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.
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?