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Michael O'Connor Clarke Michael O'Connor Clarke is proud to be a card-carrying flack. Currently based in Toronto, Michael has spent almost 20 years in corporate communications and marketing roles. He started blogging at almost the same time as he first moved into PR - over five years ago. Now he's trying to figure out how to combine these two areas of expertise for the benefit of clue-seeking clients. In his time, Michael has pitched people, products, processes and pop-tarts, but he has a congenital inability to peddle fluff. Email Michael


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May 18, 2005

Pitch the pitch

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Posted by Michael O'Connor Clarke

[Note: not all of my posts here at Flackster will be stupidly long. This one is. Again. Mea culpa. The executive summary: bloggers are like dogs. Only they’re not.]

So. I’ve been noodling on this post for quite some time. I kept coming back to it, tweaking and kneading the argument over the last few months, then putting it away again to think about other stuff. Earlier today, something happened to break through the inertia and push me into finishing the thought.

If you take a look at the previous post, below – a short “Blink” piece pointing to something John Wagner wrote – you might notice there’s a comment showing. Read it. It’s a polished little pitch from a lady at Backbone Media, encouraging me to take part in their survey of corporate bloggers. Comes complete with a helpful little definition – “Blogging is all about starting online conversations about a particular topic.” Thanks for the epiphany.

Odd.

The urge to fisk is so strong, but rather than respond directly (and, no doubt, grumpily) to this specific manifestation of flack-on-flack action, it’s made me want to take a longer look at the curious business of PR people pitching blogs.

You can understand the urge to do it. Some of the ‘A List’ bloggers command sizeable audiences and can justifiably claim to hold considerable sway in certain spheres of influence.

Technorati’s “attention index” ranks online news sources using a variant of Googlejuice (the more inbound links to a site, the higher the assessed authority). The top ranked news sources on Technorati – the ones most often pointed to by other writers in the blogosphere are, as one would expect, sites such as The New York Times, CNN, BBC News, and The Washington Post.

No big surprise here. All this tells us is that if news breaks anywhere, it’s likely to appear on one of the big media sites fairly early on, and lots of people who follow these sites (or click through from Google News) will point to the stories they read there; either as their prime source, or because they’re choosing to comment on the source’s take.

After the top five, as J.D. Lasica noted recently, things get a little more interesting:

“No. 5 on the attention index is Slashdot.org, followed by Britain's The Guardian newspaper and another community news site, Plastic. This means bloggers are having conversations about items found on Slashdot slightly more often than they're discussing stories found on The Guardian's Web site ... Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo and Dave Winer's Scripting News come in ahead of the Los Angeles Times ... while midsize online newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune, The Dallas Morning News and The Miami Herald don't make the list.”

Bloggers talk about blogs, blogging, and other bloggers. Big traffic blogs get a lot of their traffic from the fact that other bloggers are constantly referencing them. Again, no big surprise.

So if the word-of-web movement of news and gossip through the blogosphere can be seen as an analogue for word-of-mouth buzz through meatspace – clearly setting the blogvines burning is a worthy goal for any flack wanting to spread their clients’ news.

But is pitching blogs a bad idea?

In general, I’d argue: yes. It really is. But then, I should probably confess that I find the whole idea of “pitching” to be an insincere, outmoded approach anyway – in the traditional flack/hack dynamic as much as in the blog world.

[Aside: I got into a bit of an argument about this on a panel of fellow flacks and marketing types back at the ClickZ/Jupiter “Business Weblog Strategies” conference a couple of years ago. I called pitching “a broken form of communication” and found myself loudly hissed by a couple of the other flacks on the panel (neither of whom had blogs at the time, afaik). I still hold to my original opinion on this, as I’ll try to explain here.]

Let’s look at some of the components of an archetypal pitch, and how they work when deployed within the blogosphere. A quick disclaimer first. (Last thing I want is to have any more hissy fellow flacks on my case). You’ll note I just used the word "archetypal". I know there are lots of ways of telling a client’s story, and I’m sure your particular way really is very, very special and infinitely superior to what I’m about to describe here. Pardon me while I cut a couple of non-essential corners, in the brazen pursuit of examples that support my point. (Maybe Newsweek will hire me...)

1. The ‘News’
The centrepiece of the typical pitch: the product announcement, event, new hire, business agreement, or other story you’re hoping to get people interested in. Very few “news releases” actually have much news in them, alas – hence, few pitches seem to include much in the way of a real story. (I still think Doc Searls has one of the best definitions of the three essential elements that make up a story, in this piece from 1998. Doc's a former flack, currently a journalist, and also widely considered an "A List" blogger).

For a reporter to pick up your story, there has to actually be a story there. The plain truth is, in the vast majority of cases, what is considered interesting and newsworthy within the grey corporate cubefarms and over air-conditioned meeting rooms of your clients’ offices, really isn’t all that interesting to anyone reading the Wall Street Journal.

The wires are groaning every day under the weight of vanity announcements, horrible punning headlines and “news” that, simply, isn’t. And for almost every one of these cold, hollow announcements, you can bet there’s also a small army of luckless flacks pitching themselves into a froth.

I can’t add much to this characterisation that would explain how things differ in the blogosphere, for the truth is: they don’t. If the news isn’t interesting enough for a mainstream media outlet, why would it be any more interesting to a blogger? (If you care to pick up some other skeins of this thought, I ranted about the topic, at length, on my personal blog a couple of years ago, here).

2. The List.
For every story ever pitched, there’s a list – sometimes several of them. Researched and collated from the subscription databases of Bacon’s, MediaMap and others, the List includes the names and contact info of all the unsuspecting reporters about to get pitched.

The problem here is that the list often ignores the real audience for the story. In building the list, out of a probably out-of-date database, the reporters and media outlets being targeted are sometimes perceived as the end point for the story, ignoring the fact that there is, hopefully, a real audience out there somewhere. The media are the conduit – it’s the PR person’s job to choose the specific reporters most likely to be interested in serving as a willing (or grudging) conduit for the story.

Reporters will very often find themselves on the receiving end of misguided pitches simply because some poor flack made their choice solely on what they read in the database listing the reporter’s declared areas of interest. Less often, the flack will actually take the time to read some of the reporter’s recent stories, before deciding whether to pitch or not.

This happens in the blogosphere too. I’ve blogged affectionately about my iPod in the past, only to receive a pitch from someone touting a Mac-only software enhancement. I am (for my sins) a Wintel drone.

Another side to this is that sometimes the most obvious media target is actually the least useful. Before I flipped into the agency world, I spent 15 years on one of the other sides of the triangle – working in and running corporate marketing departments. I had a recurring argument with the PR agencies I used about the time they spent pitching the trade publications that covered my market.

As an example: I worked for a big company that was one of the highest-profile vendors of knowledge management products. The best trade journal in the business was – still is – KMWorld. We’d put out a release; KMWorld would pick it up. Symbiosis. So why was I getting billed $200 an hour for someone to pitch my releases to KMWorld (and then come and tell me they “might pick it up”)?

More to the point (and no offence to the wonderful people at KMWorld): what the heck did I care if they covered my announcement? None of the potential customers I hoped to reach were likely to be reading it. Most of them probably hadn’t even figured out that what their company really needed to buy was a new-fangled thingy called “KM”, and they certainly weren’t aware there was a lovely shiny magazine dedicated to the thing they didn’t even know they were looking for.

True: there are many good reasons to seek coverage in the trades that encircle one’s market sector (your employees, partners, analysts and competitors all read them) – it all depends on your real objectives. My primary objective, at the time, was generating demand for a hungry sales force. I didn’t want to spend a ton of money chasing coverage likely to reach no further than a group I was already deeply plugged into.

Back to the lists. Some time around spring of 2003, Media Map started adding bloggers to their databases-for-hire. Flacks wanting to reach out and hug a blogger could now avoid the messily direct approach of clicking on the “mailto” link at the top of most people’s blogs, and instead hand over large wads of cash to Media Map for a list of contact details for these wonderful new grassroots influencers.

If you’ve been blogging for any length of time, and you write about business-related stuff, chances are you’re in one of these databases. It makes a certain sense. Bloggers are often perceived to be closer to the zeitgeist – a shortcut to influence in the specific markets they write about. I know I’m already on Media Map’s list of people who blog about marketing and PR themes – I have the pitches to prove it.

I’ve been pitched about new tools for PR pros, new marketing publications, new white papers and research from marketing firms, new blogging products, and even new technologies designed to help you reach other bloggers. So far, no one’s actually pitched me on a story directly relevant to middle-aged flacks struggling to earn a crust in Toronto with their wife and three kids – but it’s only a matter of time. The demographic analysis engines are busy distilling the 183,000 words on my main blog into a targeted profile of my interests even as we speak.

3. The pitch.

Armed with the news that needs “placing”, and the list of likely targets – the next step for the flack is to actually craft the pitch. The least subtle style of pitching is the straightforward email or phone call that says, in effect: “hey, look at this!”

One of the key problems here, from a mainstream media perspective, is neatly summed up in a recent quote from Marketing Magazine:

“An editor at The Globe and Mail's Report On Business said he sometimes receives as many as 400 e-mails a day. The newspaper, he said, receives between 300 and 400 news releases a day. Of those, 25 will be considered and only 10 will end up in the paper in some form.”

The sheer volume of competition for scarce media attention is what consigns the majority of pitches to the Outlook trashcan of client dissatisfaction.

This is why the best PR people place such a heavy emphasis on media relations, or, more accurately, building actual relationships with individual reporters. If you have something of a relationship with the poor sap you’re pitching, there’s a slightly higher chance they’ll actually read your email. And try this: toss the pitch script in the bin and call up a reporter just to have a conversation (when they’re not on deadline). Take a novel approach to finding out what they’re really interested in: ask them.

This is (or should be) PR 101 level stuff; I don’t need to expand on it at too much length here. If you do want a little more thinking on the matter, you’ll find one of the best explanations of truly effective media relations appears in Chris Locke’s opening chapter to The Cluetrain Manifesto, here. This is a condensed version of a much longer, and funnier version of the same story. Chris’s original version was one of the things that really helped me find my feet shortly after I first jumped from the comfortable safety of my high tech marketing job into the strange world of PR agencies. It’s worth re-visiting the piece and, thankfully, it's still online. These are truly wonderful pieces and should be essential items on the reading list at every PR school everywhere. Go read them. Please.)

So. Put the three elements of the pitch together. Now apply them to blogs. Here’s where one key difference should immediately jump out at you.

If you pitch a blogger, either in their public comments or by private email, it’s completely unlike pitching a mainstream media journalist in terms of the kind of response you're most likely to get. Instead of the majority being completely ignored, just imagine if every single pitch sent to the New York Times appeared verbatim on the letters page. Worse: imagine if each pitch was undercut by snarky comments directly from the editorial staff. Not likely to happen in the case of the NYT – but almost certain to happen in the case of the blogosphere.

If you wanted to come up with the one best way of pretty much guaranteeing that bloggers would never mention your product or service in their blogs (except, perhaps, with disdain), the direct pitch is probably it.

In my experience at least, bloggers simply don't respond well to direct commercial pitches of any kind, as several well-meaning but misguided PR and advertising firms have learned to their chagrin.

The foreseeable response of your average blogger to this kind of overt, direct approach would either be to simply ignore it, or to spend more time publicly pondering the method of approach, the fact of the pitch, than the substance behind it.

We're much more likely to blog:

"Ewww. Someone pitched me asking me to link to their online service. How odd. I feel kind of grubby."

than -

"Hey! Someone just sent me a link to this cool new online service. Check it out. Apparently, it’s creating an entirely new paradigm of social media interaction. Sounds great!"

The effect is analogous to what happens when you stand in front of a dog and point to the stick you want him/her to retrieve.

The dog will look at your finger.

A dog has no way of interpreting what the human gesture means – as far as they’re concerned, you're just an alpha dog showing them your paw. And the outstretched paw of this alpha dog is, for the moment at least, really interesting.

They're probably going to comment on it in their own doggy way: with a tilt of the head, a waggy tail, and a cutely curious expression.

You want them to go get the stick - they're much more keen on sniffing your finger.

As with dogs; so with blogs. You want a blogger to swallow your pitch? Sorry - we're much more likely to publicly snuffle around your underparts or hump your leg.

Some of us, anyway.

This is not meant to suggest in any way that particular members of the blogosphere, or bloggers in general, are dogs. Er...mumble...nothing against dogs either...um...some of my best friends are...um...etc.

The point, of course: you pitch bloggers at your own risk.

If you are going to do it, you’d better get your cluehat on. Assume we’re going to fact check your ass. Assume that the tables will be turned, and your pitch may be posted and commented on directly, and probably not charitably.

Better yet, just drop the pitch. Do what Chris did. If you want to engage bloggers in conversation - please, do just that.

But dropping a carefully crafted, committee-edited, entirely soulless little message into the comments is not how you start a conversation.

UPDATE: John Cass of Backbone Media responds, in a comment at Suw Charman's Corante blog, here.

It's a polite, reasonable, and tactful response. I don't think John's right to assume that Suw and I, as individuals, wouldn't be interested in his firm's blog survey - but I admire the candour of his approach.

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