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 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.

Post 57:08 An old favorite returns and more social media musing

Twice in the last week PRs have sent me material in emails with several others cc’ed or included in the To field.

In one case more than 100 email addresses were there to be harvested.

To me this is the most basic breach of email etiquette (and privacy!) imaginable and quite astounding in this day and age, let alone for a company concerned with reputation.

Anyway, I’ve sent scorching emails to the folk concerned and now have my ‘what the hell does social media mean’ hat on again.

I’m no closer to the answer, although it does occurr to me that one of the reasons I keep asking the question is that, as a parent of two young kids, I do not really HAVE a social network to digitise. Everyone I know is so flat out any socialising is rare, comes in snatches and needs very little organisation. I do have good networks for the few social activities in which I participate, especially cycling. There are nice conversations there, but the tools on offer are not yet really functioning as social utilities. Now to figure out why!

Post 48:08 Plurk followup – Back to the (P word) future

Well I now quite like Plurk, so I suppose you can add hypocrite to the other adjectives that can successfully be applied to me.

The main reasons I like it more are:

  1. It has some nice bits Twitter does not
  2. I have figured out how to get Plurks into Twitter.

The second point, however, makes me wonder if the folks at Hellotxt and the hoard of other social networking aggregators are not really on to something here. Something like a  … oh god I don’t want to say it … something like a portal.

Remember them? Portals are SOOOOOOO 1996. But here they come again, IMHO.

This time, however, I expect them to be different. I reckon once Data Portability gets its shit together, people will build portal apps so you can scrape all your social nets into one bucket without the need to visit multiple pages. Of course that will rob social networks of eyeballs that should be busily beholding ads for monetisation purposes. A tasty shitfight will ensue.

Post 44:08 PR-ing bloggers vs. grass roots sponsorship (With an update!)

I’ve known for a while that PRs target bloggers.

Now I have seen it at work and reaction to it among members of the bicycle club of which I am a member.

One of the members of the club runs a blog that mentions his cycling exploits, and received an email from a PR to this effect:

I work on behalf of [an energy drink] . I came across your blog when searching for Australian blogs that focus on sport and noticed you’re a keen cyclist.

We recently launched [new energy drink products].

We would like to know if you would be interested in receiving some free product … to help you reach your cycling goals. Please note that this is a gift, [Energy Drink company] do not expect you to write or comment on the product but given your interest in sport would like you to sample the new products. However, if you do chose to write something, we ask that disclose that [Energy Drink company] provided the product sample as a gift. “

Reaction to this offer on the forum has been interesting.

The recipient of the offer decided to ignore it, thinking it was an imposition. unwelcome intrusion.

A couple of folks declared it Spam.

Another couple said “Cool! Free stuff!”

One said that it is a cynical ploy he finds distasteful and that a better idea would be to sponsor grass roots sporting organisations, which would create more goodwill.

My reaction? I can imagine this is quite effective, although risky if a blogger/rider feels the drink did not help their performance.

If can also imagine a rider shows up to a bunch ride with a few bottles of this stuff, there will be a lot of talk about it during the ride and it could spark other riders to try it.

But that is where it gets cynical, for me. Instead of sending out a few bottles of this stuff, why not actually help out the grass roots? Our club could use a sponsor. Even $500 would make a difference.

By the time the PR has couriered the drink into their offices, couriered it out to the blogger and charged their hourly rate for the whole exercise, I reckon a $500 bill is not far fetched.

If a brand simply handed over $500 and some branded goodies (cyclists often wear bandannas under their helmets, to soak up sweat and I cannot imagine those cost a whole lot to make) it would make the whole club more disposed to try their goods, and possibly also more disposed to use them in the long term. And seeing as most clubs have online presences, including forums, I think the $500 could go a lot further used in this way because it would expose the brand to enthusiasts for a longer period, rather than just in a single blog post!

UPDATE

Today I checked my Hotmail account, something I do only once or twice a month.

I got the energy drink offer too!

I have emailed the PR concerned and asked if my club can get sponsorship instead of energy drink, disclosed this post and my role as a journalist who grazes on this space.

Let’s see what happens next!

Post 43:08 One of the weirdest PR tactics I have ever encountered

I received a mail last week from a vendor, which let me know that in the near future it will release a preview of a soon-to-be-released product.

The email offered me the chance to register to be told when the preview of the product will become available.

And that was it. Links in the mail sent me to some web pages containing information about the soon-to-be released product, plus a link to a press release announcing the imminent preview.

To me, this was just another shoddy way of trying to get me to read press releases, so I replied with my usual request to be spared further such missives.

This sparked a reply from the vendor’s PR, in which they said they find it hard to communicate with me.

Thing is, there was basically no news whatsoever in this. Being told I have the chance to register for a future pre-release download seems to me to be wasting everyone’s time. Why not just tell me when the download is available and save the time of letting me know about the registration period?

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 30:08 The new logo was a waste of time after all (for the marketing industry, anyway)

Check out Post 27:08.

I did indeed do it as a phoner and am happy that I did.

It turns out there was never any intention to discuss news.

The main theme of the phoner was that virtualisation creates backup problems. The discussion of the new logo revealed two interesting nuggetoids, the first being that it took 18 months to convince the company’s CEO that its brand was indeed in the dunny and needed a refresh. The second was that changing logo has cost “several million dollars.”

It seems that logos are very expensive.

Indeed, just this morning I got a press release from our new Comms Minister Stephen Conroy detailing this spend on digital television:

• $8.5 million for the Australian Communications and Media Authority to
undertake technical switchover-related projects, including an evaluation of
digital TV transmission and reception throughout Australia.
• $4.8 million for a ‘Digital Tracker’ to assess issues such as public awareness
of digital switchover, intention of households to convert and actual conversion
rates.
• $1 million over two years for research into digital reception problems in multiunit
dwellings with a shared TV antenna system.
• $6.7 million for a logo and labelling scheme to clearly indicate which products
are digitally ready, ensuring Australian consumers can be informed and
confident about what products will suit their needs.
• $16.9 million for the Digital Switchover Taskforce, which will coordinate the
switchover program within the Department of Broadband, Communications
and the Digital Economy.

The figure that interests me most is the $6.7 million for the “logo and labelling scheme.” I think that can safely be translated as going to marketing people. Heck, there might even be a PR lunch to reveal the logo to the public. I can already say I’ll almost certainly decline that invitation in light of yesterday’s events.

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!

Post 26:08 Whys Up

I did an interview yesterday that lasted six minutes.

The brevity is explained by the fact that I had heard all of the interviewee’s arguments before, from others.

That’s not unusual for me these days, because so many interviews seem to me to have very little “why” to them.

Let me explain.

Journalism 101 says that journalism is all about the Who, What, When, Where and Why.

Now the Who, What, Where and When are often anodyne in the kind of journalism I practice, because it is mostly about vendors releasing products. This happens a thousand times a day so unless the Who and the What are very important for some reason, the deciding factor that makes something news or not (for me) is the Why.

Whys that interest me, I should add, will almost never have anything to do with corporate strategy. So if the why is “to find new markets” or something like that, it’s not stuff I cover. Hardly anyone does cover them, these days.
The Whys I DO cover are Whys that explain why my readers should care about the product/service/announcement being offered to me.

Of late I feel the Whys are tending to clump around certain subjects, with these notable for their current frequency:

  • Lower electricity consumption/green
  • Virtualisation
  • Streamlining of compliance processes and
  • Easing of administrative burdens that flow from never-decreasing quantities of digital data generated by business
  • Improving productivity of IT staff
  • Mobile workers are better workers
  • Security is a never ending battle now that criminals, not hobbyists, are the main population of hackers

I list these Whys because I hear them so often that, frankly, anyone saying them to me is late to the game. Followers are not agenda-setters and are therefore not newsworthy. I think this list may also be worthwhile because it is, I feel, pretty damn shallow. These Whys all describe very horizontal, generic business concerns. It’s not often (if ever) that I hear the Whys broken down to a level where they actually describe something that could take place in an executive’s or an IT professional’s day, rather than the kind of treatment you would probably read in a business magazine.

I don’t know if businesses want to or feel the need to communicate more specific Whys. And I will admit that the Whys sometimes go over my head (apologies to some recent security industry interviewees). But it seems to me that when all sorts of folks are piling in on the same top-level Whys, differentiating oneself makes it necessary to come up with some more, different and deeper whys. Otherwhys I suspect I will be doing a lot more six-minute interviews.