I'm the guy that Jory Des Jardins referred to as "the suit" at the State of the Mom-o-Sphere breakout panel at BlogHer07. I'm also the guy who stood up in front of you and said, "on behalf of everyone in corporate America, I humbly apologize." (thanks for laughing at that.)
I apologized because the anger in that room toward the PR industry was palpable. You can't stand the fact that we bombard you with emails asking you to write about products, and we often don't take the time to even read your blogs to see if you might be interested. In our emails we try to make you think we read your stuff, but we get enough of the details wrong to let you know we're basically trying to do as little as possible for you to get you to do as much as possible for us.
What's funny is I don't really even pitch products to bloggers. I pitch issues. I typically pitch discussions with opinion and business leaders about issues that I hope are important to you. But PR is PR, and nobody else was standing up, so someone had to apologize.
I said I try to be relevant and respectful when reaching out to bloggers - I act as though I'm a guest in your home, and I read your blog to see if you'd even be interested in what I'm pitching. Some of you applauded, which was really nice and polite. But it was clear that more than a few of you were still unimpressed, even skeptical of what I was saying to your faces. Citymama took the industry to the woodshed. Yes, I do note the irony of an industry whose purpose is to strengthen clients' reputations has such a terrible reputation of its own.
We're accustomed to pitching mainstream media - it's their job to consider what PR flacks have to say, and it's not personal. We apparently haven't figured out yet that you're not mainstream media - you're a mom with a million things to do, and your blog is your outlet, your means of self-expression, and your connection to a larger community. To you we're essentially a cross between telemarketers and spammers. To us we're just fishing for a placement, and your blog is more relevant to us than we are to you.
What's truly sad is we know we stink at this. Entire blogs have been published dedicated to how bad some of our pitches are. We're not really doing much about it, though. I really hate to add one more thing to your never-ending to-do list, but a number of you have asked me how you make it stop, and sadly that will fall on you. So I'll risk the wrath of some of my colleagues and share some ideas for whacking the flacks.
First, you have to decide if you want us to contact you at all. If you don't, the first thing to do is put a note in your "about this blog" section of your sidebar that says something like, "sorry, I don't accept solicitations from PR professionals asking me to write about their products on my blog." If you do want to hear from us, demand respect and relevance. State your terms, like "send pitches to a separate email and I'll consider them for my product review site" or "I only want to hear from you if you're talking about products that I use" or "I only accept offers to place an ad on my site." If you don't want a bunch of text clogging your sidebar, write a post about it and then offer a link to that post in your sidebar. Make sure the flacks understand the rules of your blog. If you get a pitch from someone who hasn't read the terms of your blog, then you can do with them what you will.
Of course, this isn't going to keep many solicitors from sending you bad pitches. You can take progressive disciplinary action against flacks - and this is where you get to release your inner snark.
One way to do this is to simply put the flack in timeout. Reply to the email you get saying something like, "sorry, you were rude and disrespectful to me. I'm not your tool. For the next 30 days any email I receive from your firm or your client goes to a spam filter." Of course, while this may give you some satisfaction, this may not be a big deal to a PR flack since there's so many great mommy-bloggers out there the flack can just skip to the next one.
If you really want behavior to change, you have to make sure the flack realizes there's a meaningful downside to being sloppy. In politics, there's an old saying - "sunshine is the best disinfectant." That's what I think you should do here.
Some of the best PR pros in our business are talking about how discussions are moving away from blogs a bit and into social network utilities like Facebook, and how we'll have to send pitches to facebook pages if people stop reading emails. This means that the pitches we write will be public. But here's the thing: EVERY PITCH WE WRITE IS ALREADY PUBLIC.
That's right - the standards of the PR profession essentially tell us that anything we send to you can be printed verbatim on the front page of any newspaper in the country. So why not your blog? If you get a bad pitch and it really makes you angry, say so on your blog. Call the person out. Seriously - use their name, firm, and contact information. Don't tolerate this disrespectful behavior. Exert your power as a consumer, as a parent, and as a blogger.
Many of you might feel hesitant about this. Some of you might think slapping people back is inconsistent with the civility of the mom-o-sphere. Some of you might feel this is too rude, maybe beneath you. Maybe you just want to treat people they way you'd like to be treated. However, we're not talking about 5-year-old kids. We are talking about professionals who are engaging in unprofessional conduct. There should be consequences to this.
Don't want to clutter your blog with bad pitch complaints? Perfectly understandable. Then work with your friends in the mom-o-spere to create a new "bad pitch blog" - except this one is written by parents, for parents. Bad Pitch Blog meets Consumerist meets Mom101. You'll be able to track who the worst offenders are and call them out. I'd read that blog every day. (I hope I never see my name there, but I'd still read it.)
Finally, if none of this is working, there's always the "nuclear option." PR firms pitch you on behalf of their clients. If you get something that really crosses a line, contact the director of communications of the COMPANY and tell them that their PR firm is spamming you on their behalf, and you're planning to write about it. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, will stop this faster than a call from the client saying, "What the heck are you doing? We pay you to improve our image with parents, not piss them off."
I'll close by saying thank you - I really appreciated meeting so many of you and I learned a great deal. I'll have more to say about this topic. I'll also talk about how or why PR firms don't show enough respect to communities of color in the near future, which was also discussed at the panel. Please always remember that you're the person with the power. It's your blog, it should be your rules.
David Wescott (a.k.a. "the suit")