PR is not news: The dot-XXX search engine

by Violet Blue on September 26, 2012

On September 17 (9 days ago) I got a cold-call email from an Account Executive at PR firm KCSA Strategic Communications. This is what it said:

Hi Violet,
Later this month, ICM Registry, the company that created and now operates .xxx domain names, is launching their very own search engine just for adult entertainment websites, Search.xxx. Similar to your favorite search engine, consumers looking to surf the web for adult content only have to input a few keywords or topics and thousands of .xxx websites will appear.

Not only is Search.xxx the first search engine dedicated to over 13 million .xxx websites, it is the only porn search engine that brings you “clean” porn –clean in a good way! The .xxx domains are the only ones in the world that benefit from a daily malware scanning as a standard, which makes it one of the safest top level domains on the Internet; no cookies, no tracking, and no unwanted viruses will be stored on your computer when you visit a .xxx site.

In addition, it has a very simple user interface, with zero clips – so when you visit the site and search for what you like, you will only run into the porn of your choice (no accidental glimpses of something that is NOT your speed).
I have the CEO and brainchild of Search.XXX, Stuart Lawley available to interview, as well as porn star Nina Mercedez. The search engine launches on Sept 27th, so I’d love to set up something that runs towards the end of the month.
Let me know your thoughts on this.
Thanks! [NAME REDACTED]

When I read this email, I honestly contemplated doing some good old fashioned trolling on ICM Registry and their PR company. Not that I wouldn’t love to interview Nina Mercedez and Mr. Lawley about competitive search engine marketing and optimization for its clients, or their opinions on determining user intent, especially as related to current trends in semantic search among their competitors. Because I think that would be good fun. But I couldn’t tell if ICM and KCSA Strategic were trying to place a PR-disguised-as-news piece on my blog here, or on one of the other channels I write for, such as c|net or ZDnet. Either way, a quick search on any engine in the universe with my name and their client would have told them that I was so so so the wrong person to ask for promotion of anything dot-XXX:

More importantly, the chances of me ever taking someone’s PR and passing it off as news are about as likely as the odds of me deciding it would be fun to ruin the twelve years of reader trust I’ve built in one fell swoop by regurgitating a press release for one of the most pernicious, malfeasant actors in the gTLD space to date.

Aside from my previous coverage of their client, and the fact that I’m not a shill, one must ask is this – an overly specific search engine in a walled garden of low number content – among many other great porn search engines, newsworthy? No. No, it’s not.

I got busy with breaking the Wikipedia story for c|net, and forgot about the email.

The Account Executive at PR firm KCSA Strategic Communications emailed me a couple days later with a resend of the text, and telling me she’d love to send me a press kit. It got lost in the developing Wikimedia hurricane that kept my inbox on fire (and still does, for the story seems to be unfinished and on slow burn).

Today, looking over my news filters and feeds, I was amused like Willy Wonka to see which outlets are “reporting” the “news” – I mean, regurgitating the press kit and pissing in the actual news pool – with ICM Registry’s content via KCSA Strategic Communications. Right on time, as per the solicitation.

Here’s who fell for it and hit publish on a press release today, and thinks you won’t know any better – file under you’re being lied to:

This happens all the time, but I thought you might find it interesting to actually see it in action.

Main post image: Kiki and her MacBook (Hegre Art).

{ 22 comments }

1 None September 30, 2012 at 3:22 pm

I liked Nobody Special’s arguments, and how Grant just near completely misses them.

Sounds like I need to get marshmallows for .xxx’s traction failure.

2 Nobody Special September 28, 2012 at 11:07 am

::sigh:: All the likes, +1s, and shares.

3 Grant September 28, 2012 at 10:16 am

Nobody, I think you’ve got some of the facts wrong in this case. You’re basing your criticism of me on Violet’s blog post, when it may not contain all the facts. Please, if you’re gonna criticize me, get your information correct.

I first received contact from the PR people a few days before I ran my story. If there was a press release being circulated weeks ago, I didn’t see it. And it appears that it was circulated in pretty limited circles since there appear to be no news items about it before this week. Maybe everyone who got it was as holy as Violet and ignored it?

It also appears you’re making an assumption that this story had been in the news before. But, unlike the suggestiong from Violet, there was little to no coverage before this past week. Since my story was published, NBC, CBS, Fox News, the Huffington, Post Forbes, Businessweek, and several other media outlets have all run stories about the .xxx search engine.

Some of those guys may have written a better story than mine, I don’t know. But on news judgement, I’m gonna trust those guys over you, Nobody. Call it a personality flaw, but I’m not big into journalism ethics lecturers from anonymous posters.

I’m not sure what I was supposed to do with this story that would have pleased you and Violet, other than not run it. Sorry, it was news.

4 Nobody Special September 28, 2012 at 9:51 am

I’m confused – at first you said there was plenty of reader interest, and now you’re saying it’s a minor story that isn’t worth the fuss. You dismiss Violet’s criticism because this is a “porn blog” and just “whoring” for “cheap page views.” You dismiss my criticism because my name isn’t attached to it. In some way, shape, or form, you’re finding ways to dismiss criticism of your piece, or your handling of this story, or being hooked by this release, and blowing straight past the fact that while there’s utility here (the utility comment was supposed to be instructive to the point that we need to look beyond “this is shiny and new” and look for the real meat to a story when it’s dangled in front of us, instead of springing for it because it’s there – that seems to have been missed here.) there’s no more utility than there was the *last time this release turned up.* That’s Violet’s entire point, and the basis for my criticism.

And we’re back where we started. That’s really unfortunate, but I suppose it’s to be expected. I hope at some point – maybe in the next 20 years of your career, I hope – you’ll understand what I’m driving at here. It seems, however, that the closer we get to the heart of it, the more defensive you’re getting. That’s fine, and I think we’re running out of ways to circle the drain here. But I will say this: If the only criticism you’re willing to take is criticism that meets your very specific and changeable guidelines, then you’re doing yourself – and your 20 year career – a true disservice.

5 Grant September 28, 2012 at 9:13 am

Nobody, this is a pretty minor story about a new porn search engine. I really don’t understand all the fuss.

The PR people caught my attention with it, and as I’ve said, there seems to have significant interest in the story, with all the me-too stories that followed mine. My story is not a shining example of great journalism, but I don’t think it quite deserves the criticism here, either.

You’ve said you turned down a recent pitch because you didn’t see the utility. You don’t see the utility of a porn search engine? Sure, it’s not the first, but .xxx does seem to be doing some things a bit differently. You’d get that if you’d read my story.

So first, you’re arguing that reader interest shouldn’t be a major reason we do stories, then you argue that utility is important. Which is it?

As for the “straw men,” I’m not sure you understand the concept. I haven’t represented either you or Violet in my comments. You are an anonymous poster; she is a porn blogger. While she may not have directly said my story was trolling for cheap page views, I think that’s implied by her and by the comments. Porn bloggers should be familiar with cheap page views.

As for your journalism advice, I’ve been doing this for 20-plus years. Advice from an anonymous poster who claims to be a journalist isn’t really worth the pixels it’s printed with. At least Violet had the guts to use her “real” name.

6 Nobody Special September 28, 2012 at 8:45 am

The one thing I can happily credit you with here is that you’re starting to understand exactly the issue here – if your readers have to be the ones to point out that “hey, this breaking story is actually something that was published a long time ago, isn’t new, and is likely the result of a re-spun release,” there’s a problem, reader interest or no. If reader interest were the only criteria here, you’d be writing about XXX domains all day long. I don’t think a little digging – I mean, Violet couldn’t have done *that* much looking before writing this, could she? – would have been too much of an issue here. A couple of google searches would have turned up the exact issue she’s describing.

Case in point – a company approached me with their “disruptive and innovative” new method to accomplish function X. Sounded great, right? disruptive! innovative! Shiny and new! Even offering me an exclusive, with video and tons of data to help me with my story! I love that – when PR firms give me the tools to craft a well written and well rounded story, it’s great, and I love those guys. But before I fire up Word, I stopped and looked around at their industry. 10 minutes and I discovered that their “disruptive and innovative” solution was already something that highly established and entrenched companies A and B currently offered. If I wrote about it without comparing them or bringing that up, my readers would do it for me, and that’s just embarrassing. So I asked: “What does your company do, aside from X, that companies A and B, with high user engagement and broad userbases don’t already do? What makes the new company so innovative?” They relented, and pointed out they’re new, shiny, and want to play in the same space. I passed, because while there may be *interest*, there’s no *utility.* There’s nothing for my readers to walk away thinking “wow, I just learned something/got useful information for the time I spent reading that article/that website.” THAT, Grant, is what we should be doing – anything less diminishes our profession. The cream always rises, and the crap always sinks.

That said, and to your final point, you’re absolutely right, it is easier then doing this without the veil, but that doesn’t make the criticism invalid – that’s two strawmen you’ve hung up now, the first one being that passing shot at Violet’s blog. I completely agree, if you looked back at the stories I’ve covered, you’d definitely find some crappy work – it happens to all of us. The important thing though, is that we take those lessons, move forward, and realize where we screwed up. I sincerely hope that you can as well.

7 Grant September 28, 2012 at 6:42 am

P.S. at Nobody: It’s pretty easy to criticize a fellow journalist anonymously. I bet if I dug around in your past stories or those of your “useful and relevant” news outlet, I’d find a few clunkers.

8 Grant September 28, 2012 at 6:34 am

Nobody and Dia: If you’d read my story, you’ll probably see I didn’t just publish what the PR people gave me. Is it a hard-hitting expose of .xxx? No, it’s not. I think the criticisms of .xxx have been pretty well reported, and this story wasn’t about those issues.

I do understand that .xxx had planned to offer search, and that other stories may have noted that. The story the other day was that the search was finally available, and I was the first to report the story this week. Everyone else followed my story.

If you look at my body of work, I think you’ll see that I’m not only concerned about page views. I generally cover a pretty dry area — technology policy in Washington, D.C. Many of those stories aren’t huge traffic drivers, but my company believes it’s important to keep readers up to date on those issues.

On the other hand, reader interest is one major criteria for judging what’s news. And this story had plenty of reader interest.

9 Eric September 28, 2012 at 4:49 am

Grant, you clearly did not read (our) TechCrunch story, which makes you guilty of a worse problem than what you’re accusing us of. Here’s our story starts “The eunuch led the blind man through the market, through the door in the wall, and into the gardens. They sat under a dead tree. The eunuch took out the meal. They ate. ‘Tell me about the Unraveling?’ said the eunuch.”

You should go read the full thing.

10 Dia September 27, 2012 at 11:48 pm

Grant: That’s where the part of being a journalist comes into play.

11 Nobody Special September 27, 2012 at 5:48 pm

Grant, that’s exactly the point I’m making. Speaking as a fellow journalist (why else would I watch this unfold?), 98 percent of the releases we get ARE total crap. That doesn’t mean there’s no story under it, just that it’s up to us to mine and polish it, not just publish what PR reps tell us. I’m thankful I work at an outlet where our first thought is to how a story is useful and relevant to our readers, not how fast we can hit publish. I wish more did. Yes, we can argue over whether it’s newsworthy, but at the end of the day, had you looked past a PR rep offering a juicy story, you would have seen that it’s been done. As it stands, judging it by tweets and links just proves the point that you’re only concerned about views and impressions, and not actually reporting news. The last little slap at Violet’s blog being ironic just galvanized the point that that’s not in this for journalism. If it bleeds, or rather now, if it gets all the likes, +1s, and shares, it leads, an I right?

12 Grant September 27, 2012 at 1:40 pm

Dia, if the pitch above is an example of bad PR, then 98 percent of the emails I get as a reporter are bad PR. The pitch Violet has quote above is pretty much standard operating procedure in PR these days, in my experience.

We can disagree whether it’s news or not. As the writer of one of the stories criticized by Violet, I feel like I’m getting ripped on a porn blog of whoring for cheap page views. That’s pretty funny.

13 Dia September 27, 2012 at 1:04 pm

Kelly, apparently you aren’t familiar with the public relations field either.

First of all, this isn’t a press release, at least, not a good one (or one that should have been recognizable to any editor worth his or her salt). It’s really bad direct mail.

Also, there is nothing newsworthy about this, as has been previously stated. A common occurrence in many press releases these days unfortunately, but still horrible form. Even my alma mater’s rather lobotomized MassComm department would have frowned on this.

This is a really bad direct mail piece of garbage hoping the CTA will strike on a slow news day and get weak editors to schedule an interview to drive business.

(Full disclosure: I do work in PR, and if I ever did something this pathetic I hope my bosses would point it out to me, before suggesting I choose another field and firing me.)

14 Grant September 27, 2012 at 1:03 pm

Nobody: You miss my point. I’m the reporter who wrote the Network World story Violet accuses of ripping off a PR release. I did practice some journalism when writing my story, yet, Violet has lumped my story in with all the me-too coverage.

A blogger at one of Violet’s own employers basically rewrote my story and stole the good quotes.

Now, maybe Violet doesn’t believe a new search engine at .xxx is worth a story. It’s true that the .xxx people pitched me the story. Sorry to bust any bubbles here, but how PR works. A heck of a lot of news comes from the PR machine.

It’s fair enough that Violet thinks this wasn’t worth a story, although it appears she has some kind of axe to grind with .xxx. But judging by the retweets, Slashdot link and copycat stories, a lot of people are interested in the story.

15 Shanna Germain September 27, 2012 at 12:32 pm

This is just one of the many reasons why you’re one of my heroes, Violet. Thank you for always offering me news and information that I can trust, because I know you thought about it. Thinking about things before acting on things seems to be getting rarer. You rock.

16 Nobody Special September 27, 2012 at 11:57 am

Grant – you wreck your entire point with your last sentence. All of these places hopped on the “oh snap a press release” train, or maybe the follow-up “oh crap X outlet wrote about it, we’d better write about it too!” bandwagon. If they had done that “real journalism” they would have figured out that this isn’t news or even newsworthy any more than it was the last time they all published the same news from the same PR agency. Sounds like you and Kelly up there work for a PR firm, am I right? Gotta make your money somehow, even if it’s in duping hit-happy bloggers with a candy-covered shitty carrot on a string.

Looks like ReadWriteWeb fell for it (but then again, they usually do):
http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/icm-debuts-first-own-xxx-search-engine.php

And TechCrunch did, but that’s no surprise – send TC a press release and they’ll cover it like it’s new:
http://techcrunch.com/2012/09/27/search-xxx-is-live-and-ready-to-help-you-search-the-xxx/

17 Grant Gross September 27, 2012 at 7:24 am

If you’d take a minute to examine the Network World story, you’d see it was not a rewritten press release. There was a bit of actual journalism in there, and there’s interest in what’s going on in the .xxx domain. Sometimes, press releases actually point reporters to some actual news, believe it or not.

And hey, it’s getting a bunch of page views, including the link at Slashdot.

A number of publications/bloggers, including ones Violet writes for, simply rewrote the Network World/IDG News Service story, took the good quotes, and slapped a headline on it. Apparently, doing actual journalism is tough work.

18 Kelly September 27, 2012 at 6:47 am

I mean- isn’t that exactly what a press release is for though? I’m not sure you’re familiar with the field of public relations….

19 Irony September 27, 2012 at 5:45 am

this post has it

20 Audrey from the L September 27, 2012 at 5:00 am

Hi, well, I guess you could argue about whether it’s news or not, but I did think it’s interesting and worth noting that ICM is attempting to add .xxx-only features to try and justify its existence. But I take exception to “regurgitating the press release”–the piece I wrote was pretty negative, as all my .xxx coverage has been. Maybe the headline doesn’t really get that across. But rest assured, I wasn’t just cutting-and-pasting someone’s press materials, I was trying to follow up on the story I’d been covering over the last year. I do think it’s hilarious that their PR people were contacting writers (like me!) who’ve had nothing good to say about their company, and the CEO and I spent the first ten minutes of our call arguing about whether his business is shaking people down for money. Anyway, I love Tiny Nibbles and it bummed me out to see my work described here as shilling.
Audrey

21 Nobody Special September 27, 2012 at 4:02 am
22 John Nagle, Silicon Valley, CA September 26, 2012 at 9:01 pm

Minutes after I read your article, Slashdot fell for the same press release.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: