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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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:

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