There is a lot of very interesting, thought-provoking content over at Social Media Explorer. It’s in my RSS reader, and I regularly check the site for discussion fodder for the Roundtable podcast. One of the more recent pieces on the site, written by Stephanie Schwab, has rolled around my mind for days now. (It’s not that weird, I tend to obsess about topics during my 40-minute per day commute. It’s decent thinking time.) Stephanie’s post, titled “Bloggers are promotional partners, which is bad for PR” sets forth the case for treating bloggers as paid partners rather than pitching them, as PR pros pitch journalists.
I have a number of thoughts concerning this approach, and they essentially fall into these two categories:
- There is a difference between a blogger who is working for a paid professional site and a blogger who has a personal blog, even if that personal blog has a substantial following/readership (and even if that blogger is making money from site advertising).
- Payment from a brand changes the nature of the relationship. Changing the nature of the relationship from earned to paid media has implications for PR–and bloggers–that should not be discounted out of hand.
The Blogger Distinction
In making the case that bloggers should not be treated as journalists by PR pros, Stephanie does not make what I think is a rather important distinction: there are very real differences in the types of bloggers out there. The easiest and most important of these distinctions for the purpose of this discussion is that some are paid professionals and others are blogging from a personal perspective. The distinction does not evaporate even when a blogger “makes it big”/hits the A List, etc. To me, it makes sense to treat bloggers at any of the Gawker properties as media, and the same holds true for sites like TechCrunch and Mashable. The line between what is a news site and what is a blog becomes blurrier by the day. Making a pronouncement that all blogger outreach is partner promotion seems to overreach and ignore the fact that there are plenty of blogs out there that should be categorized as media, and thus would be more appropriate to pitch in a conventional fashion. Many newspapers now have blogs–those bloggers should be treated as journalists, because, well, they are.
The most notable aspect of this distinction perhaps boils down to a definition of professional versus personal/hobbyist blog. Before anyone takes offense at that (there are plenty of personal blogs that are professionally done), I have one, and only one criteria for this: does the blogger draw a salary from someone else to post on topics?
A basic question of “who–if anyone–is paying this blogger to write?” might be a good place to start. If the answer is “no one,” PRs should carefully consider their approach. Many of these folks are starting to feel used, and no wonder. Read the comments on the post for some eyebrow-raising behavior on the part of some PR pros–for example “asking for anchor text links in the post”…asking bloggers to travel without seemingly consulting a map and realizing that it will take the better part of a day to get there, etc. (Let’s not even get into the off-topic pitches that continue to be a problem in the industry. That just needs to STOP.) These are bloggers who often have built an audience, enjoy blogging, but are not earning anything for their efforts. Their time is worth something–and PRs should realize this and take it into consideration (and not just offer product as payment).
The Payment Problem
I used the word problem because this is the point that leads me to believe that we are possibly at an impasse. If we assume: a) Personal/hobbyist bloggers who are approached by PR pros should be paid in some way for their work; and b) paid work is not earned media, then c) really this isn’t the province of public relations: it’s paid advertising. Subtle advertising, but advertising nevertheless. It’s kind of like the pages of advertisements in my cooking magazines that have recipes and stories in them. It *looks* like just another page in the magazine, but it’s paid advertising (which is clearly stated in “Advertising Supplement” or some similar language).
And this means something, to both the brands that will be paying and the bloggers. There is a reason that PRs view earned media as good coverage: the perception of the potential for bias is less. We need only look at another comment left on the original post to see how this can seep in, even unknowingly:
“[…] I think that some bloggers feel under pressure only to write good things, as it seems ungracious to criticise your host and/or so as not to jeopardise the next freebie.”
That’s the rub. That’s why paid does not equal earned media. It isn’t so much the perception that someone has been outright “bought” by the payment (such as getting paid to write a review, ick), it is that they might modify their opinion in favor of the brand even if only out of a sense of politeness–and not jeopardizing future work. So there is the impasse; bloggers who are not paid professionally deserve to be paid for their time, and the attention they bring to a product through exposure to their audience, which has been built over time and with much effort. PR pros are working hard for their clients, who have engaged the PRs with the expectation that the coverage will be earned media–they already have paid advertising in place.
I am not in possession of a crystal ball, and can’t imagine I’d even have the power to effectively use one. My guess is that there are several possible outcomes.
- Outcome one: PRs turn this paid, promotional outreach over to advertising, and they continue to work with the media-level bloggers described earlier in the post. Lines between paid and earned media are more clearly delineated.
- Outcome two: PRs meet blogger expectations for payment. As this practice becomes widespread, blogger audiences will see more disclaimers about payment. With that, there is potential for loss of message efficacy. As this drops, the business value of blogger outreach drops, and so does the money dedicated to blogger outreach.
- Outcome three: PRs and bloggers continue to try and work their way through this, with PR pros making a concerted effort to understand and respect blogger time; and bloggers try to understand that PR pros have different objectives than advertisers.
My final note: you know who I think does this really well? Ree Drummond, aka Pioneer Woman. She does giveaways on her blog because she thinks they are fun, and she likes to spread the word about products she’s passionate about. So she’s the one to purchase the products for the giveaways. She’s also the one instance that I can think of where I’ve purchased a product recommended by a blogger (an eye shadow, if you must know). There’s a high level of trust between her and her community. I don’t think that’s incidental in this situation.