Bad PR can work. If it didn't, practitioners of bad PR wouldn't stay in business because their clients wouldn't keep coming back to them to do more of it.
While there are dozens of bad PR categories, let's look at two broad ones, PR spam and unethical PR practices.
PR spam is the favorite whipping boy of the blogosphereâ€"and especially tech bloggersâ€"because they tend to be the principal recipients. The concept is simple: Get ahold of a list of blogger email addresses, then blast something out to everyone on the list in hopes that they'll blog about it. The nature of what gets sent varies from mail merges that make a feeble attempt to look personalized to blatant blanketing of prominent bloggers with the same, usually off-topic, pitch or press releases.
With so many people decrying this practice, even going to lengths to out those who engage in it, why does it continue? For the same reason email spam continues. Just as enough recipients of email spam will buy the product advertised, enough bloggers run the content of the pitch to generate results that satisfy the client.
For example, I got a pitch back in March about the launch of a new web service. Google's BlogSearch shows it was picked up on two sites, which may seem inadequate until you realize those two sites are Advertising & Marketing News and Website Magazine, which means the announcement got plenty of exposure. Other examples of PR spam I've received achieved even better pickup rates.
PR Spam won't die as long as enough bloggers continue to post items based on the spam they receive. Sure, they could end up on The Bad Pitch Blog or Gina Trapani's list of PR spammers, but if the clients keep coming, why should they care?
Unethical practices are employed by unethical and lazy people because they believe it makes it easier to get results. Whether their clients are aware of their behavior is an open question, but if they don't get caught and the effort produces results, the client will be back for more. Consider astroturfing, a vile practice that is sometimes exposed but frequently works just as it's intended.
This doesn't mean I'm advocating for bad PR. While bad PR can produce good results, good PR is bound to produce far better results. Ultimately, it's a question of quality. It's easy to produce something of poor quality that people will buyâ€"look how many cheap knock-off watches are sold on the streets on Manhattanâ€"but you'll make more money and have a longer arc of success with a high-quality product.
"Quality" isn't a word we've heard much lately, but it was a huge topic from the late 1970s through the mid-90s when companies were spending gobs of money on TQM (Total Quality Management) and QIP (Quality Improvement Process) initiatives. During my days in the corporate world, I helped communicate several quality programs. Thinking about bad PR led me to remember a concept from one of those programs that was called, simply, "Right Things Right." It's based on a basic four-square diagram that looks at whether you produced what you were supposed to in the right way:
Applying this to a quality situation, imagine a customer steps up to a fast-food counter and orders a hamburger cooked rare. He can get one of four outcomes:
- The right thing right: A hamburger, cooked rare
- The right thing wrong: A hamburger, cooked well-done
- The wrong thing wrong: A hot dog, cooked well-pdone
- The wrong thing right: A hot dog, cooked rare
The customer may shrug off the well-done hamburger and eat it anyway, and if it's good, may even come back. Getting the wrong thing, whether it's done right or wrong, isn't likely to motivate a return visit.
Now let's apply the same concept to pitching online influencers:
- Right thing right: A targeted, personal pitch to a blogger with a unique angle about an announcement that is right up his alley and about which he'd want to tell his community.
- Right thing wrong: A targeted, personal pitch to a blogger with a unique angle about something in which he has no interest and would have no desire to share with his community.
- Wrong thing wrong: The same message to a list of bloggers about something they may or may not be interested in; if they are, it's because out of all the bloggers you spammed, it was likely some small percentage of them blogged about your topic.
- Wrong thing right: The same message to a list of bloggers that was narrowed down so they all have an interest in this topic, but probably won't appreciate the fact that they all got the same form pitch.
For each of the three options other than the right thing right, there will be some pickup. But when you do the right thing right, not only are you likely to get more and better coverage, you'll also earn the respect of the people to whom you reached out and their communities may react more positively, given the blogger was able to add his unique angle to your or your client's story.
All the anger and hate aimed at PR people, prompting claims that PR is dead, is based on the visible actions of people who don't do the right things right. Those who do the right things right tend not to get noticed, even if they do produce outstanding results. Rather than continue to defend the profession against the lazy and unethical practitioners who represent a good proportion of any profession, we just need to strive to continue to do the right things right.
For any outreach effort you undertake, it wouldn't hurt to fill in the four quadrants to make sure your work fits the bill.