PR in the Age of the Blogosphere


A couple months ago a PR rep at a shopping comparison engine anonymously left the following feedback in response to my Shopzilla/Scripps Howard News Service article:

“You asked for feedback and seem genuinely surprised that you don’t have more participation on your site. Ok, here goes: when you bite the hand that feeds you with articles like this (and numerous other examples), you provide a massive disincentive for people to get involved.

Most of your articles seem to try to “find the dirt”, whether at Shopzilla/Scripps, Froogle, Shopping.com, et al. Since getting mentioned on comparison engines often means that you will take a shot at our employer, it’s simply not worth it. It’s better to stay under the radar.

Recognize that your audience is a bunch of industry participants that want to learn more about competitive feature sets, new developments, etc. We can get investigative journalism elsewhere, particularly when it means that we might be your next target.

This is genuinely meant as feedback, not criticism, so I hope it’s taken as such. You’ll note, though, that I’m not willing to put my name either.”

I didn’t respond to this comment. There didn’t seem to be any need to do so. I viewed the comment as constructive criticism. I thought about it for a bit…but that was it. In fact, I completely forgot all about it until I read Marc Cuban’s recent post on criticism.

If I can take the feedback, I hope that the person who wrote the comment and her company can handle my feedback as I think there’s a good lesson here for PR executives and general management teams living in the age of the blogosphere…

Dear Anonymous,

Thank you for reading ComparisonEngines. Whether you like what I’m doing or not, I appreciate that you took the time to air your thoughts.

Unfortunately, though, I think that you and your company are living dangerously if you think that not talking to a blogger like me and trying to stay under the radar is smart. As Glenn Reynolds, author of An Army of Davids said in a Guardian Unlimited article back in April, “You can bury your head in the sand, but very quickly you’ll look like a very old-fashioned company.”

While I’m still not completely clear how it happened, at some point over the last year, I became a Malcolm Gladwell – esque influencer. Now before I sound a like I’m getting too big for my britches, I freely admit that I’m not the biggest blogger out there, but within the shopping comparison engine and vertical search industries, my posts are fairly well followed. And through working with Danny Sullivan’s Search Engine Watch, I’ve increased my profile a bit.

You commented that “when you bite the hand that feeds you with articles like this (and numerous other examples), you provide a massive disincentive for people to get involved.”

I ran this by a couple people much smarter than I. Mike Manuel of Media Guerrila replied: “It’s like saying ‘play nicely, or else.’ Which is just BS.”

You have to realize that in the age of the blogosphere, you no longer control the story. Stop and think about that for a second. That’s a HUGE change from 10 years ago. You can help shape the story if you and the executives you work for are involved, but hiding under a rock just means that you can’t stand up to a transparent critique.

As Garrett French of Search Engine Lowdown commented, “The more open we are with criticism – as long as it’s reasoned and non-malicious – the better we serve the online space.”

I’m not out to ‘dig up dirt’, but the beauty of the blogosphere is that anyone can post anything and if a company goes ‘dark’ and doesn’t talk to the media, this type of behavior is going to attract even more attention. You said that talking to me means that I might take a ‘shot’ at your employer and ‘it’s simply not worth it.’ To me that means that I’m right on target in my analysis and you don’t have a story that’s going to prove me wrong or change my opinion. Yes, your job is to get the best story possible written about your company, but if you can’t handle the more critical pieces and view them as constructive feedback, then we’ll never have any relationship and my coverage of your company will probably just continue down a rocky path.

But it doesn’t end there. You incorrectly said in your comment that my audience ‘is a bunch of industry participants’. That’s not at all the case. Employees at comparison engines make up an estimated third of my audience. Another third is made up of financial analysts/VCs/media. Another third is made up of merchants who are trying to figure out where to allocate their monthly budget. Oh, and don’t forget about the people who are interviewing with your company…the smart ones contact me for my opinion before they take an offer.

As for the comment on ‘biting the hand that feeds me’, if you’re literally talking about feeding me, I have probably taken less than $875 in food and schwag from the shopping comparison engines over the last year. And please note that there aren’t even Google Adsense or Yahoo! Publisher Network ads on my site. If you’re talking about feeding me news stories…that’s not how it works with me. I write what I want to write about, this is not a press release regurgitation site.

I’m here to shed light on what’s happening in this industry. If you completely disagree with what I write, then rip my opinions apart with solid facts. Better yet, have your CEO or a member of management call me and honestly answer my questions. I realize that you can’t share everything, and I don’t expect you to. Just know that there aren’t many rocks to hide under these days. This is not a threat. Just reality.

Mike Frigden (of Farecast) wrote a post recently about Steve Rubel’s comments on how traditional marketers should approach bloggers:

Steve Rubel, of Edelman Public Relations…mentioned that one of the biggest issues is that “every marketer is too worried about giving up control”. He quoted [Thomas] Friedman’s book The World is Flat, “we’re moving from command and control to collaboration and connectivity”.

Some comments that were made by the audience on how to connect with bloggers:
– Demonstrate that you have read their blog
– Do not ask a blogger to blog about something they are obviously not interested in
– Do not expect them to write anything other than what they think

2 points here go hand in hand. You are no longer in control AND you can’t expect me to write anything other than what I think. Sorry, I know this sucks for you. Your job is to get positive press about your company, and as a fiercely independent analyst, I’m throwing a wrench in your plans. There are plenty of bloggers who will mindlessly write what you say, but I’m going to dig a little deeper than most and offer up my opinion.

You can completely shut me out, but that’s only telling me what I already know, that your company is facing an uncertain future. It’s time for you to embrace that uncertainty or else you might crush yourself under the weight of that rock you’re hiding under.

I know it’s scary to put yourself out there without controlling the story, but view this as an opportunity. Many executives at the shopping comparison engines talk to me and other bloggers on and off the record to get our feedback on plans or strategies. It might be time for some of your management team to do the same.

-brian

Brian Smith
Analyst (and proud Blogger), ComparisonEngines.com & VerticalSearch.net
Vertical Search Correspondent, Search Engine Watch

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12 Responses to PR in the Age of the Blogosphere

  1. Mary says:

    This is really true. I believe that the blogosphere needs an open-minded audience that are both true to their opinion and are honest of their reputation. We blog and we comment. But I also agree that all things said online are okay provided that they are here to contribute to the discussion and not to restrict one’s ideas.

  2. Vic Berggren says:

    Hey Anonymous –

    Several months ago I submitted a guest post that covered a nasty bug in the datafeed process for a large SCE.

    You probably would have considered that ‘biting the hand too’ but guess what… it never got posted here. So I’d have to disagree with your remarks with regard to ‘digging for dirt’ cuz I had some.

    Oh, and yes I still have problems with that bug.

  3. Chris says:

    Good Post – I think we all have to learn that the world is changing and those companies who embrace it quickly will have an edge on the others. Take a look at the recent Dell happenings and one will quickly see how truethful interaction with bloggers/customers etc will get you much further than not talking with anyone in hopes of staying away from damaging coverage.

  4. David Lewis says:

    I don’t think that there is enough criticism at Comparison Engines. Please be more critical as you review new engines and the changes that any the “traditional” engines are making.

  5. Morra Aarons says:

    Brian, your post is excellent, but as an ex-Edelman employee who spent much time discussing “PR in the age of the blogosphere,” I feel the need to highlight one point. I’m not that old, but it seems to me that bloggers have gotten more publicity and their activities/proclivities have been more widely discussed than any notable wordsmith since Dorothy Parker and the Round Table. How can PR people, company executives, and everyone else for that matter NOT be a bit intimidated when faced with people with powerful megaphones who write things like :”You are no longer in control AND you can’t expect me to write anything other than what I think.” I never got such as response from a journalist, and there have been some doozys.

    Right now, the rules are unwritten. We non-blogger just have to try our best and cross our fingers- but frankly, it can be nerve-wracking.

  6. Beth Kirsch says:

    The world has changed and blogs are part of the PR game. The trick is not to think that blogs are the enemy but to have them join the “conversation” and to leverage that. Look at what Google, Yahoo, and MS have done with blogs. They manage the Blogosphere. I think that all the shopping engines can learn a thing or two from their example personally.

  7. UNBEATABLE says:

    Good post, I agree, a blog is not like traditional media where journalist just regurgitate a companies press release point for point. The reason why Blogs are so powerful is because they cut though all the B***S*** more than any other media out there at the moment.

  8. Paul L says:

    Couple of things…

    Vic – I don’t exactly understand your post. Are you say your comment was not posted to this blog? It sounds like you’re placing blame on this blog for not having your comment posted, at least that is how I read it. FYI, just trying to understand your comment.

    Brian- Am I missing something? How can you factually base being “completely shut…out…” as their company “facing an uncertain future”? Sure, you can speculate that, but facts to back it up? Besides that I agree with your points and as I’ve mentioned before, I’m not an “industry participant” nor a VC, merchant et. al. I dig your blog as a casual consumer who is fascinated with (addicted to?) SE innovations (found you originally via the SE Watch blog) and SCEs. I use SCEs for my job and for personal use. cheers- Paul

  9. Brian;
    As a PR person, I can understand the apprehension that some companies may have in talking to you. There are a few ideas in this thread that I will comment on:

    1. Many marketing people are used to working with cash-starved trade magazines where the editor shares a desk with the advertising sales manager. However, stories that make advertisers happy are not always stories that are interesting to the audience at large. We like opinion. We like analysis. It’s why that free subscription to X magazine gets tossed in the garbage. That said, trade magazine stories are usually great reprints for the CEO.

    2. I don’t think a generalization can be made about bloggers and control over a story. CE is a great blog with opinion, analysis, etc. However, there are other blogs that barter special access or advertising dollars for control over the story.

    3. It’s an unfortunate reality that many PR people don’t have very good stories to share. If you don’t have a good story, you want to control access, control the interview and control the result. Many companies would be better off taking the $5,000-$10,000 monthly retainer from their PR agency and spending it on direct marketing, where they have full control. Likewise, many PR agencies would have stronger reputations if they resigned clients who either do not have a good story, or who are not willing to be transparent, admit to faults and commit to improving them. (Note to PR people: if your client’s story sucks, what are you doing?)

    BTW – did you happen to capture the IP address of the “anonymous” PR person who posted the comment? Perhaps we could do a DNS lookup and then check the firm’s client list? After all, there aren’t many rocks to hide under these days.

  10. Sabrina says:

    I agree with Morra Aarons that the rules are unwritten. But I think, as much as PR practioners have adapted to new forms of media over time, that this is one area where our core competencies are lacking. There’s a reason we spend so much time cultivating actual relationships with reporters or other “traditional” press – knowing them gives us a better chance to communicate our own facts and points of view when a story’s being written. Limiting access to an entire genre that’s going to write anyway seems counterintuitive to what we do as PR professionals. True, the blogosphere has mushroomed and we’ll never keep up with all of them. Some bloggers want no contact with PR, while others actively seek access. For those who do, and especially the ones we deem important to our individual industries, perhaps it’s time to invite them to lunch and tell your side, explain your story. Whatever that side may be. And trust that you’re selling a product/service/site/feature good enough to be touting in the first place.

  11. As a person representing a business/service, I have to say that I prefer criticism to sugercoating. It’s always nice to hear the good side of things, but at the same time the only way to grow and improve is by listening to what others see as problems, issues, and shortcomings about our service. Yes, it may hurt the ego, but if we look beyond that and try to be objective, nothing comes out of it but good. Even if the criticism is baseless, it’s still a chance to review and make sure that we have done our best.

    I have been following this blog for a few months now, and I am impressed with your style of writing and depth of writing. Keep up the good work, and don’t worry about negative comments.

    Best Regards,

    –Nasser

  12. Carlos Odio says:

    Speaking from personal experience, “PR in the blogosphere” is not so different from “PR in the arts section of your daily newspaper” and the relationship of, say, a theater with reviewers. ”You are [not] in control AND you can’t expect me to write anything other than what I think”? Yep, that’s the understanding. And yet theaters — and movie studios and music companies and book publishers and restaurants — keep fearlessly feeding critics and begging for reviews, operating on the principle that any publicity is good publicity. Sites like Ain’t It Cool shook things up among film publicists, but the smart studios recovered and now depend on good ol’ Harry Knowles.

    My thought is that the best blogs — like this one — are able to provide conversations of more depth and honesty than a newspaper article could ever muster. And they offer instant feedback (perhaps it’s that same *speed* and lack of control over the timeline that petrifies some folks), of the type that helps a company hone its offerings (and a PR team its stories). In short: Keep up the good work, Brian.

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