Sam Howard wonders do we really need tech PRs?
A recent survey by Careers Cast suggested that the life of a PR was second only to being a pilot in terms of stress.
“It’s not rocket science!” blasted journos all over twitter.
Very true, but PR can be a trite fraught on occasion. To illustrate my point lets imagine a world where there were no PRs, because everyone in The World of Tech was just so good at connecting and communicating…
Once upon a time, there was an incredibly enthusiastic and irrepressible young journalist, to him the glass was always half full, not that he was much of a drinker, mind! One day he had to catch a bus into the village to buy more type writer ribbon. He planned to use this time on the bus to fact and spell check his work before submitting it to his editor. “You are such a perfectionist!” The wise, old gentleman would kindly chide him, whenever he handed in his copy just a little late.
In the next village there lived the most charming and charismatic inventor you could ever hope to meet. She also had to catch the bus to visit the local ironmonger, who she had commissioned to make some more phalangees, a critical component in her latest invention.
Well, it must have been fate, for on that day, these two jovial people just happened to sit next to each other. Both of them being out-going types, in possession of exceptional social skills, they soon fell into a happy rapport. In no time at all the earnest inventor was telling the curious journalist all about phalangees and their properties in an extraordinarily level of detail. The journalist had all the time in the world to listen to the long list of features that each permutation of phalangees delivered; indeed he was gripped. Having both missed their stops, they were now walking companionably back into the village together and the journalist used his psychic skills to ascertain the unique business benefits that phalangee-based engineering could deliver to his readers.
And so with a great shout of excitement the journalist stopped in the lane and cried, “I believe this to be the singularly most important technological discovery of our time! And even though my beat is actually musical theatre, I’m sure my editor will give me the cover story to tell the world all about it.”
Well, the inventor was somewhat overcome and demurred, “Golly that’s terribly decent of you, but do you think you might wait a while before you write anything as I now realise I’m not quite geared up for discovery just yet?”
The journalist nodded solemnly, and true to his word the story was published quite some time later, once the inventor had taken her suit to the cleaners, decided on her company logo and got the phalangee-based product range to stop blowing up.
Within hours of that one story breaking, everybody was talking about it, and, Ashton Kutcher, Lady Gaga, Kanye West and Stephen Fry were all begging to be among the first to beta test it and the company share price shot up and overnight the inventor became a multi-millionaire.
As for the journalist, he was ever after regarded as a technology guru whose wise words would forever be commissioned throughout the land. And they all lived largely ever after…
Yeah, like that happens all the time!
If it did there might be no need for PRs to help companies articulate their offering in a coherent way that delivered compelling copy to the media. But it very rarely does and and making it so is sometimes a thankless task. But the second most stressful career?
OK if it wasn’t for us PRs the wheels of commerce might have to travel a road more pot holed, but no, it’s not rocket science, nor is it like flying a plane, or being a nurse, a fire fighter, a policeman, a prison warder, a teacher, a carer, or even a journalist…All jobs have a level of stress associated with them and in PR I think we might secretly like it, it’s nice to be needed.
Is a badly written press release down to the PR officer as journalists love to think, or all the layers of people it must go through to get sign off?
It’s too depressing to cite examples of dreadful press releases here, but editors still get them daily. This could be because the PRs can’t write, in which case don’t let them on the account until they can. Look at your training programme and your time investment in this, even the most clunky of junior writers can make great progress with some guidance and ground rules. But if you are paying someone to do your PR and it’s obvious they can write, then really I think you should just let them. But sadly that’s often not what happens.There is another reason why editors receive such toe-curling, bland brochure-ware – and it’s more common than you might think – and that’s thanks to all the people that contributed to its creation.
For the uninitiated, here’s a typical sign off cycle in a midsize tech company:
- The PR drafts the press release for a product launch, let’s assume it’s pretty good: it tells a story, makes a point, does it succinctly.
- Then the head of comms reviews it, make more of the key messages, it’s a bit more evangelical, but what can you do?
- Then the head of product reviews it, and adds a load of technical detail that probably no one is ever going to read cos it’s very boring.
- Then the head of sales gives it a quick once over, and just adds ‘world’s leading’ to the company descriptor, cos he’s read press releases before and they always have that.
- Then the head of the division takes forever to review it because he is so very important, and adds some outlandish testosterone-fueled statement that says more about him than it does about the product launch.
- Then the company lawyer reviews it, and she removes anything remotely interesting at all and what’s left is littered with trademark symbols.
- Then, and only then, can the PR send it out – obviously three weeks late and to howls of derision from the very same journalists that she really rather admires and would very much like to impress…
Another of Sam Howard’s pet
In PR you hear a lot about being ‘On Message’. This is very important isn’t it? Being On Message, having your people rehearsed and slick, so they can always be On Message? Oh pulllease.
If a journalist knows what you’re going to say before you open your mouth why would he/she bother to rock up for the interview? I mean seriously, what’s in it for them? If they just want the corporate spiel, they’ll check out your website. If they want to talk to you it’s cos there’s a vague hope that in and around the adaptable-scalable-innovative-flexible monologue you might actually have a view, say something interesting, topical, original, human even, and actually provide some decent copy.
The best view to have, I think, is one that runs contra to the stream. Back in the mid 90s when I laboured over my very first press release, I was super diligent about being fact-based and succinct, (I had been trained well, forever in debt Mr Springett) but I didn’t have the confidence to write the quote for my boss. So instead, I wrote, “Say something contentious here.” And he did, and it worked a treat. Mr Caplin, gotta love him and even if you don’t, he always makes great copy.
On occasion, it’s OK to fess up to that slightly dodgy implementation when your record is normally great, and you can demonstrate you have learned from it. Or to admit the recession might be taking its toll on you too, but you are gonna haul your weary backside out of it, or die trying.
You see the joy of sometimes wondering off message means that when you do get back on it, your audience might actually believe you. And isn’t that quite important? Besides, whoever wants to hear somebody else’s diet is going really really well?
When I work with my PR clients we work hard on looking at where we can first and foremost add some value/originality to the debate. You know not everything that comes out of your mouth is necessarily going to be that great and that’s where your trusted PR comes in – they can tell you what to run with and what not to bother banging on about, because it is irrelevant or just actually not that interesting. Sometimes it is all about the team singing from the same hymn sheet, but other times you just need to know a good tune.
Sam Howard asked a question of the UK Technology Journalists and PR Group on LinkedIn – what makes a great PR? One word answers only.
At the time I wrote this I’d had 41 answers from presumably a random selection of PRs. Having turned freelance only weeks ago I have some time on my hands so I tidied it up a bit and here’s a word cloud of how it looked…
If you add to ‘determined’ ‘resilient’ and ‘resourceful’ you’re looking at about a third of the vote. Seems we are just as well-suited to being long distance runners, a mountain climbers, swimming the channel or something else equally draining. ‘Strategic’ always a good one, gets a double name check, as does ‘personable’ and ‘creativity’, my own guilty pleasure.
Not sure about ‘magical’ myself, but I guess if you are the rest of it is easy.
But the one for me is ‘credible’. To be credible in front of your clients, your journalists, your team and your management generates trust, mutual respect and a sustainable reputation. After 16 years in this industry, my integrity, if not my ego is just about intact. Doesn’t mean I was ever the most popular girl in the room, and I was certainly an acquired taste among our clients, some of which we thought it best if I never met. But, as I used to whimper when I’d lock myself in the bathroom, “I’m not paid to be popular”.
Actually once you let go of the vague hope of ever being popular, it is quite liberating. Give it a go if you haven’t already.