More Navel gazing on PR e-mails: The Writer’s Responsibility

At some point, I’m going to get back to writing about food, but not today. Today, more navel gazing, particularly in regards to last week’s post on PR E-mails.

I received an extended comment, which I’ll post here in order for the sake of convenience:

Kate, in your post you equate public relations, publicity, marketing, and advertising in the same bucket. I think you’re correct in that the end goal is the same: to increase the revenue of a business in a short- or long-term. However, they really are different occupations and targets; ironically, you’re blanket approach to all of the different groups probably serves you less well.

I would start out with challenging your assumption that people are just trying to get something for free or that this is a zero-sum game. Folks who work in public relations and publicity are trying to get coverage for their clients–but in the best of worlds they are also allowing you to get something at the same time.

For example, suppose there were a trade organization that wanted to promote the whiskeys of Iceland. They saw you as a noted expert in whiskey and asked if you wanted a two week trip to Iceland to sample odd whiskeys. In return, they asked that you consider writing up your experience, but did not ask for editorial control of any kind. Would you consider this kind of offer?

As another example, say a PR company reached out to you to offer and opportunity to interview a noted distiller. Again, they did not ask to exert any kinds of editorial control; however, they did indicate that if you asked about the distiller’s ex-wife that the interview would be over. Would you want that kind of offer in your mailbox?

It might be interesting to look at it the other way: suppose you contacted a company and asked that you be allowed to interview one of their top folks: be it a baker or a chef or a distiller or whatever. Then you received a form response thanking you for your inquiry and giving you directions on how to purchase the retail product. Would you be offended? What if you were just starting out as a novice blogger or journalist?

Clearly, some of the PR people you quote above lack class. However, I don’t think their responses are way out of line for what is, at best, a snarky form response.

You might want to consider setting up a few email aliases for different kinds of email messages–this would allow newbie PR firms to send their mail directly there rather than to your main inbox

I appreciate the response, and the perspective. I just happen to disagree with it. From the tone of this response, there seems to be a belief (which I’m only guessing at) that both the food writer and the people involved in public relations, publicity, marketing, and advertising, are all part of the same apparatus, one where there is equal amount of back-scratching and quid pro quo.

My position is that the opposite is true. A good writer, be they a journalist, a blogger, or someone who does something similar to what I do, is one who can extricate themselves from this apparatus, and find something insightful about it. That insight, however it’s packaged, is what is of value to the reader.

These e-mails that oh-so-many-of-us receive, do one of two things. Firstly, when it comes to individual writers, they seek to leverage that “insight” for their own benefit. This is the “Wow! Mark Bittman is talk about XYZ Cookie company! They must be good!” approach.

Secondly, they spam hundred of writers, in hopes that a percentage of them write a post, giving the illusion of “buzz”. This is the “Wow! I’ve been reading so much about the XYZ Cookie company! They must be good!” approach.

I can do nothing about the latter, but I certainly can do something about the former. I can see the benefit what the PR company gets if I write about their client. The commenter writes, “they are also allowing you to get something at the same time.” My question to this is “What? What exactly am I getting?”

I can tell you what I am losing easily – editorial control. Because the amount of e-mails I get where I am offered the opportunity to interview someone is minimal, less than a single percentage of these PR e-mails. The amount of these e-mails that deal with product releases, or the hiring of a new CEO, or the promotion of a restaurant are not only comprise the majority of these e-mails, they are damn near the only types I get.

So again, I ask, “What? What exactly am I getting from writing about XYZ cookies, or John Doe getting hired as the COO of Crappy Toothpaste Co., or Avast! , the pirate themed restaurant of Jamaica?”

The other side of the argument provided, the hypothetical where I’m expected to purchase the product of the person I’m going the interview for? Damn straight that’s what I’m going to do, for two reasons. One, what kind of research skills would I have if I didn’t sample the product of the person I am interviewing? Two, a food writer who goes in with the expectation of receiving free samples, sets themselves up for an ethical quandary if they happen to dislike the free-item they were given. I was put in this situation once, over the stupidest of reasons. A restaurant to which I was granted a press pass, offered me (and others) a free meal. The meal was suitable and I wrote as such. The problem was that I had written that I “had finagled a ticket” to this event, and the restaurant didn’t like the insinuation that they were an establishment where one could “finagle” their way to get into. They asked me to change the piece. The next day, I stopped taking free events.

The point is this – these PR e-mails are not offering anything that a good food writer cannot come up with on their own. A good food writer does not need to be prodded by companies to come up with topics to write about. A good food writer should know how to suss out these topics on their own.

So, logically speaking, if I am the best source of my editorial content, what do these e-mails provide me? Not much. Not much aside from the idea that if these companies want promotion, I can give it to them in a way that benefits both of us – by paying me for advertising. As long as my readers know the difference between what is advertising on my site, and what are my insights, I can sleep well.