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11 August 2009

Food bloggers vs food PRs - the smackdown, or not

When Tim Hayward asked me if I'd say a few words at last night's Bloggers & PR Summit, I thought I'd just be one of the audience talking for 30 seconds.  The truth unfolded over the course of last weekend with a series of tweets and emails from Tim and Sarah Canet, owner of Spoon PR, and Tim's co-organiser. 

So last night I wasn't in the audience but sitting on a table with Sarah, Tim, fellow food blogger, Oliver Thring and a three-strong contingent from Lutchford.

The premise of the evening was that bloggers and food PRs don't understand each other, so we should sit down, look in the whites of each others' eyes and sort out our differences. 

It was clear from last night that a large swathe of bloggers and PRs simply don't get each other.  I think it comes down to a fundamental misunderstanding of the others' motives.

PRs are there to represent their clients, de facto they are looking out for their client's best interests.  They are used to working with journalists, who are not only trained but do what they do in return for a pay-cheque, as do the PRs themselves.

Bloggers are largely untrained and unpaid.  However they are fanatical and passionate about what they do.

Some bloggers assume their ability to logon to their blog software of choice, gives them carte blanche to demand attention from the food industry.

Equally, some PRs assume that because they represent the best chefs/restaurants/products they deserve to be able to be part of the discussion with bloggers.  I think perhaps this is the biggest change they're having to deal with. 

This sense of entitlement, coming from both sides is wrong, but it's understandable.

Bloggers often are not from a communications background and with a misplaced sense of 'their ethics' they think either they don't need PRs or PRs are downright dirty.

PRs are not used to not being part of the conversation and believe they have a lot to add.

In both cases there are those who are on the sides of right and wrong.

PRs are a fantastic resource and are gatekeepers.  Bloggers as fanatics are desperate to say good things about what they're writing.  The two should get on like the proverbial burning house. 

Speaking for myself, I am an amateur and revel in that status.  I love food (and am growing to love writing) so any help I can receive to enhance my experience is very gratefully received.

But that's not to say I want to be spammed by PRs and I'm not a panting puppy waiting for any scrap thrown my way.  I spend a lot of time and some money putting effort into this site and although I write primarily for myself, I appreciate that I have built up a certain level of credibility.  I'm not going to sully it - the consequences when you do are painful.  But wouldn't any journalist who values their credibility as independent arbiters say the same?  Most I'm sure would.  Although, as an aside, I am flummoxed how Fay Maschler manages to be both a critic and run a consultancy, despite her disclosure.  There must be some sort of conflict there that would freak out many bloggers.

Nonetheless, working with PRs is not eating with the enemy.  It is, when working with good PRs, getting good information and access.

One of the most fascinating things for me that came out of last night was the dynamic between the PRs and their clients.  Two aspects were particularly interesting. 

First, they said that in order to get paid they needed to demonstrate a value next to all relevant coverage.  I assume therefore they have some sort of rate card so that if a client is mentioned by AA Gill, the PR firm is paid £x and by Fay Maschler they are paid £y.

I find this bizarre.  This is PR not advertising.  As such it is about influencing decision makers, not measuring the number of eyeballs that see a poster campaign.   How does one ever measure influence? 

Nonetheless that is the industry norm so nearly everyone in the room last night seemed to stick to it.  The consequence is that this very false measure of success entrenches the old guard: it is more valuable for a PR to focus their attention on a print journalist (happily ignoring the multifarious problems the print industry is facing) because they earn more money doing so, and that will be true next time they're promoting something and so on.

Which brings me onto the second thing I noticed, the dynamic between PRs and their clients.  Clearly by sitting in the room, the PRs felt us bloggers had some value but repeatedly speakers said that their clients refused to believe bloggers are relevant. 

As hard as it is to measure the success of PR it is equally hard to measure the readership of blogs.  Although there are ways of measuring readership of pages, it doesn't include those who subscribe to RSS feeds, follow on Twitter or through Facebook.  Nor does it take into account the quality of one's readership or the quality of the blogger themselves. But this lack of measurement means, in this slightly warped fee structure, that there is no value attached to any of our content.

So it seems that the food PR industry is in a bind.  They clearly know some bloggers are relevant, they just can't prove it. 

Now possibly the luddite chefs are right and bloggers are a complete irrelevance.  It has to be a possibility, but lets face it, it is unlikely that there are no bloggers worth engaging with.  I don't think anyone would argue the Dos Hermanos aren't important voices in UK food and their theoretical reach is much wider than that of any print copy journalist.

So why don't PRs convince their clients that they're wrong.  They are hired as advisors in how to deal with communications.  They should be advising their clients that (some) bloggers are very relevant and influential.  They also should be doing the groundwork in figuring out who the relevant bloggers are.  And remember, as with print journalists, the relevant bloggers will depend on the product being flogged.  We are not a homogenous group.  But then again, neither are PRs.

Finally, the corollary of the focus on the rate card and the inability to value (financially or emotionally) bloggers means interestingly that PRs and their clients must attribute zero value to the online coverage of the print journalists.  So what are the implications for PRs, chefs and print journalists if the doom-mongers are right and print journalism declines rapidly?  Who gets paid then?

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Thanks, Silverbrow for a good article and, of course, the link to DH.

I was not present, but it sounds like a useful event and at least a start of a useful discourse and recognition of the importance of both parties by the other.

I am less troubled by e-mails from PR's than some bloggers, simply because I use something I discovered on my computer called the delete button. There is no point getting annoyed as none of us is important enough in life or blogdom to be worthy of people sitting there trying to think of ways to piss us off

Also, good PR's are a great asset and, if I see a product or a news story that may be of interest I am grateful to have a useful contact. For every lousy PR I encounter, I have at least five I can turn to with questions or for help.

We are in a flux stage in the relationship and the growth in the numbers of food blogs is noticeable. Some are good many are not. I am far from surprised that many PR's and their clients are confused and question the benefits of interacting with bloggers. I would in their situation when I only had limited budgets and multiple options.

PR’s however, must learn to better explain the benefit of bloggers to their clients. Not all have vast readership, but their appeal is targeted and loyal. A recommendation from a good blogger is worth any number of puff pieces in the traditional media.

Things will soon find their own level. Blogging is time consuming work and many wont have the patience to carry on either because they lack the discipline or because they see it as a means to an end not an end in itself.

The PR's too will soon separate the wheat from the chaff and see who has a readership that is of value to them and who does not. At that point, when they can show real benefits to their clients, they too will begin to want to build connections with key bloggers.

It is quite a simple equation for both sides. Bloggers do it because you love doing it and, if you are any good, the other stuff will come. Don’t blag on the basis of 50 readers a day, don’t use your blog as a way to fill your boots and be truthful to yourself and your readership. It is hard work, I know and I sometimes fail, but always, I hope give it my best shot.

PR's, if you are going to interact with bloggers, spend some time finding out about their styles and personalities before contacting them with an idea. Don't think that everyone will bend over for you and don't send out blanket e-mails to dozens of bloggers. It makes you look very silly. In short, recognise that bloggers are part of the new face of the media and treat them with the respect you would any other journalist.

HP summed it up more eloquently when I asked him what he thought of the whole issue by simply asking "who cares?"

Finally, I have to ask, is it just me that finds it ironic that one criticism of PR led events was that too many bloggers were writing about the same thing at the same time and now there will be loads of posts about the Blogger/PR summit? Not wrong, just rather amusing.

Simon

PRs are trying to change their clients minds, but unfortunately you're often dealing with people who don't believe they've gotten any value for money unless they themselves have seen their brand mentioned in a newspaper... ideally the one they normally read, whether that targets their customers effectively or not.

The problem extends on the client side as well, as the people who hired the PR agency have to justify the spend - so if the Head of Finance doesn't understand blogging and thinks it's pointless, you're going to struggle. It is supremely frustrating, but that's where this value for coverage system has come from - it's a way of explaining the value of PR to non-marketing people. Trust me, clients, and senior people within client companies, question even the value of mentions in Olive or BBC Good Food, not understanding why they can't have a full feature devoted to their sauce/wine/noodle/whatever.

I think attitudes are changing, though it's been a few years since I worked at a PR agency dealing with food and drink products. Marketing budgets are being squeezed now, advertising budgets slashed, and in that atmosphere, a well-executed digital PR campaign can be more cost-effective and that's what will get clients to make the leap.

That being said, it's the PR's job to manage the client's expectations on coverage on blogs - not just to pass on unrealistic demands. The good ones know that.

Should be interesting to see how it develops...

A question asked last night from the PR reps was (and I heavily paraphrase) "What do bloggers want from us?"

Well the short answer is nothing. We will carry on blogging even if the PR industry didn't exist. I get the feeling that last night was more about them than us. We (the bloggers) are annoyed by random spammy emails and #prfails just as much as we like the odd nice freebie, but really, we can live without them. As long as restaurants stay open and there are things to write about, we can just carry on. Don't get me wrong - it's fantastic being invited to a restaurant opening or a product launch but my blog existed before I was deemed important enough to be invited to these things and it will (hopefully) exist after.

Someone else said "it would be helpful if you could supply your readership figures when you email us". Why? No. I'm not about to email you my salary either. I can see the value that you would get out of knowing my subscriber numbers but I can't see the benefit for me. Plus most of those numbers are bollocks anyway, as discussed before - if Google Reader tells you I'm getting 5 times as many subscribers as Simon (which it does by the way), there's something wrong somewhere.

It was a great evening though, and I did learn a lot. I understand the tension that will exist when you're dealing with people whose livelihood depends on your random online rants while you make a living elsewhere, and I am also acutely aware of the fact that we're probably far less influential than we think we are (I speak for myself here of course). But if I'm going to be brutally honest my attitude to the world of PR hasn't changed a great deal. I get on perfectly well with the PR people who know what they're doing and communicate well, and I will continue to ignore the spammers and the shills. But the fact remains that they need us far, far more than we need them. And I really can't see that changing.

@Simon, I agree basically with your comment. Very little to add, except yes, the irony of your last point wasn't lost on me, especially as I've been one of the critics of those type of events and the subsequent flood of write-ups and was critical again last night. Yet here I am setting the ball rolling.

@Erin, thanks your comment. I understand what you're saying about the lack of comprehension at clients, but surely that is part of the agencies job, however tough.

@Chris, I agree that last night felt like it was more about PRs than bloggers - we were educating them. But I think possibly that was a missed opportunity in so far as bloggers have to learn the value that PRs can bring them. Clearly this is only an issue for bloggers who write about products and restaurants as well as what they cook. I think both of us fall slap bang into that category. I know I've been able to write better posts because of good PRs that have engaged with me and helped me. Yes there are a lot of spammers, but I get a shed load of spam from bloggers as well asking for link exchanges as well. As I said last night, it's not for the PRs to be at our beck and call and we're not to do their bidding. But there are some bloggers who have influence and who write about subjects germane to PRs and more importantly their clients. For those bloggers and PRs not to work together seems bonkers with both sides losing out in what could otherwise be a win-win scenario.

Yep I agree, it is definitely the PRs job to manage their clients, but sometimes knowing what they are dealing with on their side can help us understand why they ask what they do. Like everyone has said though, this isn't an issue with good PRs.

@erin, yes I see what you're saying and agree, which was my point to Chris, it's just as important for bloggers to understand PRs as vice versa.

Very interesting post.
I'm happy for PR's to contact me. If their product falls into what I'm interested in, then I don't have a problem with mentioning it, whether it be a book, a food stuff, a drink or a restaurant.
I personally don't feel any hostility towards PR's per se.
However recently I was invited to a Jamie Oliver cookware launch by a PR, which I appreciated.
What I didn't appreciate was, despite getting there earlier than anyone else, I was seen last by Jamie. It was humiliating having to compete with other journalists and bloggers to get a 'piece of him' and I kept thinking, why am I here? Wasting my time, when I could be at home cooking?
As a cook, I could not honestly write about the cookware unless I could try it.
Jamie Oliver assured me that his heavy weight professional frying pans would work well on an Aga (which is what I cook on). Could I try one? No. Not without difficulty. It wasn't the PR's fault but he couldn't give me the product and could only loan a couple of gadgets, not the expensive stuff.
To benefit from this loan I would have had to stay in all day to receive the package, and no doubt the same when it had to be returned.
Er...someone explain to me what I am getting out of this? Two days of my time waiting, plus time to use it, write about it, photograph it and for what? To put it brutally, to make Jamie Oliver more money?
I'm not getting paid to blog. I'm not a paid journalist.
I gave up. Didn't bother.
Again Tilda rice got in touch with me about their microwave rice range. Now I don't use microwave rice and I would feel weird recommending it. I do use Tilda Basmati and Jasmine rice, find it to be one of the best brands however.
I tried their microwave rice, one bag wasn't too bad, the other was awful. They'd do better to hire me to improve the taste, not write about it.
Other problem, and I suppose that goes for print journalists too, is that PR/Blogger events means that your blog is going to write a similar post to everyone elses. So I'll probably attend, but mostly to educate myself, as a cook, about the product. I'm always up for learning more about food and drink.
One area PRs and food companies/kitchenware companies could seek to promote their product is sponsoring blogs. I'd be up for that, it would help finance the continuation of my blog, plus I would only do it for a product that I actually vouch for.
Kitchenaid for instance gave me a free mixer. Fantastic. I blogged about the mixer. I love Kitchenaid anyway, have already bought their products so it was not a conflict of interest for me.
Interesting the stuff you say about clients not being convinced that bloggers are worthwhile...
I do think that online journalism, be it paid or 'amateur', is the future, it would be backwards for clients to ignore that.
One of the reasons that I love the internet is the access it gives to word of mouth opinions on restaurants, services and products. Far more credible than most magazines which rely on advertising.

Ms Marmitelover, you've hit the nail on the head with the JO example, it goes back to that entitlement point.

One thing though, you say you'd be happy for sponsorship on your site but are then critical of mags relying on advertising. Aren't they one and the same thing?

I'm not critical of them, but it is a reality.
Sponsorship would be for a product I use and believe in and recommend. Like Marmite or Kitchenaid or a good olive oil or Aga or something like that.
I'm not about to accept sponsorship from Macdonalds Big Macs! (Especially as I don't eat meat).
I don't think magazines exercise that kind of control. In fact you'll see tons of articles in magazines all about buying local, buying seasonal, make it yourself and then see a load of ads for junk food.

Good continuation of the discussion.

The cynical side of me thinks that the general view of PR brigade towards bloggers is "here is a potentially great resource. How can we use it?" In response to that, I think most bloggers would feel quite repelled, but that's not to say that a better relationship with the PR's would not benefit food bloggers. I like eating new foods, using new ingredients and cooking new recipes, so I would be interested in that kind of information, although I'd probably find out about it sooner or later anyway.

I just find it difficult to get over the fact that PR's do have an aim, whether they have the softly, softly approach and develop relationships first or whether they go in cack handed. Their ultimate aim is to promote whatever or whomever they are representing. As with advertising, if it didn't work, it wouldn't exist. I love to talk or blog about foody things I really enjoy, but will do this anyway. I don't feel I necessarily need to have someone with a motive for promoting whatever it is, to tell me about it for me to discover, talk or blog about it.

I think how the relationship works depends a lot on the aim of the food blogger, too. I think most are doing it for the love of eating, cooking and writing but some have an agenda, whether it's blagging freebies or to get a job within the food industry or to increase hits on their blog and earn a bit of money on the side via ads. Bloggers that solicit attention from PR's are bound to unduly influence the view of PR's towards food bloggers as most bloggers will just continue blogging in the background without soliciting people in the industry.

As you mentioned, digital media is becoming more influential and how the professionals interact with the amateurs will probably take some time to evolve to a level where both are comfortable with the way the relationship works and how much influence we are perceived to have.

@msmarmitelover sure, I see your point, targeted sponsorship could work better than blanket advertising.

@biggestjim but Jim, promoting someone or something is not inherently bad. As much as some PRs have misconceptions about us, this is a similar misconception. I think however your point is a good one that the bloggers who interact with PRs will affect how those PRs think about bloggers. Perhaps though that is an argument that if the good bloggers want to have a better relationship with PRs, they should actively engage with them more?

Great post, as a PR (i work with Edelman) the PR-blogger relationship (i also blog) can be a tough one, on both sides, to work out the dynamics of.

This sort of meeting is a great way for bloggers to help educate PRs in their point of view - something, traditionally, journalists never had to do because the development of media occurred hand in hand with marketing.

Now, all of a sudden, there's a *new* group of people who might write about a product, but the way that many PRs go about speaking with them is as if they grew up (if you like) with the same rules as the guys in old media.

This is, of course, not the case and a big educative process has to take place, and is taking place. Events like this will help to re-address the balance and help brands to add value to the food blogger community, and are a big step in the right direction.

@Matt - Thanks for your comment. It's funny, you were talked about at the PR - blogger get together that this piece relates to. I was discussing how sometimes PR works well, Starbucks Via being a case in point for me - especially given my trenchant views about S'bucks. The one thing I'd add to what you say, is that it's as much for bloggers to educate themselves about PR as vice versa.

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