A firestorm erupted last week when The Times business journalist Deirdre Hipwell tweeted her frustration at being constantly asked by PR and SEO consultants to include hyperlinks to their clients’ websites in her online articles.
What hasn’t been reported, however, is how she has been mercilessly trolled and abused about it.
When Deirdre initially tweeted on Tuesday morning, SEO professionals gathered themselves into attack formation to challenge her opinion, journalists waded in to defend her and PRs got caught up in the crossfire, somewhat like deer in the headlights.
(Were I feeling mean spirited I’d say that’s typical of public relations when it comes to SEO, but I’m not, so I won’t.)
As the ‘conversation’ progressed, the SEO argument became more vociferous and Deirdre became increasingly frustrated by their apparent inability to understand her perspective. It became steadily more heated, and the tweets from SEOs eventually turned to mockery. It’s then that things started to turn nasty.
Aggression and Trolling
The following morning I approached Deirdre and asked her if she’d like to record a special episode of the Digital Download podcast with me. I was keen to explore her point of view and to provide counterpoints where appropriate in what I hoped would be a more civil and progressive discussion.
Although I come at the issue from a digital marketing perspective, my aim with the podcast is always to present a balanced viewpoint from which the listener can benefit. It was pure coincidence that the day after the firestorm erupted I published an episode about authority link building with Andy Barr from 10 Yetis.
At first Deirdre was very open to the idea and went off to check with her employers as to whether this would be OK. However, she later came back to me to say that she’d decided against it.
Deirdre told me that she’d had to deal with “an astonishing level of aggression” on Twitter and that she’d had to start blocking people because of it. She also told me that she’d had a few people emailing her who were being “really quite unpleasant” and that other journalists who’d responded were also being trolled.
Personally, I find this both astonishing and depressing. I think we all know that Twitter can be a particularly nasty place where trolling is, if not commonplace, then certainly not a rare occurrence. Back at the start of the year CIPR President and friend of mine Sarah Hall was hounded and mocked from pillar to post after a social media post about the tone of a children’s book was picked up by the Mail Online. She told me at the time how disturbing and upsetting it was.
But that was from Daily Mail readers and concerned a wider societal comment. It was the sort of thing where trolling behaviour isn’t, unfortunately, really a surprise. Deirdre’s trolling came as a result of expressing an opinion about her job, in a supposedly professional industry with intelligent, reasoned and professional people.
That’s the thing that I find so surprising and saddening. Is the world (or at least the world of social media) such a vile place that we cannot have any kind of online discussion without resorting to insults and abuse?
To be clear, although Deirdre is clearly the ‘victim’ here, I don’t believe she was blameless either. Some of her responses were pretty snarky – something I’m sure she’d agree with in hindsight. And the same goes for some of those on the journalist side. But that does not excuse the vilification she’s received.
The Merging of PR and SEO
One other thing that struck me about the debate is the way that public relations professionals get lumped in with SEO consultants by journalists. To the extent that I’m pretty sure they think PR and SEO is largely one and the same thing (I’m open to being corrected on that).
The initial tweet that sparked this debate referred to “PRs”. Maybe they were, maybe they weren’t, but the vast majority of the responses to that tweet are from SEOs (or at least PRs with a very strong SEO background). Simon English, a correspondent from The Evening Standard, wrote this about the coming together: “What’s the difference between ‘news’ and ‘content’. I guess if you are a Search Engine Optimiser, a new breed of PR specialist sent from hell to destroy us all, you don’t think there is any.”
As I say, SEO as a subset of PR? Oh how this would infuriate both the SEO crowd and the public relations industry alike!
The thing is, SEOs approach authority link building in an extremely different manner to PRs.
Speaking to PR people about this story, they were without exception neutral and able to see both sides. When it comes to link building, public relations is Switzerland.
Links v Relationships
PR consultants understand the value of links to their clients and, of course, want to see them. But whereas to an SEO consultant that is the be all and end all (as that’s their job), PRs take a far more holistic view both of the value of a link and of whether it’s appropriate to ask for one.
David Fraser of Ready10 said to me on Twitter: “If done in the correct, respectful, relevant way, it is completely legitimate to ask for a link”, and CIPR Board Member Ella Minty clarified this with: “I’m against being disrespectful, pushy, nasty and unprofessional. I have nothing against the SEO and link building professionals providing they don’t try to justify their existence at the expense of the reputation damage of an entire industry. Journalists are not our salespeople.”
In the aforementioned podcast episode, Andy Barr put it in succinctly: “With SEO it’s very much a case of trying to fuck them on the first date, whereas a PR will wine and dine and build that relationship, and then casually try and slip it in on the third date.”
[You can listen to this episode here or wherever you get your podcasts.]
It sounds to me like those approaching Deirdre have been forgoing the romantic meals and going straight for the one night stand.
At the end of the day though, wherever you stand on this issue there is no place for aggressive and abusive behaviour. If journalists, SEOs and PRs can’t discuss how they best work together and resolve their differences without resorting to name calling and trolling, that’s a really sad indictment of the media industry as a whole and I for one find it pretty disgusting.
In this particular instance, no-one comes out looking very good. Go and sit in a corner and think about what you’ve done.
(Many thanks to Deirdre Hipwell for giving me permission to publish a part of our conversation in this post.)