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.

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Post 17: When customer service meets PR

I’ve been thinking lately about the interface between PR and customer service, in the context of an event in which I was forced to play the “I’m a journalist” card.

Let me explain.

I try to run my micro-business like any other, despite the fact that journalists tend to be offered free support for the products they use even if they are using them in their private lives.

For example, when I tweet about feeling frustration with some software products, PR agencies representing the vendors concerned often contact me and offer free support. I decline, as I feel the way to understand what my readers are going through is to live through some tech support engagements. It is also useful to fix the problem myself, as I can learn stuff!

Occasionally, however, a vendor’s service is so dreadful and an acceptable outcome seems so remote, that I play the “I’m a journalist” card by contacting PR representatives of the vendor concerned to let them know about the trouble I am having.

In nearly every case, they escalate the issue and solve the problem very quickly, a response I suspect is honed by years of interaction with consumer advocacy columns in various publications that name and shame vendors who provide poor service.

I played the card recently when a vendor simply refused to put me in touch with the support team responsible for providing me with a replacement for a faulty product. I had already followed a support process that asked us to post the faulty product to a certain facility, but had experienced no response for several weeks. The incident number provided was recognised by the vendor’s call centre, but there was no information whatsoever about the status of the incident. The vendor concerned refused to provide a phone number for the facility to which we had posted the faulty item, leaving no way at all to understand the status of the faulty product.

At this point, having been denied any chance to understand how the vendor proposed to resolve the issue it had created, and feeling mightily and frustrated us mightily, we did what some members of the public would do and let the vendor’s PR team know about the incident.

They resolved it quickly and very satisfactorily.

Had I been a consumer, this incident could have resulted in some ugly press for the vendor concerned.

What I now wonder is whether vendors ever contemplate the fact that PR can be called in – by the general public or media – to explain failures in support and service processes.

In fact, I’d like to have a discussion on these matters on my customer service podcast, if anyone is interested.

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?

Post 53:08 I’m back, good and grumpy about social media releases

Press releases are the most predictable documents in the world.

They contain little or no news, plenty of self-congratulation, and offer little value to most journalists I respect other than for their role putting things on the record, i.e; when the CEO says something so turgid you are actually better off using the canned quote in the press release. The real story, the one that adds value to readers, almost always lies elsewhere.

The same, sadly, applies to the new creation of the “social media release.”

Those of this genre that I have seen do a few things differently to a normal media release. They have links to a Facebook group or some other social networking site. They have links to photos, which should really have been standard issue in press releases a decade ago, but let’s not go there. Sometimes they have podcasts or videos.

It’s the latter two I want to take issue with, because I am yet to see one of these social media releases in which the multimedia do more than offer dull, low-production-values, versions of the same kind of PR corporate-speak you get in a written release.

Here’s a good example. The videos in this social media release are just garbage. I fell asleep after two minutes. The Chalk Talk video, IMHO, is the worse of the two. Why waste my time filling a whiteboard with theory? Why not just SHOW me the software in action? This, to me, seems like the most basic idea imaginable. Now that video lets you show things to people, why not do so? Cut out the boastful self-promotion and let me have the visceral experience of watching the software actually DO something.

So it’s the same old useless content. But in a different medium.

At this point, readers might have one of two reactions. If, for example, you are privvy to the knowledge that I have recently had a spat with a representative of the PR firm that does some work for the company whose social media release I have linked to, you could think this is a get-square. Nothing could be further from the truth. I just like to blog about this stuff. And I am a gnat on the vendor’s ass anyway.

Another thing some folks have done when I raise this topic is to accuse me of being an old fogey, a digital immigrant and therefore unfit to comment on anything 2.0. Bullshit. You could be a 14 year old who spends all day with a pair of iPhones glued to your eyes and still find stuff like this SMR dull as dishwater.

Post 50:08 I get Apple’s frosty PR position

I use Windows. It’s actually pretty good. XP, anyway.

So I am no Mac fanboi.

But in the last week, I have “gotten” Apple.

It started when iTunes did something weird. I emailed support and they fixed it.

That got me thinking, what if I could get Apple on SmartCall, the podcast I run about customer service and contact centres.

So I asked Apple if they were willing to discuss their approach to customer service.

The answer was a swift, unequivocal, no-room-for-argument ” Apple does not discuss its business practices.”

That’s more or less what I expected, so I am not angry at Apple.

Over the years, however, plenty of my fellow journos have expressed in rather strident terms what they think of this kind of stonewalling.

But I get it now. Apple makes products. Apple wants all communication about Apple to be about its products and what they can do. If that is your objective, I suspect there’s no point in communicating about your customer service strategy, or your future roadmap, because it has nothing to do with what your products can do.

While this is frustrating to journalists who want to tell the public more about Apple, it obviously works. The deluge of recent speculation about what Apple products will do and how it will be possible to buy them attest to the success of this strategy.

I get that.

I don’t like it. But I’m not supposed to. I’m supposed to like the products!

Post 22:08 Astoundingly bad PR

Earlier this week a PR company offered me an interview with their client, which is about to release a very fast, very powerful and somewhat iconic new computer and an accompanying storage system.

Here’s my reply to the PR:

“I’m as interested in the storage device as I am in the mainframe, so if the spokesperson can talk about the storage in detail as well as the computer, that would be nice.”

Here’s the PR’s response:

“The spokesperson … can indeed talk about the storage as well as the mainframe.”*

So we booked the call, to which I duly dialled in. In between, I got the details about the computer so when the interview commenced I said I would like to move to discuss the storage right away.

The spokesperson said he was not, indeed, an expert on the storage device. In fact he knew nothing about it and had not been briefed that he would be asked about it. The spokesperson was accompanied on the call by his in-house PR, who was also ignorant of that request. So the call dissolved into a mess pretty fast.

The PR company’s response?

 

I’m so sorry Simon. I was told he was more than capable of talking about storage. It won’t happen again I can assure you.”

What I want to know is who gave the assurance that the spokesperson was qualified to speak on the topic and why. Was it:

  • Someone else inside the PR company who just doesn’t know that much about their client?
  • Someone from the vendor?
  • Someone in the PR company making it up in order to add to the tally of interviews they had achieved?

At least the incident was mercifully brief. I did not have to wade through minutes of interview to find out that there was no new information for me.

This kind of thing transpires between media and PR more or less every day. It has never stopped. It never slows. It probably never will and I should get over it. But the clients of these PR companies deserve to know what goes on.

*Lest you think the lacuna in the quote above in some way absolves the PR, it does not. I’m protecting the names of those concerned.

Post 123: The tradesman’s entrance

Let’s talk about how freelancers can get you into publications where the staff are unreceptive to your advances.

Bottom line, I ain’t gunna do it. As I have discussed before, I see my role as a freelancer as being to add value to publications I contribute to. For me, value does not mean covering vendors that do not rate the attention of staff.

And if you do pitch this stuff to me, at least have your story straight.

I had a call last week from a PR with a “this vendor was acquired and is now thriving as a quasi-independent division” type story. It was pretty damn mild so I asked where she thought I would place the story. She named a magazine that does not have a news section and is famous for not covering vendors at all, ever. Then she suggested a national daily newspaper that does not run stories like this at all, ever.

There are times when the tradesman’s entrance is probably useful. Case studies come to mind as one way in. But if the story doesn’t fly through the front door, it won’t make it in through the back.

Post 119: (In)Security

What’s the old saying? There are lies, damned lies and statistics?

That’s the way I feel about security statistics at the moment, given that about two or three times a week I receive “news” that research sponsored or conducted by a security vendor finds that things are pretty scary out there.

This research always includes any or all of the following assertions:

  • There is more malware/viruses/adware/generally malicious software out there than ever before
  • Things are not getting better
  • The bad guys want money, not status, which means they have an incentive to do more of it (see the first and second bullet points)
  • You’ve gotta take it seriously
  • Social networks are a risk
  • Email is a risk
  • For chrissake teach your people about phishing

Now the sheer frequency of this stuff at least confirms that everyone’s research is pretty spot on.

But from the point of view of trying to excite media about a security vendor, research is now, IMHO, worse than tired. And how is this research a differentiator? I mean, if everyone is doing the same research and coming up with the same conclusions, why is every security vendor trying to use this as its PR platform?

These questions are why I was very happy to be able to write this story in which one security vendor says there is not much difference between security vendors’ products and that “our marketing and PR people fight in public.” At least now I know one reason there is so much security research going on out there … marketers need to be seen to be busy, after all!

Post 115: Following up

PR firms are, in my experience, generally very keen to promote their pro-activity. Back when I did PR, we were encouraged to tell prospective clients that we were out there suggesting story ideas and setting the agenda, rather than letting media come up with all the story ideas and then using us as a conduit to reach clients.

It was all fluff. The majority of PR people I worked with had very little idea how to frame a story. And the one person in the office who, about once a month, actually sold a story pro-actively was considered a bit of a hero.

Which brings me to some recent incidents. I cannot really call them pro-activity because they have been reactions (albeit spontaneous) to stories I have written.

This story about how charities are using the Net, for example, generated a response that said:

“Hi Simon, I saw your story about the charity websites. Would you be interested in writing about my client’s fashion website.”

The thing about this pitch is that it relies on singular induction, never a good idea. That’s because a writer penning one piece about the web does not mean they are necessarily open to other stories about other web sites. I would argue that it is a very long bow to draw when the initial story is a survey of a sector to then pitch a single website.

I did not reply to the mail and there has been no followup. So much for pro-activity there.

A while back I had another contact after I wrote a column in which I wondered about the way security vendors present to market.

A few days later, one security company emailed me their client’s boilerplate, which I argued was not exactly a strong contribution to the debate. Weeks later the MD of the company concerned emailed me some expanded comments. But (irony of ironies) it landed in the Spam.

The same PR company, a few weeks later, noticed another story and out of the blue emailed me one of their client’s devices in the hope I would review it.

This time, they got a result. I have not reviewed the product. But I was asked to fill a page on short notice and with the device staring me in the face, covered the general class of gadget it belongs to.

Were any of these truly pro-active? No. I suspect the agenda-setting blurb I once used was a fiction. Was the reactivity worth it? One from three is not a bad hit rate.

Post 110: Feedback

A couple of weeks ago, I attended an event at which, as things wrapped up, the visiting V(i)P said he hoped the session had been valuable and looked forward to the feedback he felt sure local PR would organise.

That caused a lot of blank stares from the journos around the table, because none of us had ever been asked for feedback on a presser before.

And indeed, the local sub of the US company that threw the event has not been back in touch for our opinions.

Last Friday, I experience an incident that also pertains to feedback. I was called by a PR to whom I had previously indicated I would “maybe” attend an event.

She called to confirm my attendance. But I confirmed in the negative, which she felt odd as a I had previously seemed “very keen” or words to that effect.

This was not what she wanted to hear. So she asked why – a very unusual act of seeking feedback.

I said, basically, that I considered the product launch trivial and not worth the time. The PR tried, gamely, to convince me otherwise. At this point I must admit I was not at my most charming as I tried repeatedly to explain that I was not interested as I did not think the product of particular interest to my readers. The PRs arguments in response were, sadly, not sustained by facts. So we got exchanges like this:

Me: I’m not convinced that small businesses need high definition videoconferencing. It is not as if they have adopted any other form of it.

PR: But it is now so much more affordable.

Me: How much is it?

PR: I don’t know.

Once that vein was mined out, the PR also showed no evidence of:

a) ever having read the publication she was pitching to;

b) knowing I write for more than one publication.

That kind of stuff kind of ticks me off. It seems to me, as I have said very often, that a pitch should be better-informed because frankly I find it hard to be civil when they are not.I ended up saying “I am at No on this and I cannot imagine you will get me to Yes.”

Today, she even rang back and offered to send me the press release which by then I no longer cared about. Once again, gamely, she tried to win me over by mentioning some research that accompanied it but seemed strangely miffed when I rebuffed the chance to read some vendor-sponsored research commissioned to accompany the launch. Let’s see … that research is not going to be super-independent, is it?

So there we have it. One organisation in which a senior rep from HQ believes in and expects feedback but does not implement it locally. And a lone PR who seeks it and then walked a line between worthy if bloody-minded plugging and refusing to understand that No means No.