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Catching Up with Jeremy Pepper and Blogs

Back in May 2003, I sat down – ok, instant-messaged – with Jeremy Pepper to talk about what it’s like to start your own PR firm. Pepper had just launched his own firm, POP! Public Relations, and was beginning to get settled.

Since our first interview, Pepper has been busy not just practicing PR, but writing about it. His Musings from POP! Public Relations weblog has become a leading online destination for people looking for insight into the PR industry, and Pepper has become an outspoken advocate for and critic of the industry. I caught up with Pepper this week and we spoke – ok, instant-messaged – about the challenges an independent PR practitioner faces, the role of weblogs in PR, good and bad PR campaigns, and a number of other issues.

Ben Silverman (“BS”): Two years ago when we first spoke, you had recently launched your own PR firm, and we talked about how “going solo” was an interesting choice considering the economy at the time. From an economic standpoint, has much changed?

Jeremy Pepper (“JP”): The economy has improved, slowly and surely. It does take a while for the economic recovery to filter down to advertising, marketing and PR, but we are seeing an increase in RFPs for PR. Whether this is just companies testing the waters, or serious about PR, is hard to tell. But even testing the waters is a good thing.

BS: Are you seeing smaller companies looking to hire PR firms again?

JP: On a local level, there are always small companies that realize they need to get into the press, just not sure how to do that. That’s what I am beginning to see with the smaller companies. In the past few months, I have seen smaller companies – Internet-based companies, start-ups, niche companies – begin to increase their PR budgets and look for firms. Or, at least test the waters.

BS: What’s been the most difficult challenge you’ve faced as an independent PR practitioner?

JP: Being in Arizona. I have had a few PR professionals and a person that has worked in technology for years tell me to get out of Arizona and move to L.A., S.F. or N.Y. While we are in an era of amorphous communications – where it shouldn’t matter really where a firm is located – being in Arizona seems to have been a barrier. Arizona is made up of mostly local boutiques, and trying to be more has been difficult. I network with one other local PR person that gets it.

BS: Is that because companies think that having a PR firm based in NYC or L.A. automatically lends them credibility in the eyes of the media?

JP: I believe so. Even local companies don’t use local firms but go out of state for PR. There also isn’t much “national” in Arizona, or the understanding of what it takes to do national PR (both in time and money). We’re a real estate/tourism state, and companies don’t want to spend what it takes.

It’s one thing that I have looked at, and pulled back on. Do I want to network in Arizona? I joined a technology group and was amazed at the mindset and the obstacles to trying to change things. I would rather network at tradeshows in other cities, or DEMO and PC Forum when they come to Arizona. Here we have large shows – with international acclaim – but no real Arizona connections.

BS: You’ve been at the forefront of the intersection of blogging and PR, both as a “PR blogger” and someone who extols the business virtues of utilizing blogs. At this time, do you think that the average PR person understands how blogs can help or hurt a PR campaign, client or employer?

JP: Thanks. I just looked at my blog and realized that I began in July 2003. I didn’t even do anything for my anniversary.

I have conflicted feelings about blogs – on one hand, I don’t believe every company needs one, but I also realize that every PR firm should be tracking the blogosphere for the clients. The issue is how time-intensive it can be. I do tracking for a client that is one hour a day – that’s just one company, one name. It would get worse if you are an AC at a large firm on more than one account.

But, does the average PR person get it? I don’t think at all – but I don’t think the average agency gets it either. I hear and read about all these large firms extolling the virtues of blogging, launching blog services … but no one blogs. It’s a bandwagon thing that the larger firms are jumping on.

As for blogging campaigns, it really is just a new name for “influencer” campaigns – just that the influencers blog and have larger audiences.

BS: Do you buy the argument being bandied around in the media that blogs are now extremely influential? The media points to episodes like Trent Lott, Dan Rather and Jeff Gannon/Guckert, but I’ve yet to see a company or product really elevated or taken to the woodshed by the media because of blogs. Is it only a matter of time?

JP: You remember the great Kool Moe Dee song “Wild Wild West”? That’s how I look at the blogosphere, but there’s no Kool Moe Dee sheriff.

Blogs are gaining influence, but until stories hit the so-called deadwood press/mainstream press, the general public doesn’t know about it. I like to think of blogs as trees in a forest – if the MSM didn’t pick up a blog post, would anyone ever read it. Yes, bloggers did help publicize Lott, Rather, Gannon, etc. and made enough noise that the mainstream press picked it up, so the general public found out. The lag-time between the blog to the press is getting shorter, though.

I think bloggers have the same problem as the dot-com era had – blinders. They can’t think beyond their environment, to what plays in Peoria.

BS: There is a company I cover for my regular job, and its stock is down about -50% in the past week because of negative attention from investment newsletters and some negative news on the wire. I wrote about them on my personal weblog, and investors are now finding what I wrote through search engines and message-board posts. I’m just imagining what would happen if the wider blogosphere picked up on the story and found it compelling. Do companies need to be wary about blogs creating a tidal wave of bad press?

JP: Definitely. The real power isn’t the blogosphere, it’s the search engine. And, the more tech-savvy bloggers are using search engine optimization for their posts – hitting on hot topics, name-dropping and company name-dropping, and hyperlinking like no tomorrow. Personally, to me, that makes a blog boring, and I stop reading.

But, that’s what is happening. The Bic hack on Kryptonite Locks was on a small bike forum, then picked up in various places and written about by bloggers, eventually leading to mainstream press. It’s the power of search engines that creates a tidal wave.

That’s why I love the line “ignore the blogosphere to your clients’ peril.” It’s true – what is covered in a blog can be found and picked up by reporters, and they can run with it and cost a company a lot of money. The bigger issue is that bloggers have no checks and balances in place: no copy editors, no fact checking – just the Wild West. The bigger worry is the fake bad information that might leak out there. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a replay of the Emulex scam on a blog, trying to affect stock prices.

BS: You say the real power is the search engine; is that why search engine optimization (“SEO”) is becoming a PR tactic? Or, is this whole SEO thing just an up-sell opportunity for PR firms?

JP: PR firms are always looking for better ways to serve their clients, to bring the latest tools to help bring more exposure for clients. SEO is a good up-sell, or included as part of the overall package. But, if the agency is only looking to SEO for the client, it’s not enough. You can do all the SEO you want, but if the press release isn’t newsworthy, the public is just not really going to care.

In moving to blogging, SEO and everything else, I think PR forgets that we are here to counsel clients on strategy and tactics, and that a press release is only newsworthy if there’s actual news there. That’s why blogs are great for corporations – you can post information that isn’t necessarily enough information for a full press release.

But anytime PR firms can lay claim to another piece of business, we should jump on it. We need to lay claim to blogs as PR (not marketing or advertising), and SEO is an extension of that.

BS: New subject. On your own blog you recently wrote about interactive viral campaigns. Is this something that PR people need to be thinking about, or is this a marketing department thing?

JP: Jack O’Dwyer – the public relations pundit – recently noted that public relations is transitioning into marketing communications, that the industry needs to embrace what used to be thought of as marketing and bring it under communications.

On that note, yes, interactive campaigns of the type I wrote about should be part of the communications/PR fold. Part of it is messaging – PR is the force behind corporate messaging, and such campaigns have a large effect on the corporate message.

Should these campaigns be overseen by PR? It would appear yes, just to handle messaging and overall impression. You don’t want to spread the wrong message on your company, and sometimes the viral campaigns push the envelope too far.

BS: Last round of questions … Are there any PR campaigns that you’ve seen recently that have impressed you?

JP: My favorite two campaigns from the past year are the re-election of President George W. Bush and “The Passion of the Christ.” Both were handled in a pure genius way, starting with local grassroots efforts – for Bush, it was the Swift Boat Vets; for “Christ,” it was the church posters and stickers and nails – and moved beyond to garner steam.

Both were controversial subjects, with the chance for campaigns to blow up and not work. Both got the end result they wanted: Bush is president; “Christ” made a ton of money and broke box office records.

BS: Any you think have been handled terribly?

JP: Let’s go back to the presidential race. Senator John Kerry was positioned as a populist – sorry, no one from Boston is a populist, not even Kennedy. They thought that the Swift Boat Vets would just fade away and didn’t need to be addressed. They thought there was enough of an anti-Bush vote out there not actually to have to have position papers. They thought that since [Vice Presidential candidate John] Edwards was able to bring up the lesbian daughter in the VP debate that Kerry should do the same. It was like the Kerry campaign had no contact with people in the real world.

Oh, and I’m a Democrat.

There is one campaign – to remain nameless – that crosses into both good and bad. The PR firm had a great strategy – influencers and bloggers first. They would feed information to the bloggers, have meetings with them, get them excited by the product. The firm even “leaked” the launch date to the various bloggers – which has come and gone without the site launching.

So, both good and bad. Part of the reason why the blogger campaign is great but – since technology is so rife with missed deadlines – also extremely dangerous.

BS: How about from a spin control standpoint – anyone you think doing a good job?

JP: Currently, the best spin control is Hewlett-Packard. The acting CEO has done a great job in positioning the company as a growth company that needed a new head to get back on track to the HP way. And, Edelman – Richard Edelman. He’s doing a great job with his blog, being positioned as even more of an expert and go-to person for issues in PR.

BS: Anyone causing greater damage?

JP: It’s going to sound like a broken record, but I think the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), and the Council of PR Firms are causing greater damage to the profession by being quiet – and complicit – with all the issues going on in public relations. Where are our organizations that are supposed to be lobbying for PR? Where are our organizations in taking a leadership role?

Yes, I’m sure others would say Lizzie Grubman and MTV, but in the greater scheme of things, in 10 years the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) and Armstrong Williams will affect our industry more than Lizzie’s show on MTV. But, by looking at our associations, you wouldn’t know there are any issues to be addressed right now. The big problem with the MTV show is that it is portraying PR as glamorous. PR isn’t glamorous. It’s work – and very hard work at that. What she does is publicity – a totally different animal than PR.

BS: Thanks for your time!

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.

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