Last week, Mike Masnick posted this funny tweet:
PR people keep sending me names of people who can “comment” on stories. If they want to comment, we have comments enabled on the site.
It’s a funny statement, but Mike was serious. He elaborated on what he meant in a Monday post at Techdirt: Mike isn’t a reporter in the ordinary sense, and he almost never interviews people for his blog posts. He certainly isn’t going to interview some random stranger because a PR person sent him an email.
This practice of hiring PR firms to lobby to be quoted in news stories is an artifact of the attention monopoly I wrote about yesterday. When everyone was reading the same handful of publications, getting interviewed by a reporter for one of those publications was a rare and valuable opportunity to get your opinions out to a large audience. Your ability to participate in public debates was determined by the whims of a relatively small number of reporters and editors, and so you could raise your profile by hiring people who were good at sucking up to those people on behalf of clients.
Now the playing field is more level. Anyone can participate in the public debate, and the prominence of any given voice is determined much more by reader demand rather than editorial fiat. Of course it’s still valuable to be quoted by a prominent source, but there are vastly more sources than there used to be, and a lot more ways to reach an audience without the help of the top tier of publications.
PR people seem to be floundering in this new environment. If the PR pitches Mike gets are anything like the ones I get (and I’m sure he gets several orders of magnitude more than me) they’re universally useless. I’ve gotten dozens of pitches and I don’t think a single one has led to me writing a story. This is partly because I don’t write about most of the topics they’re promoting, but I think it’s also because the act of hiring a PR person is a pretty clear signal that the client doesn’t “get” the web. As the web decentralizes the news business, it’s also making it more meritocratic. To have a big influence, you have to say things that people find interesting. If you do that, your message will spread without the help of PR people. If you’re not saying things that people find interesting, it won’t get much attention no matter how much money you give a PR firm.
And the way to have an interesting message is to have an appealing product. The most successful companies on the web—Google, Facebook, Twitter—spent little or no money on advertising or PR in their early years. Their products sold themselves, becoming more popular by word of mouth. The fact that you’re paying someone to send me cookie-cutter PR pitches is a sign that your product isn’t good enough to sell itself.
The same principle applies to people who are “selling” themselves as experts. I’ll occasionally get pitches from patent lawyers wanting to “comment” on an upcoming patent law decision. Presumably, being a recognized expert in patent law is good for business if you’re a patent lawyer. But the lawyers doing this should fire their PR person and instead start a blog. If your blog is any good—that is, if you have interesting things to say about patent law—people like me are likely to read it. We might link to and quote from it. This will raise your profile much quicker than an occasional quote in some second-tier web publication would. And more to the point, a successful blog will lead to other types of publicity, because people are much more likely to seek you out as an expert if you’ve demonstrated a track record of saying interesting things about patent law.