My origins are in public relations, and PR still makes up a significant portion of what I do these days. You could probably call me a content marketer, a phrase for people like me who manage PR, social media, copywriting and anything else that drops into our bucket.
When I started in PR, for an NBA franchise, my mission was fairly straightforward: work with the media to make sure the team was always portrayed in a positive light. I would want a player covered in a particular magazine, and I would have a conversation with an editor to sell him on the idea, as an example.
As I progressed, I learned I could accomplish more by moving outside the traditional “pitch and sell” method of media relations. Some of it I picked up from my boss, like reminding a local writer that the team bought a lot of ads in their paper. Some of it I learned myself, such as leaking pieces of information to create a favor debt that I could cash in on later, or having the team mascot show up at some kid’s birthday party.
PR has a lot of shades of gray, obviously. I’ve tried to do things the white hat way since, sticking to building relationships with journalists and providing reliable sources. Everything has moved online now, and “journalists” are being replaced by bloggers, pundits and influencers. In other words, the social media world. In many ways, the ole rules have been tossed out the window.
Trust Me, I’m Lying.
A few months back I heard about Ryan Holiday, a PR flack for American Apparel, Tucker Max and others. Ryan has a reputation as a trickster, or someone who uses every advantage the web gives him to create buzz for his clients – leaking false information anonymously, creating provocative content just for the public outrage, defacing billboards then alerting bloggers about the vandalism.
Seems Ryan had made his way into dozens of respected media outlets simply by posing as an expert for open press queries. He then got even more publicity for having gotten all that publicity, all in the name of promoting his book, “Trust Me, I’m Lying.”
Consider me interested. I like a clever PR stunt as much as anyone (unless it’s an obvious celebrity ploy, such as a “leaked” sex tape.) So I picked up the book, and was impressed with Holiday’s honesty and candor. He openly admits to manipulating bloggers and the online media’s lack of attention to details. He outlines his tactics and why they work, and also suggests how you can do the same.
He makes no apologies, and offers no solutions. And I think there’s a lot that content creators and PR people can learn, for good and evil.
Pageviews are Currency
The most popular blogs today judge their success based on one metric: pageviews. It how they sell ads and how many of them base their writers’ pay. What gets people to click and read is what gets written over and over, whether that’s cat pictures or celebrity speculation. One of Holiday’s tactics was to plant a story with an anonymous tip, then paid to send traffic to that post, ensuring most posts of the same ilk would be written. It’s the modern version of yellow PR feeding yellow journalism.
Journalism is for Other People
The pageview currency means stories are churned out fast. That leaves no time for fact checking and speaking with multiple sources, both absolute pillars of journalism. What you get is Trickle-Up journalism, where a story starts out on a small blog, gets enough pageviews that a larger blog picks up the story, and eventually leads to a major traditional media outlet picking up the story and providing national legitimacy.
That’s happened for years, but today it happens with unprecedented swiftness. And when no one is double checking facts or getting sources on record, it can ruin lives and massively misinform the public.
Apologies are… Whatever.
Believe me, nothing kills a PR person quicker than an outlet publishing a controversial story without soliciting an official response first. You have to contact the writer, contest their claims, fight like hell for a retraction or a rewrite or hope that they’ll delete incorrect content.
As Holiday bemoans in much of the second half of the book, apologies don’t happen in the online world. Trickle-Up journalism means blogs can report whatever they want, so long as it’s pinned on their source (which is a smaller blog, usually.) Posts that require new information, or corrections, usually just have a simple annotation at the bottom, which will be seen by about 1% of the readers. Sometimes you get a new post with your source cited, but the original post remains. It’ll live on forever in search results, RSS feeds, Wikipedia citations and so on.
Can We Change?
As I mentioned, Holiday confesses to using shady tactics and says he will continue to do so. He wants the system to change, but has no solution, and will continue to work within the flaws to do his job. It’s not my approach, but it works for him and mine works for me (granted, I’m a Utah content marketer with B2B specialties and he’s an NYC B2C publicist.)
What has to happen to fix the system? We need to change. Internet consumers need to hold media outlets and bloggers to higher standards. PR people need to be vigilant in protecting their clients and proactive in building their own message.
For social media types, content creators? It all boils down to this: there is a need for content creators to abide by some basic journalism standards. Have high standards for your sources, vet out every claim and earn your pageviews (and dollars) by having better, more useful content than anyone else in your industry.
I try so hard not to be a cynic, but if I’m being honest, I say there’s no way either of those things will happen. In fact, I expect consumer appetite for actual journalism will continue to wither while content creators get more and more focused on whatever it takes to earn that pageview.
I really hope I’m wrong.