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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Posted by philgomes 8:40 AM
My Late Thoughts On Chris Anderson's "Long Wail"

My Late Thoughts On Chris Anderson's "Long Wail"

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Yeah, I know... This was weeks ago. Gimme a break. I was getting married, for chrissakes. *8-)

Anyway... I'm with Shel on this one: Wired's Chris Anderson had the right idea, it's just that he went about it entirely the wrong way.

Even I found out during my wedding fortnight, via a number of backchannels, that Mr. Anderson not only lashed out at spray-and-pray emails in his inbox, but banned and posted the email addresses of the senders. (And yes, I know, even three from some folks who work where I work.)

For me, this highlights a bigger issue than the judgment of a PR professional or the state of Mr. Anderson's inbox. Like Shel, I question the judgment evident in Mr. Anderson's response.

But, you know... It goes a lot deeper than that.

First, consider that media folks are in a great position to lash out at PR pros for two simple reasons:

  1. When it comes down to a measure of overall sympathy-potential between a PR person and a journalist, the presumptive winner is pretty clear. It's about as safe as a lawyer joke. (Even safer, actually, since Edelman's most recent Trust Barometer puts PR people four percentage points below lawyers in North America, according to the "media attentive" types it surveys.)
  2. Any decently critical response is likely to be career-limiting for the PR guy and damaging to his or her relationship to the media outlet. I'm positive that this reality is not lost on the media. I'm reminded of the time when Dennis Miller interviewed Dumb-&-Dumber-era Jim Carrey, who threatened to strangle an aide while screaming "...and don't you dare defend yourself!"
Of course, any conversation at all about improving how public relations is tactically (and strategically!) deployed — especially when initiated by the folks that PR most wants to maintain relationships with — is very important and continues to be sorely needed. To be charitable, Mr. Anderson's post appears to be an attempt to do so. (It succeeded.)

But I ask journalists everywhere, both online or off, citizen or professional:

  1. Assume that the PR person's motivations for communicating are clear and, where necessary, disclosure has been made.
  2. Now, if a PR person were to publish strong-yet-thoughtful criticism about, say, the slant or focus of an article or even the overall direction of the publication or site, what would be your reaction? How would you treat that person's correspondence from that point forward?
I hinted at this topic in an earlier post about Michael Arrington's view of Silicon Valley: "...it's abundantly clear that Michael prefers his correspondents to be of the pleading, fawning, starstruck, and obsequious variety...". How many other publishers operate on that basis?

An old industry friend once told me in 2002 "Don't blog... No one wants to hear from a PR person who thinks!" (According to Constantin's canonical list, hundreds now do.) Journalists often complain — and quite rightly — that many PR folks who pitch them clearly do not read their work. If those that do have blogs and wrote what they really wanted to say, in the spirit of a level playing field, what would happen?

Now, PR folks, I'm not letting you get away unscathed either. In the social media world, the natural yes-sir-right-or-wrong, service-industry tendency of wanting to make everyone happy — journalists, analysts, influencers, clients, and so on — means that you've pretty much lost your spines and, with that, respect.

And that's why, aside from serving as linkbait, these occasional flare-ups against PR people are destined to go absolutely nowhere: PR people are cowed into believing that the path to success means choking on their critical opinions, and the media considers public relations a risk-free target of scorn and ridicule.

The relationship between media and PR will not improve unless everyone is honest with each other. Inevitably, this means that 1) PR as a whole will not only have to get smarter, but conspicuously so, and 2) the media will have to learn how to "take" as well as "dish out."

In my experience, I've seen both sides. When I was a lot closer to the media-relations side of things, quite a number of my best media relationships actually started on the basis of civil disagreements, which led to heuristic discussion, and ultimately sustainable and mutually rewarding correspondence. On the other hand, I've also experienced a level of shallow intellectual dishonesty that was so remarkably thorough it actually could've masqueraded as "depth".

In closing... I mentioned "strong-yet-thoughtful" criticism in my hypothetical example above. Mr. Anderson's post was certainly "strong"; he had the opportunity to be "thoughtful".

I hope you all take this in the constructive spirit it was intended.

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