Open letter: PR pros, let’s be better.

PR pros – let’s be better.

The bones of this have been sitting in my drafts for months, but recent events have encouraged me to finally finish and post it. Social media is in a strange state, one where the tables have turned and the “authenticity” that was once social media currency is at serious risk of being a complete and total sham. In the world of “fake it til you make it”, social media has afforded tricksters the opportunity to take us all for a ride, inflating their own online social stock and claiming perks they don’t deserve. PR pros, we know better.
(Note: this might be a tough post to swallow, so I’ve illustrated with cats.)

I’m not saying that media hits aren’t happening or that mentions aren’t popping up on Twitter feeds and blogs around the SM stratosphere. I’m saying that the hits you’re getting and the mentions you’re receiving on behalf of your clients aren’t actually providing any added value. Complacency is rampant.

In the two years I’ve been blogging in Toronto (after a rabble-rousing past Queen’s), I’m hard-pressed to say that not much has changed in terms of who is getting targeted by PR agencies. Sure, the occasional new blogger pops onto the scene and is added to media lists, but for the most part I see the same people at events and getting the same perks.

So, what happens when the same people get the same pitches as all of their friends?

Apathy. Lack of buy-in. Diminishing feelings of importance and exclusivity. Lack of inspired coverage. Lazy bloggers who copy & paste press releases and push to their networks to keep their PR contacts happy.

Worse: what happens when PR companies barely target their lists, deciding to focus simply on “influencers”?

Coverage that would make a client cringe (and ensuing backlash). Missing out on key up-and-coming bloggers or less pervasive influencers with a niche, engaged following.

Worst: what happens when these people fool you (and themselves) into thinking they’re more important than they are? On Friday, my friend (and fellow PR pro) Stella Lee turned me onto a tool that identifies the percentage of fake, inactive and “good” followers someone has. It’s proven to be fairly accurate, outing many in Toronto as having purchased their followers.

From the perspective of client expectations, I understand. Clients want to see their product/service/etc getting pitched to people with high numbers. Depending on the social savvy of the client, numbers and impressions (and increased SEO from the volume of links) can be what they want, no matter how they happen.

However, we’re selling ourselves and our clients short. Not only do these numbers mean nothing, as we’re discovering again and again, but numbers don’t tell you who will be a good ambassador for your brand. The opinion of a blogger who shills for a different brand every minute means nothing. A blogger whose own personal brand is a mess, blog and Twitter rife with controversy and drama, is not a good fit for many clients, no matter their numbers. We need to be more discerning. Not only has the ugly world of follower-buying has gotten out of control, but PR companies rarely ask for proof of unique monthly views when compiling impression reports. Instead, they rely on the honour system. If this follower-buying fiasco has proved anything, it’s that people are anything but trustworthy when the carrot of perks, events and product is dangling in front of them.

PR pros, let’s be better. Let’s take the time to educate our clients on what really matters in social and digital. Let’s not sell ourselves short by being slaves to numbers. Let’s expect proper grammar, original content and a good read. Let’s pitch only those who we would actually trust to represent our clients’ brands. Let’s give online media the same respect we afford traditional media, by carefully targeting our pitches and vetting who should be taken seriously. Let’s refuse to be taken by this social media scam and do right by ourselves and our clients.

Disclaimer: Not all PR pros are guilty of this. You need only read about this event from High Road Communications + Chobani, this (super-targeted + paid) contributor program for Canadian TV show Continuum or Hill & Knowlton’s bloggers’ night out at Mumford & Sons sponsored by Avon to have faith in the digital arm of our industry. Good happens – it just gets outshone by rampant complacency.

  • The recent controversy with bought followers made me think about “influencers” as children and PR companies as parents. Social Media is still in its relative infancy/childhood. If there’s one thing kids will do as they grow, it would be pushing their limits. In many cases lie to get what they want. PR companies have got to be responsible parents. Know your kids friends. Keep an eye on what your kids are up to and who they’re talking to. Children shouldn’t be rewarded for poor behaviour. If the kids are left to run roughshod, they’ll grow up to become awful adults & PR parents. As times passes, the industry itself takes a hit as a result and everyone loses.

    Great write up. Seeing a perspective from within the PR industry is always refreshing as someone who’s definitely on the outside looking in at it all. Added your blog to my RSS feed.

    • Thanks, Justin! That’s a great analogy – I’m probably going to add your video to the bottom of this, since what you say in it is very true as well. Honestly, can we blame people for trying to make a buck? Kind of, but most people will cheat if given a way to do it.

      PRs know better (or should learn). I’m lucky since I’m on all sides of the industry – I work in social/digital, yet get to consult on PR projects and also get pitched as a blogger. The horror stories I’ve heard from agency-side friends about the demands from bloggers would blow your mind. We need to put the onus on PR pros to stop coddling and pandering to new media.

      • I’d be interested in hearing a few of those demands sometime. I don’t blame bloggers for making big demands. It’s just like any negotiation. The key is to temper the overblown demands and find a middle ground.

        Question for you though; bloggers have been around now for… 10 – 15 years? From what I’ve noted personally, there doesn’t seem to be sufficient ROI to warrant continuously hiring them. Why has the average blogger simply not been dropped as a potential asset. Seems too many are just faces here and there writing about their lives. Why does that warrant getting paid?

        • If only I could tell you πŸ˜‰

          Honestly, I also question the value of bloggers sometimes (she says as she writes on her moderately successful personal blog).

          I think there’s just a push towards social and we have yet to be able to truly quantify the reach of something like Twitter – thankfully we’re not in a situation where the average “influencer” is being paid to tweet – so it falls to blogs (and YouTube).

          Some bloggers are really good at what they do. If they’re pitched a product, service or event that really matches up with their target audience, you can see measurable influence and conversions. However, I fail to see the value of sending someone who writes about themselves lipstick or clothes. Send the lipstick to the beauty/lifestyle bloggers and the clothes to the fashion bloggers. A mere mention on a personal blogger’s site is not going to convince someone to purchase. A review – even by tweet – from someone truly invested in that type of product or service might.

  • Daniella

    Thank you for sharing this Stephanie, I constantly have these conversation. I also have my own site, work with clients on consulting projects involving bloggers / influencers, and of course am pitched programs by PR companies. Having worked in marketing for 8 years, I tend to look at it from all perspectives rather than just a “blogger perspective”.

    Times are changing, and I can see that it can be more difficult for clients / pr to figure out who the bloggers/influencers are they should work with. Everyone has a blog these days. Because this is still new, I can understand that it may be hard to discern which blogger should be targeted. Especially seeing that there aren’t as many measuring tools to measure engagement and reach on all social media outlets. Most of the tools thus far have only taught us to measure the pageviews and hits on a blog.

    The first question that I pose my clients when trying to decide which bloggers need to be part of a program is: Do they fit the target demographic for the product or service?

    If you are trying to give an overall value to a blogger / influencer based on their site traffic and the number of followers on FB, Instagram, Twitter, how can you really measure the effectiveness of engagement within their reach? What do high numbers mean and which numbers are we talking about. That’s the real question, in my opinion.

    It’s important for the clients or PR company to know their goals in order to determine which numbers will help them measure those results. I’ve seen new blogs provide great results online for brands because they were the right fit, because they engaged with their followers. They may not have had as many followers as the popular blogger, but I still see value in both – again if they are the right fit for the brand.

    As you said it isn’t just the job of the PR company or Client, some clients and PR companies get it right and do a phenomenal job. Not only at curating the right bloggers / influencers to work with, but building engaging promotions that yield win win results. The responsibility is also of the blogger / influencer know what your goals are, what your demographic is and be confident in the value that you provide clients. If you are able to provide them with metrics and a case study after a promotion to help them better understand the value in working with you, then do so. I find that for myself, it has become a collaborative effort between the brands / bloggers / pr / influencers in having open conversation on how we can all together achieve our goals.

    • Thanks so much for your comments, Daniella. It’s great to hear from someone else who gets to see it from all angles.

      What you’re describing here is a truly engaged way of doing business. Unfortunately, pros like you are few and far between. Far too many people are OK with the status quo and giving the client those numbers they think they need.

      I’d love to see more people targeting small-to-medium sized blogs with super-engaged followers rather than always going for blogs with reported higher numbers that lack the kind of engagement needed to make someone purchase a product.

  • Maria

    Yes Stephanie, you are right! Brilliant post! It’s time we get honest! Some agencies are turning us into machines, their clients are looking for numbers instead of true wealth. Who’s to say we can’t get creative with our own path and find or even create a different way for clients. Let’s open windows instead of breathing the same stale air. The problem I find is that not enough people have vision, and are trained to do things in the same manner they were taught somewhere previous.

    I understand the value in creating long lasting partnerships and contacts, but some contact are not always made to last, and if it is forced then the contact can become a ‘favour’ type contact, especially bloggers (I hope I am making sense, and I apologize for the over use of the word ‘contact’). I invited a list of hip hop bloggers for a new record label launch and all of them turned out to write a line about the company hosting the event and were mostly there to enjoy the concert and try to meet the artist. The CEO understood that these bloggers did not help at all and the we needed a different approach and a stronger agreement; Therefore, social media helped but not nearly enough.

    I have to say ‘PR’ has been tainted with different definitions, and it may not always be the client’s fault. Most often PR practitioners are trained to do the same for all their clients. In the minds of big corporations that care about dollar figures, big number always win. It’s a sad truth, I’m hoping innovation, leadership and honesty prevail in our field and it will, because we care about our careers and our values!


    • Thanks, Maria!
      This is definitely a conversation that needs to be had – we’re so much better than reliance on “numbers”. As your experience illustrates, targeting bloggers is not always the right thing to do.

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  • JaimeStein

    Outstanding post, Stephanie. You’ve articulated what I believe many in the PR industry have wanted to say for a while now.

    • Thanks, Jaime! It’s nice to see that other PR/digital folk are in agreement on this. Your cumulative post was fantastic as well πŸ™‚

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  • TOBeautyReviews

    Wow great post! Now I’m not in PR nor am I familiar with how it all works but I have often wondered when I get those generic emails from PR companies or worse when they have nothing to do with my blog content if someone just sold my email address to them and I’m on a list. I would absolutely LOVE to pick your brain about this issue one day πŸ™‚

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