Advice for high-tech hacks

In this week's Voices from the Trenches series, one of the tech industry's leading public relations execs has some well-chosen advice for technology journalists: Stop being jerks.

Editor's note: "Publius" is the pen name of a well-known public-relations executive in the high-tech business, who requested not to be identified by name or company.

Recently, we've witnessed an increasing number of columns and panels by high-tech journalists offering "advice to PR people." While there is an age-old tension between the two professions, it seems to me (as a high-tech PR person and former journalist) the tenor of discourse has become such that someone needs to speak on behalf of the much-maligned.

(I'm no idiot. I speak out now under a pseudonym--out of sheer respect, of course, for the power of the press. At this stage I'm unable to take early retirement.)

Let's start by acknowledging that yes, there are bad PR people. But there are good ones, too--just as there are in journalism. As a journalist, I dumped my share of useless press releases and ignored thousands of phone calls inappropriately sent my way.

On the flip side, as a PR person, I've dealt with scores of rude, unprepared, careless and just plain lazy journalists who were not at all concerned about little things that are suppose to count most in the great and noble profession--like accuracy. Forget for a moment the lack of appreciation of a bigger picture, or how much harm one can inflict with an erroneous click of the keys. As a journalist, with the awesome badge of "The Press" and shield of the First Amendment protecting you, you wield ultimate power--whether correct or not.

I was proud to be a journalist. When I became a PR person, however, I was amazed to discover that, in retrospect, it was pretty damn easy to ask questions (well, maybe not really good questions) versus answer them. As a PR person, having to know everything all the time about your client/company, is a pretty daunting task (one, I might add, most of us in the profession don't take lightly).

Those of us who have worked both sides of the fence probably have a little better understanding and appreciation for the real world situation on both sides. So in the spirit of the new year--of being not only politically correct but bipartisan--I join the new administration in calling for a return to high-tech press and PR. Let me be the first high-tech PR person this year to reach across the aisle to offer some friendly advice to those of my former colleagues in the Fourth Estate.

Let's start with common courtesy. Like, come prepared. Don't eat up an hour's interview with the CEO with a half hour of idle chitchat about those Ravens...Please either keep your appointments or cancel them in a timely manner, and arrive on time. And when a CEO isn't available to speak with you at the drop of a hat, don't assume he or she is ducking you. They have lots on their plate: They're running a company; making decisions; and reporting to their shareholders, employees and customers (who come first).

Skepticism is part of your job. But cynicism is not. You should know the difference and stop yourself before you reach that harsh and ugly state.

Recognize you have a (weighty) responsibility to get it right. Before you write something about a company, make sure you know what you're talking about. Did you actually look at the business' track record, or check out its Web site before you pronounced it a dud? How about checking out the real situation before you launch an attack?

Fess up to mistakes with dignity. When you screw up, do your level best to make up for it. If you've pronounced a perfectly sound company unhealthy--because you goofed and used quarterly numbers as annual numbers--recognize that your mistake instills uncertainty in employees, customers and shareholders. Don't begrudgingly correct it two weeks, in tortured language and buried in your publication.

Try breaking out of the pack. For a profession so keen on breaking news and exclusives, you sure do travel in herds. ... When you pick up on a story on the wire or from your competitors do you check out the facts yourself? Or do you risk compounding a wrong by just reprinting it?

Which leads into: Don't be used by your source. Consider their motivation. Do they have an agenda? Claims of by competitors and disgruntled employees should raise red flags.

Recognize that good PR people can be helpful--from running interference to see that you get past a zealously guarded schedule of the CEO's admin to bringing you legitimate story ideas and news...and making sure your facts are, well, factual.

Give us (PR people) a roadmap. Update your mastheads and beat assignments on a regular basis on your Web site, so we won't be tempted to annoy you or waste your time. Otherwise, stop complaining.

Get a sense of humility. For most journalists, it's the publication that you write for which gives you power and prestige, not your own name. Remember that.

If you make a name among the PR community as a fair, reasonable and enlightened journalist, we'll always be eager to help you, no matter who you're working for.


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