Tuesday, March 01, 2011

The perks and pitfalls of PR

Every once in a while when I'm going through the grind of my daily routine, I stumble across something that makes me stop and say "What the hell?"  Last night, I happened across one of those things. I saw an article over at TechCrunch which, on the surface, looked like it was calling out a PR rep for some sort of unprofessional behavior.  The problem is, once you get past the headline, you realize that the article was dripping with overly sarcastic venom spewing forth about something that, to be perfectly frank, seemed to me like just a PR rep doing his job.  Instead of calling out some PR rep for being unprofessional, the folks over at TechCrunch ended up coming across as the ones lacking in tact and professionalism.

Which brings me to the subject of this post ...

Ask anyone who knows me and they'll tell you that I can be an expert at the proper use of sarcasm when the need arises, but usually I prefer to rely on my natural charm and witty repartee because, hey, that's just how I roll.  Seriously, though, in my years in the business, I've had all kinds of experiences with PR ... good AND bad.  You've just got to understand how to work with PR.  Notice that I specifically said "work with", not "deal with" or "work for".  I chose those words carefully.  You see, in this branch of journalism in particular (and yes, damn it, I said "journalism" ... but that's something I'll get into in a future post), you've got to look at the relationship with PR as a mutually beneficial and symbiotic relationship.

Let me start off by saying that, by and large, I love my PR contacts.  They tend to help make my job run a lot smoother.  Sure, every morning I get a slew of press releases and pitches from everyone trying to convince me that the project they're pushing is the next big thing.  Yes, PR correspondence tends to be overly enthusiastic sometimes, but that's just Marketing 101.  If you get excited about a product, it tends to rub off on others. The key is in knowing how to filter the hype. Dig in a little, and there's usually a lot of useful information.  PR is a tool that can be used to better serve the audience.  I can't tell you how many times a video game or comic book has been brought to my attention that might have otherwise slipped under my radar.  And if it slips under my radar, it slips under my audience's radar ... meaning that I'm doing them a disservice.  Preview and review copies of games, books, films, etc. give me an opportunity to spend more time with a project while still making a deadline to report on it in a timely matter.  And my friendly PR reps make getting a hold of devs, creators, and other talent for interviews a much less painful process.

Now, there IS a flip side to the PR coin.  This is where the difference between working "with" PR and working "for" PR comes into play.  Yes, I've had some rough patches in dealing with PR.  I've had to deal with a PR rep putting pressure on an editor to kill a story because he didn't like what I had to say.  Usually things don't get quite that bad.  Occasionally I might have a talk with a rep about an article and they may try to convince me to see the err of my ways, but those are normally civil.  And those big promotional events thrown for the media? Hey, I love a night out as much as the next guy, and I genuinely appreciate that I get to unwind with my peers, but here's the deal. If I'm not buying into what you're selling, no matter how pretty of a presentation you try to dazzle me with, I'm still going to call it like I see it.  At the end of the day, my responsibility lies with my audience ... not with you.

Which leads me all the way back to the TechCrunch article that irked me so much.  There was simply no call for it.  How in the hell did that article serve the audience in any way, shape, or form?  It was little more than penny ante, schoolyard bluster trying hard to make something out of nothing.  It was TechCrunch stepping into one of those generic teen movies as the stereotypical jock picking on the one kid just trying to do his schoolwork, shoving him into a locker in some sort of failed attempt to prove how cool he is to his friends and the pretty girl (which, in the case of this rambling metaphor, would be the audience).  And who usually ends up with the pretty girl in those movies by the time the credits roll?  And who ends up going to the class reunion still clutching onto his letterman jacket and football like it's some sort of security blanket defining everything about who he was, is, or ever hopes to be?

Exactly.

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