Shit is Still Shit No Matter How You Dress It

Charging BullOkay, that’s a pretty bold title, and it may put some folk off, but sometimes you have no other way of saying something without diluting it.

I was watching a conversation unfold on Twitter the other evening about public relations, and why a lot of the PR industry is in disarray.

While the “bloggers and journalists don’t like us” line was shared a few times, one of the points that came up a lot was that the industry is still seen by many as being one full of shillers.

Heck, the only industry that seems to get less favorable attention is that of social media consultants…

But to be fair, much of PR only has itself to blame (and I say this as someone with a PR background). I’ve come across way too many agency and corporate PR owners who think the sun shines out their arse. If something goes wrong, it’s often a case of blaming the intern or junior account executive. Then there are the senior executives that take the great ideas of the juniors, or interns, and pass it off as their own so they can climb the corporate ladder.

And don’t even get me started on the PR folk that still think spam is a cold meat for sandwiches, and it’s okay to throw regular regurgitated dross into your Inbox and try and pass it off as a pitch or contact. Seriously guys, I’m tempted to gather a month’s worth of junk mail and stuff it through your letterbox – it’s a similar effect.

Of course, not everyone is like this. You have great folks like Dave Fleet, Rachel Kay, Dave Mullen, Heather Whaling, Matt Batt , Arik Hanson and many more doing brilliant stuff for the PR industry. And then you have a generation-in-waiting with Sasha Muradali, Ryan Stephens, Lauren Fernandez, Stuart Foster and others leading the way for Gen Y.

But still the great work that these guys do is being diluted by the craptastic approach of others. So here’s an idea.

The next time you see a crappy PR pitch or email, challenge the sender. Ask why they sent it, and do they really think that passes as good PR. Same goes for a tweet, or blog post – question people. Don’t be aggressive about it; simply ask why they feel that approach works. Have alternative suggestions as well (nothing worse than criticizing and not having some kind of alternative).

Ask if they have any idea why you weren’t taken with the pitch. If they say, “Wrong subject matter” or similar, at least you know they’ve done their job a little bit when it comes to researching the target (you). If they have no idea why you’re disappointed, explain why and see if they can understand why your way might be better.

If it’s a junior or intern that’s sending out the various pieces of communication, find out who’s above them and challenge them – let’s not attach blame to innocent targets.

It might not change the PR industry immediately – heck, it might not change it at all. After all, like the post title mentions, shit is still shit no matter how you dress it up. And some folk just don’t take to new dress codes.

But if we can collectively change just one mindset and then work from there… Well, that’s got to be worth our time, no?

Creative Commons License photo credit: Christopher Chan

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  1. ryanstephens October 13, 2009 at 10:40 pm

    I suspect part of the problem is digital makes it significantly easier to spread shit than ever before. With an easier cost of entrance more people feel compelled to give it a go without first taking the responsibility to educate themselves on how to make an appropriate pitch, etc.

    The people you've mentioned, save Stu (I'm kidding Stu!), are great examples of people doing PR right.

    I think challenging the garbage is a good start. Maybe it will resonate with some, though I suspect most are oblivious. I often have fun giving telesales people a hard time. I tell them to call back and try something better.

    Justin Kownacki and others have taken to flat out calling out the sleazy social media consultants. Is that what it will invariably have to come to with PR? Is that even the answer? If we ignore it will it start to go away?

    I don't want anyone praying on those that don't know any better, but me, I like that there's so much incompetence out there right now. At some point I feel like they'll get frustrated with shoddy results and lend way to the people that have been doing it right, that have been providing results.

    • Danny Brown October 14, 2009 at 9:25 pm

      I think it can be a double-edged sword, Ryan. Yep, it'd be great if we could ignore and eventually the bad professionals (in any agency) would disappear. But it's clear that doesn't happen, and there will always be someone around that “falls” for poor service and agencies/businesses before they realize what they've done.

      Perhaps really bad ones do need calling out; but then that could also be an issue, if it's down to personal opinion as opposed to actual bad practice…

  2. CTK1 October 13, 2009 at 11:16 pm

    I've had a lot of dealings with PR people and in general they tend to be crappy copywriters. I'm not sure how some of them get into their line of work. Perhaps on the phone they score. In my experience, phonings have been their strong suit, but some snore at that too.
    Why do piss poor people in any field, get hired?

    Maybe I'm weird on this, but I don't care if their approach works or not. If they suck, I hope they get fired so someone talented can replace them. If they get fired and then lose their homes that would be awful. I hope it doesn't go that far. Before it becomes “tragic” perhaps they can study from the greats and pick up a few pointers. Thus they can keep the house.

    • Danny Brown October 14, 2009 at 9:27 pm

      Perhaps that comes down to training (or lack of). True, there are some folk that are just naturally gifted writers, but for others less “fortunate” maybe it's time for a far stronger focus on writing and story-telling skills at accreditation centers and in-house?

      • CTK1 October 14, 2009 at 9:43 pm

        Sure but it's curious that someone could snag a gig they're not good at. I realize it happens often, however, I'm perpetually befuddled by it. But we have to account for the in-person and the phone aspects of the job as well and some score high marks in those areas. Either way, why should we tell strangers how to do their job better? Friends and close associates, yes, but strangers? Honestly I'd much prefer someone unqualified to lose their job to make room for someone knew with a clue. And I don't think that's a negative wish. It's survival of the fittest. Not handing out free crutches to people who can already walk but don't bother to stop tripping.

        • Danny Brown October 14, 2009 at 10:11 pm

          I see your point. Yet don't we all start somewhere and build our experience (or at least, should, in order to grow? If it's a mid to high-level position, then yes there needs to be accountability from the off. But if it's an intern or junior learning the ropes, they need to learn the skills needed and that comes from above. Unless that's what you mean?

          With regards telling strangers how to do their jobs, if they're contacting me because they want something from me on their (and their client's) behalf, they should expect me to challenge if they mess up. It's not so much “telling” as asking and trying to explain why that approach didn't work. And I'm sure they'd appreciate it more if it helps them keep their job as opposed to losing it 😉

          • CTK1 October 14, 2009 at 11:09 pm

            If they contact you and want something from you, but go about it in a way that would never interest you and then you explain why, will you then take what they originally offered? Or do you mean you'll help them understand why the pitch was bad and hope they improve and perhaps come back “to you” later? How would we know if someone is a Jr. or an intern? Is this something people reveal in contact to you? Either way, I have all the time in the world for friends and close associates, but can't imagine extending that same care to strangers who want things from me.

            Yet again, my wish is for the people who actually deserve the job, even if it's an intern. But I understand mostly what you're driving at. And I admire people who have that kind of time to articulate to someone they don't know, what it is they could be doing better.

            • Danny Brown October 16, 2009 at 8:48 am

              If the pitch isn't for me (as in topic or subject matter), I'd never take it. I'd still suggest to whomever sent it that for future reference (even if it's not me but another blogger or media outlet), they check their details first. It'll save them rejection and (hopefully) help them build a better relationship with the kind of folks that can help them tell their stories.

              I guess it's just from seeing so many bad pitches and knowing that it would take just one or two minor changes in approach, and loving the industry I work in.

  3. GreenStar October 14, 2009 at 12:26 am

    I think the title fits perfect and I honestly think that a more open, honest writing system like this would kick ass :) If you cuss in your regular every day conversations, why not let some of that personality leak over into your online presence as well :)

    About the article, I agree 100%. I think the whole idea that you need to mention when you're saying nice things because you got something for it rule actually makes sense and anyone with any type of credibility should have been doing this to begin with anyways.

    I love your blog Danny and I will continue reading, no matter how many cuss words you put in the titles :) haha

    • Danny Brown October 14, 2009 at 9:30 pm

      Hey there Rob, cheers fella. I was toying with not going with the title, but what the hey – there are worse things in the world. 😉

      I wish more folk would really congratulate the great stuff and highlight the poor – too many just highlight the poor because it's an easy target. But maybe if we also started showing off who's doing things right (individuals and companies) it might just gain enough traction to make poor examples sit up and take notice. We can but hope…

  4. Maria Reyes-McDavis October 14, 2009 at 12:49 am

    As usual, saying it like it is. I think this entire post applies to any industry… if you have the time to complain, you should find the time to pitch in to help adjust mindsets and call out those you complain about in secret. You're right it might not help move an entire industry, but then again it just might… Great post :-)

  5. johnhaydon October 14, 2009 at 6:52 am

    Danny – I'm no PR expert, but I think this small piece of advice, if made a regular habit by most bloggers, could improve PR for everyone:

    “The next time you see a crappy PR pitch or email, challenge the sender. Ask why they sent it, and do they really think that passes as good PR. Same goes for a tweet, or blog post – question people. Don’t be aggressive about it; simply ask why they feel that approach works.”

    That's my takeaway.

  6. Justin Parks October 14, 2009 at 7:47 am

    What's wrong with the title? If you and I discussed this in the pub back home (Scotland or Ireland) I reckon that's exactly how the conversation would start out…and would continue with a few more explicative and highly descriptive phrases thrown in along the way. :)

    “Heck, the only industry that seems to get less favorable attention is that of social media consultants…”

    Tell me about it. I struggle with this every day but after ten years doing web design and SEO and working on the front end presentation and client consultation side, social media become the love of my live and suited my skill set perfectly.

    Then I find that every man and their dog is a “social media consultant” or even worse, a “social media expert” and I have to contend with differentiating myself, or basically proving myself, again and again and again. I listen to and study a lot of the advice out there and it makes me cringe as the ideas are regurgitated and the “sheep” syndrome sets in. Bandwagon, for the win!

    “The next time you see a crappy PR pitch or email, challenge the sender. Ask why they sent it, and do they really think that passes as good PR. Same goes for a tweet, or blog post – question people. Don’t be aggressive about it; simply ask why they feel that approach works.”

    I totally agree. If they sender is in any way intelligent they will value that feedback as if it where the long lost map to the long lost city of gold preventing them from becoming the long lost business. Why? Because it is the map.

    • Danny Brown October 14, 2009 at 9:45 pm

      It's weird how certain complementary industries seem to follow each other's paths. You mention SEO – because of blackhat and free SEO tools, most folks either get a bad rep from association, or told that SEO's easy and there's no real skill involved, so why pay the premium. Yet it's a lot more than just some meta-tags and choice keywords; SEO (solid SEO) goes a lot deeper and longer-term than an initial Google gain.

      So you get the crap spoiling it for the rest and tarring by association again – plus ca change 😉

  7. laurenfernandez October 14, 2009 at 8:45 am

    If TGI Fridays can say kickass in a press release, why can't you use that title? (And this coming from someone who starred the word in a blog post :P)

    I think PR has molded a stereotype, and it's one that's hard to break. Some contribute to it, many don't. The thing is, once a habit is formed, it's passed down. Editors tell the newbies about their horror PR stories, just like people tell me about journalists. We are almost “competing” in the same space when we should be working together. I once had a journalist tell me “90 percent of my stories come from PR people, but I complain about them 100 percent of the time.”

    I like your ideas of challenging the sender – but I wonder if Web sites and databases need better upkeep, or it should be taken into consideration that many beat reporters now cover a vast variety of them? With this economy, can we always hit the right person? It might have been them yesterday, but someone else today. Pitching is so hit and miss sometimes!

    • Danny Brown October 14, 2009 at 9:48 pm

      That's a good point you raise there Lauren – some of it can come down to the fact that sites and contact points aren't up-to-date. Then again, a quick intro email to a generic could garner that info. Or, Heaven forbid, a simple telephone call to make sure you're sending to the right person in the first place… 😉

      • laurenfernandez October 15, 2009 at 9:12 am

        I totally agree with you. I research contacts, even if it's for a national campaign and there are a ton of them. But just to play devil's advocate a bit….

        Should it only be the responsibility of the PR person? Is it the most efficient way to pay for a service, but then have to research every single contact? Are we spending too much time doing that, when it could be a collaborative effort?

        • Danny Brown October 16, 2009 at 8:53 am

          Nope, I think if you're going to complain about someone's approach, you need to make sure that all your info is up-to-date. Have a section on your About page that has “PR Contact” or something. It works both ways for sure, although I'd still say that more onus is on the PR agency, as they want more from you than vice versa. :)

  8. jacstar October 14, 2009 at 8:55 am

    i'd hate for their only response to be “well it worked, it got you to respond”

    well if your objective was pissing me off, then success

  9. Narciso17 October 14, 2009 at 10:04 am

    There will never be a way to truly end TOTAL BS in PR…HOWEVER, calling ourselves out in this way is a good step torwards BS annihilation. We just gotta keep chipping away at our own
    * EGOS

    And Bring It – Day-in-and-Day-Out! Here's to Danny – one fella that always seems to bring it…and bring it in spades!

  10. Sasha H. Muradali October 14, 2009 at 11:55 am

    Hey there Mr. Brown :)

    1) Thanks for the shout-out! Let's not forget you too, are leading the way.

    2) I completely agree with you. I was at an event last night and I was frustrated because some of these “PR Experts” and “Social Media gurus” were on the wrong track about social media and public relations.

    I was semi-stunned, though I shouldn't have been at all. One person, got under my skin in particular, because though being the “Social Media Account Executive” for her/his firm, this person was under the impression that social media meant reading the online papers, Facebooking and being on Twitter…ONLY.

    Interestingly, enough, none of the folks last night could boast over 500 followers, though they've been on Twitter for months. They have MORE following that's followers and from the words seeping through their lips I simply thought, “Goodness, my industry is in trouble.”

    And that's why I think we as people in the “know” or in the “trying to know” (as social media is a changing and developing platform) — we need to, like you said, challenge those who do not know, but also educate.

    It's so important to stay conscious of the all the points you listed, because if we don't…eventually, we'll get lost. And THAT, would be truly sad indeed. Not only for us, but for our industry as well.

    Excellent post, Danny! Well said! :)

    • Danny Brown October 14, 2009 at 9:59 pm

      I guess one of the main issues is that there's not really a roadmap to what constitutes great social media use in PR. There are plenty of ideas and examples, but they're not generic cross-industry ones (as well they shouldn't be). Of course, that comes down to education and help and working together – but as Narciso above mentioned, that involves leaving egos at the door. And there are a lot of egos in the PR industry…

  11. davinabrewer October 14, 2009 at 3:06 pm

    Crap is crap, no way around it. Busy journalists and writers don’t have time to sift through all the good, on-target pitches much less the spammy garbage.

    That said, are we talking about bad pitches, or bad stories? A crappy pitch can put a writer off a good story, but even the best PR pitch probably won’t save a shitty one.

    News is subjective. I read stories all the time and think “That’s news? That makes the Big Media Outlet business section?” So if I read those, and my clients read those, then it’s that much more important that I work with them to develop better stories, which helps me develop better pitches, better target the right media.

    • Danny Brown October 14, 2009 at 10:02 pm

      Mostly just bad PR practices – that can be the pitching, the storytelling (or lack of), the education, the training… I've heard a lot of PR pro's complain that they don't have enough hours in the day, so that can result in less than perfect approaches. But guess what? Everyone's in the same boat – if you make someone else's life as counter-productive through bad practices, no-one wins. Work on improving and working through it together, listening to feedback and honing your skills – well, then, we might just be getting somewhere 😉

  12. FrankReed October 14, 2009 at 11:19 pm

    Amazing isn't it how people look confused as to how they should use any social media outlet. The idea of throwing everything up against the wall to see what will stick is like cold calling in sales. Sure you'll get some activity but only from the application of the law of large numbers. What isn't seen is the damage done where good people are turned off to your 'pitch' and you may never know the damage you did.

    All in all, people look for the easy way out, plain and simple. Those who do that in PR, marketing, sales or any business discipline will reap what they sow.

    Great work as always, Mr. Brown. Keep the s&^* coming!

    • Danny Brown October 16, 2009 at 8:54 am

      Too true Frank, and that can be equated to offline as well. Sure, like you say, throw enough of something and it might stick – but it depends on the surface you're throwing it at. And increasingly, these surfaces are getting ever more resistant and non-sticky. :)

  13. tessacarroll October 16, 2009 at 10:29 am

    As someone who is still relatively new to the PR industry, I work very hard to craft pitches that I think are going to catch the attention of the target. When they don't work, well, that's a little disheartening sometimes. I would love to have someone challenge me the way you suggest here, Danny. Sometimes researching your target thoroughly and agonizing over a certain pitch just isn't enough. Sometimes you need information or insight that only the person on the receiving end can offer. I know many PR people who would feel the same way.

    Tessa Carroll
    VBP OutSourcing

    • Danny Brown October 16, 2009 at 11:59 am

      Hey there Tessa,

      I wonder if it's something that could be like an email signature or footer option from the sender? Something along the lines of “I really want to make sure this is the right kind of approach for you; please feel free to let me know how this measures up” or similar? Could be that just these few words might open up a world of difference in collaboration?

      Great to have you in the industry – hope it's as enjoyable as you want it to be!

  14. edwardboches October 18, 2009 at 2:17 pm

    Astonishing to me that this is still a conversation. If there really are PR people who still don't get it they should either take down the shingle or just roll up and die. WTF? It can't be any more obvious that conversation, engagement, authenticity, access, honesty define the process. It ain't that hard. Then again, I just heard of a pitch where the social agencies all presented metrics and none of the traditional agencies offered any measurement at all. There seems to be a post a week about this subject. All true but if those who need aren't changing, why even bother talking to them. Save your breath and effort for more important stuff. Always a pleasure to stop by here.

    • Danny Brown October 18, 2009 at 4:11 pm

      It's definitely getting to the stage that you just don't want to “help” anymore, Ed. Like you say (and others here, including @CTK1), should we still be trying to help those that don't want it? I'd like to remain optimistic that people can change, but it's becoming increasingly unlikely. Hey ho…

      And always happy to point out those doing great stuff, and you guys at Mullen are regulars in any of these mentions – nice job, sir!

  15. edwardboches October 18, 2009 at 2:18 pm

    Ooops, have to mention also that it's great to see you give props to two of my guys, David Mullen and Stuart Foster. Great to hear stuff like that.

  16. David Mullen October 22, 2009 at 11:24 pm

    Thanks for the nod, Danny. Appreciate that!

    Nothing wrong with that title. A fact is a fact. You can polish a sneaker all you want, but it's still a sneaker.

  17. rachelakay October 30, 2009 at 2:16 pm

    I'm sort of late to game on this Danny, but I hadn't seen this post before. I won't regurgitate the good points made here, but I wanted to chime in and say I am doing my part. I actually received a highly targeted, spam press release several weeks ago. Perhaps I was feeling edgy (like you were when you wrote this post :)) but I responded back asking why on earth I would be added to a list like that because I'm not a journalist (aside from my blogging but this was unrelated) and explaining that their actions are doing nothing to elevate our profession. They responded with an apology, and promised to remove me as well as any other PR people from the list. Not perfect, but hopefully it was an eye opener. It doesn't feel good when one of your peers calls you out.

    • Danny Brown October 31, 2009 at 10:07 am

      Me, edgy? Perish the thought… 😉

      I'm not surprised you did this, Rach – one of the reasons I recommend you whenever someone asks about PR pros and agencies doing great stuff. :)

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