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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Whose side are they on?

I've told you I respect the PR industry and its best professionals. But it really burns my bum when -- either out of stupidity or crassness -- a PR firm costs its client a ton of cash while at the same time conducting the PR equivalent of worst practices.

Unfortunately, many advertising agencies (and, to a lesser extent, PR agencies) make their income by taking a percentage of the marketing costs. So, for example, if you're an antenna manufacturer and you want to buy an ad in Antenna Monthly, that ad might cost $5,000. The ad agency often wouldn't be paid based on their time and materials. Instead, they'd be compensated a percentage of the ad rate, say 15%. That means the ad agency would take in $750 for that ad buy.

So, ask yourself this: if the ad agency can find an ad that costs $1,000 or one that costs $10,000, which one are they most inclined to recommend to their client? To be fair, most ad agencies are scrupulously ethical, and only recommend what's truly best for their clients, but the business model itself is stacked against making ethical recommendations.

Some PR agencies are similarly compensated, often based on the cost of the promotional program. Expenses might include things like buying press lists, postage, packaging, and the like. 15% of $160,000 is a lot of money. You do the math.

I'm not saying that's definitely the case with the instance I'm recounting here, but it's possible. Obviously, I'm making a lot of assumptions, but they are based on actual things I've seen throughout the years in this field.

What they did wrong

So, what exactly did the PR firm do that's so wrong? Why was this a flagrant waste of their client's money, and why isn't this just a story of a cranky reviewer being cranky?

Well, first, this was clearly spam. Although I don't normally cover HDTV, it's possible they sent me the package because of my Father's Day interview HDTV guru Alfred Poor. But they never asked me if I'd be interested in reviewing it.

I have two cable TV feeds and an ultra-fast Internet connection. I'm not about to hook up an HDTV antenna. If they'd sent me a query, I'd either have answered it (probably not), or ignored it (probably). If I'd answered it, they would have known I was interested. If I -- far more likely -- hadn't answered it, they'd have saved $32.

How many times, with how many members of the press, has that been repeated? How much of the manufacturer's money did this PR agency blithely spend, without the slightest qualification of whether the recipients were interested -- or even covered this area of technology?

So, spamming to an unqualified audience was the first crime.

The second crime was the assumption that we'd just take the article they wrote and run it. No credible media outlet will just run a provided article. Either the PR firm didn't know that, or just didn't care. 

Lessons to learn

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

By the way, I thought about telling you the name of the product and the name of the PR company, but if I'm going to practice compassion for companies being able to make payroll. I don't want to make an example of anyone. I don't want anyone to lose their job -- even if they deserve it.

However, if you're doing promotion for your business, take this example in mind and ask exactly where your press list came from and if each member being sent a review item asked for it.

Finally, don't let your PR agency measure effectiveness by the number of mentions of your product or their promotion in a Google search. A mention here or CNET is going to be far more powerful than a hundred mentions on the various article mill or "spinner" blogs out there.

See also:

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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