UPDATE: if you are a PR person and you are reading this blog, any vitriol aimed at the PR industry is NOT aimed at you. Probably.
I remember working at a small tech startup back in the mid 1990s. Winnov. We made video capture cards and videoconferencing solutions. I was the director of marketing and I used to think that if only Walt Mossberg or Dan Gillmor (who back then was the tech journalist at the San Jose Mercury News) or some other big-name journalist would pay attention to us that we’d have it made.
Eventually I realized that wasn’t going to happen, for a whole lot of reasons, but that it didn’t matter. We still had a lot of very happy customers and they seemed to find us through word-of-mouth and other efforts (we had booths at the big trade shows and I hung out in forums and Usenet newsgroups and went on radio shows, and built relationships with people who did video streaming and stuff like that). Not getting their attention made me focus and come up with innovative ways to get the word out about our products. Same thing I did at NEC, which is what led to me selling Vic Gundotra hundreds of Tablet PCs at Microsoft (and later getting a job there). Vic didn’t find me in the Wall Street Journal, he found me in an obscure newsgroup online.
Over the past few days there’s been a consternation about the future of PR. Mostly based on my rant about PR the other day and how it’s so refreshing to hear about a new company from its users first, especially when those users are very excited about the product.
Here’s just a small selection of the blogs I’ve seen talking about PR and bloggers in the past day or two:
Steve Rubel (Vice President at Edelman, which is the largest private PR firm in the world) talks about how dismayed he’s been at the PR industry lately.
Mike Arrington, founder of TechCrunch, talks about how dismayed he’s been at the PR industry lately.
Brian Solis, who is one of the few PR people who builds relationships first with everyone in the industry (it’s hard to remember the last industry event where Brian wasn’t holding court and if you’re a tech blogger and you haven’t yet met Brian you probably haven’t been blogging for more than a week or two), stands up for the PR industry (and links to pretty much everyone who is writing about this today).
Mark “Rizzn” Hopkins, in Mashable, says Rubel is onto something.
Jeremy Toeman, who I don’t think of as a PR guy, but rather something else (he’s the only guy that I know of who has gotten other people in the industry to work in a food bank, for instance) also stood up for PR in the comment section of the blog post I wrote the other day.
Jeremy Pepper writes “STFU” to bloggers in his headline, which also sticks up for the PR industry.
There’s a few others talking about this topic that are linked to here on TechMeme.
Why so much noise, both pro and con, about the current state of PR?
I’ve been blogging very little over the past month. I wanted to get off of the Techmeme bandwagon and take a fresh look at what I, and FastCompanyTV are doing. This latest blowup also got me to look at which PR practicioners I find are good for the industry and which ones are bad.
Why so much negativity on PR lately? A few reasons:
1. PR people had gotten wise to how to get their stories onto Techmeme, which made us all look like sheep. We not only were writing the same stories everyone else was, because that’s how you get onto Techmeme, but the PR people were figuring out how to work us into that circle jerk, so they could get their messages out to the world. That is opposite to how life was four years ago back when I worked at Microsoft. Back then most PR people couldn’t spell blog and didn’t know what they were. I’m to blame for helping them figure it out, because we wrote a book about corporate blogging that a lot of them have read. I’ll burn in hell for doing that, I think, if we can’t find a new way to serve the industry better than we are currently.
2. Company after company came to us who weren’t building sustainable businesses that cared about real customers. They only cared about whether they could get onto Techmeme or whether bloggers or “social media experts” would write about them. I feel like I’m just a new social media press release conduit and, while that’s building pretty sustainable businesses over at some other tech blogs, it isn’t what I started writing a blog for. More on that in a second.
3. Bloggers are being commoditized. If we just go to press conferences, or only deal with embargoed news, and report on the same news everyone else is reporting on, well, then, just what reason is there for our business to exist? How will we build an audience that’s any different, than, say, TechCrunch or Fortune’s or ZDNet’s efforts? How will we justify to our sponsors that they should sponsor us as we are doing the same thing as everyone else? Especially if we have a smaller audience? Yeah, advertisers really love getting THOSE kinds of sales pitches. Imagine walking into a big company and putting up a Powerpoint that says “we’re the same as Techcrunch, but smaller.” What’s the chances you’ll walk out with a sponsorship?
4. We aren’t having fun (as Rubel says, discovering new stuff is fun, getting new stuff fed to you at conferences and press conferences where everyone else learns the same news at the same time isn’t nearly as fun) while fun isn’t a good reason to do much, following my heart got me here and if you aren’t having fun as a blogger your writing, reporting, etc will suffer and you’ll start generally just being a jerk. Not to mention if you want to compete with people who do love what they are doing you’ll need to be keeping up at 2 a.m. and if you aren’t loving what you are doing you’ll turn on the Olympics instead and not get the job done. Most tech bloggers love being able to tell you about something cool that you don’t yet know about. Read Engadget, for instance. Their best writing is when they are showing you a new gadget that they found on their own. Yes we all read them for their coverage of Apple Press Conferences but I can tell you that isn’t nearly as fun as walking around with some product designer and getting a first look at a really new product (I was there when Ryan Block got his first look at Bug Labs’ prototypes).
5. We’re all looking for a breakthrough idea or product and they are just very rare. Look at Microsoft’s latest photographic technologies as an example. Now, look at my “to blog” folder, which has 5,000 items in it. How many get close to something as cool? Not many. If we only wrote about Photosynth, though, our blogs would be pretty damn sparse. So we’re faced with writing about stuff that doesn’t come up to that bar. It makes us anxious, because we want to tell our friends (er, you, about cool stuff). Like, have I shown you the Shazam iPhone app yet? It’s very cool, it lets you identify music you hear in a shopping mall or on the radio and it works pretty darn well. But for every Shazam, or Evernote, or Twinkle, there are tons of really stupid apps and if we want to tell you about more than 20 apps we’re going to have to dig into some really lame apps.
“Scoble, you’re rambling, why did you get into blogging?”
Oh, sorry. I got into blogging to celebrate the people who are improving our lives through technology and to hear their stories about how they developed it, so that we’d encourage other developers to bring us even more useful technologies.
Scratch that. I got into blogging because Dori Smith and Dave Winer wanted to know what was happening behind the scenes while working at a computer magazine/conference company.
Back when I started blogging I was helping plan a conference for programmers. I just told stories about what I was seeing and hearing and who was doing cool stuff. No one in PR told me about stuff, I just talked about what I was seeing. As my audience grew, more and more PR people started pitching me stuff. They started seeing me as a gatekeeper. The way I looked at those old-school journalists like Mossberg and Pogue and others.
I remember being flattered by the first wave of PR. When Munjal Shah, CEO of Like.com, told me he’d rather have me write about his company than have Walt Mossberg write about it, I was flattered but remembered telling him that Mossberg was still more important (and still is, in my view).
But that was flattering because only a few CEOs were like Munjal and I think he was pulling a little flattery on me to get me to pay attention. And, he knew that doing a different style of PR would get him noticed. It did, too. He now has millions of users and has been on MSNBC and CNN (he told me later that those brought huge numbers of users to his service).
“Scoble, you’re rambling again, get to the point. What is it that tech bloggers want?”
In the early days of blogging I wanted to do a few things:
1. Impress Dave Winer and Dori Smith.
2. Get stuff into Google so I could pull it out later.
3. Share what I was seeing because I had access to unique people and technology that the mainstream press wasn’t writing about.
Today I still write for these reasons, but I’d add on some more:
4. Get more people access to interesting experiences. It’s impossible to have 100,000 people visit Facebook’s headquarters and have a tour, for instance, but it’s very possible to have that many participate in a live cell phone tour.
5. Help us get more out of the technology that we’re all seeing. There are about 800 services on the Office 2.0 database. How many of those have you actually used? For most people? None. For most of my readers? I’d guess about five. Out of 800. So, can I increase that to seven? By showing you a demo of something that would improve your life (and mine?) I know I’m using Evernote now because of a demo I got a few weeks ago, for instance.
6. Learn from thought leaders on how to improve our lives. That’s why I’ve had people like David Allen and Tim Ferriss and why I want to get Gina Trapani from Lifehacker onto my shows. They show you a different way to live and how to deal with our changing lives.
“So, Scoble, what do these things have to do with PR?”
Well, the smart PR people (like Solis and Toeman) bring me into experiences like these. I still remember when Toeman hosted a dinner for a small group of us, including Dave Winer, where he and a guy I didn’t know showed me a prototype of what became Bug Labs. That was PR. But it was personal, small, and wasn’t aimed at getting 60 journalists to tell the same story to each of their audiences. At that point he didn’t care if he got Bug Labs onto Techmeme. Just wanted to talk about where the product might go and wanted to get feedback.
Hey, PR 2.0 includes listening!
Now I’m getting to where I’m getting fed up with a large swath of PR and why you’re seeing such vitriol aimed toward PR people.
See, some of them (er, most of them) are treating bloggers as just “channels of message distribution.” We’re there to take the news they are pitching and regurgitate it and spit it at all of you.
That exercise it totally not interesting. For all the reasons I’ve gone over here. It doesn’t let me figure out my own take on the story. It doesn’t let me hear from customers who are wildly happy. It doesn’t let me even figure out if the product works (many of those kinds of stories are pitched to bloggers who don’t even have any expertise in what they are pitching). Here, do another exercise. Let’s assume that StackOverflow was pitched to me by a PR company in an email. Would it have gotten coverage here? No. It doesn’t let me really find my own voice, or build an audience that’s any different than anyone else on Google Reader or TechMeme.
First off, why would I write about yet another Digg copycat? Second of all, how would I know that the community there really is good and has some unique aspects? Third of all, how would I really know that it solves real pain, the way that StackOverflow does?
“OK, Scoble, wrap it up. What are some things that you tech blogger types want from PR?”
1. What we really want is an exclusive interview with Steve Jobs. Oh, OK, we’re not going to get that. So, can we get an exclusive with Jonathan Ives? Oh, OK, we’re not going to get that either. (PR teams tell me that handing out an exclusive like that will only be done for journalists with the largest audiences). Well, OK, but let’s see if we can find a different angle on the same topic. When I traveled to Israel with Sarah Lacy I noticed she made plans to interview the same people I did, but she interviewed them alone so she got a different story than I did. Now compare to what you see on TechMeme. How many people get the same story about the same thing. PR people are doing themselves a disservice when they just treat journalists and bloggers like cattle. Every time I get an email pitch it reminds me that I’m being treated like cattle. Especially when I get together with Arrington and Malik and Lacy and other bloggers and we see that we got the same pitch. Moooooo!
2. I want to see some passion about building a great service for customers that solves their pain. I don’t want to hear about how they are hoping I write about them. That turns me (and others) off. I still remember when my brother asked Dave Winer for a link and Dave got very angry at him. Why is that? Because Dave wanted my brother to give him a reason to link without having to beg for the link. Bring me a customer that says “XYZ product solved this need and transformed my life” and that’ll get my attention. It’ll get even more attention when that customer calls me and wants to talk about you and your service. Why? Because it tells me that the company is focused on the right thing. Watch what Don MacAskill, CEO of SmugMug does. I remember the first time I met him because he didn’t want me to write about his company. He just started talking about customers and why he loved doing what he’s doing. I later learned that he had more than 100,000 people who paid for his service when his competitors, like Flickr, are free. THAT got my attention and it made me want to learn more about the company and the service.
3. If you really have a killer product and a killer service I don’t care how you get ahold of me. Call me day or night at +1-425-205-1921. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or camp out on my front lawn. It doesn’t matter. If you are as good as SmugMug, I’ll make time for you. If you are a me too product, though, that doesn’t solve a real problem or doesn’t thrill its customers, I’ll see through that and I’ll be less likely to call. Some exceptions? I hate Facebook and Twitter direct messages. I can’t answer those, so don’t even try.
4. Don’t call us (especially me) if you want to get on TechMeme and that’s your main goal. First of all, my TechMeme juice is going down because I’m writing less and less. So if that’s your goal I can already tell you haven’t done your homework (Mike Arrington is the first guy I’d call if that was my goal). But what do other tech bloggers want? Well, even Arrington (who does like getting on TechMeme) tells me he’d rather get there because he found a kick ass company or product before anyone else.
5. For those of us who are on the TechMeme game we MUST be in the first group. That’s how this game works. That’s why Arrington won’t cover you if you don’t let him be in the first set of people to talk about you. But don’t assume that we’re all playing the TechMeme game. I’m a video guy. I want to have an intimate look at your company/product/people. We can do that days, weeks, or even months after you ship. My Evernote video, for instance, was done long after they first launched. I still got excited because the people I hang out with were praising it on blogs and twitters and I wanted to get a good look for myself (I’m a visual learner, I don’t often get the point of a product just by reading about it on TechCrunch).
6. Don’t just pitch the product. When I first heard about FriendFeed I thought “so what, Jaiku and Social Thing do the same thing.” But then I found out that two of the founders were the guys who ran the Gmail and Google Maps teams. Now my expectations went way up (and, sure enough, that service has delivered huge value to me). If you have an interesting person working for you, let me know.
7. Video bloggers need different things than text bloggers. When I do a text blog often times I can just sit on a conference call, pull out a quote, and write up the news. But if you want to get me to put you on video it really helps if you think a little bit about the visual. Don’t shove me into a conference room with 40 other bloggers. I probably won’t even unpack my video cameras. Nothing is more boring visually. But bring me into a someone’s office and magic happens.
8. Why don’t you get a ton of FriendFeed’ers to vote up your own blog? That’d guarantee I’d see it, and I’d see that people are happy about what you’re doing. I’m far more likely to cover you if that’s the case. I follow more than 3,000 FriendFeeders. I even keep track of all the things I like there. It’s quite an interesting feed to watch.
9. Build experiences where we can get to know you. Microsoft recently held a Digital Photo Summit. That was really great because there wasn’t any pressure to report on anything, just a chance to get to know you, your team, and see some of the things you are working on. Same thing at EA last week. By providing experiences where we can get our hands on your products, meet your team, etc, we’ll discover new story ideas together. I found a few at EA that I would never have known about if they didn’t have an event where we could hang out for a day.
Anyway, I’m sorry for generalizing the PR industry. The good ones are invaluable to my mission. They know who they are. The bad ones probably aren’t even reading my blog anyway, so that’s why I shouldn’t piss and moan about the PR industry. I’ll just piss off the good ones and the bad ones won’t care. Just chalk it up to letting off a little steam.
Back to answering email and setting up interviews…