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State of the Web: Hacking the tech PR industry

State of the Web hacking PRHouston, we have a problem – a deep problem that affects the entire consumer electronics journalism industry and thus, the consumers themselves: Public relations professionals run the show.

This predicament presented itself most recently to a colleague of mine last week, at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show. After browsing the booth of a major gadget maker (I’ve been asked not to name names for precisely the reason I am writing this article), a Digital Trends editor wrote a story fairly criticizing “Company X” for having only one new product to show off at what is arguably the most important trade show of the year.

The critique was not vicious, nor was it inaccurate in any way. But that did not matter; soon, he was smacked upside the head with an aggressive email deriding him for giving his honest experience. And then he was met with silence – he was, it seemed, cut off.

It’s a story I’ve heard (or lived through) too many times, but this one got me thinking: Is there a way to fix this imbalance of power between PR and journalists that would benefit both sides? The answer is yes: We must hack the PR industry.

A crowbar in the spokes

Before I get into all that, a bit of background: Unlike some other areas of journalism (like, say, war reporting), product-focused journalists rely heavily on the PR people who represent the brands, gadgets, and apps we cover. They are our point of contact, our lifeline and, too often, the gatekeepers between us and the story. And because of this, much of a consumer tech journalist’s time is spent cultivating relationships with PR people and agencies – a good relationship means access to products, events, and executives. It means being able to do our jobs better; to tell you, the consumer, which products are worth your money and time. That is the purpose of the consumer tech journalist.

Because a PR representative’s job is to build positive press for their clients, however, a “good relationship” for a PR person often means consumer tech journalists must deliver celebratory coverage. Fail to do so, and a journalist can find herself quickly cut off. This means consumer technology journalists must find a way to be honest in their reporting and analysis while not sparking contempt in their PR contacts: Don’t say anything too mean – or, in many cases, too honest – or risk losing access to that company. Problem is, of course, this turns us into advertisers, not journalists. It greatly hampers our ability to serve our readers well – to do our jobs – and creates an inherent conflict of interest.

Now, you might say that a big part of any journalist’s job is to sift through the marketing mumbo jumbo and get to the truth, and that complaining about the PR industry is a waste of everyone’s time. On the first point, I completely agree; no matter what happens, dissecting PR-speak will remain a big part of the consumer tech journalist’s job. And that’s fine. But that does not mean a better balance between these two factions cannot be achieved.

Bring on the ‘hackathon’

Each year, Google and Facebook (and countless others) hold “hackathons,” during which computer hackers compete to uncover security holes in their products. Back in 2010, Google launched the Vulnerability Reward Program, which offers “white hat” hackers between $100 and $20,000 for finding and reporting flaws in Google’s systems. And just this October, the Internet giant paid a hacker by the name of “Pinkie Pie” $60,000 for finding a hole in the Google Chrome browser. Facebook has a similar policy, offering hackers a minimum of $500 for discovering security bugs in its network. In other words, these companies welcome and reward hackers for finding vulnerabilities in their systems.

Consumer technology journalists (and I’m including product reviewers in this category) perform a similar task as these white hat hackers: We spend hours to find out what’s working and what’s not with particular products, then report our findings. Unfortunately for us all, PR representatives often take the “what’s not working” part of this equation as an insult, a set-back.

This is a mistake. It’s time for the consumer technology PR industry to view journalists in this space not as privileged observers, but as hackers.

Get radical

Such a shift would require a radical re-imagining of what it is PR representatives are supposed to do in relation to the press. As it stands now, they aim to “win” the constantly churning consumer tech news cycle – get the “branding message” out there. Keep everything “on topic.” Do not stray from the goal. But this strategy is woefully short-sighted, and can lead to absurd divisions between journalists and the companies we cover.

Instead, PR reps should view their role as part of the client’s product improvement wing – get the word out just as they always have; tell us journalists what the company thinks is important. But when the stories start to flow in, resist the urge to slam those who took a critical stance against the facts presented to them, or to stonewall them. View these critics as hackers pointing out flaws in a client’s system, information that can then be used to improve the product – and, ultimately, make a PR rep’s job much easier by giving them quality products to represent.

Flaws in the plan

Of course, there are plenty of PR professionals who already understand this, and act accordingly – I’ve met quite a few in my time. Many PR reps were, after all, journalists themselves, or studied to be one in college (then found out the pay difference between the two industries and made a rational decision about their future). So it would be unfair to say all PR people are short-sighted or foolish.

Furthermore, there is a big difference between the parts of companies that accept white-hat hackers as beneficial, and the marketing wing. The PR side of Google and Facebook, for example, can be just as evasive to journalists as any other company.

There are also those instances in which a journalist really does deserve to be cut off. If the facts aren’t right, or criticisms fly wildly off the mark of what an average person would regard as “fair,” then it may make sense for a PR person to sever that relationship.

All of this is true, but none of them negate the fact that a problem does exist in the consumer technology industry that doesn’t need to be there.

Your biggest fans

I’ll let you in on a little secret: Many consumer technology journalists are biased – we want the gadgets and apps we cover to be incredible. We want to be amazed. We want to see something new. We want companies to create awesome things, and tell us all about them.

But we also want to be able to do our jobs – to report, analyze, and review the products in our beats – without fear that being honest about a product we think is flawed will result in making things even more difficult the next time around (if there is a next time). And for that to happen, we need the PR reps with whom we build relationships to take the long view, to realize that allowing consumer tech journalists to do their jobs unimpeded helps everyone involved.

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