How Not to do PR

How Not to do PR

I’ve been doing this marketing/blogging/PR thing for awhile now, and I’ve got enough experience to know when PR and social media marketing is done poorly. I’ve been blogging since the dark ages, when nobody would dare ask for compensation for a product review, and I’ve seen how the landscape has shifted (and I love it, frankly). I’ve watched people build names for themselves via Twitter, and end up with careers managing brands’ social media platforms, or admired them working hard promoting new products. They make solid income doing this. There is a lot of money to be made if you’re good at what you do in this game. And there’s plenty to be lost when brands don’t have a clue how to manage it.

I used to teach brands how to develop and implement social media plans, and I built my own company on the back of the internet, so I get it from both sides. As a former small craft business owner, I also know that budgets are extremely tight, but I’d never dared ask someone to promote my products for free. And I would never want someone to lie about a product just because I had given it to them for free. So as a blogger and writer, I expect the same respect.

It’s my choice what I’ll work for, nobody else gets to decide on my definition of “selling out”. There are companies I wouldn’t take money from, no matter how much they dangled, and there are some I’d work for free for (charities) just to help promote the cause.  If I want to work for a free box of cereal, that’s my business. But my circumstances are not yours, or his or hers over there. They’re mine, so I get to define what works for me.

Most companies fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum for me — the area that requires I be paid for the work I do. Just like everyone else expects in their place of work. My place just happens to be behind a monitor. But whenever I accept a job, I make sure you all know that, no matter where I’m posting from. I will tag tweets to let you know I’m not sneaking in a sponsored mention, or note it on Instagram. I never slip a sponsored mention in, because to me, that’s dirty PR.

I’m a writer and blogger with an amazing, interactive, smart, discerning audience I’ve worked very hard to build. I consider everyone who reads my tweets, my blog, my Facebook ramblings a friend on some level. I would never tell you I loved something just because someone threw me a few hundred bucks. Not even for a few thousand would I stretch any truths. It’s not worth it for me. FOR ME. That’s not to say it’s not worth it for someone else — what other people do for money is none of my business. But across my platforms, what you see is what I genuinely love, and when I’m paid, I disclose that. You can rest assured that if I didn’t like something, it would never make it to my blog if I wasn’t able to be completely honest in my feedback. That’s a big reason I left the first ad collective of which I was a member. I was slapped on the wrist for writing an honest review of a deodorant. I was expected to lie because I’d been paid $250 and thrown a few samples to write the post about a product that absolutely didn’t work for me. No thanks.

Part of the unspoken agreement you and I have is that I won’t bullshit you. And I think it’s ok for me to require payment in return for me offering up my opinion on a product. This blog isn’t primarily a space for reviews, it’s where I write about my life, where I spill out my creative writing and secrets. You’re probably not here to read about what I think of pit stick. I’m a good writer, so not only do brands get an honest opinion and the best audience ever, they know my voice is equated with honesty and quality. I like that, and I’m not too humble to flaunt that, either.

This brings me to the ugly side of PR.

You know that most things that appear in magazines aren’t honestly chosen, right? Brands pay for those spots. And that’s ok. Because we know they’re ads.

You know that celebrities don’t pay for the things they’re spotted wearing, right? There are gifting companies that charge thousands and thousands of dollars just to give companies the opportunity to give a gift to a celebrity in the hopes they sport the product in public and are photographed wearing it. That’s like an endorsement, right? Even if they didn’t buy it, and never would? Heck, I’d use a free gift, too. Doesn’t mean I like it. And this is ok, as long as you realize it’s a purchased spot.

You know most blog posts are just paid ads, right? For fear of insulting PR companies and stopping the event invitations and free product deliveries, many bloggers are too afraid to be completely honest in their reviews, meaning that reviews are just paid ad placements. And there’s nothing wrong with that, if you understand that you’re reading an ad. Just like in a magazine or during a commercial break. Paid ads. PAID.

Should I say it again? P-A-I-D. Paid.

That brings me to my recent experience with a company that contacted me to work on some PR with them prior to the holidays. I invite you to read the whole conversation from start to finish because, my friends, this is a perfect example of how not to do PR. Click to enlarge the pictures — identifying information has been blacked out because a) I don’t want to publicly hang them out to dry, and b) I don’t want to inadvertently send them any traffic

how not to do PR 1 Yay! That sounds like a fun campaign, right? I loved the idea of unique gifts for men, because yes, I actually do find it difficult to buy for many of the dudes in my life. I bet many of you do, too, so you’d probably find it helpful. That’s where I start when I evaluate what I’ll write about here… would my readers give any craps about this? If yes, I consider it. If it’s way off what I’d ever write about then no, it doesn’t get air time here.

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Hm, that doesn’t seem very clear. Mostly because at that point, brands usually mention budget and sharing requirements, but that’s ok, I’ll ask for more details. They did say they’re new to this, so I’ll walk them through it.

how not to PR 4 edit

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Huh. Still not super clear, though, right? So I have to be creative, but how does that actually tie into their brand, and what’s in it for me? It’s starting to dawn on me that it’s intentionally vague because they don’t want to talk dollars. But I do.

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“For a possible share”?! You mean, I get to research, be creative, and create a collage for you in a blog post on my blog and you MIGHT share it? To the audience that is less than 1/3 the size of my own? Oh, but I get it… they really love reading bloggers’ posts! That should do the trick. They love it, so that should be payment enough, right?

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I figured I’d open the door to an offer of free product, because hey, maybe there’d be something great there for my husband this Christmas.

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No, Alexandra, I’m afraid you actually don’t understand that my blog is my work. If you did understand that this is my job, you’d never ask me to do it for you for free.

Nobody would have the cojones to ask you to work in their store for free for the day, would they? Do you go to work every day just because it’s fun? Oh, and hey, do you mind advertising my company for free for me? I can’t actually pay you because I don’t respect you enough, but you can totally spread the word about my products for me and I might retweet you. Sounds fair to me.

Look. I know it’s hard to know when it’s ok to express your actual opinion, and when to demonstrate some “tact”, but I promise that it’s possible to do both things. Maybe this post will make a PR company think twice about working with me, but the real question is this: isn’t the honest voice the one you do want on your side? I think so.

When you read an ad, you should know it’s an ad.
When you hire someone to do a job, you should pay them fairly for that job.
When you approach a blogger to work for free, you should really just not bother approaching.
When you reply to a pitch like this, you should be honest and stop this garbage from happening.

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I think that’s a list I’m ok with being removed from.

Maybe I should rewrite THIS post to be “how to respond to insulting pitches” because every one of those responses is exactly appropriate in this case, too.

And now I’ll step down off my soapbox and go Instagram some photos of my lunch and tweet about the bon bons I was just eating on my couch, because apparently that’s all work-at-home moms do, according to some enlightened folks.

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18 thoughts on “How Not to do PR

  1. Great post, Alex! I receive quite a few similar pitches. It would be great if in the initial outreach, the PR company could let you know there is absolutely no compensation instead of having to do the run-around (6 or so correspondences/replies back and forth). It’s a waste of time for both parties. At least you asked 🙂 You never know unless you ask. Sometimes when I inquire, they actually do have room for some kind of compensation. You are absolutely right…No one would expect to have a person work in a store for free for a day. that’s just crazy 🙂

    1. It IS a waste of time! It’s so frustrating to be expected to write something for free… why would that benefit me at all? Ridiculous.

  2. Only time I received a pitch was from Target Canada. They were offering kids’ clothes in exchange for a back to school-themed post. I got all excited until I read to the bottom of the email – the clothes were ON LOAN. I was to write a post, put the clothes on my kids, take their pictures in the clothes, and then return the clothes AT MY COST!!

    I didn’t reply – just ignored it – but I should have replied, probably. I have always wondered if anyone took them up on it.

    1. I bet you they did! Because the hope that the company would later work with them, or that they’d promote the blog post, was probably incentive enough. But that’s insulting, too… on loan!? How totally ridiculous.

  3. I really, really think it’s a medium that’s still very new to people, and very few people truly understand HOW to do it. Unfortunately.

    PR people who get it, get it, and they do what they can given the budgets they are given (sometimes that shows up in $$ compensation, or gift cards, or in product, which sometimes works for me, depending on what it is).

    But the ones who don’t, just expect that you are going to “share this with your readers” (Really? Why would I do that?) or put time, effort, energy, and prime personal blog real estate into free promotion (which, NO)

    1. Then who is teaching the brands? If we don’t speak up, who will let them know that they’re defeating their own purposes? Instead of taking my advice to heart, I’m absolutely sure this particularly company will just blacklist me (which is fine, but again, useless).

  4. Fantastic post! I agree completely and applaud you for your final email back. Love it! Hopefully they learned something.

    1. Thanks, Jenn. It’s hard, I find, to know how to reply without seeming rude back, but really… how else can they learn?

  5. Although this is your job, I believe that some bloggers do it solely a hobby. What do bloggers want? More views. So for new aspiring bloggers, it provides them with an opportunity to generate more content. I don’t think writing about a company for free should be absolutely blacklisted.

    As a blogger myself, if there was free product or the chance to receive more views I wouldn’t be that offended. There are plenty bloggers (albeit, newer less established bloggers) that would love the opportunity to partner with a company for a holiday campaign.

    However I’m not trying to argue and say that what you said is not true, they may have simply misjudged you and did not realize that you required compensation. It’s great that you took the first step in asking for clarification.

    1. But see, in this case, that wasn’t the offering. There was nothing for free, and it was a “potential” share to a very small audience. There is no benefit for a blogger there.

      Even smaller, newer bloggers deserve to gain something from working. (Besides, I don’t have the traffic numbers many brands want anyhow, but I still know that those who read my blog are valuable because I have amazing readers!)

  6. Great post Alex. Thank you for writing it. Also, I’d be happy to talk to that company as well to give them some tips, but I would quote them my hourly consultant rate 🙂

  7. These people pitched me a few times. I have exactly the same reaction. It’s a product that my husband would get a HUGE kick out of getting. So I would do the post. I would offer a giveaway. I would ask for compensation. But the reply is we don’t even send out product. That’s horrible PR and a really uncreative and uninspiring campaign. I can’t believe some companies with this crap. Honestly. And the reader here who says that bloggers just want views is totally off the mark. Views don’t pay the mortgage. This is simply a crappy pitch. Sharing your post.

    1. Yup, I totally agree. Views are only one (fairly small) part of the business of blogging, and there’s little value in a view that bounces off, or finds no real value in my site. I like engaged readers, return readers, readers who trust and value my opinions. Nobody gives a crap about an advertising post with zero value offered.

  8. This post is so spot-on! Why does it take numerous emails for them to convey there is no budget? Why don’t they think outside the box (like make a donation to a charity in your name – it’s holiday-ish right and social good).

    1. Yes, even that would be a great option! I don’t know why it isn’t just straight-forward. It makes the whole process awkward, and I frankly would never buy that company’s product given how poorly their PR person handled this.

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