Business

A Conversation With the World's Most Self-Loathing PR Person

Ed Zitron
Ben Krantz

In the weeks and months after I responded to every PR email in my inbox for a week, I received dozens more emails from PR people responding to the unsavory experiment. But the note I got from Ed Zitron, the 28-year-old author of This Is How You Pitch: How to Kick Ass in Your First Years of PR, was different.

Zitron didn't seem much interested in defending the world of public relations. He described it as a "fetid shit-pile." Zitron didn't want to tell me about his clients. He wanted to tell me about himself. "I have become good and well respected in this industry despite having real-assed, psychiatrist-tested ADHD," Zitron told me, "because I really cannot lie nor hide my insane stupid thoughts. One time I got a client while sitting on the toilet DMing them. That was good."

Zitron, who runs his own PR firm, added, "I have absolutely no filter when it comes to this industry, and I will poop on it regularly."

Zitron proved these qualities, in a sense, in mid-December, when he set about responding to hundreds of PR form pitches with a grade-school-level "Updog" prank. We spoke by telephone the following week. Our conversation has been slightly edited for length and clarity, and the Updog screenshots are scattered throughout.

You used to be a journalist. How did you wind up in PR?

Yes. In 2004 I started out working at Dennis Publishing on a video games magazine in London. I was just really good at doing the things that people don't want to do, like captions in screenshots and little game guides and then eventually much larger game guides. It was like an abusive relationship: you do them and you hate the game and you hate everything, and then you get the paycheck and you'd be like, "OK, fine, I'll do another one."

So I did that for quite a while until eventually I ended up at a magazine called PC Zone, all this time writing up video games and computer games. Basically, I did that for a long time, until about 2008. I kept doing it past 2008, a few years into my PR career. But I was never working on anything like it. Certainly it wasn't a conflict of interest.

Honestly, my first year in PR was probably one of the worst years of my life.

Why was it so bad?

Well, as you know well from what you wrote, the career of a PR person is like flinging shit into a void and hoping you won't get shat back upon. I'd read a bunch of PR books before I went into this career. I was like, "Oh, this is going to be brilliant. I'll go to parties. Everyone will want to hear about me." And I get there the first day, and there's this big fucking spreadsheet, and I have these clients I've never heard of. I look at it objectively with humor and say, "Oh my God, these are terrible..." And one of my managers was like, "Now you gotta pitch them." ... It's the thing almost every PR person does, and I had no clue what it was and I read four books, five books maybe? I hammered through them. There was nothing actually approaching reality in any of these books.

So I just kind of blindly walked into this terrible job where I had the worst clients, the worst management, and I had been convinced the journalists actually cared. I had been brainwashed and lied to. The truth is, as you well know, the complete opposite. Most PR people work with products that most people don't want to hear about. And so there I was, and also, just the management was not fantastic and it was kind of this weird situation where I was on a visa at the time and I was just kind of desperately fighting for my life every day. The only reason it started working for me was because I started talking to the reporters and I realized if I could talk to the reporters, it was technically work and I could avoid talking to any PR people, who are by and large not great to talk to. There's a lot disconnecting them from the human race and all.

How did you get good at it?

I feel like the difference between me and some PR people is that they're like, "I'm a genius! Listen to my crazy words that are just so convincing that you can't help but ejaculate beautiful things about me onto the page." The world does not work like that. Yes, there are big companies that get coverage like that, but I would argue it's not by the hand of the PR people. There are a multitude of reasons why it happens, and I would argue that 99 percent of the time it's not the PR person's doing.

I don't understand why so many PR people think they and their clients are so important to every journalist. There should be theoretically some part of their brain that says to them, "These journalists get hundreds of emails a day, and even if they didn't, this probably isn't going to change their life." And if it is, good Lord, you should be able to put that into a sentence or two. And most can't.

If you're like, "Well, the angle is," that is going right into that PR arrogance that most of the industry is, which is they think they're smarter than the fucking journalists, which is no. You're a conveyor belt. You're a contrivance to deliver potential stories to your clients, but in the end you are at the will of the journalist, as you should be. There are some PR people—and they're a rarity—who actually send out their own emails. And they still can suck.

So this is what you talk about when you complain about form pitches?

You understand how it works, though? It's quite simple, but also quite ridiculous. You have a Word document, type into the pitch, connect it to an Excel spreadsheet of however many names, you click Mail Merge, and you click "Dear [first name]," Send, and it sends 100 pitches. I just got one now from a huge agency! That's where the real anger in me, where the Updogging, began. It wasn't like I was seeing amateurs doing it. I can look at that say, "Ah, the follies of youth." No, these are giant, multimillion-[dollar] agencies. That scares and disgusts me, because they're scamming their clients. If they get coverage, it's not for any level of skill. They really do just shit into the void. Those that I have Updogged, they come back like, "Egh, don't waste my time." It's like, "I'll waste your time all I want. You've wasted mine, and you're wasting everyone else's."

Every lead-up to CES [Consumer Electronics Show] and South by Southwest and so on and so forth, if you have signed up for that show, you are basically wheel-clamping your own Internet. It's just shocking. I can't believe it happens. So the form pitches, that's just one... thing that PR people do, but I think I successfully Updogged three out of the four largest agencies.

Can we slow down and explain what Updogging is?

I apologize. So for CES, people usually are trolling for interviews with their clients. Big conventions are all like this, but CES I would say is the most egregious and annoying one. What most agencies do, and I can tell you this empirically, is send out the same email to however many journalists. The reason that it's so bad, and the reason I know it's so bad, is I signed up for CES specifically to cover how PR people are dealing with CES. I paid my own way, I have an Inc.com column, I write only about PR issues, with the occasional random startup post when I feel like it, so it's pretty obvious if you Google me that I'm not someone to cover this. So if I'm being pitched with CES, it's because they form-pitched the entire list.

I was sitting, looking at my inbox, which suddenly started sprouting... these little CES pitches. So I saw these emails and I said, "Why don't I just start saying, 'Can you send me more information on Updog?'"… They'll just assume that someone wouldn't be cruel and silly enough to do this to them, so I just say, "Oh, can you send me this on Updog?" and the first one to respond was, "I'm sorry, what's Updog?" The glint in my eye that is just despising most of my industry is like, "Oh, nothing much, what's up with you?" Screenshot, post.

How many people did you do it to?

North of 200. I Updogged every single CES pitch I got. In the same way that you responded to every single PR pitch, I responded to every single one.

Are you blacklisted now? Do they all hate you or what?

I've had a few of those getting really upset. I've had one report of an agency sending around an email internally saying, "Watch out." And I've offered a cash bounty for that email. I want to see the email. I like making fun of this remarkably serious, stupid industry....

But nevertheless, mostly journalists have been congratulating me and laughing. So I suppose it counts as work on that level. Well, there are some people in PR who are like, “OK, that's pretty good, I'm glad you do that.” And one or two of them I've noticed also form-pitch! Every time I see someone in that congratulatory human centipede that is PR Twitter, I've watched these people say, "Hey, look! This funny Ed Zitron fellow!" And I've looked at their agency and, yes, their agency form-pitches.

It’s a joke no one in my industry seems to be getting. Or at least the punch line is that they're just as bad as these people being Updogged. They just happened to be smart enough to Google the word Updog. I do believe the first result is actually quite literally the Urban Dictionary definition of the joke. And you don't even need to click through. I find it all hilarious and intimately depressing that there is an entire multibillion industry built on the back of just crapping in people's inboxes.

You have your own agency. Do you own it?

I do own it. I find it strange to say I have an agency. Yes, I have three employees, and they're dispersed across the country, and it's a good agency. Clients seem happy. Nobody seems to say mean words to me.

How do you maintain the respect of your clients when you spend what seems like a lot of your free time attacking the PR industry?

Because I'm still getting results. I have a good crop of clients who are looking for results. They're looking for people to write about them on the Internet or to be on television or whatever. I've never had a client say, "You're on Twitter a lot." Or "Why are you writing about the PR industry so much?" They don't care! In fact, there's a remarkable amount of clients I have where I'm effectively the rebound boyfriend, because they've worked with crappy agencies who've done a bad job and just form-pitched everything. They don't understand the product.

For all the dillydallying I do on Twitter and all the stupid [things] I say on there, I do spend a great deal of my day reading. I pitch much less than I read, because otherwise it's disrespectful to the journalists.

What sorts of clients do you represent?

Anything within gadgets, security, I have a company that fixes phones. I have a company that literally will park your car for you. Apps.

Tell me about your book.

I don't know if you remember when the Nine Inch Nails album Year Zero came out—there was a whole online alternate-reality game where you followed through and somehow Trent Reznor created a story where the album was being sent back in time to stop America allowing itself to have drugs put in the water and then seeing a giant hand come out of the sky.

Anyway, very long way to get around it, I wanted to send this book back in time to hit myself in the head and eventually tell myself not to go into PR. The first book, This Is How You Pitch, is written either to save a failing PR person or make someone who's going to join the industry quit or potentially give a very real understanding of why or how you do the job. I kind of littered it with really not particularly great stories about myself. One time I got stuck in a toilet at CES 2011, because my hangover was too severe and the toilet kept talking because it was the remnants of the "Star Trek Experience" that was in the Las Vegas Hilton. The toilet kept making noises that would make my head hurt. Not exactly what you get from most PR books.

It's not a particularly great industry. I like doing it. I love doing what I do, frankly. But I would argue that as a whole, we are not a great people. And I feel that people get into the industry for the complete wrong reasons. They get into it to feel important and to feel like some sort of Samantha from Sex and the City-style or Ari from Entourage-style, even though that's a talent agent, [a] completely different industry. But don't worry. People have no idea what this industry is.

 

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