I Don’t E-Sleep Around

Call me an idealist, but despite this being the digital age, I still believe in etiquette, and the fact that relationships matter. I don’t e-sleep around. I want to get to know a person or organization first. I receive a lot of pitches at Boston Mamas and many of them are straightforward to process (see here, here, and here on how not to pitch me). However, lately -- whether due to the economy, awareness about social media outreach, or both -- I have seen a rise in pitches asking me to donate money, time, and/or editorial/advertising space to a cause.

Now, I don't have a lump of coal for a heart. I understand that it’s a challenging time to raise money. And that there are scores of good-hearted organizations competing against one another for philanthropic dollars. But during a conversation with Jon this morning (regarding Example 3 below), I commented that it’s one thing to ask the general public for money; it’s a completely different thing to ask a blogger to leverage their site and voice and readers for your cause without bothering to engage in any kind of relationship first, and without offering some sort of karmic reciprocity.

When I mentioned the reciprocity component, Jon bristled. Following my recent NPR interview re: bloggers and corporations and ethics, he wondered whether it was ethical to expect something in return from an organization in exchange for supporting them. And I explained that in my opinion, working with an organization to help them raise money is very, very different than something like a product review (note: there is no pay for play whatsoever in my editorial space at Boston Mamas). And in these cases, I need for a relationship – gasp, a two-way relationship! – to be in place. Perhaps this is best explained by way of examples:

Example 1 (good karma):

Two years ago, the March of Dimes contacted me and said they would love to form a partnership in advance of their March for Babies walk. At that time, Boston Mamas was smaller; it was well before all of the press and accolades. But they weren’t concerned with metrics; they loved and believed in my site and thought it was a perfect fit, even if the reach at that time wasn't huge. And I was thrilled to connect with them, not only because it was an honor to be affiliated with a well-known organization, but because I believed in their work. My brother and his wife were pregnant with twins; one died in utero and one was born premature. And when I worked at Mass. General Hospital in Boston, I helped design and implement a research protocol to use music to help relieve infant stress responses during heel sticks in the NICU.

During an extended phone conversation with the March of Dimes, I shared these stories. I also discusses my metrics and the various ways I could help them (banners, editorial, forming a walk team), and they offered reciprocity in terms of web presence and a (surprisingly large) banner at the Hatch Shell for the walk. My relationship has continued with them; both through this past year’s walk and also by signing on as a March of Dimes Mom. I can truly say it has been a pleasure and honor to be partnered with them. And as Boston Mamas has grown and gained national recognition in the last two years, I believe their investing in our relationship paid off for them.

Example 2 (bad karma):

I was invited to visit a local organization that helps women and children. Though it wasn’t convenient for my schedule, I squeezed in a visit because: a) I believed in their mission; and b) partnership for an interesting upcoming event was suggested. When I arrived, the director of development gave me her schpiel and it soon became very clear that she invited me not in the context of being a media partner, but to pitch me as a major donor -- and one who would also leverage my readership to gain additional donors. I explained that I was not in the position to make a large direct donation, but would be happy to discuss a media partnership similar to what I had done with the March of Dimes, assuming there weren't time conflicts (I'm loyal...the March of Dimes is my first philanthropic priority). Her expression changed markedly; she said she would think about it and follow up with me, and I haven’t heard from her since.

Example 3 (possibly worse karma):

I was invited to a blogger luncheon for a local children’s charity. At first I felt compelled to go because it’s a well-known charity that does good work, but when I read the agenda (lunch, facility tour, meeting the mom of a really sick kid) I had a sinking feeling; it was a transparent effort to jerk the heartstrings. I didn’t like that -- I’d rather they just engaged with the bloggers directly instead of using the mom of a sick kid to appeal to other moms.

Then logistics made my attendance more challenging and I canceled. I felt some relief actually, and then received an email saying:

I have another request for you – would you consider donating ad space on your site for an ad for ___________? Your readers would be a great audience for us to reach.

In a world replete with puppy dogs and unicorns, I'd like to believe that people mean well, even despite one-way approaches such as Examples 2 and 3 above. But I'm a realist and I've seen enough pitches to know when an organization simply wants to take advantage of bloggers to their own gain, with not even the vaguest consideration of reciprocity (I mean, really, it’s not hard for an organization to toss a logo on their web or print materials; I design this sort of material all the time...). And in my opinion, what makes matters worse is that ultimately, this kind of behavior stinks of greed hiding behind the covers of organizations meant to help people.

Relationships matter. And contrary to what many people apparently think, they’re two-way. So just bear in mind that if you approach me with a pick up line that is all about you without even acknowledging that I’m here, I’m going to turn you down.

Bad Blogger Outreach: III (The Unfathomably Absurd)

Pursuant to Bad Blogger Outreach: I (The Bad) and Bad Blogger Outreach: II (The Ugly), here is Part III... III - The Unfathomably Absurd:

I have received various pitches to attempt to engage me in pay for play (for the record, I clearly state on my contact page that I do not engage in those practices), but none so aggressive as this gem:

[No salutation]

We own and operate several websites that sell personalized stationery and are looking for someone to post numerous, 50 to 100 word articles about each of our websites and the products we sell on our sites. Each post will have a couple of hyperlinks and three keyword synonyms. We would like to start with an agreement to post 50 articles and will commit to other postings if these are done satisfactorily. This project would commence immediately. I will provide the hyperlinks and keywords for each posting.

Here are two of our websites [direct links] which will give you an idea of the type products we sell. Please let me know if you are interested and the compensation you wish to receive. Thanks

Well, at least they're planning on compensation of some kind, but really, 50 articles about personalized stationery? And that incredulous emphasis is coming from someone who actually designs personalized stationery.

Bad Blogger Outreach: II (The Ugly)

Pursuant to Bad Blogger Outreach: I (The Bad), here is Part II... II - The Ugly:

I received an invite for a local event while I was in San Francisco; it wasn't a terribly enticing pitch and I hadn't yet replied before receiving the below follow up. I start here with the follow up thread since the amount of cutting and pasting rendered it very similar to the original pitch.

I wanted follow up and see if you might be available on [dates], to kick off [our awesome corporate event]. The [awesome corporate event] will be an interactive challenge to generate the most innovative ideas from women all over the world.

If you are interested in leading the Challenge for your readers we would like to invite you to a pre-launch kickoff luncheon at [corporate headquarters] to provide you with more information about the Challenge and how you can lead the way.

[Another paragraph of cut and past schpiel about client and why they’d love for me to be a part of the campaign.]

Now, typically because the pitch was so poorly constructed (strangely vague about seemingly important details, obviously cut and pasted with corporate schpiel), normally I would delete this. However, the company has local roots so I wanted to make an effort to get more information and responded with:

Can you tell me what you mean by "leading the Challenge for [my] readers"? I am open to attending events to learn more about products, etc. but I do not necessarily blog on events that I attend (depends on how much they move me/are relevant). Just let me know.

To which the PR person responded:

Great to hear from you! The [awesome corporate event] will be an intimate gathering of influential bloggers we’ve identified as women who bring creativity, problem-solving and innovation to life every day. [More cut and paste PR schpiel regurgitating the event concept…].

Additionally and as part of the [awesome corporate event], a special microsite is being developed for the program and we ask that our [awesome corporate event] bloggers be featured on the site with an image and short bio. Some make-up and hair-styling will be provided!

[Paragraph reiterating event timing details...]

Coincidentally, I hear that you are acquaintances with [well respected professional acquaintance I know in a very limited capacity]. She will be attending the event, and mentioned that she’d give you a call to discuss [awesome corporate event]. If you have questions or are interested in participating, please let me know. We’d love to have you join our team!

This response bothered me for three reasons: First, more dreadful cut and paste PR schpiel. Second, she didn’t really answer my question about what was involved in being a challenge leader. And third, it felt as if she threw a bait-like curve ball by tossing in the name of someone who I respect professionally but only know vaguely.

At this point I was frustrated and growing suspicious, but now I was invested in the communication, so I responded with:

Thanks, I'm interested in learning more -- I'm local to Boston (obviously) so just let me know of the itinerary components.

Also, I'll want to learn more about the challenge before agreeing to be a team member and have my image on the site -- I don't mean to sound paranoid, but I can't agree to something that seems like endorsement without knowing the full details.

To which she responded:

No worries, we understand your concerns. Basically, we are asking you (and eight other female bloggers) to rally readers via your blog, and challenge them to submit their “ingenious” ideas. Ultimately, our goal is to create an interactive showcase of everyday womens’ brilliant ideas [more cut and paste schpiel...].

[Another paragraph of cut and paste schpiel about how awesome and smart me and my readers are]

In participating, we’d ask that you host [our awesome corporate program] for about a month on your site to allow your readers a significant amount of time to think and submit ideas, post comments, etc. Feel free to call me or let me know if you have any more specific questions or concerns. It may sound a bit vague but we will be able to walk you through the program during the kickoff luncheon more in-depth.

[Repeated date logistics...]

OK, whoa, back up a second cowboy. So not only have my concerns about likeness and endorsement not been addressed, but now she reveals that "leading the challenge" means promoting their company on my site for a month? And they want me to commit to this without knowing the full scope of what is entailed? It basically sounded like an advertising/endorsement campaign, i.e., a compensated program.

So I responded:

This "offer" is puzzling to me. If I understand correctly, [company] wants to use me to promote and generate content for them -- plus essentially serve as an endorsing party (via likeness on the microsite) -- for an entire month, with nothing in return except the "opportunity" to do so. From the details you have presented, this seems like an alternative advertising campaign that should be compensated financially.

As I mentioned before, I only attend events when I'm not required to write about them; if the event is, in fact, useful, interesting, inspiring, etc. I do write about it, but being required to write/participate about something before knowing the full details makes no sense to me (and defeats the purpose of true editorial). I have turned down event invitations from major corporations for this very reason; if a company does not have enough confidence in the event they are hosting to leave it to the blogger's discretion as to whether to post, it's very possible something is wrong with it (and I've seen this play out and backfire dramatically in at least one case). On the flip side, events where I've been told that there are no requirements to blog -- that I'm only asked to attend, learn, and enjoy -- have been amazing and educational and I have written in depth about them.

So, if you are looking for me to sign on now as a challenge leader, with only vague details and no form of compensation the answer is no. If you would like to compensate me for this campaign, I would still want to know the full details of the arrangement before committing. Finally, if you would just like me to stop by the event to learn more about the program (with no commitment), I would be willing to do that.

Finally, from a communications perspective, it's troubling that it took this many emails of me pushing back for you to reveal that the campaign expectation is an entire month. Your clients (and your own time) would be better served if you clearly layout the expectations, details, and compensation (or lack thereof) at the outset. The fact that each of my inquiries basically was responded to with cut and paste [corporate name] PR schpiel and gradual releasing of more (critical) information casts a very suspicious air over the whole thing.

To which she responded:

I appreciate your response and explanation. I would like to clarify that there were no expectations for you to blog about the kick-off event. Our goal is to facilitate a gathering of minds and dive into the details of the [awesome corporate program], which we hope will inspire and capture the creativity of women nationwide. [More regurgitated cut and paste schpiel]

I feel badly if my replies frustrated you; please know that my intent was only to provide enough information without compromising the flexibility of our campaign. I will certainly let you know how the [awesome corporate event] goes, and hope that perhaps we can work together as details are solidified in the coming weeks.

Yet another response where I felt as if my issues were never really answered...I haven't responding to this yet. However, as I was writing this post yesterday, I received an email directly from the VP of Marketing for the company. She apologized for the PR firm's miscommunications and explained that this week's event serves to solicit advice in advance of the actual campaign. It still was not clear from her email whether they are asking for a formal commitment at this juncture. At any rate, I suppose it hardly matters, as I was not invited back to the event simply to learn more -- no commitment required -- an option I had suggested.

I still need to structure a response to the VP of Marketing. Meanwhile, this thread troubled me for two major reasons. First, the outreach was poorly written and executed; it pains me to think that a client is actually paying for that shoddy work to go out. The initial invitation was vague about what was involved, and every time I pressed back with a question, not only did my question go answered but crucial details (such as, um, hosting their promotion on my site for a month...) were revealed. Second, I don't really think I was being a hard ass for desiring more specifics and I'm curious whether other bloggers received the same pitch (I assume so) and if so, why they were willing to agree to the invite terms with so little information. Did others push back as I did then find themselves satisfied with the answers, or did they say yes immediately to the vaguely presented concept right at the outset, trusting the corporate name? The former I am OK with as everyone operates their blog differently, but the latter is troubling, not only because we know corporate doesn't necessarily mean good but because clearly they did not lay out all the terms and expectations in their initial pitch.

Since the PR firm and company would not detail the expectations to me it's hard to translate here what is involved. However, if my perception of the campaign is correct based on the information provided to date, it seems as if this corporation essentially wants to leverage us lowly (apparently "free-for-service") bloggers for what seems like a rather involved marketing campaign, with no compensation whatsoever.

While I'm upset about this potential devaluing of bloggers in general, it did occur to me that even if they offered to compensate me, if the campaign is reflective of the correspondence to date, I probably wouldn't have been excited about the details, and the non-sellout in me wouldn't have gone for it anyway.

This is why I'll likely never make the big bucks, but at least I'll still have my integrity.

And finally, up next: The Unfathomably Absurd

Bad Blogger Outreach: I (The Bad)

Through Boston Mamas I have interfaced with some truly awesome PR folks. Unfortunately, however, it is not the case that one good PR apple redeems the bunch. Instead, the flood of sloppy (“Dear X,”), ridiculous (“Dear Boston Mamas Ms. Christine Koh Family & Parenting Blogger”), irrelevant (“We know Boston Mamas would love to experience this event in Los Angeles this weekend!”), utterly unimaginative (“We look forward to you posting our press release!”), and embarrassingly ungenerous (“We’re offering a limited number of bloggers these high res images to promote!”) pitches is so voluminous that the shine of the small collection of well delivered pitches seems but a brief and distant flicker. (Note: PR folks who wish to learn more about good blogger outreach would do well by studying up on Laura Tomasetti and Susan Getgood.) Anyway, as history, I should say that in the old days I used to respond to every single pitch, crappy or not, because I thought that was the polite and respectful thing to do. Someone sends me a letter? I write them one back. But then while my friend Erin (a talented PR person herself) and I were having dinner at the airport on our way home from Disney, I told her about my PR correspondence habits and she looked at me incredulously. She said that though I was a PR agency’s dream, realistically no one responds to every single pitch, especially the really crappy ones. “Stop being crazy, Koh, and use that delete key!” she said.

And so I started exercising my delete key like a mother.

Now, although I have laughed my ass off reading about bad blogger outreach at Motherhood Uncensored and Mom101, my crap has never felt so compelling to share. Until this month where I have been privy to the three worst PR approaches in my "tenure" as a blogger, all - coincidentally - in close proximity to the 3rd anniversary of Boston Mamas.

I’ll share The Bad, The Ugly, and The Unfathomably Absurd in three separate posts.

I - The Bad:

Unfortunately, I no longer have electronic evidence of The Bad because: a) I never responded to the initial pitch (so there’s no trail in my sent folder); and b) I deleted the original and follow up emails and purged my trash because I was pissed and needed to get that bad mojo of my computer, plus I’m running out of disk space on my laptop and am at a point where I need to keep deleting files in order to make room for new ones (pathetic, I know).

But the pitch went something like this:

Dear Christine, [initially gets my attention due to correct salutation]

This weekend, [big brand]’s collection of colorful electronics will debut in stores; your readers will want to know [PR schpiel…]. Please share the below bullet points with your readers…[etc]

I think they also offered me the (embarrassingly ungenerous) privilege of posting their high res images. Pitch immediately bucketed as utterly unimaginative and DELETED. Then a couple of days later, I receive follow up along the lines of:

Dear Christine,

Hey, I just checked Boston Mamas and why have you not posted about the [big brand] colorful electronics information I sent you yet? The weekend is fast approaching and your readers will want to know [PR schpiel…].

Goodness, whatever happened to the polite "I know you're busy so I just wanted to take a moment to follow up..." sort of email? Instead, this PR rep decided to nag - actually, chastise - me for not posting their utterly unimaginative pitch. Effective? Only in decreasing the odds that I'll be remotely interested in anything they send on their client's behalf in the future.

Up next: The Ugly

The Therapy Is Working

Compared to how I started Boston Mamas (laboring over the design endlessly, creating at least 50 new pieces of editorial content before telling anyone about it, etc.), the launch of this blog was lightning quick. As in, was struck by the idea Tuesday of this week, ran the domain name by the incredibly fabulous Jennifer James (of The Mom Bloggers Club and The Mom Salon… another one of these chicks who puts me to shame), set up the domain and hosting, picked a Wordpress template, banged out a fast banner so the site looked vaguely less template-y, and started to add content. The look isn't totally perfect yet, but I decided not to let that stop me.

I’d like to credit my therapist for this fast launch. My perfectionist nature typically bogs me down – sometimes to the point of paralysis - and thanks to my continued hours on the couch, I’m working on letting go and embracing imperfection. It’s delicious when it works.

New Day, New Blog

I find that inspiration – and an intense, irrepressible need to act – often comes when I’m at-the-end-of-my-rope-busy. Like this week when - eyeballs deep in projects and deadlines - I decided to start this blog.

My history is this: I’m a lifelong Bostonian, first generation Korean, and the sixth of seven (intentionally conceived) children. I used to be a semi-professional violinist, but I knew that I wasn’t good enough to be fully professional, so I forged a related career in music psychology. (I later learned that this field was a gathering place for other former semi-professional musicians.) I spent 10 years honing my expertise in music and brain processes, won prestigious grants from the NIH, and made it to the hallowed halls of Harvard and MIT for my postdoctoral fellowship.

Then in 2006, I decided to jump academic ship in pursuit of more creative pastures. I founded Boston Mamas (a stylish resource portal for families in Boston and beyond) and, shortly thereafter, gave my design work an official place in the world by launching Posh Peacock. I’m also a freelance writer and editor, serving as the managing editor for a music psychology journal, and writing on kiddo issues for Care.com and Shoestring Magazine.

Last but not least, I’m mother to an amazing 4-year-old daughter and have a really spectacular husband. But I won’t bore you with those happy details.

So now you’re wondering, why Pop Discourse? Why now, when I already grumble about being short on hours, sleep, and time to enjoy cocktails with my girlfriends?

Well, I’ve always been a person who relies heavily on gut instinct, from the trivial (should I buy that pair of black pumps even though I already have 5 pairs in the closet?) to the maternal (is my baby really sick or is this just run of the mill daycare-inspired boogers?) to the major (should I flush my Ph.D. down the toilet?). And as I’ve become more immersed in social media, I’ve strangely found that there’s been no space for my personal discourse on pop culture, either contextually (given that Boston Mamas is resource driven and the Posh Peacock blog is for my design work) or literally (the personal voice I share on Twitter is limited to 140 characters per thought).

So here I arrived at Pop Discourse. A place where I can give voice to my fascination with the intersecting streams of pop culture, the intellectually interesting or absurd, motherhood, and trying to “make it work” (I heart you, Tim Gunn) as a modern woman. I hope you’ll stop by, tell your friends, and share in the discourse.