In Praise of Fl@cks

What a time to kick off a series of columns about the new turbo-charged practice of public relations! Not since the invention of spin, buzz, and deniability has the PR business been so pummeled.

May was a tough month for PR people. Actually, the pounding started earlier this year with Harper’s Bazaar article about the “bimbo factor,” painting PR as a step above a flesh factory for geeks. Then came the May issue of Red Herring. According to writer Kenneth Neil Cukier, “Reporters feel besieged, clients feel cheated… and the PR industry is making a killing.”

And while the industry was on the ropes, a vicious uppercut came from a column in another one of the those fat print Internet biz magazines responsible for decimating the rain forests (or wherever they get the paper for their pulp). The writer, a self-described codger, suggests Net startups can save overhead by firing their PR consultants, replacing them “with eight-year-olds from the neighborhood.” Among his gripes: PR people presume too much familiarity when they call him by his first name.

No doubt there’s something major afoot, but getting ticked off over the niceties of salutation may be a bit short of the mark. PR and journalism (especially business and Internet journalism) are undergoing a remarkable transformation brought about by changes in the media itself.

In this environment, it’s unlikely the columnist (James, er… Mr. James… along with other codgers and codgettes covering the Internet business beat) could do without the services of PR professionals. If all the women and men over at Beatus & Buzzhead Communications and their corporate counterparts go on strike for the same free lunches, PR passes, and the right to never answer emails granted traditional media, business reporting as we know it would dry up.

How many business reporters and writers would happily develop their own corporate backgrounders, ferret out the news of new products, alliances, uncover shifting corporate relationships, arrange interviews, and make unanswered phone calls? They could probably interpret technical innovations as well as the eight-year-old neighborhood kids but not likely as well or quickly as the resident PR person. This kind of work is way beyond the job description of the basic dot-com reporter. Yet, it’s only the basic stuff every PR person does all the time.

In the Name of Full Disclosure…

Call me flack. (Make that, Mr. Flack.) Like lots of people, I work both sides of the media fence. Off and on, I earn a meager living writing for magazines, and I’ve worked on newspapers as different as The Wall Street Journal and The Village Voice. But in the real world, I do PR. I teach it, write about it, and head up campaigns for agencies, Fortune 500’s, and a bunch of start-ups without business plans. When I get tired of all the effort it takes to do public relations work (and make enough money to chill for a bit), I swap my mild, mannered PR suit for the Superman costume every reporter is issued along with his press credentials. Welcome back to the DailyPlanet.com.

This Spring, on assignment for one of those fat e-biz magazines, I got the full court corporate PR rush. Fueled by a chunk of the $22.6 billion 1st Quarter VC dot-com investment, battalions of public relations people are out there competing to get their clients or companies some publicity. “It’s a feeding frenzy,” says Tom Gable, head of The Gable Group. True, but for a writer, what a relief. You can sit back and let PR folks drop their offerings at your royal reportorial feet and know, with certainty, that all your calls, all your emails would be answered. Because now, like every other e-business writer, you have the power to pass the buzz.

That kind of thing still goes on, but the line has blurred. Online media is the kryptonite that’s weakening the power journalists have had over analysis and distribution of information. “We have a web site loaded with original content and 1 million unique visitors per month,” says Sara Winge, PR director at O’Reilly Associates. “I am practically a top tier site. So if I can’t get a story published, I’ll just post it. We make news.”

When I got the assignment to write an e-PR wrap-up based on my survey research, I got hundreds of emails from alert PR people. My status soared when (after butting heads with the editor for a couple of weeks) I pulled the story from that magazine and headed home to ClickZ. Now I was part of the online media mafia; the online rushing wave of new media that is transforming global communications. Online, along with the ZDNet, MSN, The New York Times, Business 2.0 and, yes, even Mr. James.

Where We’re Going With All This?

The practice of public relations has radically changed. The changes are intimately bound up in the emergent redefinitions of media itself, in technology, and in the super-heated environment in which it all takes place. To look at some of the abuses and excesses of the business is to miss the point. E-PR uses new tools and techniques, enjoys a new freedom in the distribution of unmediated news, and has clearly usurped some of traditional media’s most treasured functions. In the coming weeks, using case studies, field interviews and data from our online survey, I’ll present findings from an extensive online survey.

This series is online at ClickZ, and your comments/contributions are welcome. Let me know what you think. (The full survey data itself will be posted at www.senyak.com. You’re welcome to download and use it with attribution.)

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