It’s been a quiet July 4th weekend and I was relaxing and catching up on my RSS feeds (for me, at least, Twitter hasn’t taken over the world) when I bumped into a new article by tech provocateur Mike Arrington entitled The Reality Of PR: Smile, Dial, Name Drop, Pray.
The premise of the article is that a company that’s launched through us tech bloggers and, specifically his news service TechCrunch gains visibility faster than a company launched using traditional non-blog social media channels (as he says of the non-TechCrunch launched firm: “I’d say this experiment in a pure social media launch failed.”).
The story is about a startup that I haven’t heard of, Wordnik, but that’s not what caught my attention. Frankly, the insanely low barrier to entry for new Web 2.0 companies means that oddly named firms crop up like weeds on a weekly basis — and I’m only half-joking with that statement — so not hearing about a new company isn’t worthy of even a short blog entry or tweet. (for the record, I haven’t heard of Topsy either)
No, what bugged me about Mike’s self-congratulatory article was his dismissal of the entire field of public relations with this statement:
“PR firms today … are paid to perform a service. They like to think of themselves as core to the strategic action of their clients. But more often, they’re just there to spin whatever happened in the most favorable light possible. Then they smile and dial and pray for coverage. Occasionally they are called in to smother a story, which is mildly more exciting, I imagine. But when a CEO is wondering what she should do next to drive her business forward, she generally doesn’t call her PR firm for advice. Or at least I hope she doesn’t.”
Fair disclosure that’s germane to this discussion: in addition to running my own consulting business and a busy tech blog, I also sporadically work with the talented team at Metzger Associates, a hip public relations firm here in Boulder, Colorado.
And what do I do for them? Mostly host strategic planning meetings with clients, where we talk about the shortcomings of their existing products and services and brainstorm about how to introduce cooler, more compelling, and more exciting offerings to their market segments.
Public relations is to the diss “there to spin whatever happened in the most favorable light possible” as tech blogging is to “regurgitating whatever press release happens to catch your attention”. Both are inaccurate assessments yet both have a sliver of truth to them. Nonetheless, Arrington is falling into the common mistake of thinking that PR = press releases, that it’s a matter of service providers throwing information sticks into the news river. PR is not about press releases but about something far more fundamental: how a company is perceived and interacts with its public.
As an influence leader in the tech space, I am constantly surprised and a bit saddened by Arrington’s constant drumbeat against mainstream marketing and public relations. This is by no means the first time he’s come out against an industry of professionals who are not easily categorized by the smug dismissal of it being “old school”, and I think that a lot of worthy companies are being inappropriately ignored by his bias and the reflected bias of many others in the tech community.
Not all great invention comes from the rebel underground and not all great startups include people who know how to play the modern media game and gain visibility for themselves in the ceaseless tsunami of information that washes over us every time we power up.
But apparently Mike believes that if these same firms need to hire someone to help them gain visibility, they’re already dead in the water. It’s all about eschewing those evil public relations people, not adding them to your team and valuing their savvy counsel.
And that, ultimately, is a disservice to their communities, because I rely on news service like TechCrunch (and yes, Mike, TechCrunch is a news channel for me just as the BBC and Variety are too) to help me identify the best and the brightest, what’s cool on the horizon, and the more I learn about his institutional bias, the more I discount what’s written there.
How about you? Do you think that being hip more important than doing a good, comprehensive job?