Poor Online PR

When I was a journalist, I often got upset with some PR folks with their unprofessionalism and sheer lack of understanding of why journalists do what they do. And when I became a PR person myself in 2007, I tried my best to not be the lousy PR person I always criticised from the other side of the fence.

Unfortunately, I don’t think the state of things will change. There are probably more people joining the PR market than there are new journalists in most developed countries, especially with the shrinking number of media outlets.

At the same time, social media is exploding, and both PR and media are struggling to understand how to cope with, and leverage the likes of Facebook and Twitter.

Social media is so important today, we should not be using the word “new media” anymore, which is actually pretty passe (we used this over a decade ago to describe online news outlets!). Social media has also caused a change in the way that online journalism and PR is practiced – today, both PR and media folks are bringing their age-old tension to the forefront, rather than keep it behind curtains as it has been done since print journalism began. It’s not pretty though.

Take for example this recent Gizmodo blog post, which has the self-explanatory title of “Why We’re Not Reviewing The Nokia N8”.

As much as we’d love to see a great new phone from Nokia, we’re not reviewing the N8. The phone was, unfortunately, irrelevant before it launched. Like a top-of-the-line horse-drawn carriage released shortly after Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon.

Nokia itself has declared that it’s abandoning Symbian for all of its N-Series phones. Nokia serves a billion phones a year, but it’s the N-series that represents everything Nokia wants to be, its ambition forged into tiny pocketfuls of technology. Their phones that geeks gushed about once upon a time. The N8 is the very last of its kind. The head of Symbian even quit today. It’s a dead OS running.

Personally, I haven’t recommended ANY N-series phone ever since my ancient N73 (circa 2006?). It’s also hard to believe I used to spend so many hours creating Nokia S60 themes on my blog (they get downloaded frequently even today!). Nokia lost the story long before the iPhone came out, and they only realized it this year when they replaced the CEO and admitted that Symbian in its current state was going nowhere.

But I got pretty miffed when I saw Nokia PR’s reply on the Gizmodo comments page.

Hi Matt, this is Anna from Nokia PR.

Matt, thanks for your opinion. We’re sorry you have chosen not to review the N8, and it’s ok that you don’t like our products. Millions of other people (and some of your peers at Gizmodo) like our products, but we’re happy to come pick it up from you. There are plenty of other influencers who would appreciate the opportunity to experience the N8.

As you know through various discussions with us, we are committed to the Symbian platform, which is still the world’s most widely used smartphone OS, contrary to your own viewpoint. Our newest Symbian devices are already shipping and we’ve had a record number of preorders for Nokia N8’s. You could’ve bashed the device and we would’ve been ok with it, really. We’ll just send them to people who write a review to help their audience make a decision.

Some companies might be tempted to blacklist you from future reviews, but that’s not our style. However, we have decided to give this N8 away to a lucky consumer – learn how by following @Nokia on Twitter.

Thanks, Matt.

The text content is pretty alright, from a PR perspective.

But it’s the sheer tone – sarcastic and arrogant – that really stings the reader (not just the Gizmodo editorial, I assure you). Nobody in the tech industry will deny that Symbian is still the most widely used smartphone OS but it’s also a matter of context. On gadget blogs like Gizmodo and Engadget, and among hardcore users like me (I used only Nokia phones from 1998 to 2006), Symbian lost its relevance and significance several years ago.

This is not how PR is done online.

Yes, Anna, you might not agree with the attitude of the Gizmodo journalists, but this is something better left behind the scenes if you can’t project a professional image for your company in public. And for the record, all the reviews I’ve read of the N8 so far, tell me it’s not the killer phone Nokia or its fans have hoped for.

This is not about which mobile OS is best (yes, I’m waiting for my Windows Phone 7 from LG to arrive), but about how PR people need to be careful what they say to whom. It’s easy to post a comment on a blog, it’s extremely difficult to repair the damage you’ve done to yourself, your PR team, and your company. From a communications perspective, PR is about managing what is said in public to project a desired image, not proving a personal point or worse, putting down a media outlet.

Face the facts: PR companies need the media more than the other way around. I can say this because I’ve done both and I can tell you quite a few PR people still have no idea how the media really works.

Update: I thought about this more when I went for my morning jog today. PR is not just about managing what is said, but also managing relationships. In this case, a poorly written comment by a PR person has damaged the relationship between her company and the media site, as well as with the readership or anyone who happened to stumble upon this thread.

Am I asking PR people to be grovelling at the media’s feet then? No, PR and media should treat each other with absolute respect and professionalism at all times. The media is not always right, and PR folks can and often provide an additional perspective that people need.

Just that everyone needs to remember that power is never balanced, and currently the media still has the upper hand when it comes to influencing the masses. Some PR folks believe that with the advent of blogs, social media and online viral campaigns, they can now de-emphasize their relationships with the media and speak directly to consumers…but that’s wishful thinking. The majority of the world, tech-savvy or not, does not spend its time trawling internet forums and comments to seek a balanced opinion – they still rely very much on media folks to summarize and to give a (hopefully balanced) opinion.

Communications is still a very specialized skill that is hard to learn and even harder to master, and it is the onus of both PR and media to raise the bar of professionalism on all platforms. If you ask me, Gizmodo should have done a review to prove their point, and the PR person should learn how to take feedback rather than to give it.

10 Replies to “Poor Online PR”

  1. Assuming I’ve read all of your opinion on this matter correctly, it’s under my assumption that you are a big fan of Gizmodo. Nokia had every right to post a public response to a very public article stating they would not review their product. If they left that behind the scenes, this wouldn’t be an issue. As Gizmodo created a public forum, it’s only logical that Nokia was allowed to respond. They responded in a similar fashion to nokia, and that too was logical.

    The Internet disagrees with you: http://www.reddit.com/r/geek/comments/dv7u2/

  2. Hi Eliot,

    I happen to be a bigger fan of Engadget, and I read Gizmodo once every few months. I just happened to stumble upon this thread when browsing Twitter posts.

    My point is not whether the PR person should have posted a response, but how she could have communicated in a more professional way. It’s not what is logical, but what is right for us communications professionals to be doing.

    And I don’t really bother if the Internet agrees with me. I happen to have my own opinion.

  3. Actually, Ian, I think that the Apple folks are the masters of sarcasm and arrogance, but (most) people still worship at their feet (ok, a bit of an exaggeration, but you get my drift). Why do you think that is?

  4. Hi! Ian, I fully agree with you that there is “power struggle” between the traditional main stream media (MSM) and the newer Social Media (SM). I however tend to disagree with your suggestion that the MSM still held the upper hand when it comes to influencing the masses. I believe you hold this view as you believe that the majority of people still rely on the MSM for information.

    While I agree that the MSM enjoy greater credibility with stakeholders due to their professional structure, I disagree that they hold the upper hand over SM in all situations – especially in crisis communication situations.

    As mentioned in my blog (www.cwfong.blogspot.com), Perception is Reality and organisations that can seize the information initiative will be able to shape stakeholder perception by framing the issue in its favour. This in turn puts the organisation in an advantageous position as the human tendency to selectively filter information to fit the initial perception perpetuates the perception – real or imagined. Being human, MSM reporters are not immune from this and it is inevitable that some of their reporting will be “biased”.

    Thus, it is my opinion that in a crisis it is the SM that holds the upper hand.

  5. Hi CW, this post doesn’t touch on MSM vs social media at all. It’s about the tension between PR folks and the media, who happen to be non-MSM in this case.

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