Wired's executive editor, Chris Anderson, posted the email addresses of 329 unsolicited messages he had received (from the likes of mega-PR firms Edelman, 5W Public Relations, Fleishman-Hillard, Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide and Weber Shandwick), telling the senders that he had permanently blocked them and calling out the "lazy flacks" who deluged him with news releases.
At the WP, Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic Tim Page responded to an unsolicited press release about D.C. Council member Marion Barry's views on a community hospital issue with this lighthearted missive: "Must we hear about it every time this crack addict attempts to rehabilitate himself with some new -- and typically half-witted -- political grandstanding? I'd be grateful if you would take me off your mailing list. I cannot think of anything the useless Marion Barry could do that would interest me in the slightest, up to and including overdose."
Former District Mayor Barry, readers will doubtless recall, served a six-month prison sentence after being videotaped smoking crack cocaine during an FBI sting in 1990.
Both reactions bore consequences. Mr. Page apologized and reportedly was spanked by WP management. Mr. Anderson's blog was bombarded by PR folks who either celebrated his amusing boycott, or took him to task for his insensitivity toward the flack industry. The general theme (other than thinking it was unfair to out the offenders) was that Wired's Web site makes it impossible for press reps to find out who covers what in order to more accurately target their releases. In the old days of print journalism, one was expected to actually read the publication one was pitching in order to figure all that out, rather than rely on the electronic posting of beat lists and reporter email addresses.
Still, there is the prevailing attitude--especially among the ink-stained, grizzled older 4th estaters--that PR folks are more a nuisance than they are a help to reporters. This is despite a study by marketing consultancy Arketi revealing that 90% of B2B reporters cited news releases in their stories and 89% said they tap into public relations contacts.
Let's face it--introducing one's planned spouse with, "Oh, he/she works in public relations" does not quicken the parental heart as does "neurosurgeon" or "institutional broker." Or most especially "has worked at Google since they opened the door." Show me a child who says "I want to grow up and spend 15 hours a day writing meaningless press releases, begging for placement and swallowing my pride with arrogant writers"--and I will show you a child the school authorities should keep away from m-rated video games, listening to Metallica, or obtaining a gun permit.
And so PR is an industry that as a rule does not attract the best and the brightest, but rather the cutest and the fastest-talking. It can offer the appearance of glamour through fleeting associations with celebrities and CEOs, the chance to hand out party favors at red carpet events where Patrick McMullan and cleavage complete for attention, and making certain the bosses' laundry gets done in exotic locales. But the underside of it is decidedly unglamorous and involves studying business plans, understanding markets, writing reams of documents (including the releases that annoy the ever-so-sensitive Messrs Anderson and Page) and tracking the coverage of scores of reporters who might one day want to write about your client.
Because I have a MediaPost byline, I get all sorts of press releases from idiotic PR folks who would be sorry as hell if they were truly successful in getting their clients into this column. Does that mean on another day, with the right luck and pitch and exquisite timing, they won't land a cover story in BusinessWeek or, say, Wired? Not at all.
Who among us doesn't welcome the easy way out? The path of least resistance? But if you care for a moment about your long-term success, you do the heavy lifting required in any business or industry. Along the way, you send the wrong release to the wrong editor who reaches his tipping point and drives a stake through your professional heart. So, you get up, examine the stake for what you have learned, adjust your MO accordingly, and move on. Life is otherwise just too short.