Friday, 12 June 2009

Schizophrenia - I am a PR person and a mummy blogger

I had a fabulous meeting with the lovely Suzanne from A Modern Mother yesterday. We spent a good amount of time discussing how businesses and their PR people should be interacting with mummy bloggers. Now I don't normally talk shop on this blog. This blog is about me being a mum. But when I'm not being a mum, I run a PR business from home. So I wear both the PR and mummy blogger hats. And it's not always a comfortable fit (try wearing two hats at once and you'll see what I mean).

Anyway, Suzanne has written a great post inspired by a similar post from GeekMommy over in the US about how companies shouldn't expect mummy bloggers to run their competitions for them for free. And I fully agree. Any PR or company that thinks they can get a blogger to not only host but also run the mechanics of a give-away on their blog for nothing other than a free sachet of soap powder is 'aving a larf. But apparently this is happening a lot in the US. Give it a few more months and I'm sure it will be happening here in the UK too.

The comments section of GeekMommy's post made for fascinating reading with many bloggers jumping in saying that they're fed up with being expected to do the PR's job for free. There were lots of the usual comments too about how PR people don't even bother to read their blog and send them info about baby products when they actually have teenagers or ask them to write about a cleaning product when their blog focuses on fashion. Or whatever. I'm making some of these examples up but that was the gist of it.

This same accusation is levelled at PR people by journalists who say that PR people have never read their publication and send them completely irrelevant info and just expect a free plug for their client instead of giving them a decent story.

PR people are I believe, hated the world over. I often think you'd be better off saying that you're a prostitute, a banker or a politician than admitting to being a PR luvvie dahling.

But wearing my PR hat, squashed quite firmly over my ears, for a minute, here's the challenge we have:

Challenge 1: The scope of the media and blogosphere
Think about how many magazines, newspapers and websites there are out there. Think about how many writers - i.e. individuals with their own specific likes and dislikes - there are that PR people are expected to know inside out. Now add to that the huge number of bloggers, all with their own lives you as a PR person are expected to know even more personally - from what age their children are to whether they're an eco warrior or a fashionista. It is a nigh on impossible task.

A good PR person will have a database of contacts who they come to know over time and will give them the things they need in the way they need them. But it is still a task that takes a gargantuan amount of time, time not usually paid for by the client. Which is why things aren't always as personalised as they should be. I'm not saying it's right. I'm just saying that with pressure from clients to reach as many people as you can, it's pretty hard to keep things personal.

And if you're still thinking: Tough, that's your job, well yes. But imagine for a minute that you as a blogger or journalist have landed the golden egg and some publisher wants to turn your musings into a book. You want your book to be bought in the thousands, if not millions, so that you can buy an island and drink daiquiris for the rest of your life. You're not allowed to employ a PR person. You need to get the book out to as many influential people as possible. Start writing a list of every newspaper, magazine, TV show and blog you'd like your book to appear on. Now find out who covers book reviews at those titles. Now find out what type of books they like to read, how far in advance they review books, whether they like exclusives, whether they always require free books to give away in order to publish a review, where to send a book to, how they like to be contacted etc etc etc. And that's for one book. One product. One customer. Multiply that out for several customers with several products and you'll start to feel the enormity of the task facing PR people.

So to sum up, while I'm in now way excusing shoddy PR practices of spray and pray, if you receive a pitch from a PR person that isn't 100% personalised to you, try not to hate them too much for it. If it really annoys you, delete it or let them know what you do like so that they can get it right next time.

Challenge 2: How big is a blogger's scope of influence?
We know that bloggers are influential. The reason they're influential is because what they write is perceived as honest, not PR puff. The minute it smacks of PR puff, people will be turned off. But not all blogs are created equal. How many of your client's target audience is each individual blogger reaching? Probably not that many. Add up multiple bloggers and you start to get a cumulative effect. But your client wants to reach as many people as possible - whether that's through one uber-influential blogger or multiple less influential bloggers.

The challenge for PR people is knowing who the influential bloggers are. How do you work out which bloggers are the influential ones? By number of comments? Number of followers? Asking for their visitor stats? Do all bloggers even track their visitor stats? At the moment, a lot of it is guesswork. Trial and error on the part of PR companies. And measuring the results can be difficult too. Sure you can track links and click throughs but it's not all scientific. So you're spending a lot of time getting to know people and personalising info for them without really knowing whether it's going to have an impact on the client's bottomline. Tricky.

Challenge 3: Not all bloggers know who they are
Many mummy bloggers are new to the game in the UK. It's growing fast. But how many of the bloggers even know themselves what they want their blog to be? Most start out as a journal - a place for personal musings (like this one). But many quickly realise that blogging takes up a good amount of their time, time they could be spending earning a living. So they start to think about how they can get their blog to earn them a few pennies. It changes identity from a journal to a revenue generating venture. For some this is very low level, pocket money really. While others try to turn their blogs into information portals or ezines (or they might have set them up with this in mind in the first place) to actively generate revenue and make a living from it. Then there are the blogs that are set up purely as an extension of their business to help them boost their SEO and business credibility. They're often desperate for content but are they willing to promote another company's product? And if so, will they only do it if there's a quid pro quo?

So you see, the PR community is trying to understand and interact with a community that doesn't fully know yet what it's trying to be. The PR community need the blogging community to help provide some of this clarity. And I know from some of the work underway at British Mummy Blogger Network, this is starting to happen.

Challenge 4: PR is not paid for publicity
PR people are tasked with getting their client's 'free' publicity, not paid for advertising. The minute they have to pay for anything other than product, it starts to drift into the sphere of advertising. So if bloggers ask to be paid to write about something it's a) not normally something the PR people have the budget for and b) it brings into play the whole question of ethics and would seriously impact bloggers' credibility. You don't pay a journalist to write about your company in a newspaper. They're paid by their publication. This gives the journalist freedom to write whatever they like. Bloggers want the freedom to write whatever they like, yet expect to get paid for doing it. Why would a PR person do that? They might as well then pay for an ad and then at least they can be sure that they're going to get the message they want out there. It's a difficult area. I don't think bloggers should work for free, but equally, an outright payment model just isn't right either.

Taking my PR hat off for a minute (it's getting scratchy) and donning my lovely mummy blogger hat (sensible with a wide brim), let me say this to PR people:

How do you get a blogger to write about your clients/company? Sending them a press release will never cut it. You do need to know your blogger, what they like, dislike, how old their children are, what they write about, whether they're single, going through a divorce or about to set sail across the Atlantic ocean. (Gosh, who could that be?)

That requires a LOT of time. It means actively reading and commenting on bloggers blogs. It means engaging with them about things that actually mean something to them. It means being a blogger yourself. And if you're not a blogger and you're not a mum and you're trying to reach mummy bloggers, might I suggest that you employ a mummy blogger to help you out on your campaigns? There are plenty of mums out there who would love to be able to work around their children, doing something part time. Why not recruit one of them to work on your campaign to help you understand who the other mummy bloggers are? It's a win win.

Don't post spam in the comments box. Do it and you deserve a slap. With a dead fish. And yes, it is obvious that it's spam even if you say 'I love your blog, look at my great new site for kids toys.' Flattery works, but we're not that gullible.

Product reviews. Right now, UK mummy bloggers are probably still open to receiving products to review if there's something in it for them. For example, if I was asked to review a new washing powder, I just wouldn't. Because quite frankly I could give a rat's bum about soap for clothes. Sparkling whites just aren't on my list of priorities. However, if Musto or a similar sailing company sent me a pitch and asked me to review their new ocean going boots/gloves/quick-drying shirts I'd say yes please and would be more than willing to give a fair appraisal of them on my sailing blog. Because I need that stuff and getting it free in exchange for a review seems fair to me. From their point of view, they'd have to ask: how many other sailors are reading this blog? What if she slates our stuff? Are we trying to attract more women into sailing? If the answers make sense, then it's worth them doing it. If not, it's not. Simple

And if the people at Musto weren't sure about the answers to the questions above, they should take my next bit of advice and ask bloggers what they want and who they reach. I know this takes work, but once you've identified which bloggers you think are most influential for your company/client, email the blogger and ask them for more info about their audience, visitors stats and what they want from you in exchange for writing about your company. Is it free products, the chance to try something out, publicity - what? These are people, not businesses you're dealing with. Often they won't even know what the answer is, but by starting a conversation with them you're on the right track.

Product reviews are just one tool. A key thing for most bloggers is audience. They want people to visit their blogs. - whether it's to drive revenue, catch the eye of a publisher, meet more people or simply have the notoriety. They want people to comment on their blogs. Any publicity you can give them will help them boost their numbers, so think of ways you can help promote them in exchange for them promoting you.

Think creatively. Run competitions to write about a subject (not a product) where everyone who gets involved gets something and the winning entry gets a bigger prize, heaps of publicity and a ticker tape parade (just kidding on the last bit). In exchange, they agree to include a link to your site or mention your site in some way.

Remember most of all that mummy bloggers are a community. We're a virtual network of friends who rarely if ever meet but with whom we share hugely personal information with. Try to understand this dynamic. Know that the mummy blogger doesn't live to write about your stuff. They're looking after children, running businesses, going to work, doing laundry, cooking, shopping, having sex (probably not much), doing hobbies, running PTA meetings, staying in touch with family members, remembering birthdays, walking the dog and generally living. They also happen to blog about it.

I don't think anyone has the perfect answer as to how to work within this dynamic - I'm both a PR and mummy blogger and I don't have a de facto answer - but thinking like a mum is probably a good start.


Steve said...

A great article Melissa, and I enjoyed the two you referred to. As a publisher I am happy to run competitions for free only if the prize is worth it and only if the sponsor lets me do it my templated way. I also come across those who think customising it is easy, and asking for lists of entrants is expected. Basically you should get what you pay for.

Oh, and PRs aren't hated. Bad PR is hated, informative PR is good.


Amy Johnston said...

Great post Melissa. As a PR working with bloggers of all kinds, not just mummies, it's interesting to hear both sides of the story! Look forward to seeing you at the meet up on Sunday!

Natalie said...

This was an excellent, balanced read. For me personally, I don't want to be paid to write about a product as it lacks editorial integrity. I am happy to review products, but I only have so much time, energy, plus I state that me taking a product doesn't mean it gets top marks. My concern with some PR people is not that they want to be featured or written about, it's that they want to control what's written or force competitions upon you and expect you to be 'grateful'.

The other peeve which I was glad you mentioned was not understanding the target audience or blog, but still trying to push an irrelevant product.

I have however met some really lovely PR people - even if they didn't 'get' it initially, they've taken the time to, so not all prs are bad.

A Modern Mother said...

EXCELLENT post (so when did you find time to write this one?)

You really nailed it. It's a delicate balance, but it is do-able.

Agree that bad PR is hated and good PR is appreciated.

Coding Mamma (Tasha) said...

Interesting post. I really liked the Me Time competition that you set up, actually (and not just because I won!), and think writing competitions of that kind are quite good, especially if all you're asked to do is provide a mention and a link.

For the most part, I just ignore badly targetted PR emails, though if they're just slightly off I'll respond with details about the sorts of thing I would be interested in reviewing. And most press releases get dumped immediately, unless it's a subject matter of particular interest to me (and that has happened), so it's probably still worth sending them out, just in case.

I did a few months of PR for a publishing company, so I know all about phoning round/writing to people who are thoroughly sick of random PR offers. The ones I was most successful with were always the ones where I'd been able to find out something about the contact or the show/publication, rather than just phoning the next name in the giant media listing I had on my desk.

I think the difficulty from a PR stand-point is that it's all still quite new and therefore very hit and miss, whereas, with the established media, there are at least conventions to be followed.

It's good advice to get some parenting bloggers on the payroll, as they'll be in a better position to know who's interested in what.

And... as Susanna said, where on earth did you find the time to write it?!


This is a great post. Came over here thanks to Tasha's tweet on Twitter. I've been approached by a whole range of companies and these days have become very focused on the kind of things that I am happy to promote. When I started blogging about two years ago, I must admit I was won over by flattery.

If I get approached about something that does not interest me I usually reply specifying the details.

Thanks for a brilliant blogpost - it's brilliant to see it from the other side.

Helen said...

Applause! Applause! Refreshing black on white, or as we say here in Brazil: dots on the 'i's! Very well written and easily understandable even for your audience who may not be so well versed in these subjects.

Dancinfairy said...

This is a really interesting balanced post, and it is great to hear a side from an actual PR person that understands both sides of the issue. A great read, thank you.

nappy valley girl said...

Excellent post, and very sensible advice.

I've been on all three sides of the equation - a blogger, a journalist for 15 years, and recently, I worked for a short while for a PR agency.

Being targeted by PRs as a blogger is a lot like being targeted as a journalist - and with my journo hat on, my automatic response is to ignore most of the emails that drop into my box unless they particularly catch my eye or look particularly relevant for me. My PR experience tells me that the pitches that work are those that are truly targeted, understand the target audience and publication and have made the effort to make some personal contact with the journalist.

I guess the major difference is that journalists (or most journalists, anyway) need good PRs in order to help them to do their job- although bad ones are purely an irritation. Bloggers don't need PRs, however - unless they are in it to get freebies or want to make a living from it. So that must make the PR's job far harder.

Liz said...

An extremely intelligent post, Melissa. I'm a journalist who writes a parenting/shopping blog, and I've also worked for countless magazines and newspapers over the years and been offered every conceivable product/PR story under the sun. The No 1 question I always ask myself is - is this relevant to the readers? If it isn't, I don't feature it, simple as. I also don't accept the sample/holiday/free lunch (however gorgeous and tempting it is) and I always tell the PR why it isn't relevant. My only gripe with PRs is when they send you emails which show they have absolutely no idea what it is you write about. Would a little bit of research be too much to ask?

Anonymous said...

A fasinating post and so topical. I used to read several large US parenting blogs but in the last year they have become completely commercial so I no longer read the. It would be s shame if that happened to blogs over here.

A lovely balanced viewpoint.

Iota said...

Great post. I learnt so much.

I've been blogging for 2 years, and the UK scene really has changed a lot in that time.

Sparx said...

Hi Melissa!

Nice to meet you today at the lunch - and I really enjoyed this, I thought you put it all very clearly. I'm endlessly surprised at how different the blogging community is now to even the short years ago when I started out and it's good to see someone who knows what they're talking about who also sits on 'our' side of the fence if that makes sense.

Mummy Whisperer said...

Thank you for this post, I thoroughly enjoyed it and found it really useful. I've not had the problems that you are describing, but I suspect that I'm just not the 'right' sort of person that those PR people would be looking for as I don't review stuff - it's more a blog to add extra info related to my work site. It's great to have a better understanding of the problems that the Mummy/PR girl that I've just employed will be facing.

b said...

Great post that balances out both sides evenly. I have to admit that most of the PR companies that I have dealt with are brilliant and are very helpful and appreciative of what you can do and can't.

yummymummytips said...

as a fellow PR by day Blogger by night - I know exactly what you mean. I think that it is thought that we (PR's) have budgets to play with to pay for things like blog posts.
If only they knew.
But as a blogger - I want my blog to remain true. I want it to be about the things that I want to write about.
There is a very difficult balance to be had.
As a member of British Mummy Bloggers, I think that it would help if they started a database of which blogs are open to contacts from PR's. This may stop some people feeling that they have to write such articles.

Catherine Warrilow said...

Hi Melissa
Great to come across you here, having met you on email for Baby Genie!
Also being PR by day, blogger by any other unsociable hours, it's been a real eye opener to be on the receiving end of press releases! I think your post is great and really sums up the nuts and bolts of the PR/blogger relationship, thanks for a really good read!