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The great PR vs blogger debate

What bloggers should understand about PR and vice versa; we’re all in it together, so let’s be friends

letsbefriends

In the last few years I’ve made a transition from being a journalist and blogger into what my friends jokingly call ‘the dark side’ – branded content and PR. I now straddle the divide.

This gives me a unique perspective on what is often perceived as an adversarial relationship – that between bloggers and PR people. Each thinks the other fundamentally doesn’t ‘get it’ and has an easy life. That’s not true on either side. I’m not saying I’m perfect; I’ve made mistakes on both sides of the coin, but here’s what I do understand having done both…

Paid, owned and oh my gosh

When it comes to media, there’s paid, owned and earned.

  • ‘Paid’ refers to the things you buy, like adverts.
  • ‘Owned’ means the spaces the company creates and manages itself, like its own social channels and website.
  • ‘Earned’ is a big headache that no one knows how to deal with.

Essentially, ‘earned’ is word of mouth – things people say about the company that makes other people want to buy from them. This is the space that bloggers typically occupy. PR professionals are hired (in part) to work with bloggers and help generate some of this positive word of mouth. They might offer free products, or invite bloggers to events where they’ll ply them with free food and drink and try to win their favour. That’s their job.

Not all bloggers are created equal

Recently I came across a campaign called #FairPayForBloggers. They want brands to cough up for bloggers’ time and content. Bloggers spend time and energy creating their posts and growing their audience, and they argue they should be compensated for this. Unfortunately, this isn’t how most PR people and brands understand the relationship and to see why, we need to step back a bit.

Historically, journalists were the ones who were wined and dined to get good word of mouth. They didn’t get paid by the brand for their reviews (they were paid by the newspaper/magazine), but brands bought advertising in their magazines and newspapers, which paid their wages indirectly. The journalists had no part in this, and so were able to keep their reviews impartial in the main, whilst still earning a living.

Unfortunately a lot of market forces converged that meant ads were no longer taken out, publications struggled for money and loads of journos got the sack. It became all about branded content – magazines created and paid for by brands but written by journos to add credibility. Alongside that, bloggers were creating online content independently which people didn’t have to pay to read. And all of these things affected how people perceive the value of content.*

Content is now free, available at the click of a button. So who pays? Well, the journos mostly work for the brands now. They get paid by ‘The Man’. On the other side, the bloggers have mainly had day jobs, so they haven’t been getting paid. They gave away their content online for free, and might have received the odd gift or review product if they’d written about a brand.

However, over the last few years, there’s been a new development. Brands have been realising the value of online content and started investing in ads on blogs. And then some of them invested in content – promoted posts and such. Many bloggers have been giving up said day jobs to blog professionally. It suddenly got a lot more confusing. Who were the ‘professional’ bloggers and who were the ‘hobby’ bloggers? And what was the difference?

Pros and hos

There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to bloggers. Some want to be paid for any brand mention, while others are happy to talk about products in exchange for some freebies or an interesting event. (By the way, I’m not saying people who love freebies are hos. I just like rhymes).

Skill levels also vary wildly. There are some extremely talented bloggers on both the professional side and the hobby side. What can be confusing is when someone positions themself as a professional blogger but has no discernable training or skills; that happens more often than you might think.

Making the cut

When it comes to blogger outreach, for better or worse, it can often be last on a very long list of things for PRs to do for a client. And contrary to what many bloggers might think, PRs aren’t always paid that well for their time. They’re usually under huge time pressure, with about 15,762 things to do on top of dealing with bloggers and 10 different clients to provide for. They don’t necessarily have time to read every post on a blog and find out everything about that person. And some bloggers make it really hard to find that information out – they don’t fill out their ‘about page’ or explain it clearly, and a lot aren’t on LinkedIn.

On top of that, PRs have to find people who fit the brand’s specific style. So a lot of the time, they’ll get an overall impression of that person from their posts and then bite the bullet and make the approach with whatever the brand has told them they are allowed to offer.

And this is where complications can arise. There are different expectations on both sides.

The negotiation

Brands will have invested money in the ‘freebies’ they are offering and in the associated PR work to research and approach bloggers (usually as part of a package with lots of other PR work). In return, they will be under pressure to get as much online exposure as possible and, depending on how much stuff they’re giving away, might set requirements on how much coverage they receive.

Bloggers get offered free stuff all the time and, if they’re a professional blogger, need to pay their bills. If blogging is their job, they quite rightly want to be compensated accordingly for their time and effort. Ultimately though, professional bloggers need to understand this: you have chosen to do a job that many other people are doing for free already. That doesn’t mean they’ll be as good as you, or that you don’t have something to offer that is worth paying for, but it does make it a lot harder for brands to see why they should pay you.

Also, where the above brand position is true, there isn’t a budget put aside at the outset for this. If they’ve gone via a PR it’s because they want coverage for free. And herein lies the rub.

So what happens now? Cut out the middleman, get rid of the PR? Ah yes, but then who does all the research, compiles the blogger lists, manages to and fro conversations every day and spends time measuring all the activity afterwards to prove the ROI and secure future marketing budget? If the brand doesn’t have the capacity in-house, then this function and insight is crucial.

How about cutting out the bloggers? Brands could get their in-house journos to write up all the content and distribute it online, although it wouldn’t fill the same slot as an ‘earned’ blogger piece, it might not sound as authentic and they’d still have the issue of getting people to come to the page in first place.

So you see, we all need each other. The brand, the PR, and the blogger. We’re all in it together. You’ve got to the end of this interminable post and you’re expecting an answer. I don’t have it. All I can say is that everyone needs to try and be as open and honest as possible and not take the piss out of each other. We’re all trying to get along, at the end of the day, so it’s about finding an equitable exchange that works for everyone on a case-by-case basis.

And finally, pity the poor journos who spent a fortune getting qualified and are now stuck in the middle earning 20p per article** and not even getting a free lunch anymore. That sucks.

*FYI – it was a lot more complex than this, I’ve condensed it down for the purposes of this post.

**Obviously I’m exaggerating, but the pay really is crap in many cases.