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Revenge of the flacks

For all the public-relations pros who have been ignored by the media over the years, it's time for schadenfreude.

If you're still wondering why the media world is getting turned on its head, consider the following anecdote.

A few years back, representatives from the Industry Standard, Wired, and Upside were invited to a public-relations gathering to talk about how they decide what to cover. After they finished their prepared remarks, a young woman in the audience stood up to ask a question.

"You talk a lot about tricks and tips on what we should do," she said. "But I've done all that and I still can't get you to cover my clients."

The reporter from Upside recognized the opening and rammed a Mack Truck right through it. "Ma'am," he replied, "you need better clients."

So much for winning hearts and minds.

When I heard that story, I bolted upright. Talk about tone-deaf arrogance. Would it surprise anyone if that woman is still seething today? So it is that she may take belated pleasure in knowing how the PR industry has since found ways to go around the gatekeepers.

On Thursday, I put up a post commenting on how raw PR releases increasingly rank higher on feeds and Web aggregation sites than reports from professional reporters and bloggers. In the subsequent 24 hours, my in-box filled up with messages from public-relations pros weighing in on my blog. The Reader's Digest version? I don't know the half of it.

"The truth is that there are fewer and fewer of you guys," said a veteran PR-meister I know who works for one of the bigger technology companies. "You can't call the same reporter and expect him to do five stories on your company in the same month. So we have to have other ways to get out that information."

"Search engine optimization and other tools we have are better than they used to be and we're just taking advantage of the technology," this person continued. "We can go direct to audiences and bypass the filters--like the media--and have it picked up."

Rick Sharga, a marketing consultant who relayed to me the anecdote at the top of this story, also left a talkback on my post pointing out that it's worse than I thought--both from a "news" and press release standpoint.

"One of the reasons you see press releases ranked higher in Web measurement surveys is that an increasing number of releases are written not for the press, or even for consumers, but for search engines. Instead of focusing on the news value of the content, the writers are focusing on keyword density. Writers who focus on actual news don't really have that luxury.

Secondly, after being frustrated for so long by being excluded from media coverage by writers who deemed their stories "unworthy," many PR pros just decided to leverage the Internet medium and disintermediate the journalist entirely--the intersection of direct marketing and PR, if you will.

This approach lacks the credibility given by a third party--always a benefit of good press coverage--but at least ensures that the message gets out. And finally, a lot of your fellow journalists are making the transition entirely too easy. Take a look at what passes for "news reporting" on a lot of sites--and in a lot of publications--and decide for yourself how much of what you're reading has been taken verbatim from the press releases themselves.

Intelligent readers who can now find exactly the same content on a "legitimate" publication site, a blog, and on a search engine figure this out pretty quickly. You're right that the lines between what's news and what's hype (or at least what's corporate-speak) are blurring pretty rapidly. Journalists now have the duel challenge of actually competing with the press release, and staying relevant enough that readers will value their perspective more than the company-issued draft. Interesting times, indeed."

Sharga, who these days is a vice president at Realty Track, later told me that in the last couple of years PR firms have tried to saturate their press releases with keywords that get Internet spiders to push their releases up the rankings. It's all about keyword density.

"You even have a category of releases that may never go out on the wires but the spiders still recognize them and can push them up into the rankings," he said.

Talk about reaping what you sow. For PR pros who have been ignored by the media, this is an extra scoop of schadenfreude to enjoy.