Friday, April 27, 2007

Oh, media. Oh, bother. Oh, brother.

Most people only recognize PR in its overt forms. By and large, overt PR isn't that challenging to do.

Again, this is where blogging gets difficult for someone in PR. Because the vast majority of people can't imagine what you do on any given day. My parents sort of understand that I work with press. Ash's cousin in Hawaii had heard of Trolltech's Greenphone, but when I tried to explain my direct involvement with them having heard of a Norwegian company's innovations in mobile Linux, things began to get decidedly hazy.

So it was, that I was at my new job and a coworker asked me for my thoughts on an upcoming announcement. I talked a bit about approach and his response was, "Surely you don't think a couple of articles can do all that." On the first day of LinuxWorld last year, a single article in about Trolltech's Greenphone was the number one hit on both slashdot and digg. The /. article had more than 700 comments within hours.

Reporters and analyst friends found me on the show floor to congratulate me on the reception to the news and to thank me for my hand in coordinating interviews. How often do the Mike Arrington's of the world thank a PR person for pushing them to write the story that ultimately turns out to be the one that defines their career? More often than not, they're writing pieces that emphasize how "above the influence of PR" they all are. I'm sorry to blow your cover guys, but you're not above the influence of PR. Especially really good PR. Really exceptional PR, the most effective kind, you don't even feel the sway.

Fred Vogelstein of Wired has been kvetching that he got sold a bill of goods from Microsoft's PR machine. While Fred may feign naivete to the delight of his readers who feel that they are getting a sneak peak into his genuine ire at the craftiness of MSFT - and here's the news flash folks - um, that's a version of PR. Wired and Conde Nast had on their hands a story about a seasoned tech reporter who took a story straight from MSFT without so much as reading the wikipedia entry on the topic to see if the party line checked out. Fred got duped, but was it because MSFT was so crafty? Or was it because Fred didn't do any research? MSFT spun Fred and Fred is spinning his readers.

I had lunch with some editors at Wired on the day the stories hit. We ate lunch and they boasted about how clever Fred was for putting it all out there. But in PR, there's more happening behind the scenes than that. Fred and his editors sell magazines and advertising. A sensational story like the one they spun was sure to generate more interest in the issue already on the topic of "radical transparency" - so this is the point where most non-PR people think you start sounding like a conspiracy nut. But after a number of years in PR, I'm just a realist.

This is why it's difficult to do great PR. You have to relinquish credit. Remember that scene from Wag the Dog? It's not about pointing to a single article and saying, I made that happen. It's about pointing to entire movements or industries and not saying, I made that happen because that destroys the illusion. The whole thing is simultaneously fascinating and also tremendously unsettling.