be ‘fuck off’) and gain any insight from it? Just attack and leave, what kind of relationship is that? Don’t go into a forum if you’re not being honest and you don’t have anything to offer other than a promotional message.
  4. It’s spam.
  5. It’s spam.
  6. It’s spam
  7. Its’ spam

Oh, I’m so angry. How does this kind of rubbish still exist? Why do people still think that forum spamming offers any kind of result other than just pissing people off?”

The sad thing is there are probably a few brands or businesses who’ve decided to get a web presence and think this is a surefire way to get attention for their product on the web. Well, yes, it will. But only if you want to appear in Google rankings having people yell “Spam” and much worse next to your name.

Frankly, I’d have no sympathy if any company goes down this route and finds it backfiring on them. If you’re that stupid about your approach to online PR and marketing, then you probably deserve bad Google karma.

I try not to swear often on this blog (a policy that’s not anywhere near as successful in real life). I always feel that, unless you’re particularly good with your profanity, swearing kind of undermines your argument.

But when even Helen, whose blog is a lovely, friendly, excitable happy place that often comes with recipes for bacon brownies and lusting after McFly, feels compelled to describe them as spammy cunts, I think I’ll make an exception. So Demya, I’d just like to say that you’re an absolute bunch of spamming cunts and I’d quite like you to take your service, shove it up your arse, and fuck off while you’re doing it. Kthnxbai.

The market don’t care about journalism

A full banquet’s worth of thought from Scott Karp at Publishing 2.0:

“The web is the most disruptive force in the history of media, by many orders of magnitude, destroying every assumption on which traditional media businesses are based.

But the market should care, you say. What would happen if we didn’t have the newspapers playing their Fourth Estate watch dog role?

Here’s the bitter truth — the feared loss of civic value is not the basis for a BUSINESS.

The problem with the newspaper industry, as with the music industry before it, is the sense of ENTITLEMENT. What we do is valuable. Therefore we have the right to make money.

Nobody has the right to a business model.

Ask not what the market can do for you, but what you can do for the market.”

People would miss their local paper. But not enough to get outraged and march down the street in protest, I think.

And the death of the local paper, or radio station, won’t mean the death of journalism. It’ll mean that journalism is done somewhere else, probably by somebody else:

“Journalism will find a way. Even if the industries that once supported it do not.”

There’s nothing wrong with trying to retain the audience you’ve got. But retention is fire-fighting. Innovation can start fires elsewhere.

Let’s think about what the staples of the local paper are:

Classifieds? Not any more. Gumtree, eBay, Craigslist and others. Your mates no longer send in embarrassing photos to the paper on your birthday. They stick it up on Facebook.

Letters to the editor? Blogging. Or comments on other blogs.

TV listings? Plenty of those around elsewhere.

Event listings? As above. Google’s as much a friend for this as any other site.

Local sport? Ok, so they’ve got the access. But every club has their official website. Most fans forums post their own thoughts and match reports. The information’s fairly readily available.

Obits? Ok, I’ll give you that one. Nobody does obits quite like a newspaper.

So we just come down to journalism and the quality of the writing (and obits). As nice as it would be to say these are a great reason to keep a paper alive, it doesn’t necessarily stack up for the balance sheet.

Joanna Geary (who flagged up Scott’s piece) has a succinct thought on this:

“If time is becoming increasingly squeezed then I suspect the reasons behind someone dedicating half-an-hour of their time to reading a newspaper have to be even more compelling. Being on public transport and having a paper available for free is one of those reasons.

Even if the newspaper is a great product, with fantastic stories, it may not be something that fits into a person’s life easily.”

The model changed a long time ago, largely thanks to Google [1]. People don’t need to be told what the news is. They can sit at a computer and find out for themselves the news that’s relevant to them (and this is coming from somebody who still loves flicking through the papers and finding random articles of stuff I never knew about. But then isn’t that what StumbleUpon is for?).

And PR: don’t think you’re immune from this. The conversation’s happening around you, not necessarily with you. The web doesn’t need press officers to kick-start and control the conversation. Its perfectly capable of doing that for itself. The question is now how to get into that conversation, not how to control it.

And, strangely, after all that, I still feel optimistic for the future of the media: both journalism and PR. But just not in their current guises. Especially not local journalism if it carries on in its current state. Sorry.

[1] If newspaper editors want to start pointing fingers at websites that are killing their industry, they’d be better off looking there than the BBC’s plans for local news.

Rethinking the embargo

The embargo is a strange beast. In essence, a contract between public relations people and journalists that says: “Here’s the information for [what we think is] a great news story. But we’ve set [an often arbitrary] time delay for publishing this story and if you break it we’ll get angry.”

Ok, so the above does a bit of a disservice to the embargo, but in this internet-centric world where any news organisation or website or blogger can, and often does, break the embargo, perhaps a rethink to the humble STRICTLY EMBARGOED UNTIL 00.01 WEDNESDAY line is necessary.

The embargo today still feels like a very traditional media concept (albeit one that still has a time and place) that, like smoking, is a hard habit to give up. Ostensibly, it still feels wedded to the pre-internet days and specifically tailored around print deadlines.

The journalists I’ve met and worked with have mixed feelings towards embargoes. One old tutor from my training days positively encouraged the breaking of embargoes, while another editor was fairly respectful of them as they believed that, in the long run, you’d get some good stories first from the PR as they knew you could be trusted.

Ultimately, though, embargo breaking leads to a weird situation. The press office are likely to get annoyed and, in the worst case, stop working with the media organisation for a period of time. But if the company really wants to work with said media organisation, there’s little option but to start building up that relationship again.

But with the internet, it’s never been easier to break an embargo. Hell, the material can make it from email account to the web in around 10 minutes if the journalist is so minded and feels there’s worth in doing so.

And with no real evidence, other than increasingly common conversations with other PR people about embargo-breaking online, the gut feeling is that journalists and bloggers are increasingly disregarding the stern words at the top of the press release.

Now – admittedly basing this assumption on anecdotal evidence and then declaring it thus – if that is the case, the embargo needs a bit of a rethink.

Should we go as far to scrap the idea of the embargo [1]? Perhaps not completely. After all, the point of the embargo is, from a publicity point of view, to retain an element of control to the story. There are perhaps a couple of advantages to embargoing information:

  • Timing the embargoed information to coincide with something else – perhaps even to take the attention away from elsewhere.
  • Preparation time for journalists. Sometimes it doesn’t hurt to give the media time to digest what they’ve read and produce something relevant for their audience, and this can actually enhance the coverage.
  • Co-ordinating an announcement that makes the nation’s collective jaw drop. But, again, how easy is this in an online world?
  • Giving the embargoed material to a few trusted places so the announcement can be coordinated strategically.

But even with these (rather vague) exceptions, there’s still an argument for doing away with the embargo. If you’ve got a jaw-dropping announcement, the chances are the collective journalism jaw will also drop, so why not just announce it there and then? More control, less chance of an early leak online.

And if the news isn’t going to get jaws dropping, then perhaps that negates the very need for an embargo. Chances are that if you send it out in the middle of the day, it’ll get filed in the ‘to do’ file, then make the papers the next day.

And if it’s one of those wonderfully pointless surveys that flood into newsrooms on a regular basis with a stat that 76.2% of households in the South East would continue to use canned fruit in the event of a nuclear holocaust, an that tend to end up as space-filling churn, then may I humbly suggest that this news isn’t so exciting that it needs to be sat on until a certain time. The world will, you suspect, keep turning.

But if you’re still wedded to the idea of the embargo or want to give the journalist time to prepare, if there any way the embargo can work in a Web 2.0 environment.

The short answer is probably not. But the longer answer includes a maybe. The most draconian and time-heavy solution would be to lock the material behind a password protected area and include further password protection and lockdowns behind this to make it as hard as possibly the get the info out. This seems slightly too much effort on the part of the PR and irritation on the part of the journalist. Can’t quite see a future for it myself.

The second idea goes back to one of the bullet points  – working with a few specific, trusted outlets – perhaps a couple of leading websites or a paper – and offering the information as an exclusive.

Again, it’s not without its problems or dangers. The information better be good – good enough for organisation A wanting to have it, even under embargo, in the first place, and good enough for everywhere else to want to republish and not get annoyed that they weren’t first in the queue.

In some respects, this is an approach that could find more success with bloggers than traditional media. Web 2.0 loves to share and if the right blogs are targeted, then there’s the potential for a bit of a buzz.

But, again, the story has to be good enough to create a buzz in the first place. And it’s not something I’d be especially fond of doing more than once in a blue moon. Web 2.0 loves linking and sharing, but doesn’t like the feeling of being manipulated, which, done wrongly, this could be viewed as.

Is there a place for embargoes? Do we need them anymore? Could we work a more social media solution in via Social Media Press Releases? Or even wikis? Or is this just a pointless attempt to preserve something not needed? And do you have any thoughts on this that are more coherent than the above? I’ll now throw this to the floor…

[1] Is the embargo dead? Oh, the irony, THE irony!

RSS What I’m Twittering about

  • An error has occurred; the feed is probably down. Try again later.
January 2023

Throw letters together and send them to me

Yes, this is my name. And my email. Use it wisely or you're not getting a biscuit with your tea: garyllewellynandrews [at] gmail [dot] com