PTBA Blog

Working with Public Relations Professionals – Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

An often hotly debated topic I see over and over on blogger group boards: working with public relations (PR) folks – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Like any profession, there are good and bad and it often comes down to personality and with whom you click.

But I also see issues relating to the informed versus the uninformed. So I thought I’d explore the role of PR and how it’s changing thanks to the fairly new landscape of online media and blogs.

What is the role of PR?

According to the PRSA (Public Relations Society of America) website, “Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.

Well, that definition can be interpreted in many different ways, of course. According to Lisa Schwartz, a PR executive from Diamond Public Relations, an agency with mostly travel and destination clients, “the central role of a PR person is to ensure their client’s message gets in front of their target audience through the non-paid media that this audience consumes.”

I’m sure some of you honed in at the “non-paid” part, but that is the traditional definition and how public relations operated for dozens of years. James Anderson of Tartan Group, who recently wrote this LinkedIn article on how he vets bloggers and writers, sees the PR role overlapping more with marketing.

“Media relations is still incredibly important,” he says. “But increasingly PR people are seen as business builders and clients want the PR pro to work with their marketing and sales teams to drive business.”

Katy Deardorff, the Communications Manager at VISIT Milwaukee, agrees.

“What used to be strictly media relations has turned into community management on social media and integrated marketing programs that extend far beyond a press release,” she says.

In my past career as a TV producer, I worked with many PR people and developed good relationships. Always on the hunt for local stories in Chicago, PR people provided me with a valuable service by alerting me of possible story ideas (new restaurants, celebrity appearances, unique, independently-owned shops, etc.). Press releases were sent to me then, as they still are today, to see if I thought it was a good story for my audience. Some story ideas were even developed into something even larger – like a whole TV segment (or video) or feature article on a destination.

So now as a freelance writer and blogger, I personally still benefit from these relationships. 
The good ones know what to pitch, and give me angles and story ideas. A good PR person helps you do your job, by doing their job. Are there bad pitches? Of course. But just like with bloggers, one bad apple does not represent them all.

In general, a public relations person is a middle-man between his or her client and the media from which they are trying to gain publicity.

Old Habits Die Hard

When I’m pitched a story for my blog or other, I don’t ask for payment unless it’s a larger type campaign and they are asking more from me or if I can tell that it is more of a “sponsored content” request which is typically not from a PR person. Unfortunately, the differences are becoming more subtle, but they are still there.

As we progress, one very important thing for bloggers to understand (especially those that did not come from a media or journalism background), is what the old model looked like. A decade ago, PRs never (okay, rarely) paid media outlets or writers. It just wasn’t part of their budget. And while this is glacially changing, it is generally still true. They are paid by their client to promote and inform media outlets of content and stories they might want to cover. And the writer is paid by their publication. If that publication happens to be your blog, you need to look at different avenues to be paid and not assume all PR people have the budgets to pay you.

“Everyone wants to get paid for their work, as they should be!” says Schwartz, who organizes a lot of blogger trips, but still does not pay bloggers. “Unfortunately, PR is not a pay-for-play industry, it is based on the sharing of information, and often in my case, trading exposure for my clients in exchange for travel experiences. We help provide interesting content and ideas for the blogger so that they can continue to build a following and thus enlist advertising partners to get paid. If PR paid bloggers then that wouldn’t allow for the content to feel natural and organic because, if we’re paying, we’re going to make sure we have control over the message. That’s where PR and advertising differ.”

Okay, So How is the PR Landscape Changing?

“The media universe (and by extension PR) has undergone a seismic shift in the last 10 years,” says Lance Longwell, a PR and communications executive as well as a travel blogger at Travel Addicts. “Some businesses understand that. Some don’t. Over 20 years ago, mainstream media was essentially the only game in town. That world is dead. Bloggers are just one part of this shifting landscape. Bloggers (or citizen journalists) can make a brand a success…or destroy it.”

Although, many traditional press trips still ask for “assignment letters” from writers who wish to attend (meaning they are “on assignment” from the editor of a publication), some blogs with larger influence are able to simply assign themselves.

“Gone are the days of assignment letters,” says Visit Milwaukee’s Deardorff. “With bloggers, PR professionals can see almost immediate results through social media and posting. Because bloggers control and manage their own outlets, there is guaranteed content—and even content that you may not have received from a print publication, such as videos and social posts.”

Should Bloggers be Paid to Share a PR Message?

Many bloggers argue that they need to be paid. We are not here to argue that. So the question really is who should be paying them and should it come out of a PR budget?

“Yes we are open to ‘pay to play’ bloggers,” says Anderson. “We look at this as an advertising spend and it can be part of a campaign. It does make us question the integrity of the publication if we have a great story and they are only interested in running it if they are paid.”

While we can’t just expect all PRs to suddenly have a budget to pay bloggers when they never did before, that is changing, as PR and marketing slowly merge together. As bloggers, we need to be aware of these changes and not expect it or demand it, but rather start discussions with a serious PR who has contacted you.

Donna Hull who blogs at My Itchy Travel Feet, has been a freelance writer for 10 years.

“If I’m writing editorial, I don’t expect to be paid while on a trip,” she says. “However I’m open to traveling on a paid campaign that would be disclosed to my readers as sponsored. And when a PR company approaches me about publicizing a product, destination or contest on my social media channels (or as mentions on my site), I absolutely expect to be paid. Because I approach my business professionally, I’m treated professionally.”

Heather Cowper is a blogger at Heatheronhertravels.com.

“As more bloggers become professional and are looking for payment in return for their time and coverage, I think that it will become increasingly difficult to get more established bloggers to go on press trips unless there is some payment,” she says. “I still don’t think that many PRs, nor their clients, understand that there is now a very wide spectrum from the beginner blogger to the pro-blogger and that they need to have different strategies and budgets for working with different levels of blogger.”

“The blogger is a digital influencer,” Longwell says. “Ignoring them could be the worst thing you do. Major outlets like USA Today, U.S. News and The Atlantic are all on sponsored content bandwagon. If you buy content in one these outlets, why not digitally? Bloggers bring a value (both brand value, but also financial value) and savvy PR professionals are willing to pay for that value.”

Advice for Bloggers from a PR Perspective

PRs have to answer to their client. They have to explain why you, and why your blog. What’s your story angle? What can you offer? If you can back it up, sell it.

The key, as always, is to be professional and be informed. Don’t sell yourself short, but, at the same time be honest about the limits of your reach. And be open to discussions that will help build relationships. Keep working with PRs. Don’t write them all off because of those misguided auto-press releases. Honor the commitments you’ve agreed to and deliver. And just because there is no budget there today, doesn’t mean that when there is, they won’t call on you.

“I expect everyone to act like a professional and produce great work,” says Anderson. “Recently I had a blogger threaten to withhold any coverage if they didn’t receive a free breakfast which had not been discussed before they arrived, this is not professional.”

And don’t be that guy!

 

Lisa Lubin is an established travel/food writer, three-time Emmy®-award winning TV producer, video consultant, and travel industry expert. After more than a decade in broadcast television she took a sabbatical, which turned into three years traveling around the world. She documents her (mis)adventures on her blog, LLworldtour.com. Her writing and photography has been published by American Way Magazine, Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, West Jet Magazine, Sheridan Road Magazine, Smithsonian, the Malibu Times, Encyclopedia Britannica, Orbitz, Mapquest, Jetsetter.com, and Huffington Post. She recently published The Ultimate Travel Tips: Essential Advice for Your Adventures available on Amazon.

3 Responses to Working with Public Relations Professionals – Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

  1. noel November 4, 2015 at 2:57 pm #

    Excellent post. I agree that things are changing and there is also a difference with PR and the Marketing dept of a brand. If you have relationships directly with the marketing coordinator/director then making a pitch with a great angle is also the way to go when budgeting strings are restricted on the PR side and more flexible on the marketing side. This also depends on the size of a business in terms of approaching the marketing/brand or the PR side directly.

  2. Durant Imboden December 28, 2015 at 3:48 pm #

    Lisa Schwartz makes a great point: Advertorial isn’t editorial, and if bloggers demand payment for coverage, the subjects of their coverage become clients, and the bloggers become copywriters. Over the long haul, can a blogger remain credible or influential by selling his or her coverage to the highest bidder?

    Also, as a practical matter, marketers (we really aren’t talking about PR here) need to consider ROI, or return on investment. If a blog can’t earn a profit without subsidies from the subjects of its coverage, doesn’t that reflect poorly on the size and quality of the blogger’s audience?

  3. Charles McCool March 13, 2016 at 8:22 pm #

    I was asked for assignment letters at least two times this year so I disagree that “gone are the days.” In fact, this article even contradicts that thought. No one size fits all, I suppose.

    Valuable information in this article.

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