Post 68:08 Hateful?

A couple of days ago, it was suggested to me that this blog expresses a hatred of PR people and that some PR people are therefore fearful of approaching me.

Hate is a strong word. So let me put on the record how I feel and why I blog.

I certainly find that many PR people make amateurish mistakes and this ticks me off because it wastes my time. This blog becomes a way of letting off steam. It’s also a better way of letting off steam than being rude to PR people, which I think I hardly ever do. PRs who call me will, I hope, always receive a respectful hearing.

I also write about PR because I want PRs, their clients, media and the general public to know about my experiences. I think the constant amateurism deserves a little sunshine.

I’m aware that there is an asynchronous relationship at work here, and that it would be very hard for a PR to blog in a similar vein. But hey, FakeSteve is a useful precedent for all sorts of things …

There’s also an undercurrent of exploration in this blog. Like many people, I am concerned that PR’s prevalence can sometimes limit debate, rather than allowing it to flow freely.  I also feel that PR’s role in grooming news for easy consumption is something that is poorly-understood by the public. Many readers and viewers, I believe, are not always aware that content presented to them as “news” and which they understand to have been filtered for news value by professional, well-resourced, editors, was in fact motivated entirely by commercial agendas and put together by professional, well-resourced, PRs. Sunshine is needed in this arena, especially in an age of corporate social media.

In my work, I try to avoid news manufactured for those purposes. That means I end up saying No to PRs a lot. Or I ask a lot of questions trying to learn whether or not there is value beneath the groomed messages.

Very often, PRs blanche in the face of that questioning, interpreting it as hostile.

If that makes me appear hateful, so be it. But it is is not hostility, for the record. It is trying to do my job by digging into a topic. And it is an expression of frustration at having to explain the same things over and over and over.

If it makes me hard to approach, well surely that should be a challenge to public relations practitioners to communicate effectively with a less-than-receptive target. I though that was what PR was all about.

Post 67:08 Media literacy, permeation and expectation

One of the things that amazes me on my podcast is how good most of the interviewees are.

I expect it from the vendors – they’ve had media training and should be able to conduct an interview.

But the majority of interviews I do on the show are with people who just happen to work in the industry it covers. They’re not media trained.

But in 36 episodes, I have only had one interviewee who was so rambling that the interview was unusable. Everyone else has done great.

I give people a cue. I say “I’m going to go all ‘radio’ on you now” and then do a formal introduction before launching into the first question.

The quality of responses and the way folks fall so easily into the interview makes me think that the strucutre of these things has permeated very deeply into the public’s collective consciousness. So deeply, in fact, that mimicing it is not so hard.

The flipside of this famliarity, I think, is that people recognise a good interview when they hear it. Perhaps when media lets them down with material that does not meet their expectations, journalism starts to get its bum rap.

Post 66:08 I cannot believe I have to write this, but here goes

Hey PRs. Two tips!

  1. READ THE PUBLICATIONS YOU PITCH TO BEFORE YOU PITCH TO THEM
    Note the sections they include. Form an opinion about the type of readers the book or site cultivates. This will avoid you wasting time when calling journalists with bad ideas. It will also mean you are actually delivering value for your clients by making informed, likely-to-succeed pitches instead of stabbing blindly in the dark and making them and you look like amateurs.
  2. “MY CLIENT PARTICIPATES IN THE MARKET YOU ARE WRITING ABOUT” IS NOT A PITCH
    About 50% of approaches I receive from PRs consist of nothing more than “We do the thing you are writing about. So interview us, please.” You’ve got to do better than that, folks. Have an angle, an idea, a point of differentiation to offer. Follow Tip 1 to develop these points. The people that do this, get interviews. The ones that assume their status as market participants makes them worthy of my time earn opprobrium, not coverage.

Post 64:08 Hi PRs – thanks to my new experiment you can send me ALL THE PRESS RELEASES YOU WANT!

For more than five years, I have asked vendors and their PR companies not to send me unsolicited press releases.

I don’t really need them and I was sent so many, they became an irritant. Most are drivel.

So I decided to do without them.

I’ve had to be a bit prickly about it, but I think the experiment has worked, if only because my inbox is less full than would otherwise be the case.

One thing my inbox is full of, these days, is twice-daily mails from Twittermail, a service that takes all the @messages you receive on twitter, rolls them up and sends them as email.

I’ve created a new Twitter ID, jmpressreleases. If you want to send me a release, send it there as an @message. Sometime in the 24 hours after you send me the release, I’ll get notified about it.

Please don’t start emailing them to me. But by all means send as many via Twitter as you want. Of course you’ll need a URL to point to. And you’ll only have 140 characters with which to pique my interest.

If you want an email address to do this, ask me and I might give it out.

So … let’s see how this little experiment goes!

I expect the effort required to use this method will not result in a massive increase of releases sent to me, and that I will still junk 99.5% of them anyway. Let’s see what happens.

Post 62:08 What PRs can learn from call centres

One of my activities is running a podcast about call/contact centres and customer service. On the most recent episode, I look at some new data from callcentres.net that suggests contact centres are getting better at generating revenue on the phone.

The thing to understand about this trend is that it does NOT refer to telemarketing. Instead, it refers to service that lets customers get what they want. Sometimes that’s an upsell. Most often, it’s a contact centre agent closing a sale when someone calls in to make an inquiry about something they are thinking of buying.

Contact centre and customer service folks attribute this increase to what they call ‘quality conversations’ in which their agents tune in to a customer’s needs, win their trust and make a sale. It takes a while for a contact centre agent to gain that skill. It takes investment from their employer. But eventually, they get good at it and the results are powerful for all concerned. Think of how confident you feel when a call centre gives you the right experience to understand how this works!

I mention this because on the three or four occasions a year I am asked to speak to PR people about how to best target me, I nearly always say that while email is very fast, it is not a medium in which it is possible to determine my state of mind, be persuasive (it is slow and who reads massive emails?) or use any form of non-verbal communication. I then suggest that, seeing as PR is often about persuading me to spend some time with a PR company’s clientele, perhaps a medium that affords the greatest variety of opportunity to do so is the most appropriate medium for PR to consider under many circumstances.

During my time in PR, I was never offered training about being more effective on the phone. I suspect, given that at least 90% of communication I receive from PRs now is by email, that my experience was not atypical. I therefore suspect PR has something to be learned from the contact centre world.

Bring on the quality conversations!

Post 58:08 Conferences vs. partial attention

I spent two days last week at a conference. It was generally interesting but a massive commitment of time and funds (nearly $1000 for accommodation and travel, although as a journo that’s not so much of an issue: people pay for us to attend!).

So of course as a self-employed person, I had to keep working on other stuff while at the conference. That meant some early morning starts and the modern ritual of trying to find free Wi-Fi wherever possible. When there was none of that around, I reverted to the Treo for email.

I suspect this behaviour was not what the conference organiser wanted. Oh no. Having subsised (I assume) the presence of lots of customers, prospects and suspects, I think the organiser wanted undivided attention. Is that why there was no  Wi-Fi (although an exhibitor came to the party)? And is that why the packed schedule made non-conference work very hard to get done.

Now I am wondering how long this model can sustain itself. It’s great to get a dense lot of information. But as someone who juggles multiple clients and projects – and who does not these days – it often feels like I simply have to be online for big slabs of almost every day lest I be perceived as less than optimally responsive. So giving up two days is a bit of an issue.

I’ll be interested to see how conference organisers tackle this issue in future. I think free Wi-Fi is a must. Perhaps tieing access to visits to sponsors booths is the way to do it, so that once attendees pass a designated attention threshold they are permitted to start offering the conference only partial attention.

What do you think?

47:08 Death to the web startups deserve money meme!

Time for a whiney rant.

I’m sick of the meme that results in constant coverage of Australian internet startups and whether or not they can find investment.

This is not criticism of those who write about it. Heck, I’ve done it myself.

Sure, web startups theoretically have the potential to go Google-scale nuts and generate amazing wealth. But how many actually do? 1%? .1%? .01%? How many end up as nice, stable, small or medium businesses? I reckon that once you run the numbers on the outcomes, Web startups do not deserve any more coverage, in my opinion, than every other startup business on the planet.

Australia has hundreds of thousands of small businesses in hundreds of industries. Why is the media not as interested in their quest for investment as we are in the fortunes of Web companies?

But … I hear you say. Web companies are sexier than all those other startups in other, less world-changing industries. How do you judge sexy? For me, when Webby businesses get big, they do so by changing the game in their category. Or by creating a category.

But does that make it worth tracking them from inception? And is it really worth treating businesses with this aim as a whole separate sector?

And when we all whine about the state of /lack of venture capital in Australia, let’s PLEASE remember that there are 20 million of us on a whole freaking continent. There are 20 million people in and around Los Angeles or New England alone, never mind the other 250 million+ septics. It’s called scale, people.

Anyway, that’s the end of the whiny rant.

Post 39:08 What’s the story?

I keep having weird exchanges with PRs at the moment.

They start like this:

PR: Would you like to interview my client, who sells [insert category of product] and want to talk about why it is terribly important in the context of some big meme [like green IT].

My reply is nearly always:

Why is this terribly important?

To which PRs respond:

Because they sell things that help with [big meme].

Long experience of dull interviews with little news value leads me to believe that most of the time the vendor concerned is either:

  • Late to the party on [big meme] and playing catchup
  • Bandwagoning
  • Re-branding their previous position to take [big meme] into account
  • All of the above

Nonetheless, I worry that I am, sometimes, missing out on a chat that could enlighten or educate me (even though I expect tedious key messages)

How to get me enthused about actually conducting the interview? Personalise the pitch. Make an argument about a story, instead of just saying [big meme] is very important and we have an analyst who agrees. Name the publication you think the story belongs in. Go beyond the meme to actually explain how what you do is different, better and represents unusual insight into the issues at hand, rather than just saying your client is clever and keen.

Weirdly enough, I’m seeing this kind of (good) stuff mostly directed at my SmartCall podcast, the newest of  all my gigs. But most of the time, the pitches are terribly bland.

Post 35:08 Publicity sluts

A few years ago I ran the editorial side of a magazine’s awards program.

Most of the entries were scrappy affairs.

A few were very professional productions, submitted in posh folders. Some even had PR companies listed as the source for any additional information.

As the awards process unfolded, I became aware that some of the companies with the very professional entries had won other awards at other times. Some had won several.

I mentally labeled these businesses as ‘awards sluts’ and tried my best to assess them on their merits, even though it was hard not to be cycnical about what seemed to be deliberate efforts to target awards and profit from the resulting publicity.

Fast forward to today, when I have seen an article in a business magazine about a very prominent Internet business. This company is one of a small number of all-Australian online successes. I don’t begrudge them that for a minute. What I do find disturbing is that the media keeps going back to this company for their success story.

I suspect use of PR is one reason these companies keep getting their story told. Lack of imagination (and maybe time/resources) from journalists is another.

I also wonder how valuable it is to readers to be offered the same, over-exposed, company over and over again.

I try, in my work, to spot awards sluts and publicity sluts and to make sure they do not find their way into stories I write. I think I do a better job for my readers and my editors by finding smaller companies whose success may not have been as spectacular, but whose stories are less likely to be familiar to readers!

Post 27:08 New logos

I was invited to an event last week at which the vendor in question has announced it will unveil its new logo.

That’s right. A new logo. (A few weeks after it was unveiled in the USA)

The company’s name begins with “N”. The new logo is a big “N”.

Apparently the event will also explain why the new logo is important and how the company plans to capitalise on its new logo. I am pretty sure this will mean trying to sell stuff, probably new stuff that was invented because the company’s customers said they want it instead of the old stuff.

There could be a story in this, that goes along these lines:

“Company N today announced its new logo

‘We’re thrilled by the new logo. It says things about the company that the old logo did not say,’ said some executive.

‘We think customers will like the new logo and the new products, ‘ he added.

The new products include [insert product-specific jargon].”

That’s about as much story as I expect to get out of these things. And frankly I do not believe that readers care about the marketing stance a company uses.

There’s a chance – a very small one – that there is a real story here. But frankly I have been to so many of these things and the real story is present so seldom, that I have asked to do this one on the phone and save myself some time. Travel is one killer, the other is the inevitable pfaffing around that happens at these things, which always start late, run overtime and feature about 15 minutes of actual content. That content, however, is diluted by the fact the timing of the catering always runs amiss, so the poor old spokesblokes try to get their message across while journos clank their cutlery.

The inevitability of that little mess makes me think that a phoner would be best for all concerned this time!