What not to do when doing tech PR

Summary:It's hard for a manufacturer to design a product, produce it, bring it to market, support all its employees, and make a success. PR professionals on its team should be doing everything to help make that success happen, not tear it down.

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For those of you who don't follow the sausage-making behind the world of technology marketing, public relations (better known as PR) is the segment of marketing communications focused on getting free press coverage for products and services.

One of my missions here on DIY-IT is to provide guidance for small businesses, and one of the biggest pieces of advice I could ever give a small business owner is to spend marketing money carefully. This article spotlights one of the many examples of what not to do. It's a story of unnecessary waste.

What's the difference between sales, advertising, and PR?

Techies sheltered from the world of marketing tend to confuse three different disciplines: sales, advertising, and PR. Let's summarize each in turn, and then I'll discuss yet another example of what not to do when doing PR.

Sales is the practice of achieving the transfer of a good or service for money. It's the practice of convincing customers to buy, and all the activities related to that (handshakes, contracts, orders, etc.). Many sales people also do some form of marketing and PR, in that they often go out and find customers, figure out who their prospects are, and otherwise create awareness.

Advertising is the act of paying for space in a media outlet, and inserting a message of choice. When you see TV commercials, banner ads, or magazine ads, those are messages crafted by the paying advertiser and simply passed along to the viewer or reader. The media outlet (with some limited exceptions) does not control or influence the message, giving the advertiser control of the message (for good or bad).

Advertising can be very expensive. Companies pay the media outlet for the actual space used. By contrast, PR is supposed to be very inexpensive, because the media outlet is never supposed to be paid for publication.

PR is the practice of trying to get members of the press to write about your product or service. PR professionals are the people that reviewers often talk to, that often provide us with information and previews of products, and the like. PR professionals would love to influence what is said, but their primary job is persuasion.

Some writers do allow themselves to be compensated in some way for coverage, but that's considered highly unethical -- and it's strictly forbidden here at ZDNet. In fact, that's why we have disclosure statements here on ZDNet: so if we do have outside influences, you know about them, and can make an informed decision about how to interpret what we recommend to you.

That's also why reviews are more credible than ads. Reviewers aren't paid by the seller to say what they say. They're paid by their media outlet to be objective.

We reviewers, journalists, and columnists all have our "stupid PR people" stories. We've all been bullied, threatened, and cajoled at one time or another by an over-zealous PR professional. Many of us have been offered, and turned down, some simply astonishing perks or even bribes to provide undeservedly positive reviews. And almost all of us have stories to tell of the most ridiculous schemes PR representatives have used over the years.

Before I take you into today's story of waste, let me say a few things.

First, when they're good, PR professionals are a huge help to both their clients and to the press. I couldn't have written my first book on Lotus Notes without some exceptional help from a Lotus PR agent and her agency. At the time, she pretty much moved heaven and earth to give me unfettered access to the very earliest versions of Lotus Notes, developers, and Lotus management.

In many cases, companies don't do their own PR. They outsource it to PR agencies who are supposed to have all the press contacts and relationships. This becomes an expense for the product makers.

When done right, when outsourcing PR to an excellent PR agent with excellent industry contacts and the respect of journalists, this can be a huge win for a company. But when done wrong, as one HDTV antenna maker did recently, it's just a huge expense -- and can lead to negative PR, like this article.

What I received

So, let's get on with today's example of what not to do. I recently received a large FedEx box, containing a 14-inch by 15-inch (by 1-inch) HDTV antenna. It came with a letter and a DVD. The letter asked me to publish an article called "How to significantly cut your TV-viewing costs".

They wanted me to simply run it, as-is, along with pictures they'd provided.

The letter was signed by someone claiming to be "VP Public Relations" from a public relations firm located in Grand Rapids, Iowa.

How much did this promotion cost?

This sort of spam product promotion is expensive, and the manufacturer probably paid their PR agency quite a bit to promote this thing. Here's a rough breakdown of the cost for the package I received:

  • I called FedEx, and the company estimates that the cost to ship the package was $26.79 for two-day shipping from Grand Rapids, Iowa to Florida
  • The FedEx rep told me there was a chance the shipping cost might have a 15% volume shipping discount, so let's estimate each package at $22.77
  • The package was in FedEx livery, so let's give them the benefit of the doubt and call the box free
  • The antenna retails for about $36, so their cost of goods was probably roughly $8.64 (I spent years as a product manager, these numbers now come naturally)
  • There was a DVD, large envelope, and letter in the package, so lets put that at $0.65

If you add it all up, the package itself probably cost something on the order of $32 to ship to me. Now, figure they've probably sent this, without any sort of qualification of interest, to about 5,000 members of the technology press. That's when it starts getting quite costly. 5,000 times $32 is ... $160,000.

Okay, so let's say they sent it to only a thousand members of the press. You're still talking $32,000.

Not exactly chump change.

Next up, who's side are they on and what they did wrong...

Topics: SMBs


In addition to hosting the ZDNet Government and ZDNet DIY-IT blogs, CBS Interactive's Distinguished Lecturer David Gewirtz is an author, U.S. policy advisor and computer scientist. He is featured in The History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets, is one of America's foremost cyber-security experts, and is a top expert on savi... Full Bio

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