Post 32,2009: A tail of two emails

A couple of days ago,  I received an email from a local operative at a large, international, PR agency. The content of the mail was simple: it asked me to send the operative a copy of a 2010 feature list.

The mail opened with “Hi there” and did not mention a publication.

By now you have figured out that this was a mass mailer.

I find that pretty odd. Here was a PR person asking me to devote some time and attention to them, and they could not even bother to personalise an email to me.

This agency, for what it is worth, uses the following phrases to describe itself on its web site:

  • “… passionate, straight-talking …”
  • “We embrace technology and know how to make brands relevant and stand out from the crowd by talking in a language that everyone understands …”
  • “… we’re passionate about communication …”

I imagine that anyone who is truly “straight talking”, “embrace[s] technology” and is “passionate about communication” would realise that using “Hi There” to open an email is pretty poor.  To say it in “language that everyone understands” it is, IMHPO, pathetically lazy and a betrayal of the values professed on the company’s site and makes a lie of PR firms’ general assertion that they understand media, have great relationships with us all and are especially cunning communicators trained and expert at delivering their clients messaging.

Now for email number two, from a local agency.

It was a Christmas greeting and contained a simple graphical card in which, miraculously, my name had been emblazed across a Christmas tree decoration.

It was simple, cute and the addition of a single word – my first name – demonstrated a little care and attention had been paid. That, to my mind, is professional communication.

The first email was an embarrassment of a sort that, sadly, a significant minority of PR firms still practice.

Post 32, 2009: Why are online image libraries *STILL* so amazingly shit?

One of the most disappointing things in the journo/PR interface is the continued patchy availability and quality of online image libraries.

The need for online image libraries became glaringly apparent in about 1996.

Since then, I reckon less than 50% of vendors get them right. I have no idea why as a good image library is a blindingly obvious idea.

Some holdouts, I suspect, wish to control distribution of their images. I cannot imagine why.

Others have just been lazy.

Whatever the reason, let me state this now, loud and proud, for the last time.

IF YOU HAVE REALLY GOOD IMAGES ONLINE THAT JOURNOS CAN GET ASAP, YOU WILL GET MORE AND BETTER COVERAGE.

So get to it!

Post 29,2009. Dialog.

Righto. Here we go with a series of posts, my last about the experience of being a working journo interacting with PRs.

I’m not grooming this stuff or pulling punches. I’m letting it flow as my last set of vents in this format.

This one is about courage and dialog.

The two are intertwined, I feel, because sometimes courage is needed to sustain a dialog.

Here’s why.

I make a point of offering dialog with PR folks, for three reasons:

  1. If they plainly do not understand my work, I am willing to enter into dialog to help them understand it better
  2. I am interested to hear what they have to say beyond the things their clients’ want them to say
  3. I sometimes feel it is worth initiating a dialog about a PR’s knowledge of the titles for which I write

The first offer of dialog produces a very interesting result, namely no response. I usually make this offer to people who contact me for the first time with something wildly inappropriate. Rather than a flat No with no possibility of return, I make an offer to meet or stage a call so they can be more accurate and/or appropriate in future. This is not taken up in 90% of cases, re-enforcing my suspicion that much pitching is conducted on the same basis as outbound telemarketing, namely a low expectation of success and no intention of securing anything other than a swift and simple transaction. This is an asynchronous and irritating tactic that is responsible for much irritation among media.

I try to initiate dialog for the second reason in order to understand more about a pitch. I will often be offered an interview or sent information which I do not immediately believe is newsworthy without some additional contextual information. As I have long and frequent experience of interviewees being tedious, tangential or unwilling to do anything other than deliver messaging, I try to get as much information as possible in order to make that judgement without first agreeing to an interview. To do so, I press quite hard, as if a story is not immediately newsworthy but I have a suspicion it could be, I want to make sure my judgement is right.

Anyway … in attempting to delve into an idea, the resulting dialog often produces results that suggest to me that a great many PR people lack sufficient knowledge to represent their clients to seasoned or technical media. This is not a criticism. Indeed, it may not be reasonable to expect that these dialogs are fulfilling. I have experienced some PRs in other, larger, countries who exist in niches that allows them to offer more specialised and detailed dialogs. I suspect Australia’s small size is a reason for these experiences.

My third reason for initiating dialog is an attempt to draw understand the reason a seemingly inappropriate pitch has been made, in the hope of understanding it better or initiating an educational dialog. It usually goes something like this:

PR: My client is super-relevant to your readers and you should write about them.

Me: Do we have a section in this title where that kind of thing appears?

PR: (Usually) I don’t know

Me: So do you think we are a chance of running this? Is this the kind of thing we usually offer our readers?

PR: Probably not and/or Well I think I once saw something a bit like it?

Perhaps this is me pinning butterflies, but I’ve always felt it’s pretty reasonable to expect that a PR will have an idea of whether or not the titles I write for support their pitches. I’ve never been entirely sure if going Socratic to draw out ignorance is kinder or more cruel than a flat “Title X does not cover that/does not have a news section/is not interested” but I have long suspected it is kinder because if the PR has read the title the reason for a pitch’s failure dawns on them. If they have not, I always respond with information about why the pitch is not appropriate.

I gather the stuff mentioned above is often interpreted as rudeness or borderline hostility, which I have always found odd. Perhaps a pleasant No is better than an attempt to learn more. Perhaps I am more intimidating on the phone than I imagine. But hey – if someone is trying to sell me an idea I am going to test that idea and tests are seldom pleasant.

Post 28, 2009: I do not hate PR

At a Christmas party tonight, a fellow journalist related to me an incident in which a PR approached him and said they did not want to talk to him, as he and I are, in the PR’s opinion, haters of PR.

For the record, I do not hate PR.

I do, however, resent the fact that much PR is practiced thoughtlessly and in ways that frustrates me, wastes my time or hinders my ability to do my job. I resent this bitterly for two reasons:

  1. Many of my encounters with PR people represent known worst practices that the PR industry and senior practitioners repudiate
  2. Basic mistakes continue to be made with horrible regularity

I am not the only journalist that thinks this way. If you ever get a chance to be a fly on the wall when journos get together, you’ll hear very similar complaints to those mentioned on this blog.

I am, however, one of a few very small number of journalists to blog about their feelings.

But not for long.

I’ve been mining this vein for a while now and have become tired of doing so, largely due to point 2 above which shows I am not having much impact.

So at the end of the year I shall take this blog in a new direction.

But before I go, I will exhaust my thinking on PR before moving on to some new ideas I want to explore. I will continue to document my experience of a working journalist’s relationship with PR in other fora.

Post 26a, 2009: Why issue a press release if there’s no news in it?

This is a sequel to my last post, because once I finally got a hold of the folks who issued the press release, I found there was almost no actual news in it.
The release in question detailed two items, namely some new software and a new professional services practice.
The former was straightforward, but anodyne. It’s the kind of thing I ignore every day because it is worth a paragraph or two at best and the outlet for which I was interested in this release does very little news of that sort.
The second point was interesting, as it mentioned a new sub-brand of sorts and said the service had been “introduced.” As I track the industry in question closely, I wanted to know just what had been introduced.
More than 24 hours after the release crossed my desk (which is a FAIL) I was able to interview someone about this. The interviewee told me that nothing, in fact, had been introduced. Instead, existing services had been renamed and a small new service implementing the new software had been introduced.
I was also told that there were probably no new hires, but the interviewee could not tell me if the existing team had even been trained on the new software yet (this was later clarified).
Anyway … the point here is that this release contained almost no information. The vendor’s PR company had no idea about any of it, which makes me wonder just how it adds value other than hitting “send” in Outlook. The vendor’s in-house PR had little knowledge of the release, as evinced by the need for an interview to inform me about the release describing nothing more than a name change.
Along the way, both the agency and in-house PR also consistently referred to my inquiry as being about the product, when all of my correspondence with them contained a quote from the release about the services.
Then the crowning glory of the anti-news in the form of the “introduction” being a rebadging.
Needless to say, the whole experience became a colossal waste of time for all involved. Tempers frayed on all sides. Opinions of participants lowered.
Yet this kind of stuff never stops. Silly releases, ignorant agencies, defensive vendors. It never stops.

Post 26, 2009: Why issue a press release if you aren’t ready to discuss it?

I’m experiencing one of the more regular PR-induced frustrations today, namely an organisation emitting a press release without having spokespeople ready to explain it.

Here’s what happened.

A release arrived in my inbox and piqued my interest.

I contacted the in-house PR person listed as a contact and sent her an email … then received an “out of office” email saying she is unavailable for a further two days.

So I contacted the agency, who called back and told me they have to discover who the spokesperson is for the press release.

This is a big, fat, contemptuous fail for two reasons.

The first is simple logistics: if someone is out for two days, they simply should not be included as a contact for a press release.

The second is the terrible mixed message it sends. Emitting a release, after all, says “we want to discuss this.” When that experience turns into “actually, we are not ready to discuss this” the company involved looks amateurish. The company also looks cynical and disrespectful, because the idea of communicating with media (I have always felt) is to facilitate the free and rapid flow of information so that media can act on it quickly. And quickly is important these days!

When a vendor and agency are unprepared to actually follow through in a timely fashion, I feel like they simply do not get it and are wasting my time and complicating my life.

The chances that I will respect the vendor and its agency decline markedly* and I become less inclined to reach out to these organisations for assistance in future. I am pretty sure those outcomes are not what PR tries to achieve.

* I try, of course, to remain objective. But poor experiences like this mean I am more likely to turn to reliable sources of information and remember this product in light of the poor experience involved in sourcing information about it.

Post 25, 2009: What happens when 30 seconds of research shows a press release is gold-plated bullshit

Okay … so I just got a press release from a company proclaiming that its product has been given a “Gold” award in an independent test.

This is utterly “meh” to begin with.

But then I look up the tests in question and found that this release is actually gold-plated bullshit.

Here’s why.

Firstly, NINE products were given a “Gold” award in the same tests. Two were rated “Platinum ” and one fell over the line for “Silver” status.

So the vendor in question is claiming it is very important for having come somewhere between 3rd and 11th in these tests.

As it turns out, it is actually in 12th place on one of the criteria tested  – ability to detect viruses – and 3rd on its ability not to fall for false positives.

The product concerned is in a lonely place on the graph demonstrating competence in its field.

It took about 30 seconds of research to come to this conclusion.

This raises some questions, the first of which is: Why on earth would any self-respecting vendor emit a press release that points out how mediocre its products are?

Secondly: What’s happened in the PR agency responsible? This release is dross, pure and simple. Why isn’t the agency doing 30 seconds of research and advising its client not to emit a release that positions them as mediocre?

I’d argue that this release should never have been emitted, because it only takes a journo half a minute to figure out that this vendor is a follower in a very large market. As luck would have it, I was only dimly aware of the vendor’s existence before this crock  landed in my Inbox. Now I’ve mentally filed them under “irrelevant clowns.”

Good work everybody!

Post 24, 2009: So your client is an expert? Prove it with unique insights, experience and a track record of more than sales.

Scarcely a day passes on which I am not offered an interview with a supposed expert in their field.

When the alleged expert has a track record of achievement in the field, they are generally interesting interviewees.

But when the expert is a corporate hack visiting executive, I get very sceptical indeed because long experience tells me that most interviewees in this category are very expert in their company’s products, but have little independent insight into a field that lets them share something genuinely new and interesting with me and my readers.

For example, I was recently offered the chance to interview a “VP of Asia” from a network security company who was offered to me as an expert.

The email making the pitch was nonsensical and alleged the individual in question represented expertise because his company had altered its products to take account of changed technical and financial conditions. Moreover, that change had been made in the knowledge that a long list of bad things (including increased risks of natural disaster, fires, terrorism, pandemics and hard disk failure) may well happen. Apparently the revelation that security products which can protect their owners against bad things made this person especially visionary.

None of this sounds at all like the insights of an expert to me. It is merely competent to change products. Asserting that network security products are more necessary due to  increased fire risk is somewhere between loopy and insulting.

A true expert would have been capable of sustaining  a more elegant pitch, one which offered more than (economic and meteorological) climatic factors as evidence of expertise and insight.

So how can one represent true expertise?

A bio helps. The so-called expert I was offered this week had no background whatsoever offered to me. If the bio shows how the individual came by their alleged expertise, all the better. But it is very hard to believe an allegation of expertise when an individual has held a number of sales and executive positions. That indicates business savvy and decent exposure to the industry, not expertise!

So … who have I recently interviewed and found to be genuine experts?

Here are some examples:

  • A chief security officer who has worked on pioneering and high profile projects, in high profile organisations, and whose opinion is sought after by non-profit industry associations and standards bodies
  • A researcher for a prominent company whose role is to detect and analyse new vulnerabilities, then develop responses to those flaws. He’s a hands-on guy in an organisation noted for its smarts
  • A technical evangelist, employed by a vendor in a role that involves sharing knowledge with customers as part of a never-ending listening tour. This individual is also involved in standards bodies.

The PR who offered me an expert this week eventually said the reason she wanted me to meet the individual in question was that I had never written about them. Oddly, that’s a better pitch than some confected claim of expertise or insight. I often speak to companies just to learn about their activities. I consider it a necessary investment of my time. But dressing them up as an expert when their real claim to fame is that they have a job in which they are allowed to speak to the press is a real turn off that makes a company look fake and desperate. And nobody wants to be an expert at that.

Post 10, 2009: Some reasons why Twitter is and is not the new e-mail.

I’m getting a fair few Direct Messages and @messages from Twitter friends – and folks like PRs.

They’re using it as an alternative to conventional messaging tools like e-mail.

Is it a good idea?

Perhaps, because Tweets are:

  • Short! (mercifully so compared to many emails)
  • Intimate, thanks to Twitter’s rules it is very hard to spam someone
  • Deniable – Email is pretty reliable these days and false positives in spam filters are rare. Twitter’s flakiness as a message delivery system is therefore potentially useful!

Perhaps not, because:

  • Twitter is unreliable – if you want to communicate something important, will Twitter get the job done?
  • Twitter messages don’t queue well. Many Twitter clients – and Twitter itself – collects @messages. But while I, for one, process all my emails every day, I might go days without reading every @ message I’ve been sent.
  • I have a whole application that collects and stores email and makes them available offline. Most Twitter clients rely on a live link to Twitter and do not store many messages, reducing the chance I will read a tweet vs. reading an email.
  • Direct Messages generate email anyway – so why use Twitter?
  • Can you really say that in 140 characters? (Yes, probably, but I am saving that for another post)

What do you think?

Post 8, 2009. PR “Truthiness”

When I practised PR, there was often a certain amount of truthiness involved in the way I communicated with media.

I hope it was pretty harmless, because what I was trying to do was to explain to media how an event, issue or product could become a story for them, even though I knew the content on offer would not be 100% about the matters I felt could make a good story for an individual journo.

I’m pretty sure the practise is common, because many of the representations made to me by PR people today polish the truth to make it shiny and attractive. For example, I’ve been told an upgrade from version 3.4 to version 3.5 is a “revolutionary” change. And I was certainly never counselled by management not to do so during my five-and-a-bit years in PR.

It’s just part of the game.

But in the last few days, I feel I have been involved in an incident that tipped beyond the usual “standards” of truthiness.

Here’s what happened. I was invited to an event that I saw little value in attending but made further inquiries on the off-chance it was important. After some back and forth by email, I was told the event would include unusually deep levels of access to a vendor’s security team and its labs. On that basis, I decided to attend the event.

But at the event there was no access to the security team, other than a short presentation from its leader. And we were only able to view the labs through a window. I asked the PR agency concerned why the promised access had not taken place and they explained that the agenda had changed just prior to the event. I had not been informed of that change, an omission for which they apologised.

I have since checked with about half of the other journos who attended the event and, surprisingly, none of them were ever offered the unusually deep levels of access to the vendor’s security team. Nor did any of them receive a notice about a change of agenda for the event.

In my correspondence with the PR company concerned, I stated that I do not feel there was an intention to deceive in their offering me access to the security team. As I am not privy to all of the information sent to all the media in attendance at the event, I cannot say for sure if I was the only attendee offered the chance to access the security team. So it’s not certain I was misled.

But the incident smells. Badly. And I sure feel like the usual and accepted standards of “truthiness” have been abused.