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Is Robert Scoble a Jerk, or Should PR Practitioners Look in the Mirror?

Is Robert Scoble a Jerk, or Should PR Practitioners Look in the Mirror?

Unless you have shut off your Twitter feed lately, you have probably heard of Robert Scoble’s somewhat incendiary comments regarding the public relations industry. In audio comments, Scoble painted the industry with an unflatteringly broad brush:

  • “PR is dead. The way that PR is practiced is just..lame.”
  • “Most of PR has ‘sucked.’ If you think it’s not, just be a blogger for a little while. And watched the thousands of stupid-ass pitches flow through your screen.”
  • “Anybody who pitches you on email is stupid. The chance that I am going to listen to anyone who pitches me email on frikkin’ email is one percent.”

Well, many of us who practice public relations for a living took some serious offense to this. I wrote a first blog post, (Shut Up, Mr. Scoble) and then when he took on Alice Marshall of Presto Vivace, I penned another (“Put a “Cewebrity” in His Place – But You Can’t Fix Stupid“). I was pretty angry, as were the aforementioned Alice Marshall as well as the highly respected Robert French of Auburn University. Both pointed out that Mr. Scoble’s preferred method of being pitched, over dinner, reeked of, as Professor French put it “Wine Me & Dine Me (or, I’ll whine about bad PR).”

But enough of my rancor. More reasoned, respected people like Jason Falls and David Wescott had some good points as well.

Jason commented on my blog:

“Robert is guilty of one thing – generalizing. Does he get a lot of bad pitches? Yep. So do I (probably not as many, I’m sure). Do a lot of PR folks suck these days? Yeah. Does the industry need a time out to revamp itself? Yes. But does someone like Scoble need to say, “PR SUCKS” as if all PR does? Hell no.”

Fair enough. David Wescott noted:

“I’m coming to realize there’s something worse than believing you’re a big deal by reading your press clippings – it’s believing you’re a big deal by looking at the number of followers you have on twitter. I’m not saying that’s where Scoble is, but comments like that don’t exactly convince me otherwise.”

A week into this, my thoughts have turned somewhat inward – meaning to those of us who do public relations and social media for a living and ask the “Scobelistic Question”: Do we suck?

Yes and no.

Aside from acting self-absorbed, Scoble whined about a mere sliver of public relations – pitching – and said that the whole industry is “lame.” And that comment is, well, lame. But more importantly, are there people who make bad pitches? Absolutely.

Shel Holtz and Neville Hobson, both of whom I consider “A-Listers” and produce their excellent “For Immediate Release” podcast (and who first brought this topic to my attention), stated that they both get lots of bad pitches via email.

Time for a little self-examination.

I no longer work for a public relations agency, but was in the business for about 15 years and began, as most young bucks do – by pitching people who did not necessarily want to be pitched. And got hung up on a lot. So the other night in my class at Georgetown, I asked my students what was preventing them from creating the “magical experiences” that Scoble seems to demand with his free meals. What I heard back was pretty instructive – and confirmed, from my small focus group, what I had long believed prevents people from innovating more:

  • Billing pressure. When you work for an agency, your job is to bill as much as you can, and quite often, falling back on old ways is the best way to make your hours. Brutal, but I believe it to be true.
  • Clients are in love with statistics. Many clients would rather hear “we pitched 2,000 bloggers,” (spam, of course), than “we did our research, waited and make 10 carefully crafted pitches to 10 leading bloggers.” 2,000 versus 10? Please.
  • Clients or supervisors who don’t “get” social media are reluctant to green light innovation. The “young bucks” generation in public relations agencies have a hard time selling concepts that are new and people don’t yet understand.
  • The pressure. The higher you go in agencies, the more pressure you have to bill hours, supervise people, develop businesses and further existing client relationships. “Creating magic” takes some serious time – and thinking.

Bottom line? I think that Scoble is self-absorbed, but has clearly earned his media spotlight. And the public relations industry does indeed churn out some really bad pitches. But we don’t suck.

Is it worth painting the entire industry as “dead” and “lame?” Not unless you have no idea what you are talking about.

Mark Story is a part-time, adjunct professor at Georgetown University, Director of New Media at the SEC in Washington, D.C and writes the “Intersection of Online and Offline” blog. Prior to the government, Mark worked for 15 years in some of the largest online public relations shops in the world. Tweet him at mstory123.

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