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Gini Dietrich

Where Is the Professionalism In PR?

By: Gini Dietrich | March 7, 2011 | 
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This first ran on Shonali Burke’s blog, Waxing Unlyrical. If you read it there, there is nothing new to see here. If you don’t know Shonali or her blog, I suggest high-tailing it over there. After you’ve read and commented on this piece first. Of course. Oh. And read the comments here. They’re new, too.

Week before last, TechCrunch took a stab at PR professional Timothy Johnson.

Actually, a stab is putting it mildly.

They called him a PR disaster and printed his emails to  Leena Rao, the “extremely sweet and mild-mannered colleague” of author  Robin Wauters.

Before you jump to a conclusion, let’s examine this from both sides: The side of reporter and writer Leena, and the side of PR pro Timothy.

Leena’s side:

  • She responded to his email (which doesn’t always happen) with a note asking for more information to make it more a story.
  • She asked him to circle back when he had something more newsworthy.
  • TechCrunch was left out of the initial announcement of Timothy’s client because they don’t honor embargoes.
  • A competitor to Timothy’s client sells double virtual gifts in a day that his client does in a year.
  • He wrote things such as “Seriously?” and “Really? Wait for a product announcement? Is that a joke, Leena?” which are full of conflict and could make one defensive.

Timothy’s side:

  • He was honest and upfront about why TechCrunch wasn’t included in the initial news last fall.
  • He doesn’t bury the news and is brief and to the point.
  • Only his emails were included in the TechCrunch “story;” Leena’s were not (minus her initial response).
  • What kind of publication, public or private, goes around bad-mouthing the people who help them get their content?
  • Who goes around telling a PR pro’s client they should fire that person and not sound like a complete jerk by doing so?

When I first saw the story, I tweeted it with a “whoa.” Then, last Sunday, Jeremy PepperShannon PaulMack Collier, and I debated its “merits” on Beth Harte’s Facebook wall.

I’m sure Timothy, Leena, and Robin are all very nice people (which came up during our debate on Beth’s wall).

That’s not the debate here.

The debate is:

a) whether or not a PR professional should ever write such an email to a reporter or blogger (if there are questions about the decision, a phone call ALWAYS works better), and

b) whether or not a publication or blog should print an email exchange and suggest the PR pro be fired.

My reaction?

They’re both in the wrong.

Timothy should never have written such a conflict-filled, defensive response. And TechCrunch should never have published it.

What do you think?

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, a Chicago-based integrated marketing communications firm. She is the lead blogger here at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. She is the co-author of Marketing in the Round and co-host of Inside PR. Her second book, Spin Sucks, is available now.

65 comments
andreamv
andreamv

One thing that struck me was when the reporter wrote: A competitor to Timothy’s client sells double virtual gifts in a day that his client does in a year. At that point, he's not going to get covered so why did he persist with this argument? How else can he differentiate the product and make sense of a new story? It seemed to me he would not let go of a losing argument and got snarkier over time and so we should not be surprised by the reaction of the reporter to raise the stakes. The editorial side holds the power here. We want coverage, they control the space. Only a small percent have access to people who are so powerful a reporter is seeking us out for help regularly (such as Apple PR w/ Steve Jobs). It would have been better to pick up a phone and figure out a new direction. And, perhaps he was not looking forward to reporting back to the client that the story was not selling.

barryrsilver
barryrsilver

You've done a good job of pointing out the problems in this situation so it's tough to add. Good thing that never stops me. 1.Why would a PR professional ever put a complaint to a public domain writer in writing? A. It loses any sense of voice tone. B. Can't claim having been misquoted. Anyone can have a bad day, but this guy gets paid for making people/businesses look good? Seriously. 2. If a public domain writer wants all the benfits of being a journalist, integrity is a key component. I'm not talking about the conclusions. An email, like a fax has an element of privacy attached to it. Reprinting it in public domain w/o permission has all the integrity of the pre-Carol Burnett lawsuit Enquirer. Finally, perhpas both sides should re-evaluate where the are in the food chain before going public. I thought the freedom to evaluate before hitting send was the beauty of print. Live and learn.

jaykeith
jaykeith

Let me throw a conspiracy theory out there that I haven't seen yet: TechCrunch tosses in the occassional post about bad PR because they know that as a group, we're going to share (even overshare), comment and essentially address the merits of each post ad nauseum. We're a very passionate group and as such are going to defend (or vilify) our own. We're also wordy, we all have our own blogs and we love to comment on one another's properties. If there's one thing that TC loves it's comments, links, and sharing. They want people reading, coming to the site and talking about them, pretty much regardless of what the subject matter is. So every once in a while they take what I'm sure is one of hundreds of examples from a folder of "bad PR" and just tosses up a post calling someone out. Voila, in just over two weeks you've got 400 likes, over 1,300 tweets, 350 comments and countless links, mentions and eyeballs back to the site.

Was it mission accomplished for them? The editors and staff at TC are extremely smart when it comes to pushing traffic and driving eyeballs to the site. By their own admission, "Twitter has grown to the point that it is now our second largest source of outside traffic after Google." PR pros love, embrace, and use Twitter...a lot. TC knows an audience that will rise up and flock to a story when it sees one, and we're it. At least every once in a while.

sue_anne
sue_anne

I do think that Timothy Johnson made a huge mistake in sending the email, but I can understand his frustration. As someone who does internal PR for a tech company in the Silicon Valley, it's really tricky not to want to send emails like that every day.

You have a small number of publications, like TechCrunch, who seem to be making decisions (that at times can be seen as arbitrary) about what news they're going to cover and what news they're going to ignore. You have TechCrunch reporters who have inboxes that are flooded with messages and can't respond to a majority of pitches they get, and then you have clients (or CEOs) wanting to know why you didn't get that TechCrunch coverage. It's fairly easy to get frustrated and want to scream to the heavens -- or the twitter stream -- about it.

While his tone was bad, I actually thought it was good that he sent it via email and not a public rant on Facebook, Twitter or a blog.

EricaAllison
EricaAllison

Man, that @ginidietrich has been busy today! Copying and pasting away...

At any rate, @shonali , I love this post. I agree with you: they are both in the wrong here. Unfortunately, this is happening more than I would like for it to - anyone with a gripe that could have been complained about with their spouse or friend in the privacy of their own homes is now fair game for youtube, blogs, emails, and massive amplification. Must feel really good to them to begin with; I'll be the remorse is painful as well. Surely, there's some remorse somewhere?

I also agree with @3HatsComm here in that I always strive for professionalism, even when no one is watching. I love @ginidietrich approach of sending yourself the nasty email. I've written them before, saved them as a draft, but never thought to send to myself.

I learned my biggest lesson in the trials and tribulations of a douchebag when I got hooked into feeling like I was the client's personal 'confidant'. The client complains about the sales team or the marketing dept, I chime in, agree in an email, and then that said email is sent to the offending 'team' and down the rabbit hole we go. Ouch. Careful, careful, careful.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

From Sarah Lafferty:

Gini, I think you have summarised it very well and are essentially right - they are both 'wrong' in the sense that they have both lost out from the transaction.

However. Timothy 'started it' with his caffeinated and clipped-sentencey rebuke to the gentle Leena. (Yeah, I'm afraid it was a bit douchey)

The fact is we are trying to persuade another (the journalist) to take an action (write something nice about a client) that will provide material gains to us (hearty shoulder pat or high-five, promise of ongoing revenue, possible industry award) in exchange for, well, not much, really when you consider how many other cool companies are dying to get written up in TechCrunch. The correct stance to adopt is graciously assertive, factual but not aggressive or heaven forbid, entitled.

Now, I have myself sauntered down douchey lane and learned my lesson the hard way. Luckily for me, my 'victim' was kind enough to confront me over the phone and we ended up laughing at the end. I am not in favour of all this high-minded 'public' flogging. We're all human and we all have an inner douchebag.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

From Davina Brewer:

Love Bill's "heard and not seen" which I think goes both ways, as this has deteriorated into a process story about how PR and journalism do (or DON'T) work well together. As I commented on the original post, there's plenty of unprofessional fail on both sides of this. FWIW.

Davina K. Brewer
Davina K. Brewer

Love Bill's "heard and not seen" which I think goes both ways, as this has deteriorated into a process story about how PR and journalism do (or DON'T) work well together. As I commented on the original post, there's plenty of unprofessional fail on both sides of this. FWIW.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

From Barbara:

I agree - it should not have happened.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

From Bill Patterson:

I've always said that a good PR person should be heard and not seen (unlike children, who should be seen and not heard). Unfortunately, our profession has become a part of the public discourse. When something goes wrong, the news media often will assess the situation based not on what actually happened, but by how Company X addresses their "PR problem." That being the case, the role of PR has itself become a part of the news, especially when one of us makes an error in judgment or behaves badly. I'm accustomed to news reporters publicly disparaging the PR profession—-I've had more than one reporter call me a "flack" to my face--but in the end, if I got my client's message across, I figured I'd done my job and what the reporter thought about me was none of my business. IMHO, Johnson got what he deserved, even though Rao acted childishly. Never pick a fight with those who buy ink by the barrel, videotape by the case, or bandwidth by the Terabyte.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

From Ken Jacobs:

Brad's got it right. Timothy broke two cardinal rules that apply to all: 1) When we send a snarky email we risk it going far and wide. The results can be even more damaging when we send one to the media. 2) One should never send an email when one's nose is out of joint. If one must vent via writing, put your own email address in the "TO:" line, write it, read it, feel better, and get back to work. That's counsel which I imagine Timothy has given his clients. The same applies to PR pros. Only much more so.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

From Jayme Soulati:

I think many of these issues being raised on our blogs about the state of the PR industry/professionalism et al and defended by PRSA who comment on the post should be taken to PR Breakfast Club.

That blog was founded by PRSA peeps; just learned that myself.

I think we need to have a national discourse and make that blog the home for our indie discussion here, on mine, on Shonali, on Erica Allison blog, and more.

Just some $.03 for thought.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

From Brad Marley:

All PR people should know the tendencies of their target publications inside and out. And that includes intelligence on whether or not they hate PR people. Timothy should have known that TechCrunch has "outed" poor PR practices in the past, and that there was a chance his e-mail chain would see the light of day.

While it's true that we were not privy to the rest of the reporter's e-mail chain, I'm not sure that matters. We must always act in the best interests of ourselves and our clients when we communicate with media. No exceptions.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

From Joey Strawn:

Wow. My first reaction is exactly what you titled this piece, "Where is the Professionalism?" It's not like he's never had a story shot down before, he's in PR for goodness sake. It kind of comes with the territory.

On the flip side, there needs to be some restraint on the other side of the coin as well. We all have to work together and the Internet gives everything the chance to act quickly and irrationally so self-control becomes an even more important aspect in this game.

Wow.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

From Robby Slaughter:

If PR folks are professionals, surely the licensing board can review this case and determine if Mr. Johnson should be censured or stripped of his license.

Wait---PR doesn't have a licensing board? Wait---the PRSA's code of ethics is merely advisory? Wait---most people who call themselves PR pros don't even belong to PRSA?

Well, then, that's your problem. :)

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

Crud. Lost the comments from earlier when I switched between commenting systems. So will copy and paste previous comments below.

Barbara
Barbara

I agree - it should not have happened.

Sarah Lafferty
Sarah Lafferty

Gini, I think you have summarised it very well and are essentially right - they are both 'wrong' in the sense that they have both lost out from the transaction.

However. Timothy 'started it' with his caffeinated and clipped-sentencey rebuke to the gentle Leena. (Yeah, I'm afraid it was a bit douchey)

The fact is we are trying to persuade another (the journalist) to take an action (write something nice about a client) that will provide material gains to us (hearty shoulder pat or high-five, promise of ongoing revenue, possible industry award) in exchange for, well, not much, really when you consider how many other cool companies are dying to get written up in TechCrunch. The correct stance to adopt is graciously assertive, factual but not aggressive or heaven forbid, entitled.

Now, I have myself sauntered down douchey lane and learned my lesson the hard way. Luckily for me, my 'victim' was kind enough to confront me over the phone and we ended up laughing at the end. I am not in favour of all this high-minded 'public' flogging. We're all human and we all have an inner douchebag.

Bill Patterson
Bill Patterson

I've always said that a good PR person should be heard and not seen (unlike children, who should be seen and not heard). Unfortunately, our profession has become a part of the public discourse. When something goes wrong, the news media often will assess the situation based not on what actually happened, but by how Company X addresses their "PR problem." That being the case, the role of PR has itself become a part of the news, especially when one of us makes an error in judgment or behaves badly. I'm accustomed to news reporters publicly disparaging the PR profession—-I've had more than one reporter call me a "flack" to my face--but in the end, if I got my client's message across, I figured I'd done my job and what the reporter thought about me was none of my business. IMHO, Johnson got what he deserved, even though Rao acted childishly. Never pick a fight with those who buy ink by the barrel, videotape by the case, or bandwidth by the Terabyte.

Ken Jacobs
Ken Jacobs

Brad's got it right. Timothy broke two cardinal rules that apply to all: 1) When we send a snarky email we risk it going far and wide. The results can be even more damaging when we send one to the media. 2) One should never send an email when one's nose is out of joint. If one must vent via writing, put your own email address in the "TO:" line, write it, read it, feel better, and get back to work. That's counsel which I imagine Timothy has given his clients. The same applies to PR pros. Only much more so.

sue_anne
sue_anne

@ginidietrich @jaykeith I think it's less about the linkbait / traffic and more about the theme I keep hearing from tech reporters / bloggers and that is the "Woe is me. We get so many crappy pitches and we're so overworked. Here, let us show you an example of the type of crap we have to deal with on a regular basis."

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@jaykeith Oh I don't think it's a conspiracy theory at all (and it's why I didn't use their names in the title of the blog post). I think you're absolutely right. I really hate this kind of business, too. HATE.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@sue_anne I totally agree there are days you want to send an email like that. I even wrote one last week and then sent it to myself. So the email that I did send was professional and diplomatic. So I totally get it.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@HowieG Oh yes! Vuvuzelas. Great idea. I still need to get the branded Spin Sucks ones. Can you help?

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@EricaAllison Oh crap! That lesson about agreeing with the client is a super valuable one. WOW!

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

@EricaAllison @3HatsComm @ginidietrich @Shonali I really think a vuvuzela is called for in such situations. In fact in Section 17 Page 8 Paragraph 3 Part D of the PR Handbook from the IAPRPDS states: Ahem..Cough...

Always bring the Vuvuzela out to keep the professionalism up during conflict and help enhance communication between opposing parties.

Preferrably one made by Hasbro

EricaAllison
EricaAllison

@ginidietrich > Sarah Lafferty: I don't think I've ever heard or read "sauntered down douchey lane and learned my lesson the hard way" before, but after reading it, laughing out loud and then reading it again, I can relate!

And I totally agree - please, people...can we stop the "high-minded" public flogging? AMEN!

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@3HatsComm LOL! I totally wrote an unprofessional email last week. And emailed it to myself. It made me feel better and the real email that was sent was VERY professional and diplomatic.

3HatsComm
3HatsComm

@ginidietrich Ah but that just goes to getting CAUGHT being unprofessional. I try to BE professional whether someone's watching, listening or reading or not. I certainly don't always succeed, make mistakes like anyone; but it does at least cross my mind, whether or not something is the right, professional thing to do. ;-)

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@3hatscomm I also love Bill's heard and not seen. It's all just plain old professionalism. I know we're all tempted to send emails like this, but as my dad always says, "Don't put anything in writing if you don't want it to be used against you."

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

Heard and not seen...I love that because I also say I'm better behind the scenes than in the spotlight.

I agree with you that you should never pick a fight...period.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

(Ken's second response)

I wasn't implying your email wasn't truly diplomatic...by going through that process, you got yourself in the right frame of mind to send an email that no doubt got that outcomes you desired!

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

(Ken's response)

Gini,
You're always welcome to send me a snarky email!

The method we're discussing really works. I advise my clients (agency owners, other PR pros) to use it rather than sending a "diplomatic" email written while in a snarky frame of mind, regardless of the situation. The snarkiness comes through those emails, and inevitably annoys the recipient, i.e. the media rep you need or the client who pays your invoices. Sending those emails may make one feel like one's won the battle, but one's really only set oneself up to lose the war.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

I feel like sending you a snarky email now! I actually just did this the other day. Wrote an email to a former client, sent it to myself, and filed it. The real email that was sent was much more professional and diplomatic.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

(Jayme's response)

Corrected! (with snark) -- KIDDING. Thx!

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

Well, it wasn't founded by PRSA. Keith co-founded it, but it's also Nathan Burgess and a few other pros who don't work at PRSA.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

It's like Shonali Burke and Erica Allison blogged about last week...where is the reflection and critical thinking? I might say some of the stuff that Tim said to myself, but I would NEVER put it in writing. I also think, if TechCrunch is going to write something like this, they should also include her emails.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

As much as I'd really like to disagree with you, you're right. It hurts my heart.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

(response from Robby)

I'm not qualified to answer that question, as I am not a member of that hypothetical PR board.

I think the point is that if a doctor behaved in a way which was inappropriate, we would all trust the licensing board to take action consistent with their policies and procedures---even though most of us aren't doctors.

The fact of the matter is that PR is not as much of a "professional endeavor" as many PR pros would like it to be. Hence, the issue at hand.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

So what do you think should happen to TechCrunch in this scenario? Assuming all things are equal and there IS a governing board for the PR profession (I wish there were).

Gini Dietrich
Gini Dietrich

Heard and not seen...I love that because I also say I'm better behind the scenes than in the spotlight.

I agree with you that you should never pick a fight...period.

Gini Dietrich
Gini Dietrich

I feel like sending you a snarky email now! I actually just did this the other day. Wrote an email to a former client, sent it to myself, and filed it. The real email that was sent was much more professional and diplomatic.

Shonali
Shonali

@ginidietrich @3HatsComm One of the tricks I've learned, over time, is to remove the email address from the "to" box - especially if I want to vent. That way, I can't hit "send" by mistake. If the original email still warrants a snarky response, then it's already saved in a draft; if it doesn't, then it doesn't go anywhere.

Ken Jacobs
Ken Jacobs

Gini,
You're always welcome to send me a snarky email!

The method we're discussing really works. I advise my clients (agency owners, other PR pros) to use it rather than sending a "diplomatic" email written while in a snarky frame of mind, regardless of the situation. The snarkiness comes through those emails, and inevitably annoys the recipient, i.e. the media rep you need or the client who pays your invoices. Sending those emails may make one feel like one's won the battle, but one's really only set oneself up to lose the war.

Ken Jacobs
Ken Jacobs

I wasn't implying your email wasn't truly diplomatic...by going through that process, you got yourself in the right frame of mind to send an email that no doubt got that outcomes you desired!

Trackbacks

  1. [...] covered the TechCrunch whine at a PR pro. She revisits the same topic a bit deeper March 7 here, on Spin Sucks. “Where is the Professionalism in PR?” Allison Development Group, that’s Erica’s blog, [...]