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.