Trailblazing PR’s Newest Frontier

Like Balboa discovering the Pacific, we returned from our pioneering discovery of the online newsletter medium expecting to reap the accolades and doubloons accompanying such trailblazing efforts. We were lucky to avoid Balboa’s fate. A few years after casting his European eyes on America’s West Coast, Balboa was found guilty of treason and was decapitated.

It may well be treasonous to suggest the old way of doing PR is over. And yet that dark continent of e-zines and online newsletters, much of which is zoned commercial, is certain to change the practice of public relations. A lot of people have already discovered its power. For now, however, to find really good publicity programs leveraging this massive medium you probably have to look beyond the agencies and PR departments to the e-commerce entrepreneurs.

Small wonder. For PR professionals, to seek publicity in online newsletters, discussion lists, and e-zines is to enter dangerous and uncharted territory. (There be dragons out there.)

The reward for hacking out a path through the tangled wilderness of online newsletters can be considerable. Today’s conquistadors of clips can cart off all the gold, parrots, and spices that pillaging pioneers usually get. In this case, the prize is (relatively) virgin territory for contacts, clicks, and market penetration.

Getting from our cushy cubicles and posh home offices into the slithering morass of online newsletters requires a chart. So packing up our drafting equipment and giant vellum pad, we headed for the offices of our favorite PR agency, the South Park headquarters of Beatus & Buzzhead (B&B), to start mapping the terrain.

Bad Times on South Park

Except for the joyous crowd around the B&B Really New Media (RNM) desk, a general air of gloom pervaded the once-sparkling poster child for PR dot-comdom.

    “What’s up?” I asked Heywood Beatus Jr., assistant forking officer.

    “Oh,” he sighed, “same old, same old, except clients just aren’t as generous these days. We’ve had to” (and here he lowered his voice) “cut out the free cafi macchiatto and start making new-business pitches again.”

    “But your Really New Media desk seems to be cooking… ” He looked over, depressed by the flurry of activity, phones ringing, bright-colored balloons bobbing, and dedicated server cranking out stories.

    “Yeah, I guess. They’re covering the agency nut and bringing in whatever riffraff business is out there. But, really, how much talent does it take to put the client’s URL in an email sig line? You don’t see them landing magazine covers… or maybe they do, we had to let our subscriptions lapse… “

And with that, as if inspired, Beatus suddenly sat down at his computer and briskly tapped out “FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE.” We took our cue and sauntered over to the real action, the RNM desk run by Susan Servem who could type 90 words per minute and had a framed certificate from Kansas’s Brown Mackie School of Business on her desk. By taking careful notes, we came up with the three specific tactics used by the hottest RNM group in town.

  1. Include the client’s URL in the signature file of every posting to every online medium.
  2. Create one 300-word story daily for each client and blast it to every A-list newsletter and e-zine covering the client’s area.
  3. Check to make sure the URL is in the sig line.

Crying for Content

Online newsletter publishers of every stripe have one thing in common: They have to offer something to get surfers with itchy mouse fingers and privacy paranoia to subscribe and stay subscribed. That something is content. And in a business where payment for content ranges from nothing to not much, you can expect a content crisis… and some recycling of material. For example, the September 27, 2000, issue of HotWired’s Webmonkey – one of the best tech e-zines around – features a May 1999 tutorial on Personal Hypertext Protocol. It is the rare, very rare, e-zine or newsletter that doesn’t ask for submissions, articles, or reader contributions.

Just to nail the point home, content, based on an online survey for an upcoming Publish magazine article, is the biggest concern for newsletter publishers, by a margin of two to one. And content is what PR is all about.

But Does E-Zine PR Work?

Brian G. Clark in Austin, Texas, put together an e-zine of his own, Juxtaposeur. For content, he compiles and summarizes movie reviews written by film critics.

“At the beginning of this year, I went about contacting e-zine publishers. Not with press releases or other marketing hype (sic), just friendly emails to the folks who run e-zines. Through these friendly efforts, Juxtaposeur was featured in Lockergnome (180,000 subs), Internet Tour Bus (90,000), Film Threat (90,000), and several other titles. From those mentions, my site was picked up and mentioned in scores of other e-zines, and – guess what – Entertainment Weekly, Sight and Sound magazine, The Washington Post… ”

Aside from online exposure and offline pickup, Clark reports “response from e-zines dwarfs that from a mention in magazines or newspapers.”

So what’s it going to be, clips or clicks? The best bet to keep that free cafi macchiatto flowing is to build both into your PR campaign.

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