When a company organises a press conference, there is always a danger that none of the press will actually turn up. What you don't expect is for none of the people at the company organising the event to attend it. At least I didn't until last Monday as I sat through the slow-motion car crash that was Luminary Micro's big splash launch.
It must have seemed like a great idea on paper. You are a small Texas startup with a potentially global market in the technology sector. What better than a virtual press conference done entirely online? No need to get on planes or get people to one or two locations. What could possibly go wrong, click, go wrong, click, go wrong...
The warning signs started early. A package arrived in the post: it was a dollar bill encased in some puzzle, designed as a teaser for the launch. Then it was a set of repeated invitations to sign up for a press conference webcast at one of three times - effectively was the second warning - on Monday the 27th March. There was the option to organise a "personal briefing" at this stage. In hindsight, that would have been the simplest and, as it turned out, the most practical option. But, despite expressing reservations to the PR trying to organise the UK side of things - on the basis that some of the webcast systems only play nice with IE6 - I thought I would give the press conference option a go just to see if it was workable.. Some companies have tried audio-conferences for launches - and they are commonplace for financial results - so the jump to a webcast was not that difficult to see.
Then the details arrived. A chat system would be used to ask and answer questions. But only the 'best' or 'most popular' questions would get answered. Not so good. But as this only turned up Monday and given the time zone difference - the European slot would start at about 7am Texas time - I decided to stick with it and then get anything answered by phone straight after the session was over.
I logged into Vcall - which was hosting the webcast - at about 12:50pm and did some transcribing while I waited. That the next window to open was titled "Luminary Micro Luanch Presentation" throughout kind of summed up how the rest of this little experiment would go.
I don't know why - as it was obvious what was going to happen next - but the penny only dropped about ten seconds into the webcast. There was nobody from Luminary actually on the webcast. At least not at the same time that any of the hacks were expected to be there. The chief marketing officer, Jean Anne Booth, came on and started presenting, describing what was going to turn up on the screen. Then there was a crossfade to her again. Yes, the whole thing was prerecorded video. The launch was so interesting that the executives could not be arsed to turn up and do it live.
Now, you could argue that, as this bit was just presentation, it should not matter that it was prerecorded. I'd say that was a fair argument but there is something about recorded, scripted events that makes me forget to take any notes. What's the point? there's going to be a recording. At a live event, even with a script in front of them, people do drop extra bits in. With prerecorded video, there is no surprise. Monday was no exception: the crossfades indicated that people were sticking rigidly to a wooden script. And I was beginning to wonder whether I had fallen prey to some sort of Situationist stunt.
Even if I felt like taking notes, it's tough to get enough for a few decent quotes if the thing is sitting there buffering away rather than actually playing. Then really strange things started to happen. Segments of video would come to a screeching halt to be replaced by completely different bits of video. Given that the entire "press conference" little more than an extended Windows Media stream cooked up days before, you would have expected the company to do it as one stream. Not in this case: the software was running to some kind of schedule and just cutting segments off when it felt like it. And sometimes it just...stopped. Bryn Parry, GM of ARM's development systems division got as far as: "My name's Bry..."
After about 40 minutes of Fabulous Fuzzivision, the proceedings drew to a close and it was time to ask questions. Now, I'd by lying if I said any confidence in this part of the proceedings, and I had mostly tuned out while preparing some copy for production. But, in the spirit of experiment and to find out if anyone really was there, I fired off a couple of questions through the chat system. And yes, there really was no-one there. I left the window up for about half an hour while I phoned the UK PR to find out whether there was a living breathing human working at Luminary that would answer questions. To be fair to them, that call was organised within 30 minutes, which was a lot faster than I expected. Then again, I guess no-one was actually tied up presenting to hacks.
But it remains a mystery as to why anyone thought doing a press conference this way was a good idea. Especially when your client is a minnow with no track record going up against 40 or so well-funded, longstanding incumbents in a market that moves very slowly. Luminary is a microcontroller supplier - that is a business that demands long-term involvement: there are no quick hits in that market. And I'll certainly be treating any future invitations from Luminary with extreme suspicion.