USC Annenberg Online Journalism ReviewUSC





Blogged Down in the PR Machine
Publicists diss niche queries for now, citing time constraints

Relatively speaking, Joe Clark wasn't asking for much: an e-mail interview with a manager or engineer at Apple Computer Inc. to discuss the company's OS X operating system. He wanted to explore how the platform's approach to localization issues could be applied to multilingual Web sites.

'So the piece you are working on right now regarding localization is for what publication?' e-mailed a staffer at Edelman Public Relations Worldwide, Apple's PR firm, on April 20.

Clark's response: '[I]t took 15 days to pose that question? The original message [stated it was] on the NUblog where the piece will appear. Hoping to hear back before May 4.'

Clark can be forgiven for his annoyance; most journalists, especially at mid-level publications and smaller, have experienced similar frustration when publicists take days or weeks to reply to queries on time-sensitive stories, or sometimes don't reply at all.

But consider the harried, overworked PR rep. She's struggling to set up interviews for dozens of legitimate journalists from print, broadcast, and, yes, even online outlets, and suddenly she has to deal with someone claiming to be a writer for NUblog. What is a 'NUblog,' anyway?

Well, NUblog is a Weblog maintained by Clark. It's one among tens of thousands of individually produced sites containing personal musings, links, and other Net-based ephemera that have sprung up in recent years. Weblogs, known informally as blogs, can range in subject matter from light-hearted sincerity to stark surreality, tinged by the predilections and artistic inclinations of their authors.

NUblog belongs to a burgeoning subset of this community: blogs produced by journalists, sites such as AndrewSullivan.com, Dan Gillmor's eJournal, and Jim Romenesko's MediaNews.

Many journalist-run blogs have small but dedicated followings of opinion leaders and influencers, the key people that PR companies are trying to target. In their niche-geared, serendipitous way, blogs reach a significant proportion of the Web's mindshare. In so doing, they may exert an influence rivaling that of traditional news outlets.

Yet, PR agencies are only now beginning to wake up to the importance of Weblogs in the mediasphere, and many aren't sure how to deal with them. 'The demands on PR people have gone through the roof because of the proliferation of online media,' says Jerry Swerling, head of the public relations sequence at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. 'What's lacking here is some kind of procedure or guidelines that tell corporate PR that a request is on the up and up.'

The PR folks at Edelman and Apple apparently didn't consider Clark to be a legitimate journalist. After an increasingly hostile exchange with Clark, which is detailed in a series of e-mails posted at NUblog, a representative from Apple turned down his request.

When Clark posted the e-mail correspondence on his site, Harry Pforzheimer, Edelman's Western region president, sent him a cease-and-desist e-mail, which Clark also posted.

In the e-mail, dated May 1, Pforzheimer wrote, 'I find your tone and actions completely unjustifiable, malicious, slanderous, unprofessional and creating an extremely serious legal issue for yourself. Further, your request for an interview was not on behalf of a credentialed publication and therefore, you have no claim or right to or for a formal interview.'

Clark's reaction? Let's talk credentials.

On his year-old Weblog, the Toronto-based blogger has written nearly 150 tech-themed articles. Some are rants, in the grand tradition of online self-publishing, but others are thoughtful expositions on a wide range of topics, including Napster, digital cinema and online content. Clark is also working on a book about Web accessibility, and while he no longer writes freelance articles for newspaper or magazines ('I refuse to sign the contracts'), he has 390 published articles to his credit, in venues ranging from Technology Review to Entertainment Weekly.

'I may not be Ted Koppel but that doesn't mean I don't have credibility on the specific topic I'm writing about,' he says.

Then again, Clark intended to write about OS X's localization features on NUblog, where a typical article garners 300 to 900 page views, according to his log files. (His stories about the Edelman incident drew several times more readers, thanks to key links on other blogs.)

Clark's request was one of several hundred that Edelman received that week, according to Pforzheimer. 'Certainly, PR people have to understand Weblogs as a new media outlet, but there have to be some guidelines as to who is valid and invalid as a member of the media,' Pforzheimer says. 'If you're calling up and saying you're a member of the media, and you're going to post something, that's one thing, but if you're somebody else who just has a site and you want to rant about something, you're not a journalist.'

Edelman has accommodated interview requests from Webloggers and online journalists in the past, Pforzheimer says. But, he admits, since it's hard to know whom to trust in the Wild West of Weblogging, he tends to help out bloggers who are affiliated with legitimate news organizations in their day jobs, for example, Dan Gillmor, a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News.

'This way, I know that what they're writing about is something they've researched, that they have an opinion. It gives an added degree of comfort,' Pforzheimer says.

To Clark, it's not the size of his audience that should matter, but the quality. NUblog caters to a core group of programmers, designers, and other tech-heads, who crave coverage of esoteric topics like the multi-language capabilities of a new computer platform.

'If I were trying to get an interview with Steve Jobs, who am I kidding? But since this is a small effort to fulfill my request, I can't see any reason why they couldn't do it,' he says, adding: 'In the post-Ain't-It-Cool-News era, I thought it was clear that small sites can either have a large readership or just the right readership.'

What PR companies need to learn, Clark says, 'is that the Internet is not a mass medium. It's all about niches, so if you have a mainstream product or service and you need to market it intelligently, then you should court these niche sources.'

Swerling of Annenberg says that these niches are one of the Internet's primary strengths. 'You can segment your audiences and really target your groups, and communicate with narrow groups a lot more effectively.' The problem, he notes, is figuring out how thinly to slice the audience segment. 'If it gets down to micro-niching, where do you draw the line? You can only deal with so many requests at a time.'

Regardless, Clark thinks that applications for media access should be judged on their own merits, and not according to some standard of journalistic hierarchy that places blogs in the 'delete message' heap. In this case, 'the entire exchange probably cost Apple more than if they had just fulfilled my request,' he says.

Maybe so, but Pforzheimer says the outcome of Edelman's squabble with Clark was worthwhile, because it triggered a deeper discussion at the company about journalistic credentials. 'We have learned a lot more about Webloggers than we did before,' Pforzheimer says. Who, then, is a valid journalist? 'We still don't know. The dialogue continues.'