Just because someone posts something personal online doesn’t mean it’s OK to use that to manufacture a faux-personal connection in order to persuade them to do you a favor.
Case in point: Yesterday a clueless media relations professional whom I do not know sent me an e-mail with the subject line: “I sent a poem to a wannabee crotchety old bitch.” He was alluding to my recent birthday post, in which I reflected on aging.
The comment this person attempted to append to that post — which I did not approve — was the poem When I am an old woman I shall wear purple. That was in itself a mistake, though not a fatal one. If ever there was an overused, reflexive cliche response to any woman who mentions aging in a positive light, that poem would be it.
So this PR guy e-mailed me to let me know he’d tried to post that comment. Here’s the start of his message, and where he really screwed up…
“Hello Amy. I don’t think I’ll ever get to put the word ‘bitch’ in a corporate email subject line ever again but happy birthday. I hope you like the purple dresses poem that I commented with on your blog. It has stuck fondly in my memory since I was 13 and while I probably wonâ€™t wear purple dresses when I’m older, I aspire to that living.
“Anyway, here’s a pitch with some findings further below…”
And he did, indeed, follow that intro with a PR pitch. The real reason he was contacting me was that he wanted me to write up for CNN.com (where I blog about mobile technology) a study that his company recently released.
What can I say, but: Ick! No! Not in a million years!
I bear no personal animosity toward this media relations rep. But his note squicked me so much that I think it’s worth offering as an example for what people should generally not do when reaching out to strangers in order to try to get them to do something for you.
What was wrong with his approach?
- Transparently slimy.I have no problem that he read a post on my personal blog that contained personal information. I wouldn’t have published that post if I hadn’t intended it to be public. However, using my personal disclosures as a basis to try to ingratiate himself, and then launch straight into a PR pitch, lacked finesse and forethought.
- Presumptuous.If he wanted to comment on my personal post — even with that cliche — fine. Other people who I don’t know commented on that birthday post, and I welcomed (and published) those responses. But it was presumptuous for him to assume that leaving a comment on my personal blog post actually created some kind of personal connection between us that might encourage me, more than otherwise, to use his pitch for a CNN.com story.Granted, I have sometimes struck up meaningful personal connections and friendships via blog comments, and sometimes these cross over with professional matters. This is a process that happens organically over time. Trying to engineer that in a single e-mail is a really bad idea.
- Inappropriate/rude. When I saw the word “bitch” in the subject line of an e-mail from a person with a male name whom I don’t know, I nearly deleted it as spam immediately. That’s not the kind of thing a man should ever say to a woman who doesn’t already know him and consider him a friend. Even if she recently used that word in a blog post. And especially if you’re trying to contact her for professional reasons. No matter what you do, that language just won’t look friendly or funny. Gender power dynamics suck, but they do exist. So it’s dumb to act like they don’t, especially when you’re trying to build bridges.
What could he have done instead? If he felt so moved, he could have left his blog comment. Really, that would have been fine. Cliche included.
Then if he wanted to pitch me, he should have sent me a separate e-mail that did not refer to his blog comment, and that did not use language which could easily be mistaken for a gender-based insult. From there, if I recognized his name, I might have noted or asked him about his blog comment. But it was inappropriate for him to draw this connection, since it implied that I should give his pitch special treatment in a professional decision.
There’s a huge fuzzy gray area between the personal and the professional realms, especially online. So I can understand why these missteps happen. Personally I think it’s futile (and fundamentally not credible) to try to separate the personal and professional spheres entirely. It’s better to blend them thoughtfully in a way that suits you. That’s what I’ve been trying to do since I got online way back in the early 90s.
Being ignorant of, or choosing to ignore, the emotionally and socially crucial distinction between personal and professional information (and how they might imply relationships and influence) leads to overstepping that can look invasive or offensive.
In light of this reality, it’s more important than ever for everyone (especially media pros of all kinds) to be aware that there is still a difference between personal and professional, and to use those different kinds of information mindfully in pursuit of your goals.
In my opinion, journalists should be equally mindful of this pitfall when scouring personal posts on blogs or social media in order to find sources to contact, especially regarding breaking news with deeply personal angles like a murder or arrest. If you want to use digital communication tools to build those kind of community connections, do that up front as much as possible.
If a journalist must approach someone they don’t know about a sensitive personal matter in order to cover a story, be very very sensitive to the personal/professional distinction. Don’t use their available personal info to ingratiate yourself by pretending to be their friend, or that you care for personal reasons, and then try to get them to give you the information for your story. That tactic can work, but it’s unethical and slimy. And from a practical standpoint, it can easily backfire in a way that not only thwarts your goals but undermines your personal and professional reputation in a very public, findable way.
I chose not to publish this PR guy’s name or employer because I really don’t want to smear him personally. He made a mistake, and this is a “teachable moment.” We can all move forward from that.