I've been following the debate started by Brian Solis about "social media press releases" and other forms of doing PR in a way that both works in a conversational medium and doesn't demean and insult the intelligence of everyone involved. As far as traditional media goes, I suspect none of this matters much--most journalists have long ago figured how to quickly decide if they have any interest in a press release and how best to extract whatever value is in it. The system is no more or less broken than it's always been.
But what about the Long Tail of media--all those new influentials, from the micromedia of Techcrunch and Gizmodo to individual bloggers? And the social news aggregators like Digg and our own Reddit? They're where the most powerful sort of marketing--word of mouth--starts, but most of them don't want to hear from a PR person at all. Blogging is all about authenticity and the individual voice, not paid spin. Many bloggers seem just impedance mismatched with the preternaturally positive PR professionals, and woe to the flack who's busted trying to game Digg without revealing that they're paid to do so.
So now imagine that you're one of those PR professionals. What do you do? Stick with the world you know, and continue calling and emailing releases to the traditional press (trying not to notice that their ranks are shrinking and influence waning)? Start spamming bloggers, too, and hope for the best? Or just treat alpha bloggers like traditional press and shower them with love, while ignoring the rest?
I've seen all three of those paths taken, some of them even with modest success. Despite the culture mismatch, there certainly are plenty of bloggers who actually don't mind hearing from a PR person, as long as it's in the form of a personal email or comment that reflects that the flack actually reads the blog and gets what it's about. And companies such as Microsoft and Sun are now shifting their PR strategy to give special attention to influential bloggers, inviting them to private briefings and giving them early looks at new products.
But fundamentally social media is a peer-to-peer medium; bloggers would rather hear from someone doing something cool than from the paid promotional representative for that person. The problem is that the people doing that cool stuff are busy, which is why they pay PR people to do the outreach for them in the first place.
I wonder whether the solution to this is to evolve the role of PR from external relations to internal relations, from communications to coaching employees on how to effectively do the outreach themselves. Take Microsoft's 3,000 bloggers who are, for many of us, a welcome substitute for Microsoft PR. Internal project managers like Major Nelson of the Xbox 360 team are a trusted and timely source of information, and have largely replaced the formal press release with blog posts. He and other Microsoft bloggers like him are part of a transparency movement that grew out of the company's developer relations team, but it could have just as easily been driven by an enlightened PR team.
Here's a start at a curriculum for such in-house social media coaching:
- Who's influential in our space (and how we know)
- What/who influences them
- How to get Digged
- Effective blogging
- Using beta-test invite lists as marketing
- The art of begging for links
- Stunts, contests, gimmicks, memes and other link bait.
- Sharing versus oversharing. How to know when what you're doing is ready to talk about.
UPDATE: I've been chatting with some magazine people about how this would apply to our own industry's PR. Here's what I said:
Having just come from running a Sundance panel on how to use social media to get buzz for independent films, I can say that there's no substitute for plain old hustling. The filmmakers hate to hear this, because once upon a time you could sell the idea to one exec at a big distributor or studio and their marketing team would take it from there, allowing you to get back to what you love--making movies. But those days are gone, and now the creatives have to be salesmen, too.
I suspect the same is increasingly true for a creative industry like our own. While the traditional press still matters, it's only half the game. And the best people to be getting blog buzz on stories are the writers and editors themselves, even if they consider such self-promotion unseemly.
All bloggers know that the way to get links is to engage in the secret underground economy of sucking up to bloggers with higher Technorati rank than you. Each post is accompanied by personal emails to people who might be interested, ideally referencing their own posts on similar themes. I do it and other bloggers do it to me. It's just part of effective blogging. There's a protocol to such hustling, and some do it better than others, but it strikes me that learning and teaching this culture could be a big part of PR 2.0.
(cliched image of perky PR chick emailing some hapless reporter taken from Brian Solis' original post; crude rejection sign added by me)