Since Connors Communications is a PR firm, and we advocate writing so that you reach the consumer directly, it’s time for me to weigh in on whether HitTailing actually is the process of consumers reading press releases directly, as advocated by David Meermen Scott of WebInk. The blogging super-advocate of PR, Steve Rubel of Micropersuasion thinks Direct-to-Consumer press releases suck. Well, it seems to me that if you’re blogging to reach the consumer directly, and state that “press releases” that reach the consumer directly suck, it sounds a little like the pot calling the kettle black. Is it?
While Steve quickly points out he’s a fan of applying an “SEO-mind” to PR, he feels that newswire services are a pristine conduit to journalists that should not be littered with bogus fluff pieces that amount to nothing more than spam. It increases the burden on journalists to distinguish between what should REALLY be reported on as news, and what are merely attempts by companies to circumvent journalists altogether by attempts at low-cost advertising rigged to drop links in Yahoo Finance. Steve even drops that highbrow, but highly insightful term, disintermediation–the fear of every broker and middleman, in every industry worldwide.
The essential question seems to be, what value do journalists add to a story, and how much burden should be put on them to sift and filter news that’s going to reach some portion of their readership with or without them, anyway? Because let’s face it: blogging lets companies communicate directly to consumers, anyway. And blog communications often have less work and more of that “SEO-mind” put into them. The rate of communication is quicker, but the implied importance of each post is lower. None-the-less, blogging IS a form of a mini press release. Any journalist who closely covers a beat and wants to be competitive with bloggers who break news stories must have their Technorati subscription lists (or whatever blogosphere monitoring tools they use) set up to alert them to posts, least they lose the scoops.
So, should blog posts be elevated to the credibility of press releases to more formally compete with them? Or should the criteria of what justifies a press release be lowered, so they can compete with blogging?
If newswires are directly searchable by consumers anyway already, it’s almost a moot point. Add to that the fact that any PR firm worth its salt is backing up a press release with a summarized blog post, so that the blogosphere gets pinged, then aren’t journalists merely in a race with consumers for identifying important stories?
So, the real issue is that the damage is done. News releases already reach the consumer directly through search. Hard-core consumers have notifications set up through Technorati and other systems to notify them whenever keywords are used in blog posts. Google news alerts does roughly the equivalent for press releases AND website content. It won’t be long before consumer-filters deliver custom disintermediated and auto-assembled daily newspapers to these hard-core consumers.
But not all consumers are hard core. Some like their news packaged, interpreted and summarized by a trusted source. True, it is far fewer than in the past. But it is fragmented over far more specialized interests. And mainstream media has fragmented and specialized to reflect this.
But the race for news is the race for news. We live in a world where bloggers regularly scoop journalists. We live in a world where companies that desperately want to “become” news will jump at the chance to disintermediate the news gatekeepers. Blog posts and press releases are just two points on the same information broadcast system. Once you’ve taken the shotgun approach to disseminating your news, differentiating blogs from a press releases is splitting hairs. Either one could become the source of coverage.
Who is qualified to filter what is news? Companies when they write press releases? Newswire services in deciding whether to carry a story (ha!)? Journalists in deciding whether to pick up the story? Editors in deciding whether to run with it? Or consumers deciding whether to read past the headline? Democratized news dissemination systems like Rob Malda’s SlashDot, Kevin Rose’s Digg, and now Jason Calcanis’ Netscape imply direct-to-consumer. But what do they link to? Almost inevitably, they link to the new stories that HAVE ALREADY BEEN PUBLISHED! Catch-22!
Calling the liberal use of press releases to reach consumers directly spam is elitist — and ironically correct! Calling news democratized through Digg is hypocritical. Even the democratizing direct-to-consumer news systems irresistibly (and I find humorously) fall right back to the mainstream media as a crutch to tell them what’s important. They almost always link to professionally edited news stories. If they’re going to do that ANYWAY, then the press release system coupled with the follow-up pitching by PR professionals to journalists to help them understand the story still has high, albeit increasingly subtle value. It’s a critical link in the news food chain.
People need to be TOLD what’s important. It’s an elitist position, but it remains true. The task of filtering your own news raw from source is like drinking from a fire hydrant. It’s an enormous, daunting task, and frankly too draining for the average consumer. We have to choose who we trust, and let them act as our professional filter for our “daily read”.
At a Search Engine Strategies conference last year, I asked whether this deluge of news wasn’t going to ultimately turn journalists back into the gatekeepers of what’s important, and it looked like the founder of Topicx.net was going to kill me. He asked in a very condescending tone whether I had been reading the news over the past year, as if the epitaph of mainstream media was already written (subtext: all of us in PR are clueless bad-guys and agents of old-school media). While yes, I believe the consumer-controllable filters will become more powerful for constructing your own personal newspaper, taking into account Web surfing patterns, search patterns and locality, that is just one part of a much more complex filtering process. All that customization is just your end-point “My” settings.
So, companies should try to exercise some constraint on their press releases just out of professional courtesy to their journalistic counterparts–because they continue to be more of a gatekeeper than the democratizing hordes like to admit. Be respectful of their time. Make their filtering process easier. That way, when you back it up with a personal phone-call, they will not see you as the boy who cried wolf. You will get the reputation for a better signal-to-noise ratio than other companies/agencies who try to spam them.
When you want to disintermediate your best-friend journalist who has better chance of getting your story covered, then it is your prerogative. But wouldn’t a better choice be to first offer him/her the scoop on your story BEFORE you even blast it to the world? Help someone get the scoop. And do your best to make sure that it actually is objectively newsworthy, so you’re not wasting everyone’s time. That’s exactly what I’ve done with HitTail, before we’ve even written the first press release. Blogging, and the more democratic news voting systems then serve as a nice objectivity meter to gauge whether you’re really onto something.
And the HitTailing process advocated here is not the same as direct-to-consumer press releases, but it IS on the continuum of direct-to-consumer communication vehicles that use the shotgut approach. It is only PART of your overall marketing mix, albeit a low-cost, highly effective part. And it’s not intended to clutter the mind and desk of journalists, but rather to allow consumers to FIND YOU… but only when they’re SEARCHING. It influences the reverse-filter of search, and not the forward-filter (the news push) of the daily read.