PR guy's email earns him a humiliating headline


image (c) Simon Winnal and Getty Images

image (c) Simon Winnal and Getty Images

I love blogging.

It’s the immediacy of having your words appear on your site the moment you hit the publish button and the immediacy of the feedback when readers leave comments. It’s the dialogue that then becomes possible in a way that other mediums simply can’t deliver. It’s the freedom of writing online.

But some take this freedom too far. Yesterday, Robin Wauters, a blogger for TechCrunch.com crossed a line when he blogged and subsequently tweeted:

I think very highly of TechCrunch. They are unsurpassed as a source of information in their area of focus – Silicon Valley startups – and they’re often ahead of other publications and blogs on general tech stories too. If you’re a regular TechCrunch reader, you know they tend to colour their commentary with a heavy dose of opinion and analysis, both of which make for a unique and valuable experience. Now and then, however, the daggers really come out and they will aggressively attack someone who they feel has it coming. Often it’s the blog’s founder, Michael Arrington who dishes up the rhetoric. When he recently went after fellow blogger and AOL colleague Joshua Topolsky from Engadget, it was quite a show. I happily read the back and forth that ensued because it was a clash of titans. Each one railed against the other from their respective soapboxes in a rare show of blog vs. blog animosity.

So when I saw their tweet above, I eagerly clicked on the link expecting to read about a truly heinous action on the part of the PR person who had been singled out so viciously.

Timothy Johnson must have done something crazy like insulting the TechCrunch team, or perhaps badly misrepresented his clients’ products or services. Maybe he committed a career-ending tech blunder. Or maybe he called out the author, Robin Wauters in a public forum, like Twitter and was about to receive an equally public thrashing for his misdeeds.

No. Nothing like that had happened.

It turns out Mr. Johnson made the mistake of taking an attitude with one of TechCrunch’s writers – Leena Rao.

In an email exchange, Johnson suggests a story idea to Rao, who politely declines and is then met with a surprised and somewhat sarcastic response from Johnson who questions TechCrunch’s commitment to covering Asian tech start-ups.

According to Wauters, this sort of thing happens from time to time but that “Most of the time (but not always), we keep our peace when PR flacks go off on us with or without a shred of reason”.

Hmm. Sounds pretty bad.  Let’s see how Johnson went off on TechCrunch:

Seriously?

– You wrote about platforms that move maybe $40 million in 2009. Platforms. Not communities. Not much since.

– Even if mig33’s virtual goods averaged 50 cents USD – and that’s a HUGE if – that’d mean about $20 million in rev, which is over twice mig33’s recent round

– You guys devote little coverage to SE Asian/Asian sites – don’t you think it’s time, or is FB all that matters?

Really? Wait for a product announcement? Is that a joke, Leena?

tim

You can read the full exchange (which amounts to little more than three emails) on Wauters’ post, but as far as I can tell, the most inflammatory thing Johnson says  is “Seriously?” “Is that a joke?” and the clearly provocative “Just wow” which he throws in at the end of his last note.

Given the “thousands” of pitches TechCrunch receives daily, and the hundreds of email threads that probably result, Wauters would have us believe that Johnson’s comments are indicative of a PR person who has gone “off the deep end.” Or maybe Wauters was simply trying to impress Rao, who he describes as “extremely sweet and mild-mannered”, by teaching her tormentor a lesson.

So what started out as an email thread between a PR professional and a journalist has now become justification for public humiliation, at least as far as Wauters is concerned. Not only does he present the email thread in full, he goes on to offer Johnson’s client – the previously unknown mig33 – some unsolicited advice:

“And by the way, mig33, you might want to reconsider who you work with. Seriously.”

Wauters defends his attack as “a public service we do for the PR industry to show them the error of their ways.”

I think it’s the height of hubris and and shocking display of unprofessional behaviour.

Before I go any further, I need to point out some facts that non-TechCrunch readers may not know:

– TechCrunch is engaged in something of a war with the PR profession, or at least the members of that profession they feel are especially worthy of contempt.

– TechCrunch has a habit of treating all communication as non-confidential. They have in the past published emails and snail mail of a legal nature, and have shown they have little respect for journalism standards such as the embargo.

If Johnson wasn’t aware of this, he should have been. As a PR professional it’s his job to know the players.

So was it foolish of Johnson to get snippy with a TechCrunch writer? Yes. He should have known better than to let his frustration with Rao show so transparently. Do all journalists get frustrated by the various bad habits of PR people at some point or another? Absolutely. Was Johnson’s email so out of line as to deserve the disproportionate response (from a different journalist than the one he was corresponding with) that he received? No way. Not even close.

TechCrunch is a giant in the technology news space. According to Compete, their average audience size is around 1.7 million unique viewers a month and that’s just their U.S. audience.  Their posts are required reading for every executive in the tech industry. That is a ton of power and influence by any measure. To use this platform to attack an individual for what can best be described as poor choice of words and to do so in such a way that his very livelihood is threatened is an appalling misuse of that power.

Just how bad is it? Try Googling “Timothy Johnson”. Result #4 as of today is TechCrunch’s article. Johnson’s own LinkedIn profile is #8. Unfortunately the post you are reading right now is likely going to perpetuate that reality as Google ups TechCrunch a little bit more for the link we’ve given them.

Now I know some might argue that Johnson ended up the winner in this situation. After all, his purpose was to get TechCrunch to write an article mentioning his client. If you buy into the belief that any press is good press, Johnson and his client both win. I suspect that any minor lift in awareness of mig33 that Wauters’ article created was more than offset by the damage done to Johnson. Will present and future clients look upon this incident and reward him for the success of a guerrilla PR strategy, or take their business elsewhere for fear of working with someone who elicits this kind of reaction with his PR pitches?

I hope for Timothy Johnson that the fallout from this episode is negligible. He was attacked without warning by someone with whom he hadn’t been emailing, on a site that is widely read by his clients and peers and wasn’t given the opportunity to defend himself, or at the very least, apologize.

Robin Wauters wanted to show Johnson the error of attacking a journalist via email. Judging by a few comments on Wauters’ Twitter page, he has some support for his goal. But instead of contacting Johnson privately and letting him know how he messed up he chose to publicly humiliate him. There’s no question in my mind that an apology is owed. Robin, perhaps you should go first.

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11 comments

  1. Running Frog

    Fly by ~ there’s the good, the bad and the evil.. I wish we could taser the bad & the evil because they seem to outnumber and simply refuse to behave :(

    Like

  2. Steve

    No one who has taken the time to read any of this will ever see a benefit from the time invested. All these irreplaceable minutes wasted. And yet not a single truck was given. So sad.

    Like

  3. Chris Parente

    Interesting, rather contrarian take. I’m a PR professional, and I think what Johnson did was stupid and unprofessional. Save the attitude for after you send the email, or hang up the phone. You’re working for your client, it’s not about you.

    I also think that any email you send could pop up anywhere. So type accordingly.

    Does all that mean the punishment fit the crime? Maybe not, and TC sure has its share of hubris. If Johnson does have some PR skills, he’ll be able to position himself as a very passionate PR guy who fights hard for clients, and should be OK.

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  5. Deserved

    Robin should not apologize. People generally are like how they sound. Tim sounded like a jerk, and you can bet that he treats anyone whom he thinks is a nobody like that, while currying favor with folks he might think is a feudal lord. I only know this because I’ve seen it in action. The only people who are defending Tim and people like him are the ones who haven’t witnessed the kind of damage he can do to the rest of us “nobodies”.

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  6. Dances-With-Wasps

    1.7 million hits a month makes them slightly less interesting than a cat giving it’s owner the thumbs up. And a year from now the main thing people will be saying about Robin Wauters will be, “Ronnie who?”

    Like

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