UNDER THE BRIDGE: THE TROLL ISSUE
The week of May 10, 2015
zitron_troll_2

How to win friends and infuriate people

By Dylan Love

If we’re going to talk about Ed Zitron, we have to talk about updog.

(What is updog? Nothing much. What’s up with you?)

Zitron works in public relations. Hoping to make a point, he applied for media credentials to this year’s Consumer Electronics Show—the annual Super Bowl of expensive things that need to be plugged in—and waited for the flood of pitch emails from eager marketers. He then responded with the classic Internet prank.

It might sound like conduct unbecoming a small-business owner, but it works for him. It’s in his professional interest to know as many reporters as possible, and when you want a bunch of cynical truth-tellers to pay attention to your clients when they absolutely don’t have to, you better bring the weirdo sunshine.

Through one lens, Zitron is a rough-and-tumble British businessman who closes deals and kicks ass for his clients. Through another lens, he is a notorious, unapologetic screwball who can’t be ignored. While that might seem a tricky balancing act, there’s no disparity here, he says; he is who he is. One glance through his Twitter feed is all it takes to see that Zitron has no problems airing his weirdness for all to see.

He aired it for us further. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Who are you and what do you do?

I’m Ed Zitron. I run a PR firm called EZPR, which has three staff and one day may have as many as four. We are a firm that does “media relations.” I also write books, in the sense that I have written one (This Is How You Pitch, which is a book for people just getting into any kind of publicity), and I’m currently writing one called Fire Your Publicist, which is a book that’s me writing down as much as I can about what I do in the hope that enough people read it to theoretically fire their publicist. Sometimes I do speeches. I have one coming up that will have already passed by the time this publishes, and I hope it goes well.

So what’s media relations?

Wikipedia says that I manage the spread of information between an individual or an organization and the public. That’s a very fancy way to put what I actually do, which is email reporters and producers that might find what I’m paid to email them about interesting in such a way that they’ll look at it and write about it, or talk to the person and interview them and then write about said interview, or some combination of those two things and a television.

“This industry is a bucket of lies and snake oil and I am trying to pee in the snake oil.”

I’m part of a far-too-small group of so-called “professionals” (I hate calling myself that and I hate calling PR people “PR professionals”) that don’t lie, that try to match clients that are actually interesting with journalists that will actually care (that actually happens! It’s real!) versus sending out large-scale blasts. I also do not call any reporters ever to pitch them—only if they tell me “Hey Ed, call me, I have a question,” which rarely happens.

IMG_3597

I also appear to be the only PR person regularly writing about what PR actually is, which is a very well-paid way to email people that don’t know you or barely know you in the hopes that they’ll pay attention to the people paying you to email them. This industry is a bucket of lies and snake-oil and I am trying to pee in the snake oil. That analogy (metaphor?) made very little sense, but then again, nothing does anymore.

Describe your Internet persona.

My Internet persona was created in the dark pits of Everquest forums, where “trolling” wasn’t about hurting people’s feelings (it happened) but was about arguing, long-form, about stupid things. I would pop in and usually break up the argument in the sense that I’d find a way to jab at both sides, usually with something utterly silly. Both sides would hate me for getting in the way of their “ultra-serious debate,” and then I’d go to bed and they’d sit there fuming at the person who would never return. My Internet persona is me, which is very easy to manage because I’m me, versus someone else. It’s what I like, hate, think, feel, eat, do, don’t do, and want to do. What I’m up to. What I’m laughing at or crying at. Not quite as raw as what I’d drunkenly yell before throwing a bottle of cabernet at the butler (no, I do not have a butler, this is a joke), but as close as I can without coming off as a total mental case. In fact, my Internet persona is one that flies in the face of the meaning behind “never read the comments.” I’ve never read the comments. I don’t need to. I don’t have any interest in it. I’ve done it once on my Newsweek article, and that was because I knew there’d be some wide-eyed PR person who wanted to go against my “counter-culture” of “don’t harass people and don’t annoy them in the hopes they’ll make you more money.” And there was, and I can only imagine they were quite upset by my remarkably immature comment.

What is trolling, and what does it mean to you?

Trolling to me has always been something akin to being a circus clown. Honk honk, water from flower into face. Agh! My face is wet. That silly clown. Oh! A custard pie. Honk honk. I do not take myself particularly seriously, and I will be the first person to say “I am wrong and I am stupid, sorry” when I am wrong/stupid.

Any “trolling” I do is generally to call attention upon someone being horrible or pompous and to lead them into a carefully laid trap that usually ends with me saying “I love to crap” at the apex of their argument, the denouement they have desperately waited for. Their crème-de-la-crème of discourse ruined when they realise that, all along, I haven’t had any interest in their argument. I’ve just wanted to say, “Hey, haha, guess what, buddy? You’re furious and silly, and I’m just silly. Anyway, going to bed now. PS: I love to crap.” What do you even say to that? What can you say to a fellow that has actually read up on a subject simply to lead you to a point where they’re saying that they do, indeed, love to crap? Very little.

“Apparently I am ‘unprofessional’ and ‘just out for myself,’ which apparently isn’t what most PR people are, as PR people are well known altruists that work for low salaries and the love of the game.”

Now the term “troll” has (sadly in many cases correctly) come to meet the under-the-bridge motif of “horrible creature that slinks out to cause harm because you’ve come too near something they hold dear.” I’ve laughed and said, “Oh yeah, I’m trolling,” but these days “trolls” seem to be far more malicious and cruel. They seem to cause more hurt than anything.

All in all, I kind of consider myself a doofus online as I am one in real life. It doesn’t make me stupid or bad at my job. But I am dorky and laugh at some rather stupid things. I do not take myself particularly seriously, as to do so would be to not be who I really am. As Fry from Futurama once said, “I’ll be what I wanna do!”

Updog. Go.

The whole updog situation was one that was created out of the clown version of trolling I pursue. I wanted to, using some level of tomfoolery, with no intention of actually publicizing it beyond posting it on Twitter for what I thought was two people’s entertainment. I wanted them to see by the obtuse, idiotic joke that what they were doing was wrong and bad. Like stepping on a landmine, except the landmine was one of the fake cans of nuts full of fake snakes. But it turned into this massive joke that I loved, because not one single PR person got it. Nobody turned around and seemed to learn. The closest I got was people saying “I’ll take you off my list,” instead of what I wanted, existentially, possibly too optimistically, which was just one person to say, “Oh, shit, maybe I shouldn’t mass mail.” Instead it got either the “LOL, I GET IT,” the “you wasted my time, dick!” or the “you’ll be removed from my list.”

The updog situation was hilarious and led to me getting press for myself, notoriety and actual real-life business, and money. What it didn’t get was my actual goal, which was to educate at least one goddamn agency.

Can anyone use your weird methods, or is there some practiced wushu at work here?

I don’t think it’s possible to just carbon copy my methods and be me. That would be awesome if it was possible. However, I do believe that there is a level of “Why not just be yourself, which may be a huge doofus that just wants to talk nonsense all day and still succeed in business and gain notoriety and interest that way?” Every new client that has found me because of updog has expressed a degree of “Most PR people are robots that don’t actually act like humans nor care about actual results.” In fact, a great deal of new clients come to me saying the same thing.

There’s a malaise over those looking for PR. But it’s not really about the trolling tactics; it’s about doing good work. Not form pitching, sending emails to the right person at the right place with the right thing.

Now, in the case of the single entity, yes. They can. But they have to commit to the honesty part. You have to be all-in on being who you are, and being a doofus (if you are a doofus), and being completely “you.” If you can’t take what you give, and indeed give some shit to someone in a way that’s inventive and fun, that’s bad. So many people—PR people included— have for some reason chosen Mike Isaac from the New York Times as their target to effectively gaslight. For example, I’ve seen a PR person or two respond to him talking about bad tweets and saying, “Oh, are you talking about yours?” Yes, I make those jokes too, because Mike and I have known each other a while and actually talk.

“I officially got [a client] to agree to take me while on the toilet. This was my finest day in PR.”

There are a few people, for example, who have said to me that my “tactic” is “being rude” when it is in fact “I put myself out there and I am totally ready to get owned online.” I don’t think anyone would be able to set up what I have. It’s not that I’m some sort of super-arrogant genius; it’s that I’m a well-read-enough buffoon with so little fear of the consequences of being honest online that people have come to like me. Has it worked out? I think so. Not everyone likes me. There are definitely reporters who think I’m a big moron or just straight-up don’t like me. There are corporate entities I will probably never be able to work with because I’m just me, versus the #PR #professional #with #all #the #hashtags but working with them would be very sad and grim.

Why couldn’t a large firm successfully copy your trolling tactics?

Because I do not believe a lot of large firms are running ethical businesses to begin with, or are even training their staff at all. I believe they are run predominantly by people who are not pitching or engaging with actual reporters on a regular basis. So to get them to teach how to be a real human being would be very challenging, considering they can’t teach the practice of not being an inhuman spam-robot.

Furthermore, a worrying amount of PR people I meet and talk to aren’t well-read and buy into some very worrying concepts. They are the ones who say that stuff like “media is dying” (which is a great way to say “I can’t talk to the reporters”) and “content marketing is the future” (meaning that they truly believe so, even though it’s very uncommon that it ever is successful). They don’t know their own products, let alone the other products in the industry. There’s an alarming case of facsimile people that are simply doing what they see other PR people do, which is #loving #coffee #media #brands #hashtags #PR and tweeting about their clients, form pitching, and so on. There is little free thought, and the big agencies (hell, most agencies) aren’t pushing a culture of individual personalities.

Have you won any clients via trolling?

One time I saw a random wearable product follow me, and checked their feed, and thought “Hmm, that’s interesting.” They were spamming reporters with @messages. So I stepped in and @messaged them something along the lines of “Hey, great job, reporters love being sent random shit that they don’t care about all day long.” They said “Got a better idea?” and DM’d me. Turns out I did have a better idea, and I officially got them to agree to take me while on the toilet. This was my finest day in PR.

Illustration by Max Fleishman