Thursday, March 12, 2009

PR & Paid Blogger Coverage: A Necessary Evil?

I was reading a post on David Mullen's blog , which I would recommend you subscribe to if you don't already, and he brought up the controversial topic of PR Spam. It got me thinking about another controversial topic among PR pros in the blogosphere that has received significant coverage as of late - paid blogger coverage.

Merely mentioning paid media placement is considered blasphemy to many seasoned PR pros. But, as the industry continues to evolve so do its tactics. Although the practice of paying bloggers for media coverage is far from gaining widespread acceptance, agencies and in-house departments are increasingly using this tactic (see article).

The face of public relations has changed dramatically in the past decade. With the emergence of social media and the current state of the economy, PR has been forced to adapt and find new ways to reach stakeholders. For the most part these changes have benefited the industry. The expansion of Web 2.0 continues to amaze me and there seems to be no end in sight. PR pros have so many new ways to reach their audiences it is overwhelming at times.

When I think about the new face of PR a quote from Spider-Man comes to mind, "With great power comes great responsibility." It may just be a comic book - and the most successful trilogy of all time - but there is a lot to be taken from that quote. Public relations professionals have these new tools that put audiences at their fingertips.

Still, along with this new-found power comes a new code of ethics that seems to have no centralized consensus. Is it ethical to pay bloggers for coverage? That really isn't up to me to decide. I know that PR agencies have historically resisted the temptation of compensation techniques. I'm not saying it never happened, but it has certainly never been considered an industry standard and no one is talking about it around the water cooler.

Nevertheless, more companies are contemplating sponsored blog posts as an additional way to reach new audiences. Will this eventually become a staple in PR services? I don't know. I do know that PR has problems with its reputation and image already. For professional storytellers and strategic communicators, we have failed to practice what we preach in regards to communicating PR's relevancy and role in business strategies.

Gaining consumer confidence with credibility is essential to the function of PR. Third-party endorsements are what makes that credibility possible. But if people know that the third-party is in some one's pocket, all that credibility goes out the window. The concept of "earned" placement versus "paid" placement is what separates PR from other marketing functions. Sure marketing is becoming increasingly more integrated, but if the lines blur too much we could find ourselves in the midst of a major identity crisis.

Many feel that paid media placement, in general, has no place in PR. Then there are those who feel it is a viable way to deliver messages. But what constitutes "paid" placement? Where do we draw he line? PR pros have been distributing products to journalist specifically for coverage for years. Is that "paid" placement? Again, not for me to decide. I am simply hoping to encourage lively discussions.

I understand that most of these sponsored blogs ensure full payment disclosure. I am not complaining about the deceitfulness of paid coverage. It is the appropriateness I wish to discuss. What are the consequences? Does PR want to be associated with the "pay to play" concept? Where will the line be drawn? Give an inch and they will take a mile.

In other words, once bloggers get paid for coverage they may expect repeat business. Izea, a social media marketing company counted about 250,000 participating bloggers in its network willing to do "paid" coverage, reports PRWeek. Paying for placement is a slippery slope. It could lead to the extinction of "voluntary" blogger endorsements.

I may be getting carried away and exaggerating a bit, but there is potential for widespread panic. Blogger-payment programs could become just another outreach tool at PR's disposal. As long as relationships are disclosed there is no harm, right? Depending on who you ask, you could stir up some passionate responses.

Kmart, a subsidiary of Sears Holdings, gave six bloggers $500 gift cards last year to participate in shopping sprees and blog about their experiences. Afterward, the company implemented a contest for a community member from each of the blogs to win a gift card in the same amount. Paid placement? Or innovative and well-executed promotion?

That is just one example of the ambiguous nature of this controversial topic. Paid blogger coverage could also be compared to arranging product placement on a TV show. So again I reiterate the enigmatic nature of paid media placement. Paying bloggers for placement seems to coincide more with advertising tactics, but that is just my opinion.

What is your opinion? I know you have one. Feel free to comment and share your insights, experiences, thoughts, etc.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

PR Poised for Growth in 2009?

According to the "Year-End Survey of PR principals," PR firms saw growth in 2008 despite harsh economic challenges toward the end of the year. The survey, conducted by the Council of PR Firms, questioned 57 Council members and firm principals. But while 60% reported growth in 2008, only 33% foresee growth in 2009.

Still, Social media is one area where PR pros do expect significant growth in 2009. The above-mentioned survey found that 79% of respondents agree. The creation of digital content is inexpensive in comparison to other alternatives and PR campaigns continue to include social media tactics as a part of the overall strategy. The cohesive implementation of effective social media tools could be a recipe for success.

This phenomenon is just what the doctor ordered for PR. But, PR pros must make sure to let other industries know that social media is their turf. Sure there are several industries that could, and should, use social media outlets as part of their overall strategies, but social media - at its core - most directly coincides with public relations objectives.

PR is the business of building and maintaining relationships. It is the business of communicating through various media outlets, including social media. Currently, there is an overwhelming amount of attention surrounding this new medium, which could ultimately lead to overwhelming new successes for the practice of public relations. Many firms and in-house departments have done a great job of building up their social media capabilities. This integration of new tactics with other traditional tools used in PR could lead to an increase in revenue and job security for those in the field.

This may take a little more time because of the current economic turmoil we find ourselves in, but the future still looks bright. According to the Council of PR Firms survey, social media and crisis management will best address clients' complex business challenges in the upcoming year, reported PRWeek.

Honestly, that makes a lot of sense to me. Social media is 'all the rage' right now and many decision makers are realizing the benefits of the transparency it provides. Giving one's company a personality is becoming the standard. Openness, accountability and personification are key ingredients of effective communications strategies. Unlike many traditional tactics, social media outreach can meet those demands.

We could sit around and talk about the terrible economy all day, but that really won't get us anywhere. I am a firm believer in the power of positive thinking. The economy will get better. Its cyclical nature and history tell us that. Demand for consumer-generated media will increase and PR will be at the forefront of this revolution. So, even though experts have stated pessimistic predictions for the economy in 2009 there is still room for growth in PR. This may not come to fruition immediately, but at least there is hope.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Print Closures: Proof of Social Media Transition

Talk of the digital transition can be found everywhere you look on-line. No, I'm not talking about the transition from analog to digital broadcast. I'm referring to the transition of consumer's media channel preferences. More and more people are getting their news and information from the Web. They are reading blogs, checking out Web sites, or using a variety of social media tools to get their media fix.

There is a call for instant gratification and socialization. So, when I hear about the closure of the Rocky Mountain News, I am not taken by surprise. While it is always sad to see any long-standing and well respected news source go under, it is simply the nature of the beast. PR pros should take this as a clear message that many more print publications will follow.

Still, this is a reality that PR pros should have been prepared for long ago. Although the folding of an established newspaper will eliminate many opportunities for PR agencies in that region, those firms should be adept at pitching social media outlets by now. The growing prominence of blogs, news Web sites, forums, micro-blogging sites, social networking sites, etc. has been widely discussed and studied in PR circles around the globe.

I understand there are many aspects of daily print-focused journalism that will be terribly missed. But, sophisticated and well-informed PR pros must learn to ride the tide and adapt accordingly. This change in consumer preference will continue and the practice of public relations will grow more accustomed to the evolution of their field. It is their job to find stakeholders and reach them wherever they may be.

Hearst disclosed it will put the San Fransisco Chronicle up for sale or close it unless expense cuts can be achieved, reports PRWeek. Many other publishers have stated similar concerns, and have publicly acknowledged their failure to adapt and remain relevant. People want information instantly and there are no signs indicating that will change. With RSS, instant news updates and greater segmentation are alive and well. Niche targeting has become an absolute necessity. This may call for greater understanding and segmentation of stakeholders, but there is a lot to be gained as well. Specifically targeting an audience with media placement in a newspaper is a challenge. Specifically targeting an audience placement on TechCrunch is a given.

Pitching to bloggers may be a relatively new practice for many PR pros, but they better get on board. The fundamentals are the same, but the stakes have changed. Many bloggers don't know the rules of the game, which can prove to be frustrating for seasoned PR people. Plus, blogger's lack of credibility and timeliness can be a challenge when compared to more traditional print media.

Tech-centric areas such as northern California are leading the herd in regards to targeting niche Web sites and blogs, as they have utilized video and other interactive features for breaking product news. And, while many are attempting to argue that social media is only a trend, the true visionaries are not willing to wait out the storm. As print closures continue to happen, there is no time to waste. Stubbornness is not a sought after personality trait in this industry. If you are waiting for more proof of social media's relevance, you will be left behind and left for dead.