Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Mommy Elephant in the room? Not so much.

A good pitch: the PR agency for Kuhn Rikon KinderKitchen (cooking tools for kids) contacted me after I reviewed a local kids' cooking class. They'd like to send some samples for a review. "Would you mind donating them for a fundraiser?" I asked. They agreed and sent the above amazing basket for a school fundraiser. It was one of the most popular and hotly bid upon items. They got credit in the flyer for the event, and displayed their great products in-person to hundreds of parents. Of course I wrote a blog post about it, too. The winner of the basket was ecstatic, and more word of mouth for the product. I know personally of quite a few sales, just from this one effort. That's some bueno PR and I applaud Katrina of Field & Associates PR who set it up. She represented her client well and beneficially.

I read a disturbing post Monday from a partner at a PR firm, "The Mommy Elephant in the room."

This post was pushback from a PR firm partner angered when a mom blogger pushed back publicly on her blog about a pitch.

I agree with the concept that we need to get things worked out between mom bloggers and promotional agencies. I agree with the idea we need to nail down some general Good Guidelines for people to consider, and communicate the ethics and FTC regulations involved. I agree that good dialogue is necessary.

I prefer to do it more constructively, though. I like how Liz and Susan are opening up the conversation and keeping it going, and I think firms and agencies that have questions could really benefit from reading their main points. I also like to (at times) post really, really good pitches as an example of how to do it.

So where did all of this come from?

Just in case you were sleeping the last couple of years or were otherwise engaged in non-blogging activities or other outside priorities, here's a brief history of the mom blog world:
  • Moms started blogging
  • Mom blogs became popular and influential
  • PR firms (among others) had a lightbulb go on overhead
  • PR firms (among others) said, "Wow, mom blogs are awesome, what a great way to reach our market!"
  • PR firms (among others) started reaching out to moms and moms were initially flattered and frequently interested
  • As is typical with the start of things, this was the start of a beautiful friendship
  • As is sadly typical of a lot of friendships, this went south
  • PR firms (among others) were sometimes way less than professional with mom bloggers (I'll get into what this means later in the post)
  • Some bloggers got very promote-y, to the dismay of their readers. They got push back from unhappy readers who missed true blog content when their blog or blogs in general got overtaken by reviews, promotional editorial content, and similar
  • Bloggers and readers began discussing openly the ethics involved in promotional posts
  • Bloggers, some, became inundated with pitches from PR firms and others
  • Some bloggers began pushing back
  • The FTC got involved
  • Some smart bloggers launched Blog With Integrity
  • A large number of bloggers joined that effort
  • More discussion ensued
  • Some moods towards PR forms (among others) turned a little ugly
  • Pushback got more aggressive
  • Some firms were publicly chastised
  • Now, a PR firm has pushed back
In the last year, despite my own profession in communications (or maybe because of it), I've become increasingly annoyed by some pitches I've received. I've kvetched about some bad ones, publicly.

What has annoyed me about pitches (and I don't think I'm unique) (also, this is the "how PR firms have been less than professional with bloggers" comment I alluded to in my history list):
  • being called the wrong name, especially when my name is also the name of my blog
  • being pitched something completely inappropriate for my blog or my usual topics
  • the assumption that "providing me content ideas" is not only fair compensation, but in fact a favor (it's not, I never lack for content, and, as a blog versus a subscription based publication, my readers don't seek promotional editorial content from me. If you offered me time, then that would be talking.)
  • feeling like a shrimp caught in a net trolling for crab (in other words, just a random name plugged into a mass email outreach) (which totally misses the entire purpose and power of social media)
  • being asked for a huge time, and sometimes monetary, investment. For example...If you ask me to run a contest, that takes a huge amount of planning, promotion, time, and effort on my part. If you offer me a giveaway, it costs me to go to to a shipping service and send it to a reader. I did this once. It sounded So Fun and the product was a good fit. I had no experience running a contest off my blog four years ago, and got no guidelines or support from the agency. I admit I ran it very badly indeed. I learned a lot from it, so it's not pure regret, but I swore no more contests. Also? The shipping? Cost me over $30. And that wasn't the only cost. I never even got a thanks from the agency.
  • seeing the assumption that I'm in this for the free stuff, especially if I request a product. In all sincerity, how in the world can anyone expect me to review a product that I've never used or don't have, if it's new, or to expend my time and money to go buy a product and review it. No, a discount coupon is not adequate, especially if it is something I'd probably not buy on my own anyway. I am a small business owner and I understand the cost involved in sending samples. When I published a children's autism book (which cost me $10 per piece to print) I cringed a little each time I sent a free book, but I understood it was the cost involved if I hoped for reviews or promotion. I was therefore very selective in choosing who I sent it to, and made sure it was the right person. Thus, instead of blanketing hundreds of people, I contacted ten. Ten right people. Without spending a dime on advertising, and costing only the per piece cost, I sold out the first print run of the book.
  • hitting an unrealistic deadline schedule from people asking me to help them promote their client or client's product. I have contacted people who pitch something that interests me and is a good fit. I have on some occasions then encountered daily pings from these folks wondering when I'm going to get that post up.
So what are PR agencies to do? I agree it's a complicated world.

To help out on my end, as many bloggers have done, I posted right in the main sidebar of my blog a policy about how I work. The content of my blog makes it clear quickly the genre I work within. When I receive queries and pitches, I have a standard reply that is often an appropriate response. It states my rates and conditions, as well as what I will do. Other times, I send a special reply. I have only rarely asked to be removed from the list because in my opinion, it's better to keep lines of communication open. Offer A might not be a fit, but Offer B might be. I find no purpose or solution in cutting off the relationship (unless it is truly egregious, and I honestly can't think of a time that has happened off the top of my head).

I have shared my boilerplate policy text with other bloggers freely, encouraging them to use it as is or tweak it to work for them and then post it.

In the end, I've formed positive productive working relationships with quite a few promotion agencies. These places are filled with positive people who work professionally and well. i have a lot of respect for them.

People who commented that the commenters offered no constructive ideas, including the PR partner who originally wrote the post, weren't reading the comments very carefully, in my humble opinion. Many, many commenters offered big nuggets of gold information and ideas.

If you read carefully, you can find out how to best interact, approach and work with bloggers for promotional opportunities. It make require reframing your own thoughts of approaches to working with bloggers, but in my opinion, that's called constructive perspective taking and leads to better interactions and more success.

So what are the golden nuggets?

One of my very favorite people in the world summarized it perfectly in her own comment. Deb Rox, with whom I worked on the amazing Tide Loads of Hope project that she and Meagan set up, wrote (and breaking it up and highlighting portions is all me):
The answer to PR reps’ problems with mommybloggers is so easy it drives me crazy that I see pros making the same mistakes time and time again.

I come from both perspectives. I blog, and I work in PR and marketing and as a liaison between bloggers, brands and PR reps.

The disconnect is that there are many types of bloggers. Not all are akin to newspaper or magazines, and most DO NOT NEED stories, traffic or giveaway items from PR.

That fact undoes the holy trinity of “everybody’s happy” with “free” stories.

The game has changed. However, old style pitching is still useful as some bloggers are indeed publishers akin to newspapers and magazines and are interested in those PR-driven stories or giveaway items. They already by and large identify themselves as PR Friendly either by badge or by text, so I don’t think a new badge is needed, and you can also tell by their content and the way they engage with the blogosphere and their readers.

You can tell by building a relationship. So mistakes are usually made by not researching that blogger first, and by not taking time to build a relationship second. If you are at all in doubt, your employees should absolutely query with a brief email–not a pitch for the client, but a request to see if they are interested in general in the type of pitches you send.

Just as simple as the unsubscribe email you mention. Your employee is the paid pro in this exchange. Did she first research that blogger and then chat with her before pulling your client into the exchange that obviously might not be welcome? Doing less is the type of bad communication that bloggers rightfully are offended by, as it breaks major etiquette, and companies should be offended by, if they knew, because they look bad.

If PR companies are confused by the mommyblogger scene, they can also hire insiders or liaisons to help them understand and cultivate relationships.
The problem I found with the defensive post and replies is the underlying presumption that when PR agencies pitch bloggers, they are doing them a favor and bloggers should be flattered. If they aren't the onus is on the blogger to just hit delete or reply with Unsubscribe.

In fact, as Deb said, the onus is on the paid professional to ensure that they are representing the client to the best of their ability by contacting the right people in the right way.

I concede the point that even in doing that, sometimes, the PR pro might hit the right person with the right pitch in the wrong way. Bloggers do need to remain respectful and professional in response.

One time, representing a client, I contacted a blogger. I contacted her personally, after reading at least three archived pages of her blog and ensuring that she did reviews, etc. My pitch wasn't wrong, contacting her wasn't wrong, but she was upset anyway by the pitch. Why? Well, I asked her and opened up a dialogue. She was tired of receiving offers that asked her to leave her kids. Finding childcare was complicated and expensive. I could really relate to that. Very valid and fair point. I couldn't re-do the client's offer for a variety of reasons, but we did talk back and forth a bit. It was a completely useful discussion. I learned to think long and hard, and even recommend for clients, to include entire families when possible. I learned that she didn't want any more "you only" offers. I deeply appreciated her honest and respectful feedback.

It really can be that easy, that simple.

I'd love to hear from my fellow bloggers: what works well for you? What have pitches got right? What improvement can you suggest?

I'd love to hear from PR agencies: what works well for you? What bloggers responses have really helped you improve?

And to reiterate Deb's final and crucial point: if PR firms (among others) are confused, hire an insider.

10 comments:

Dawn said...

This is such a brilliant, clear, summary, Julie. The PR Company in question went off like a loose cannon, amplifying the lack of professionalism they showed with their pitch in the first place.

Busy Mom said...

Thank you for this, it has been on my mind a lot, too.

That exchange was an absurd thing to play out in a public forum.

My take on the topic in general may be too simple (I wrote about it yesterday, as a matter of fact), but if both parties would conduct themselves professionally, the whole thing would be a lot easier.

I don't think there's one magic way to work with each other, there are so many different types of pitches.

Bloggers need to understand that they will get communications that might not fit. Some may even be absurd. It is not typically a person affront.

Companies need to make more of an effort to understand how blogs are different from traditional media and stop seeing them as a gravy train of free publicity.

I wish I knew how to enforce this ;)

Rachel said...

Fantastic Post, Julie.

Table4Five said...

This is a great post. I struggle on a daily basis with emails and replies. It can take me several hours on some days just to go through and send the standard "thanks for contacting me but I'm not available at this time" email. I know the PR person probably sent the email to 100 people and just plugged in the names, but I still feel like I should take a minute to reply.

For the most part, my PR pitches are pretty good. I do delete the "dear blogger" emails. And when PR firms that used to send me "we'd like you to review this" emails start sending me "here's a story idea, tell us when you post it" emails, I politely ask them to remove me from that mailing list.

Somehow, blogs got defined as "internet media" and the assumption seems to be that blogs are online publications looking for new sources of information. I think the PR people should ask FIRST if the blogger wants those kinds of pitches before sending them.

Ed T. said...

While you lay out what is probably the most mature, professional method for handling this, there is nothing quite as fun as reading TheBloggess school yet another clueless PR drone.

~EdT.

Jennifer said...

Great post! Love the timeline. I've been around for all of it!

I also read the post from the PR firm and feel sorry for the president of the firm. While I know she just wanted to protect her employee, she made a really, really, REALLY big mistake by making it personal and snarky.

While I never link to my own posts in comments, in this instance I think it's easier than rehashing how I think PR firms and mom bloggers can work amicably together: http://bit.ly/bmWwnQ

Julie Pippert said...

Dawn, thanks -- and yes, that's what I thought, too. I understand the frustration on both ends when a negative or unwelcome communication hits the in-box, but as communications people we ought to know better, and most do. It just wants TALKING.

BusyMom -- thanks, and you hit the nail on the head: there is no one size fits all, and that's why I cannot emphasize enough the importance of using intelligence (in both meanings) and due diligence. I guess the only way to enforce is to keep beating this same drum!

Rachel -- thanks!

Table for 5 -- thanks. Your policy and practices are great ones. I really agree with the idea of asking first.

Ed -- got it lol.

Jennifer -- really, really agree. I read your post and absolutely think it's spot on to tell agencies to get their due diligence in order and bloggers to remember there is a human on the other end. Your suggestions were great!

Ed T. said...

In trying to work through the dynamics at play here, one might also take a moment, and learn from the history of the Internet. Back in the Dark Ages, when connectivity was measured at the blazingly fast speed of 300 BITS per second and disk space cost like $100/MB, there arose the concept of something called "spam", which was a not-very-nice reference to UCE, email that was (1) unsolicited, and (2) commercial. In those days, my response to "just hit the delete key" was "Sure. However, MY delete key is hardwired to send a complaint to YOUR ISP, requesting termination of your account - with EXTREME prejudice! Also, by sending me this email, you give me permission to reprint it, with appropriate (as determined by me, and me alone) colorful commentary, which may or may not be intended to humiliate you."

While I don't skewer spammers that much anymore (after all, most of it is boilerplate scams, and the "originator" is often hidden behind compromised home PCs), every so often something comes through that just gets on my. last. nerve. And, when it does, then the sarcasm BOP is likely to fail.

(BTW, an interesting aside. I remember you used to be really *not happy* with the use of CAPTCHAs, which makes there presence in your comment form somewhat interesting. Not complaining, mind you. Just making an observation.)

~EdT.

Julie Pippert said...

Their presence in my comment form, Ed, these security measures, is unavoidable these days, I'm afraid. The level of blog SPAM has become obnoxious and no filter on any of my blogs (which traverse all blog platforms) can keep it out. Times have changed, and I've had to as well.

Also, the concept of SPAM is alive and well. But it's one thing to receive an unsolicited email a la a pandering phone call -- and laws cover these. It's another to set yourself up like a business, such as I do, via my blog, and to be offended when pitched business. Now, how the pitch is framed will affect my likelihood of doing business. And I say very much fair enough to the Best Practices, which also cover those times that one is a blogger and NOT set up for business. The point of this post is simply to highlight this concept of Best Practices, and the foundation of them, which is respect.

A Seeker said...

Julie:

I'm not in PR, nor is my blog one that someone would pitch to ... however, I do want to take a moment and say thank you for the mention of Blog Integrity.

I liked the concept and the closing line of their home page, "...my words. Even if I occasionally ahve to eat them."

Just the right amount of humor, and I believe humor is a life necessity.

Thanks!