Open letter to PR agencies: It doesn't have to be that way, you know…

Recently, there has been a rise in the number of press releases I’ve received, an observation many bloggers around me have confirmed. But these PR emails are accompanied by intros as uncomfortable as the teenage “Will you go on a date with me? Yes/No” scribbled by the nerdy girl who sat next to you in geography class.

Nerdy Nancy wants to go on a dateRanging from impersonal emails to borderline harassment calls and Facebook messages, there just seems to be a plague of poorly thought-out attempts at exploiting the circles of bloggers who are gaining influence in the media by the day.

According to Forrester Research, the general public doesn’t seem to trust us bloggers just yet, and might think we’re still total nerds, but it doesn’t matter, PR agencies have got a total crush on us.

So this is my open letter to all PR agencies we have had the (dis)pleasure of dealing with recently.

“Dear PR agency guys & gals,

We’re all very flattered that you fancy us now that we’ve gone from being viewed as the losers who spend too much time on their computers to being the cool kids with influence. We appreciate it’s difficult to accept that bloggers were never in the curriculum in your marketing theory classes, and that you feel the need to poke us with a stick while observing us from a distance, like you’re the Steve Irwin of public relations and we’re a wounded python. But I’ll let you in on a secret: We’re actually really quite normal. And we don’t even mind being treated that way.

I won’t be pointing fingers and naming names today, but I’ll use a few examples to illustrate where you unnecessarily complicated your own lives recently. If you recognise yourself, feel free to either take it as a call to action to review the way things are done, or roll your eyes and mutter that I’m an idiot. Don’t worry, I’ve got thick skin. But if you choose to do the latter, I may just name and shame you next time you stick your foot in stinky cow dung.

Exhibit A: The Lazy Approach

“Hi,

Please see below for news on this weeks launch of the [Product Name], which I thought would be of interest for the blog.

Let me know if you need any more info.

Thanks,

R”

Now, not only did I not give permission to R’s agency to email me, but R here failed to call me by my name (it’s in my email address, can’t miss it), use my blog’s name (also in my email address) and didn’t notice that I’d already reviewed the viral campaign for the product they’re pawning. Already, 3 strikes, you should be out.

Below that dull message is an equally dull press release, using 3 different fonts and sizes, a LOT of ® characters, no real call to action, no freebies/samples offered and a link to an entirely Flash-based website with no HTML alternative. What the hell good is all that tripe when I’m on my iPhone?

Honestly how this PR agency received two PR Consultancy/Agency of the year is beyond me.

Exhibit B: The psychopath

Blogger pal receives mail from PR agency who wants them to show up at a product launch in exchange for a measly fee and liveblog the event like it’s the Spice Girls’ reunion tour. Blogger takes offense (rightly so) at the suggestion that his readership can be bought for the price of a cheap pair of shoes and chooses to ignore PR agency.

PR agency follows up deluge of pushy emails with “Email broken – Msg me your phone #. Love facebook!” via social networks. Next thing you know, they’ll be outside knocking at the window as he gets out the shower.

Creepy. Not good. Sometimes, the non-verbal signal should be enough to tell you to back off.

Exhibit C: The foreign agency

“Hi,

Hope you would forgive the intrusion.

We have been working on this for a couple of months now and are NOW live. Allow me to present Plooshh [name changed for anonymity] – why the extra ‘h’? We think it’s sexy! We think it gives you an extra H – oops, ‘extra EDGE’ we mean. :)”

And it continues on for two full screens worth of awkwardly friendly banter, filled with bright coloured large fonts, caps-lock sentences and extraneous exclamation marks. The English flip-flops between too formal and chat-speak, a bit rough ’round the edges yet endearing.

Exhibit C is the product of an Indian agency jumping head-first into Web 2.0. Nothing wrong with their pitch, everything strikes me as being done textbook-style, ticking every box. But it’s soulless. Again, there’s no attempt to get to know the bloggers they approach, opting for a scattergun mail-out. Throw enough stuff at the wall, something’s bound to stick.

While this wasn’t a particularly thrilling email, I suspect that once these guys catch on to the nuances of public relations in the new media age, their willingness and motivation might allow them to overtake many Western agencies who otherwise had a headstart in the game.

Jury’s Verdict:

Toilet cat is guilty! PR agencies are too!While a few PR agencies have embraced social media and are actively engaging with the communities their clients have an interest in, most have totally blown it so far. They’re as guilty of carelessness as this cat is of drinking out of the toilet bowl.

But hope is not lost. Assuming said agency is willing to put some elbow grease into their day’s work, I dare say there is a huge amount of potential for a beautiful relationship to blossom between PR people and bloggers.

So dear PR guys and gals, behave in a natural and human way; you’ll resonate emotionally with us. Emotional resonance is invaluable; we feel that we can become friends and are far more willing to listen to you, even when the product you’re pitching isn’t 100% on target.

I appreciate that we are the means to an end, helping you reach the (sometimes unrealistic) targets set by your client, but remember that we’re all human – yes, even us weirdo bloggers – so treat others as you would like to be treated and we’ll be more than happy to give you a hand.

In Summary

Your future cheat-sheet.

Do…

  • Have a Twitter account or personal blog where we can find out about the real you.
  • Have a product geek or evangelist we can speak to and quiz without getting the canned marketing answers (Carphone Warehouse and O2, I’m looking at you, guys. You could have definitely done with a public-facing real-person on the days surrounding the iPhone launch.)
  • Participate in events in an altruistic way every so often. We’ll get to know each other, and it’s bound to be good for your karma.
  • Put some chili in your cornflakes; By that, I mean, have genuine energy and passion about your client’s product. If you don’t get up in the morning loving your job, maybe you need to find something else to do.

Don’t…

  • Try to buy our participation to your event. Telling me you’ll pay £150 to show up on Thursday morning with a video camera for a “secret launch” isn’t social media, it’s cheap labour and fake hype.
  • Send us a stock press release with an intro that betrays you’ve never even looked at our blogs
  • Always play it so safe that we’d rather read the back of the cereal packet than your press release. Have some balls, and hey, have some fun!
  • Don’t run with scissors Be afraid of asking a couple of bloggers for a pint to bounce some ideas. Most of them will be happy to help you out!

I’d love to hear what PR agencies or other bloggers would like to add to this. How’s your PR-to-blogger relationship going?

With much love & geekery,
Vero”

An engaged community is an invaluable resource

The Big Knit, by Innocent DrinksWhen designing a new site feature or planning a new campaign, I always create with a rule of thumb in mind: “Lower cognitive friction and make it as effortless as possible for the user to participate.” Less fields in the signup form, less clicks to a destination, a better FAQ page…

Then I heard Ted Hunt from Innocent Drinks, during Fuel Conference on Friday, who talked about the +400,000 hats that were knitted during The Big Knit campaign for the Age Concern charity.

Knitting. Four hundred thousand hats.

Nobody’s getting paid to do this, and some participants even learned to knit specifically for the occasion. That’s when it struck me; far more important than reducing friction to participation is engaging the community so that they’re willing to do something crazy – like knitting hats – to support your cause.

Gary Vaynerchuk: Tech World 2008 = Hip Hop 1985

Gary Vaynerchuk, for those who don’t yet know him, is the guy behind, in front and all around Wine Library TV. He’s a raving looney, a totally loveable geek but most of all, a rough diamond of community relations amongst the world of overly polished marketing bullshit. He says things as they are and has marked me enough during SXSWi this year that I’ve got a couple of things he’s said up on my board of inspirational quotes in the office. (Thank you Gary, genuinely!)

He also agreed with me that making your own wine is a bad idea, mmmkay dad?

PS – I want my own WLTV sweatband bracelet thinger!

Hippie 2.0: Reflecting upon SXSW 2008

South by SouthWest is over. Well, the interactive bit is anyways. Music is clearly still going strong, as I witnessed walking down 6th Street and lucking out on seeing Simian Mobile Disco at La Zona Rosa with a few of the geeks still left in town.

Reflecting upon the past week, it’s comforting to see a clear sense of community amongst the geeks. Topics that kept reoccurring were ones of social capital, change and collaboration. The jaded half of me couldn’t help but snicker. Is this hippie 2.0* or something?

Don’t get me wrong, I find this “Let’s hug, love and help each other” attitude immensely endearing and refreshing, but I can’t help but be tickled by some of the more naive ideas that were exchanged over the course of the week. Not every single one of our ideas will live on past the panels, not every one of our harebrained startup ideas will become the next Facebook and not every suggestion is revolutionary. But it doesn’t matter, it’s motivating to be surrounded by people with faith in their ideas and seemingly endless energy to turn them into reality.

So if it’s up to me, I’ll be attending SXSWi again next year. The panels may not all have been oh-so-fabulous, but regardless, meeting so many new people is an injection of energy, if nothing else.

I now need to somehow make sense of this creative energy and communicate it to my team at work. I’m not sure I can express it in words. Maybe I need a Kumbaya 2.0 to express my feelings?

[* I seemingly didn’t coin the word, as it comes up on the Interweb in a different context, but I think it’s terribly fitting here as well.]

Death by social networking

Jaiku, Twitter, Digg, Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, YouTube x2 accounts, Revver, Metacafe, reddit, 43places, del.icio.us, ma.gnolia, Vox, Tipped, Dopplr, Fuelmyblog, Stumbleupon, Pownce, Squidoo, TripIt, LinkedIn, Upcoming, Mybloglog, Technorati and probably more I can’t think of right now…

Just a few of the social networks I frequent more or less regularly. Scary to think how much competition there is for our already limited time.

FOWA: Some evening fun with Diggnation

After a number of interesting panels in the day, it was time for beers and Diggnation.

Think of being 10 years old and looking up to your biggest, most favourite music star. Now imagine the excitement if you were told you’d get to meet them. That’s how I felt yesterday.


Vero & Alex @ Diggnation live in London

I filmed a good part of the live Diggnation show (which I’ll put online tonight), but then the guys bravely took on the mobs of 16 year olds and joined the Carsonified party at the Excel pub. Once the crowds went home, only a few people were left. But surprise, while Kevin buggered off to the hotel, Alex and the Totally Rad Show guys stayed for some drinks! Having a chat with them, they’re just as lovely as I’d hoped.

If this kind of event and show format is the future of TV, I’m going to feel right at home.