PR Stands for Presumptious

This is the kind of email that drives me nuts. The subject field:

Can you teleconference w/ xxxxx Software April 7 or 8?

The first line:

Mark xxxxx, CEO of xxxxx Software, would like to teleconference with you Thursday, April 7th or Friday, April 8th. Can you suggest a couple of times and dates that work for you to speak with Mark?

I’ve never heard from this flak before, she has no idea of what I cover, she jumps right in pushing a teleconference on me (when was it just called a phone call?) and the whole thing smacks of foot-in-the-door salesmanship.

PR needs to be attuned to the journalist’s needs, not the CEO’s desperate craving to fill his schedule with interviews just because his flak is pushy.

I’m considering a sideline: cut a deal with PR flaks to do interviews to keep CEOs quiet and then charge them for it. Any takers?

Filtering Communications So They Don’t Drive Us Mad

A dear friend was supposed to drop something off around 11 pm last night. I turn in around that time, so I just nodded off. Luckily I didn’t hear her SMS come in around 1 am. But I could have. I consider the phone the primary communications device–if someone has an emergency, that’s how they’re going to reach me–and so you can’t really close it off. But how do you filter out stuff like my ditzy friend SMS-ing me at 1 am to tell me that after all she’s not going to drop something off?

In short, how can we set up filters on our communications channels so they don’t drive us mad?

One is not to give out your phone number. I keep a second prepaid phone around and I give that number, and that number only, to people I do business with. That phone gets turned off on weekends and evenings. I often don’t answer a cellphone call if I don’t recognise the number; if it’s important enough, I figure they’ll SMS me first, or else they’ll already be on my contact list.

Another is to confine and contain online. I don’t accept contacts on Facebook unless I’ve met them in person (and like them.) Everyone else I point to LinkedIn. I’ve noticed a lot of people are now following me (and everyone else, it seems; I’m not special) on Twitter so I’ve scaled that back to ‘public’ observations.

Indeed, Web 2.0 hasn’t quite resolved this issue: We’ve been campaigning to bring down those walled gardens, but we’ve failed to understand that garden walls (ok, fences) make good neighbors.

Email is still a burden: I’m still getting a ton of stuff I didn’t ask for, including press releases from UPS, just because I once complained to them about something, and stuff from a PR agency touting posts on a client’s blog (that’s pretty lame, I reckon. What would one call that? “My-Client-Just-Blogged Spam”?)

One way I’ve tried to limit incoming stuff is through a page dedicated to PR professionals. I then point anyone interested in pitching to me to that page. I’m amazed by how few people who bother to read it, but I’m also amazed at how good the pitches are by those that do. (And of course, I then feel bad that I don’t use their painstakingly presented material.)

I like this from Max Barry, author of Jennifer Government, who gives out his email address but says If you put the word “duck” in your subject (e.g. “[duck] Why you’re an idiot”), it’s less likely to be accidentally junked. What a great idea.

Then there’s simple things that help to keep the noise level down: Subscribe to twitter on clients like Google Talk and you can turn it on and off just by typing, well, on or off. (You can also turn on and off individuals, so if scoble is getting a bit too much for you, just type ‘off scoble’. I’ve always wanted to be able to do that.)

I’d like to see more and better filtering so we don’t have to succumb to the babble.

Stuff I’d like to see:

  • Phones that change ringtone or volume after a certain time unless they’re from some key numbers.
  • SMS autoreturns, that say “The person you sent this message to is asleep. If you need to wake him/her, please enter this code and resend. Be aware that if the message is not urgent or an offer of money/fame/sexual favors you may face disembowelment by the recipient.”
  • Oh, and while I’m at it, the ability to opt out of Facebook threads if they lose your interest.

And, finally, a way to turn down friends and contacts from my communication channels without them knowing. A great service, in my view, would be one that appeared to authorise their requests to be your buddies, but didn’t. Call it faux-thorising.

Lost in Transmission

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I dread to think how much eBay is paying Waggener Edstrom to handle press relations for their Toy Crusade. At least I think that’s what is being launched — all the press stuff I received this morning, including image-laden email, attachments was all in Chinese. Oh, except for the headline.

I know I should, but I don’t speak Chinese.

Now, admittedly, the event is about China, it’s being organized in Hong Kong, and the website itself is entirely in Chinese (no English version in sight), but you’d think one of the world’s biggest PR agencies could have managed

  • to have a database of journalists’ language preferences clue: names are often a giveaway), or
  • perhaps an English-language version somewhere in the text, or
  • a link to an English-language version, or
  • an explanation that this is a Chinese-language only event/issue, or
  • a link on the email indicating it was sent by an intern with no idea of what mayhem he may be creating for himself by blasting off emails to all and sundry, or
  • a link in the email to a place where we journalists can complain volubly and ensure we never receive another email like it.

Serious lesson in this: At the very least, this kind of email is likely to end up as spam in a non-Chinese speaking recipient’s email inbox because the Bayesian filters will have been trained to treat it as such. (This is what happened to mine.) So that’s all pretty much a waste of everyone’s time.

But at the most, as a PR agency you’re being paid large amounts of money to target the message to the right people. I’m clearly not the right people. So either don’t send it to me, or send me an English language version, or send me a query about whether this might be of interest. Or expect me to get grumpy, and take 15 minutes of my day to write a grumpy blog post like this.

Update, Aug 27 2007: I’ve just heard from Waggener who have offered an apology and explanation:

In the case of the toy crusade press release, a staff member accidentally inserted the wrong distribution list, and this was overlooked by their supervisor during the checking process.

People do make mistakes and of course the individuals concerned are very apologetic.  To be sure, we have also added more safeguards to the process to minimize the likelihood of this ever happening again.

Fair play. Of course it’s better that these things don’t happen, but they do, and their response is measured and the right one. The proof will be in the pudding — will it happen again?

“How’s the Review Going?” Spam

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At a conference I have been attending I was asked to explain to PR folk there what journalists want. Apparently, by the time my session came around, the PR folk had been put off by several previous journalists who had presumably used clear language to express what they want because most didn’t turn up. Wisely, since the three who did either nodded off, feigned stomach convulsions and left the room or got overly fresh with their BlackBerry.

This didn’t stop me ranting and raving like a lunatic about how PR people don’t often understand what we want. One thing I didn’t mention is the Bane of the Follow-up Email. These are emails sent (often automatically) in the period after a journalist expresses interest in a product sufficiently to download it, or receive further details on it, or whatever. From then on the PR person will send a weekly email — exactly the same one, each time — asking for a status update. Forever, or until the PR company no longer represents the client, or the PR person dies, or the company they work for gets shut down for being a spammer.

Now, not many PR agencies do this, but those that do seem impervious to the irritation this causes folk like me. Imagine if every PR agency did this: A journalist’s inbox would be so full of these things they wouldn’t be able to do any reviewing at all. So my policy is never to reply to them for fear of encouraging the practice. But, frankly, it is no better than spam, and it leaves the journalist (well, this journalist) in a frayed and hostile mood, which can’t be good for the company or the product the PR person is being paid to promote.

So, please, no mindless follow-up emails unless it’s to offer fresh (and relevant and useful) information, and certainly no automated one that goes out every week. We’ll get to your products when it suits our schedule, not yours, and if you start to bombard us we’ll probably ditch the idea of writing about your product in a fit of petulance.

Wagging The Journalist Tail

I’m a bit late on this, but if you’re a journalist it’s an interesting glimpse on just how much effort PR puts into spin: Microsoft’s PR agency sends its memo on a Wired journalist to the journalist himself (the dossier is here).

Much has been written about how it is normal practice to have PR closely monitoring a journalist, and we shouldn’t be surprised. True, I guess. What surprises me about the episode is the degree of influence/control those writing the memos assume they have over the process. Take these examples from the emails in the memo:

  • Spin: They are requesting a photo session with Jeff Sandquist {Microsoft’s director of platform evangelism} so we’ve secured the focus of our story. Translation: We wanted them to write about Sandquist and they are.
  • Interference: Fred will be writing early this week and we expect him to finish mid-week and will be in touch with him throughout the process. We should have a look at it early March and it should run late March for the April issue. Translation: We will be exerting influence over the writer as he writes.
  • Influence: We’re pushing Fred to finish reporting and start writing. Translation: We are exerting influence over the timing of the journalistic process.
  • Professional pressure: We will continue to push Fred to make sure there are no surprises. Translation: We will exert influence over the journalist to ascertain the content of the article and (implicitly) seek to remove anything we don’t like.
  • Personal pressure: I would hate for them to feel like the story somehow missed the true essence in which Channel 9 and 10 came to be…I know it would be pretty disappointing to them if those elements weren’t captured somehow. Translation: We will use all tools in our kit including personal feelings and guilt to ensure the journalist writes what we want.

We should point out that Chris Anderson at Wired has written about how Waggener Edstrom, the PR company, were not given a draft of the story, they were faxed a proof (i.e. a final version that cannot be corrected.) I can understand the sense in doing this, but I’d say it’s still one step too much (and it doesn’t quite gel with what Wired’s research director Joanna Pearlstein says in a comment, that “we do not share copies of stories with sources prior to publication, period.” Might be worth clarifying this.)

We should also be careful about concluding that just because the PR flaks think they’re heavily influencing the process, they may not be. The proof, of course, is in the pudding. Was the final story what they were aiming for?

Journalistic integrity is the issue. Jeff Sandquist, the subject of the story, has written about how Wired has been trying to apply the lessons of transparency learned from Microsoft to its own institution. This might or might not be true. Transparency is fine, but more important is opacity. PR shouldn’t be granted, or assume that they’re being granted, such extensive access to the journalistic process. That should be sacrosanct.

There’s a simple way of looking at this. Replace Microsoft as the subject with a government. Would a publication and its readers feel happy about this degree of involvement by officialdom in the framing of a story? I’m sure it happens, but as a reader I guess I’d just hope it doesn’t. As a reader I’d be saddened by all this; not because PR is doing something it shouldn’t, but that from the tone of the emails, it sounds as if PR assumes extensive rights to be intimately involved in the story. That means this kind of thing is common.

I’m a journalist, so my interest is simple: to ensure that what I write is what I think is correct and that I have managed to filter out as much as the spin as possible, so that what remains is as close to the truth as I can get it. For the record, I would never tolerate this degree of involvement in the process. Of course I’m lucky; I intentionally live and work a long way from anyone who can personally manipulate me through relationships, and although I write for The Wall Street Journal I’m no big fish. In fact, I have a lot of problems securing even basic stuff like a copy of Office 2007 to review; in the light of this episode I’m quite grateful. I’d rather be ignored than be subjected to this kind of pincer movement.

Bottom line: It’s sad that there’s no sense of irony here that so much effort is put into trying to control the message that is ‘there is no control’.

Seasons’ PR Greetings

It’s that time of year: Lots of Christmas greetings messages from PR folk. I don’t want to sound like Scrooge, but I’m never quite clear why they bother with these things.

Nokia sent me a link to a flash message with lots of phones doing stuff and thanks for “my continued support for Nokia”. A nice sentiment, though I’ve never thought of what I do in those terms, and I suppose I’d much rather have an answer to my now six-week old request for Nokia to do something about the piles of angry comments left on my blog from customers in India. Some of them are poignant, like messages from the afterlife or some terribly tragedy being played out online.

Yesterday I got one from Veena Meksol, who from her IP address is writing from Bangalore, and writes “sir, pl give me nokia service centre in bangalore, my hand set is just 5 months old but from 2 days i am not able here,” and then the message ceases. Heaven knows what happened to Veena, but I’d happily sacrifice a Flash-based Christmas card or six if Nokia could track her down end her agony.

 My problem is that I can’t really distinguish between a PR greetings card and spam, especially when spammers’ subject fields look remarkably similar . Is there any difference? And what is the correct protocol when you receive one? PR turnover is so high, most of the names mean nothing to me, which is presumably why some of them attach photos to them. They’re all extraordinarily good-looking, I have to say:

 I’m just not sure I’ve actually met any of them, or even communicated with them. The problem then is that I feel guilty. I don’t want to be one of those hacks that treats flacks like, well, flacks. On the other hand, who sends Christmas cards with pictures of themselves looking, well, great, if not to lure the recipient into some sort of trap?

Anyway, I knew the season had hit a fresh low when I got a box from the PR of a certain company which contained a card (thanks, guys!) and, buried amid the packaging, a small box of chocolates from Norman Love. The mouthwatering blurb that accompanied the chocs was impressive — “Norman Love Confections welcomes you to your first step in a delectable journey into the world of fine, handsome chocolates,” it began. All this may well have been true — including the assertion that each of the six chocolates was “an edible work of art” — but the effect was somewhat spoiled by the fact that the chocolates had not weathered the 10,000 km trip from Silicon Valley to Indonesia that well.

Frankly, they looked as if someone had sat on them, half eaten each of them, spat them out, sat on them again and then sprinkled the contents of their computer keyboard over them before putting them carefully back in the box and retying the ribbon. Maybe that’s the message the PR company intended to convey? If so, I’m surprisingly cool with that.

Buzz Spam

Anyone else getting spammed by craigslist, or rather its PR company? This in my blog mail inbox:

hi there Jeremy,
quick note to let you in on all the chitchat happening on the electronics forum over on craigslist.org
http://forums.craigslist.org/?forumID=74
it’s the new year and in the spirit of giving and resolutions, people are helping people…with their electronic needs.
what’s up for discussion today??
“When is HCTV going to kick in? No more bunny ears?” “What’s the best cellphone provider for my city?” “What”s the average battery life of the Nano??” “Best deals on digital cameras??” “LCD, Plasma, Rear-projection, DLP projection – what’s your favorite?” “I’m upset. I can’t get reception to hear Howard!!”
and lots more…
want to test out some new ideas with consumers at hand? hear what the people think about the latest gadget? or simply tech chat?
craigslist is in 190 cities and 35 countries so people everywhere will enjoy this one.
let me know what you think! cheers, [name deleted]
[line deleted]
Publicists for Astro Studios, Citizen Cake, *craigslist, Diabetes Adventure Tours, Esurance, Lulu.com and Smugmug

I’m deleting the name of the agency because I got some poor trainee flack into trouble some time back for getting hot under the collar about being spammed in this way. But I have a feeling this is not just a rookie mistake: The same agency sent me an email two hours later trumpeting the Blooker Prize, sponsored by another client of the same agency. I’m not going to say who, because I don’t want to give either of them unnecessary publicity.

Why is this spam, and not just a savvy approach (or two) by a PR company? Well, let me count the ways:

  • it’s clearly from a database harvested from blogs (the second one, more obviously so, since it doesn’t even bother addressing me by name — ‘Blogging folks, Take note!’ it begins).
  • I’ve not heard from these people before — or at least I have no record of it. No introduction, no effort to establish a dialog, except a rather naff and insincere-sounding ‘let me know what you think!’.
  • There’s no real pitch, or even story, involved. No information to work with, other than an invitation to come on over and build some traffic and Google rank. It manages to both assume I know all the background about craigslist, and yet know nothing at the same time. It manages, in short, to both insult my intelligence and assume too much simultaneously.
  • Why are they doing this anyway? It’s not as if craigslist is some backwater of a website. Three billion pageviews per month, Craig himself says. Why hire a PR agency?
  • The subject fields of both emails are naff and faux personal (craigslist and electronics. the first one, with the period included. The second is ‘you blogger, you!’) How more spammy can you get?
  • The second email does include a press release, but it’s three months old. This might make some sense as background for the new development being cited in the email, but without any real new information beyond some poorly phrased faux-familiarity (‘2006 is here, get that book published. And so early on in the year, your friends and cohorts will find your smugness a tad much.‘) I’m left wondering, simply, huh?

I suppose a better term for this is buzz-spam. It’s an effort to create a bit of buzz, without actually doing the hard work a PR agency should be doing, which is to check out the background of the bloggers it’s spamming and see whether they could actually build a relationship with them. Laziness, dumbness or trying to stretch a meager budget? Clearly, from the PR company’s website, they’re happy to trumpet their achievements in the mainstream media, when one of the companies they work with gets a mention. Ten seconds to read my About page would reveal they could have scored a bigger splash had they pitched me rather than spammed me.

And if I wasn’t a mainstream journalist, there’s still a way to pitch bloggers without spamming them. Explain why you’re contacting them, show them you know a little about them, suggest it may be of interest to them, make yourself available for more information if they need it. It’s a conversation, and a real one. Not a fake one.

More if I hear back from them.

How (Not) To Pitch A Blogger

I get a the growing feeling that we bloggers are being targeted more than we were by PR folk. Sure, there’s the Warner/Secret Machines/MP3 blog debacle, where a Warner employee used some hamfisted tactics to get some bloggers to write about a Warner act. But there are other tactics too, and some are more impressive than others.

I lead a double life as a technology columnist — indeed, that’s why this blog exists — so I get quite a lot of PR pitches, some of whom are hoping I’ll do a column on their client, some of whom are just looking for a blog entry. All of this is fair game, and assumes a degree of professionalism on both sides.

But I didn’t realise until today that there are media “lists” of bloggers out there who are now being targetted by PR types. I received a pitch from a US-based public relations company for the Motorola DCP600 Digital Video Home Entertainment System. The email began thus:

As a blogger focusing on news and trends within the technology sector, I thought that you would be interested in this innovative home entertainment system from Motorola. Please consider covering this new product in your blog. Feel free to contact me if you need further info, have any questions, etc.

Fair enough, except for a couple of things. First off, the email address used has never been posted on this blog, and has only been used for spam, phishing attacks and Nigerian email fraud for the past year. The only exception: A pitch by another PR guy, back in June 2003. So where did they get my email address?

A quick email later, and the PR company tells me: “I received your information through a media research database.” Fair enough. Bloggers, clearly, are being tracked, and that’s probably no great shakes. But why the out-of-date email address? And why no basic data which might shape the nature of the pitch, such as I also happen to be a technology columnist for Dow Jones?

What makes it all a tad weirder is that the pitch is for a product that was announced in January, seven months ago, and won’t be available in the stores until “either October or
November (in time for the holiday shopping season)” — another two or three months away. Not exactly a hot story, either way you look at it. If I was half-asleep (not that unusual, I admit) I might have just edited down the attached press release and bingo! Motorola would have had a bit of free publicity to keep their product bubbling away on the search engines until the product actually appears in the stores.

Bottom line: I don’t mind being pitched. And I don’t mind it that much if the product is actually either too old to really get excited about, or too far away from the stores to burden readers with it. But couldn’t these media research databases, and the people who use them, do a bit of basic research (it’s called ‘Googling’) before they fire off their pitches? We bloggers, just like journalists, are a sensitive lot and hate to feel we’re being taken for a ride by folk who haven’t done their homework first. Otherwise it looks dangerously like spam.

Toshiba Asia’s PR

Take pity on us journalists. I tried to reach Toshiba’s PR handlers in Asia this morning. It’s not easy. Their Japanese site has a webpage which contains press releases but none of those releases contained contact numbers, names or emails. (How are we expected to ask follow up questions if there’s no contact number? A press release is not the end of the story, at least for a journalist who does his job properly.) Their regional webpage takes you to the same site.

Nowhere else on the website could I find any sort of contact that could be described as PR. The contact us webpage contains all sorts of exciting links, but nothing that could be described as a PR department. There’s a ‘non-product enquiry’ page which requires you fill in a form, but no names, no phone numbers, nothing that might help a journalist get a question answered.

Then I had an idea: Benjamin, a unit of Weber Shandwick, the PR agency, handles Toshiba in the U.S., so perhaps Weber Shandwick’s regional office in Hong Kong might know. Er, no. Nothing so far.

Eventually I picked up the phone and called their headquarters. A very helpful woman answered the phone, took down my details and then played me some rather soothing tinkly music (several times, I couldn’t help noticing) before telling me the whole PR department had gone for lunch (it being, after several rounds of tinkly music, 12.03 pm.) So I was told to call back ‘after lunch’.

Why is it easier to reach a small company than it is to reach a big one? Why issue a press release without any contact details on it? Why hire big PR companies to handle your PR but not actually let journalists know who those PR companies are, and how we can reach them?

Yuck. I’m going to have to call back Toshiba Japan just to soothe myself with some more tinkly music.