Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Mommy Elephant in the room? Not so much.

A good pitch: the PR agency for Kuhn Rikon KinderKitchen (cooking tools for kids) contacted me after I reviewed a local kids' cooking class. They'd like to send some samples for a review. "Would you mind donating them for a fundraiser?" I asked. They agreed and sent the above amazing basket for a school fundraiser. It was one of the most popular and hotly bid upon items. They got credit in the flyer for the event, and displayed their great products in-person to hundreds of parents. Of course I wrote a blog post about it, too. The winner of the basket was ecstatic, and more word of mouth for the product. I know personally of quite a few sales, just from this one effort. That's some bueno PR and I applaud Katrina of Field & Associates PR who set it up. She represented her client well and beneficially.

I read a disturbing post Monday from a partner at a PR firm, "The Mommy Elephant in the room."

This post was pushback from a PR firm partner angered when a mom blogger pushed back publicly on her blog about a pitch.

I agree with the concept that we need to get things worked out between mom bloggers and promotional agencies. I agree with the idea we need to nail down some general Good Guidelines for people to consider, and communicate the ethics and FTC regulations involved. I agree that good dialogue is necessary.

I prefer to do it more constructively, though. I like how Liz and Susan are opening up the conversation and keeping it going, and I think firms and agencies that have questions could really benefit from reading their main points. I also like to (at times) post really, really good pitches as an example of how to do it.

So where did all of this come from?

Just in case you were sleeping the last couple of years or were otherwise engaged in non-blogging activities or other outside priorities, here's a brief history of the mom blog world:
  • Moms started blogging
  • Mom blogs became popular and influential
  • PR firms (among others) had a lightbulb go on overhead
  • PR firms (among others) said, "Wow, mom blogs are awesome, what a great way to reach our market!"
  • PR firms (among others) started reaching out to moms and moms were initially flattered and frequently interested
  • As is typical with the start of things, this was the start of a beautiful friendship
  • As is sadly typical of a lot of friendships, this went south
  • PR firms (among others) were sometimes way less than professional with mom bloggers (I'll get into what this means later in the post)
  • Some bloggers got very promote-y, to the dismay of their readers. They got push back from unhappy readers who missed true blog content when their blog or blogs in general got overtaken by reviews, promotional editorial content, and similar
  • Bloggers and readers began discussing openly the ethics involved in promotional posts
  • Bloggers, some, became inundated with pitches from PR firms and others
  • Some bloggers began pushing back
  • The FTC got involved
  • Some smart bloggers launched Blog With Integrity
  • A large number of bloggers joined that effort
  • More discussion ensued
  • Some moods towards PR forms (among others) turned a little ugly
  • Pushback got more aggressive
  • Some firms were publicly chastised
  • Now, a PR firm has pushed back
In the last year, despite my own profession in communications (or maybe because of it), I've become increasingly annoyed by some pitches I've received. I've kvetched about some bad ones, publicly.

What has annoyed me about pitches (and I don't think I'm unique) (also, this is the "how PR firms have been less than professional with bloggers" comment I alluded to in my history list):
  • being called the wrong name, especially when my name is also the name of my blog
  • being pitched something completely inappropriate for my blog or my usual topics
  • the assumption that "providing me content ideas" is not only fair compensation, but in fact a favor (it's not, I never lack for content, and, as a blog versus a subscription based publication, my readers don't seek promotional editorial content from me. If you offered me time, then that would be talking.)
  • feeling like a shrimp caught in a net trolling for crab (in other words, just a random name plugged into a mass email outreach) (which totally misses the entire purpose and power of social media)
  • being asked for a huge time, and sometimes monetary, investment. For example...If you ask me to run a contest, that takes a huge amount of planning, promotion, time, and effort on my part. If you offer me a giveaway, it costs me to go to to a shipping service and send it to a reader. I did this once. It sounded So Fun and the product was a good fit. I had no experience running a contest off my blog four years ago, and got no guidelines or support from the agency. I admit I ran it very badly indeed. I learned a lot from it, so it's not pure regret, but I swore no more contests. Also? The shipping? Cost me over $30. And that wasn't the only cost. I never even got a thanks from the agency.
  • seeing the assumption that I'm in this for the free stuff, especially if I request a product. In all sincerity, how in the world can anyone expect me to review a product that I've never used or don't have, if it's new, or to expend my time and money to go buy a product and review it. No, a discount coupon is not adequate, especially if it is something I'd probably not buy on my own anyway. I am a small business owner and I understand the cost involved in sending samples. When I published a children's autism book (which cost me $10 per piece to print) I cringed a little each time I sent a free book, but I understood it was the cost involved if I hoped for reviews or promotion. I was therefore very selective in choosing who I sent it to, and made sure it was the right person. Thus, instead of blanketing hundreds of people, I contacted ten. Ten right people. Without spending a dime on advertising, and costing only the per piece cost, I sold out the first print run of the book.
  • hitting an unrealistic deadline schedule from people asking me to help them promote their client or client's product. I have contacted people who pitch something that interests me and is a good fit. I have on some occasions then encountered daily pings from these folks wondering when I'm going to get that post up.
So what are PR agencies to do? I agree it's a complicated world.

To help out on my end, as many bloggers have done, I posted right in the main sidebar of my blog a policy about how I work. The content of my blog makes it clear quickly the genre I work within. When I receive queries and pitches, I have a standard reply that is often an appropriate response. It states my rates and conditions, as well as what I will do. Other times, I send a special reply. I have only rarely asked to be removed from the list because in my opinion, it's better to keep lines of communication open. Offer A might not be a fit, but Offer B might be. I find no purpose or solution in cutting off the relationship (unless it is truly egregious, and I honestly can't think of a time that has happened off the top of my head).

I have shared my boilerplate policy text with other bloggers freely, encouraging them to use it as is or tweak it to work for them and then post it.

In the end, I've formed positive productive working relationships with quite a few promotion agencies. These places are filled with positive people who work professionally and well. i have a lot of respect for them.

People who commented that the commenters offered no constructive ideas, including the PR partner who originally wrote the post, weren't reading the comments very carefully, in my humble opinion. Many, many commenters offered big nuggets of gold information and ideas.

If you read carefully, you can find out how to best interact, approach and work with bloggers for promotional opportunities. It make require reframing your own thoughts of approaches to working with bloggers, but in my opinion, that's called constructive perspective taking and leads to better interactions and more success.

So what are the golden nuggets?

One of my very favorite people in the world summarized it perfectly in her own comment. Deb Rox, with whom I worked on the amazing Tide Loads of Hope project that she and Meagan set up, wrote (and breaking it up and highlighting portions is all me):
The answer to PR reps’ problems with mommybloggers is so easy it drives me crazy that I see pros making the same mistakes time and time again.

I come from both perspectives. I blog, and I work in PR and marketing and as a liaison between bloggers, brands and PR reps.

The disconnect is that there are many types of bloggers. Not all are akin to newspaper or magazines, and most DO NOT NEED stories, traffic or giveaway items from PR.

That fact undoes the holy trinity of “everybody’s happy” with “free” stories.

The game has changed. However, old style pitching is still useful as some bloggers are indeed publishers akin to newspapers and magazines and are interested in those PR-driven stories or giveaway items. They already by and large identify themselves as PR Friendly either by badge or by text, so I don’t think a new badge is needed, and you can also tell by their content and the way they engage with the blogosphere and their readers.

You can tell by building a relationship. So mistakes are usually made by not researching that blogger first, and by not taking time to build a relationship second. If you are at all in doubt, your employees should absolutely query with a brief email–not a pitch for the client, but a request to see if they are interested in general in the type of pitches you send.

Just as simple as the unsubscribe email you mention. Your employee is the paid pro in this exchange. Did she first research that blogger and then chat with her before pulling your client into the exchange that obviously might not be welcome? Doing less is the type of bad communication that bloggers rightfully are offended by, as it breaks major etiquette, and companies should be offended by, if they knew, because they look bad.

If PR companies are confused by the mommyblogger scene, they can also hire insiders or liaisons to help them understand and cultivate relationships.
The problem I found with the defensive post and replies is the underlying presumption that when PR agencies pitch bloggers, they are doing them a favor and bloggers should be flattered. If they aren't the onus is on the blogger to just hit delete or reply with Unsubscribe.

In fact, as Deb said, the onus is on the paid professional to ensure that they are representing the client to the best of their ability by contacting the right people in the right way.

I concede the point that even in doing that, sometimes, the PR pro might hit the right person with the right pitch in the wrong way. Bloggers do need to remain respectful and professional in response.

One time, representing a client, I contacted a blogger. I contacted her personally, after reading at least three archived pages of her blog and ensuring that she did reviews, etc. My pitch wasn't wrong, contacting her wasn't wrong, but she was upset anyway by the pitch. Why? Well, I asked her and opened up a dialogue. She was tired of receiving offers that asked her to leave her kids. Finding childcare was complicated and expensive. I could really relate to that. Very valid and fair point. I couldn't re-do the client's offer for a variety of reasons, but we did talk back and forth a bit. It was a completely useful discussion. I learned to think long and hard, and even recommend for clients, to include entire families when possible. I learned that she didn't want any more "you only" offers. I deeply appreciated her honest and respectful feedback.

It really can be that easy, that simple.

I'd love to hear from my fellow bloggers: what works well for you? What have pitches got right? What improvement can you suggest?

I'd love to hear from PR agencies: what works well for you? What bloggers responses have really helped you improve?

And to reiterate Deb's final and crucial point: if PR firms (among others) are confused, hire an insider.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Shake Your Groove Thing, Yeah Yeah, And Show Me How to Birthday!



The best birthday my dog ever had was one of his early ones, age 2. At the time, my husband and I were both working full-time so our dog, Bo, attended a fantastic local doggie daycare in Beverly (MA) run by a great guy named Joe. Joe loved planning parties. We had Halloween parties (with prizes for best doggie costume), playdates, holidays, and birthdays. The birthday cake was meatloaf with mashed potato frosting. It even had fancy script that read, "Happy Birthday to Our Best Friends!"

Our dog is a best friend, a member of our family. Like other good friends and members of our family, he dealt with cancer. Luckily, we caught it early -- it was an ugly one with a very low (single digit) survival rate. So we've gotten to celebrate more birthdays with him, and that means so, so much to us.

I love birthdays. I love the excuse for a party, a reason to celebrate, getting together with special people, cake (!), giving a gift, and even the singing.

I love getting to celebrate more birthdays. I love less cancer even more. That's why I really, really like American Cancer Society's More Birthdays!

And what's just as fun as a birthday?

Uploading your photo to an app that lets you get your groove on!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Triumph over adversity -- a fairy tale, Disney-fied version

Today on an NPR story, an actor was talking about his challenges getting roles. A common theme perhaps, but his obstacle, he said, was the fact that he uses a wheelchair. He's not bothered by the fact that the actor who plays wheelchair-bound Artie is not actually disabled, "People who have disabilities or who use wheelchairs who could still conceivably play that part should have equal opportunities to audition for those roles. And if it goes both ways, then the best actor should get the part."

Another disabled performer, Alana, said that this doesn't actually happen. She said that it floors her that even open-minded producers and directors envision that disabled actors and performers should only play victims, in roles that revolve around their disability. In fact, the part usually acts out a morality play, by having the characters be charity cases, she said, heroic characters overcoming tragedy.

The disability, then, is the real character, and the actor is merely playing a stereotypical part, is how I read it. And when I thought about it, it seemed true. The reporter, Karen Grigsby Bates, ran a bit from a popular TV show, Private Practice, in which one character asks a disabled character, Dr. Phyfe, about the day he learned he would no longer be able to walk -- she characterized that as the worst day of his life. Dr. Phyfe replied that his life changed dramatically that day, but he questioned why she would assume that it was the worst day of his life.

Alana, said, "How often do you see a strong actor with a disability playing a lead role or a very prominent role?"

Grigsby Bates said, not very often. And it's true.

The theme in drama is heroic characters overcoming adversity, triumphing. It's a powerful literary and dramatic device. I agree with the news report that it would be intriguing to see differently abled people playing characters rather than disabilities, and that by doing this, it can open up audience eyes to perceiving differently abled people as, well, people, more than just their disability.

Isn't it a sort of hubris to assume that a disability is the defining moment of a life, and that by keeping on the person is heroic and triumphing over adversity? Isn't that sort of projecting a fairy tale onto an actual person who is just as human as anyone else, and worse than that, isn't that sort of projecting a Disney-fied fairy tale onto a person?

In the private practice show, the disabled character said, "There's a period of adjustment, but with it."

The actor from Private Practice is disabled. He lost the use of his legs after a spinal stroke in 2003. Grigsby Bates reports that he said "saccharin stories about how disabled characters nobly conquer their handicaps aren't the answer to onscreen diversity." He said he'd like to see roles about characters without once mentioning the wheelchairs.

In Notting Hill, one of the characters was wheelchair bound, but that wasn't the point of her role. Completely, anyway. It was a dramatic device -- an obvious adversity in a marriage, where typically adversity is not noticeable -- to illustrate couples can get through challenges and remain together. The wheelchair was, in the end, the least of it, and only briefly mentioned. The character was a friend, and I think what she considered her real adversity was the trouble she and her husband were having becoming parents.

I'd never compare or contrast being differently abled, physically, to any other perceived or obvious adversity. I do want to, however, point out that each and every one of us has had some challenge or adversity to overcome.

I'd be shocked to learn that there exists a human who hasn't had to overcome adversity. It's a human condition. Some of the adversity is visible, some not. Some of it we can relate to or empathize with, and some we can't. Some people experience what we think of as the worst thing that could happen. But it's all perspective.

My ongoing thematic challenge with "triumph over adversity" is that often it is mired in this idea that one "gets over it." Perhaps if we all acknowledged that something that is truly adversity is something that one must "learn to deal with" as the character on Private Practice said. It can be an ever-present thing that flares into a challenge at some points, and fades into the background at other times. perhaps then we can all acknowledge that each effort to deal with it, whatever it is, is heroic, and at base, is a person who just feels like a person, like any other person, then maybe we can set aside the fairy tale.

And maybe, just maybe, decent casting of good actors, regardless of physical ability, could help with this. But truly, I think anything could be the catalyst if we let it.

What do you think? More parts for good actors, even if they might be in wheelchairs? Is the fairy tale and heroic depiction of triumphing over adversity useful and right or deleterious?

Monday, May 10, 2010

A great, great Mother's Day starts at a winery in the Hill Country

For Mother's Day, my husband arranged a weekend away and a luncheon at Driftwood Estates Winery and Vineyard. It was spectacular!

The kids love the open space and beautiful scenery (and trees!) there. The food was great, the wine as good as always, and we met the nicest ladies from Austin -- one is a fantastic photographer and she kindly took photos of our family!

A wonderful Mother's Day. Topped off by adorable drawings, cards and homemade gifts from my fabulous children.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

I went to NYC and all I got was...this amazing experience

If a picture is worth a thousand words, here's a million (in no particular order other than this is how I want it):

I got to have lunch with the fabulous Magpie and see and learn in person right there all about what she does -- it's as awesome as you'd think:
I love that photo (above). It makes me warm, happy and remember how good it felt to be there, with my friend.

After lunch, I decided a 30 block Zen walk was in order. Maggie had told me about these bronze sculptures placed (and perched) around the city. I looked for them and saw a lot of them and other cool and beautiful things so I snapped photos crazily. I also kept grabbing other crazy photo snapping tourists and showing them the statues.

Because Amy is that cool, and because our Choose You ambassador Ellen Pompeo was on the show, we got to go to Jimmy Fallon show. That meant entering 30 Rock. That meant my poor friends had to deal with my constant 30 Rock references, as well as grabbing a page and forcing a photo (no, really, Mike was cool, but Amie was all concerned, "Why do I feel like I just walked into one of your fantasies?" Welcome to the island Amie!) So I touched everything I could, photo'd everything else, and then settled into AWESOME seats for the show, which included Ellen, but also Lea Michele (!!!!!!) and OK-GO (!!!!!!!!!!!). Both are even better in person than you'd expect. It was so fun. We laughed endlessly.

Dear Jimmy, don't let anyone see your warm up act Seth because he is even funnier than you! Love, Julie

The main purpose of the trip was Choose You, of course, the new choose health-prevention campaign from American Cancer Society. ACS generously treated us to the trip and it was worth it. I was pumped before but now I feel so plugged in and even more pumped. We had this incredible launch outside Walgreens (a sponsor) in Times Square. Amie and I even made it on a billboard where we swore to make good choices for our health. That's a for real serious commitment.

I have to say, with no prejudice, that our friend Amy stole the show with the Best Public Speech of the event.

But the real scene stealer was Taylor the NYPD dog, who barked her support of Choose You and gave me her business card (I kid not). She let me pet her and gave me a lick of love.

You can believe after a failed terrorist attack that Times Square was the safest place in the universe. The 10 billion NYPD (that we saw) assured us of that.

We also had this amazing Choose You luncheon at Saks 5th Avenue but Amie got the photos of that so I'll have to beg!

I love NY! It was so amazing -- Choose You, just fantastic!