What not to do when doing tech PR

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...

Topic: SMBs


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • A Gentle Correction

    I read your articles regularly, and you typically get it right. This time you need a compassionate heads-up.
    Though involved in three tech start-ups, I spent most of 39 years in Radio & TV advertising sales, and management. You really went far astray with the following statement: '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?"
    Your logic is completely wrong, even if you applied it to a dishonest advertising agency. Budgets are always predetermined. The ramifications are several. One: The agency will make the same commission whether buying one TV spot for $10k or ten-thousand TV advertisements for $10k.
    Two: They want to retain the client(s) and will slam the media sales Account Execs as hard as they can to get maximum reach and frequency (audience) for whatever the budget may be. They don't have a blank-check, they have a contractually predetermined budget.
    Three: The advertiser in essence does NOT pay the agency the 15% commission. If an ethical TV or Radio station is selling a commercial spot for $500, they will charge the same rate to the widget-seller whether an ad agency is involved or not.
    If an agency makes the buy, represents the client, and applies their professional skills and time, the Radio, or TV station or print vehicle will send a gross bill to the agency for the full amount. The TV station (for example) pays a 15% commission to the ad agency by requiring that 85% of the gross be paid by the agency. Standard industry practice is that the advertiser selling the widgets would have to pay the full 100% whether he/she utilized professional services of an ad agency or went direct to the TV station, and will receive a bill from the ad agency for 100% of the buy. Remember, the TV station has sales cost internally with their sales Acct Execs who must be compensated. The advantage for all parties is that the services of the agency will typically bring additional skills and time invested on behalf of the advertiser selling the widgets. That means results may be greatly improved to the benefit of all THREE parties; meaning the widget-seller may advertise again with a larger budget.
    With regard to other miscellaneous purchases of services and material made by the agency on behalf of the client, the agency is Not Typically paid a 15% commission. If that work by the agency is small enough, they may not charge for it at all, being content with the commissions from media buys. Many times the extra work in that part of the job is substantial. As before, typically a budget for that agency work is predetermined and agreed upon by the widget seller.
    You can take a quick peek at my background on google-plus at this link- https://plus.google.com/113213453931750025432/about
    Uh, yeah the photo IS three decades out of date; and that's a good thing.
    Hope I didn't whack you to hard, guy. Send me an email from info you find at the google-plus acct.
    ---Paul Wordman
    Paul B. Wordman
  • Too much

    Call me old-fashioned, but I think sending something with a retail value of $36 is a little over the top. A miniature $2 replica perhaps, or a 3" teddy bear, but actual functional products worth $30 start to smell like a bribe. That's as likely to offend as to persuade.
    Robert Hahn
  • My hat's off to you

    Good thing you're not in some certain third-world countries, where the culture is "can" and "also can." If you don't know what that means, basically it means, "you pay me, I say what you want me to say.", or "you pay me, I look the other way."

    I said all that to say this: your objectiveness and honesty are greatly appreciated. Keep up the good work.

    God bless!
  • About PR

    I agree with Paul Wordman's post --- that's how it actually works. As a PR person myself, i charge by the hour or the project, never a percentage or commission, and I dont know any colleagues that do.

    That said, I do agree that the PR campaign you experienced is off the mark in that they didnt properly vet you to even see if you wanted the device. PR is about establishing good relationships with journalists and reviewers, and that means taking a little time upfront with an email or phone call to set the tone and gauge potential interest.

    As to the pre-written article, that can be called either way. Understand that more and more press releases are written so that they can be run as close to "as is" as possible. I know journalists are increasingly slammed, so it's my job to make their life easy and to control my client's narrative. So I give journos as much as they can to work with. I've rarely seen them a release wholesale, but I can tell when they've appreciated I've done the heavy lifting.
    That said, such an approach is usually reserved for a general announcement or event rather than a product review release, which I agree should never have a pre-written article as part of the info sent. That's c ompletely wrong for that context. It seems this PR firm isnt that familiar with product review work.
    Mustafa Dill
  • What about most basic things...

    ...not being arrogant, not pretending the problems do not exist, not... ridiculing people who report real concerns. Seems obvious? It is not... corporations love making such mistakes.
    Hitman Negative Public Relations Agency
  • Agree but ...

    I agree with your assessment of the situation, as well as most of the other comments. But, having been out of the PR game for about 4 years, imagine my surprise when I discovered that my first "win" was with a company who insisted I only be paid based on coverage I procured for them. I refused; I've always been fair, no unreasonable retainers, and tried to explain to them the pitfalls of such an arrangement. I ended up just doing writing for them. However, I've come to see that this arrangement is being *demanded* more and more from clients (which I still think is a bad idea, although I think now that variations on it can work). Overall, I think it can lead to bad judgments by PR people - which may be the case in this instance. I had also never heard of PR people being paid a commission until recently; again, something that clients seem to now be demanding. All this to say ... the companies whose products you review, may need to take some of the responsibility.
  • Interesting how many hit you get...

    ... by searching for "How to significantly cut your TV-viewing costs", all links pointing to the identical text and advertising the same product at the same time (Feb 28th).

    An easy way to assemble a list of web sites NOT to trust with reviews :-)
  • Being in PR myself ...

    ... I´d think that you usually advise your clients to send such a "hardware package" only to selected journalists. So they may have got you wrong from the interest side of things, but I don´t think that they wasted such a lot of money. If they did, indeed, a number of articles in tier 3 magazines can´t be counted as a success.
    Stefan Epler