Saturday 6 October 2012

Blogs, lying bastards and PR

PR maestro Alastair Campbell
Jenny writes: The Flack column in PRWeek features pictures of amusing PR stunts, bake sales and general office gossip from the world of public relations. Usually you'd flick through it with a lot less attention than you'd pay to say, Heat magazine. But last week, Flack reported on a shocker:
at a recent "mummy bloggers" event run by a PR company, delegates were asked to sign an agreement saying they would leave the room if their babies cried or they had to breastfeed. Talk about alienating your target audience. I hope the mums all walked out one by one, until the speakers sat looking at row upon row of empty seats, wondering what they had done wrong.

If I were being charitable to the PR sector, I'd say that they still haven't got to grips with how to deal with bloggers. But I'm not being charitable. My worst fears were confirmed when I snuck in to a social media strategy session at Superb PR (my former career as a ninja investigative journalist turned PR helped):

Minerva: Come on everyone, I need you to think creatively. You're the harassed mother of two under-twos. Your life is hell. Writing a blog is your one outlet, your only connection to the nice normal world of having a job, and being able to go shopping and feeling like a human being. So what do you want?

Annabel: A nanny?

Minerva: Well, obviously. If you could afford one you'd have one. But we're imagining how the other half lives, remember? We're selling teabags to the masses here, not chai to Bromley Cross ... Katherine. Are you alright?

Katherine:  It would be awful. Ghastly. Stuck in some tiny house up north, pegging washing on the line, soot in the air, dodgy broadband connection, tiny ones hanging on your legs, never having time to get to the fake tan parlour ... I'm just getting emotional.

Minerva: Good God. John?

John: Freebies. They want freebies. We offer them freebies in return for a good write up of our product. Job done.

Minerva: Thankyou John. Great tactical thinking. Anyone else?

Anabel: We could give them free teabags.  
John: We could organise a networking event for them - they'd have to pay of course - and make sure all our clients are represented there. They get goody bags - and it's all on the understanding that they write it up in glowing terms. We could even put together a website for the best reviews.

Minerva: Good, John, that's it.

John: Journalists would never buy it, but no one's taught these ladies about the ethics of the press yet.

Minerva: Precisely.

John: As soon as they take those teabags, they'll feel obliged to write a good review. It's pure Robert Cialdini: the overwhelming rule of reciprocation.

Minerva: Stop showing off John. We're going to make our clients very, very happy. Acres of free positive editorial.

[My moustache fell off at this point, and I had to leave.]
Many bloggers have no idea how valuable their voices are to brands. The days when PR consisted of media relations alone are long gone. You've only got to look at all the PR jobs being advertised for people who can 'do' social media. With the explosion of communications outlets, brands need to decide how they will use Twitter, Facebook and of course, blogs.

It's time to wise up. The public relations industry wants to manipulate you to say good things about their products. Unless you are aware of what they are doing, before long your blog will be nothing more than a series of adverts for them. Or as the (still rather attractive) Alastair Campbell said in this week's PR Week: "unless you define yourself, your opponents will do it for you."

So if you want to make your blog a review site, fine, but be very clear about what your blog is and what it stands for. Are you going to be critical - and properly critical too, not the occasional feeble gripe - or because you're getting freebies are you going to love everything you are sent, and encourage your readers to do the same?

Even though I'm a trained journalist, so should be well versed in this stuff, I often struggle with getting the balance right. Recently I was contacted by two public relations professionals about this blog. One of them, who I shall call Alice, said she was contacting me because I was "one of the top mummy bloggers in Manchester" and asked me to write a puff piece about a shop she was promoting. She had clearly never read my blog, as even a cursory glance would have shown that I am not interested in the next big brand to bring its store to Manchester. Even if you offer me discounts and glossy catalogues, Alice, I don't want them. Go away.

The second PR was promoting an innovative literary happening. What did she do different to Alice? Well, first, she had read my blog and was familiar with the content. Second, she had taken the time to build up a relationship with me. Outside of her PR work, she is also an accomplished writer and performer who I respect as an artist. And third, she was giving me information that was of interest and relevance to this blog. I told her I'd think about it. I'm still not sure if it will make it onto the blog, but I'm seriously thinking about it. So what did she do that was right? She carefully targeted her request to me, having checked that it was relevant. And she didn't offer me dirty little bribes to participate.

I am not against PR - God knows, companies and organisations need someone to translate their ideas and actions into a coherent narrative. And the work provides a valuable creative outlet for all the would-be writers in the world who need a day job. But I want them to do their jobs really well, unlike ham-fisted Alice. All public relations practitioners need to remembers that bloggers are not some monolithic block - we are thousands and thousands of individuals each putting out our individual take on the world. Even a category like 'mummy bloggers' contains as many varieties and views within it as there are blogs. If you want to pitch to us, make sure you know who you're pitching to first.

And most of all, I really want all bloggers to be aware of what public relations practitioners are trying to do. Journalists have drummed into them the old adage: "When a politician tells you something in confidence, always ask yourself
Why is this lying bastard lying to me? " I'd suggest that anytime you are approached by a PR, you ask a similar question.


  1. Loathe as I am to publicise the Daily Mail in any way, this piece by Liz Jones fearlessly lobs mummy bloggers into the 'stay-at-home' vs 'get a real job' wars:

  2. The conversation which has gone trough "Minerva" and "Anabel" in the starting sound me very funny !