Some guy's in town to tell you something or other

12 June 2006

The rise of the blog has made people very sensitive about the communications from PRs. The PR people at the Bad Pitch Blog berate other PRs for daring to send releases without a covering note or personalising the messages. The horror. It must be hard to be on the receiving end of those. Back in the real world, the real problem with most of the stuff that comes in is its unremitting dullness.

Invitations represent a particularly special corner of the world of boredom. And that is plain daft. Releases are one thing - we have been conditioned to expect dullness in those. But when the task is to set up a meeting? Dull, uninformative invites just demonstrate a lack of care.

Picture this. You've just been told the CEO of your client is flying over for a few days and wants "to meet the local press". What do you do? Do you find out which particular things this CEO wants to get off their chest, and use those as teasers to encourage people to turn up with questions? No, don't be stupid, you send out invites like this (I copied out a real one and changed some details to hide where this one came from, for the simple reason that the one that arrived today was no better or worse than any others of its kind.):

Jim Smiggins, president and CEO of Big Software will be in London on June 14th through 16th and would like to meet with you.

Aw, that's nice, flying all that way and he wants to meet me. Oh wait, that's a lie. He's got no idea who he wants to meet. This is a form letter. Don't get carried away. Actually this is not the problem with most invites of the kind. This next bit is:

The meeting offers a great opportunity to find out more about Big Software, the latest developments in the big software market and the latest products, which are to be launched on June 12th, which are particularly relevant to big-software customers in key verticals such as automotive, industrial and finance.

Fantastic. I can hardly wait. I can go along and get the death-by-Powerpoint on how the company is going to dominate the big software market, or something.

These days, if I want to find out more about Big Software, I can go to the website. What I want to know is why I should care. And that means working out whether readers will care what Smiggins has to say. If it's just a sales pitch on why big software rocks, that's unlikely. They too can go to the website.

I'm not asking someone to come up with an angle, but there isn't even the slightest hint of a teaser in there. Does Smiggins have strong opinions about certain things? Is there some big change coming that Smiggins reckons will reshape a part of the technology world? It doesn't matter whether he's talking out of his hat, it would just be useful to know so I can decide whether this is a meeting worth having. There are so few specifics in these invitations, they could be - and probably are - generated from a generic template.

I guess we will never know for sure whether Smiggins was good value. Because the invite went straight into the round filing cabinet. I could have spent some time doing background on the CEO, but there were many other possible stories and features to follow up. Too many to work out whether anything had changed in the world of Big Software.

7 Comments

Interesting .... i have been invited to similar sales presentations hidden under the guise of technical talks or round tables.

I think you are bang on the money.

It is always better to push the industry then the company.

I had to do a talk one time and i was the 3rd person presenting and the first 2 had done nothing more then give dry technical talks about their products ....how http tunneling was the reason it was so fast ....and how secure it was.... and how great it made your hair look.

Now I am sure all of those points he made were in fact truthful and accurate....but who the hell cares?

I was working for a content management company and i took the opposite approach. I was pushing the industry, talking about the new things that were coming down the pipe industry wide. I talked about how content management was changing the face of the web (back in 99)

I ended with a simple "sell the sizzle not the steak" statement. In 1 minute I had talked about all the benefits of our product.

I got more interest after the talk then the other companies combined .... people had nothing to ask them.

But since I talked about the industry and not the product I was viewed as more of an expert then the others who in others eyes just knew their product.

Websites give great technical presentations. Humans should be talking with the clients.

Cheers

Scott

It would help to get CEOs to understand that journalists want to report news. PR staffers are only hurting themselves and the company by not being blunt about how a dog-and-pony show is a waste of effort.

When a CEO, desperate for press, comes to a PR staffer and suggest the need to "get the word out," the first words that should get out are, "What do you have to say that would be considered newsworthy?" Any responses that include facts easily found on the company website or 10-K don't count.

Some PR people choose not to confront the boss (or the boss's boss) directly. But the wise ones find ways to get the message across. Here's how. They hire a plain speaking journalist (you?) on half a day's consultancy and through the guise of 'media training' get to tell it straight in a non-confrontational way. You gain some money; the boss gets a media contact and media training; the truth gets told.

Some PR people persist with dumb pitches because 'it's what the client wants'.

Some truth-telling PR people find a post-client life in education.

It's not the most sophisticated or effective technique in the book, but it must work. I can't believe people would carry on doing it if it NEVER worked.

As with any communication technique, there are always going to be some recipients who do not agree with the tactics, with what you are saying or with how you are doing it.

But the fact of the matter is that it is results that speak.

Yes, this PR person may have been better served by using a different approach with THIS journalist but chances are, for this NO he has also received a number of yesses.

I had a similar situation some months ago where my techniques were criticised by a journalist on a national newspaper. Yet, at the end of the day, while this journalist did use our story, we still made it into his newspaper, and into five other nationals, not to mention TV and radio coverage.

No one can predict what each journalist wants and frankly the UK now has too many journalists for one to know their personal preferences one by one.

Yes, there are always ones that you keep above others, that you make sure you treat individually but not everyone likes the personal approach.

For example there are journalists on my list who I know won't be receptive if I call them with an individual / personalised pitch that would fit in well with their audience. Why? Because as far as these people are concerned, they are the experts when it comes to news. Not the PR people!

So for them, they prefer getting a general invite and press release and they can be the judge of whether its right for them.

My advice for PRs is that as much as possible you should be targetting and personalising your releases, but don't let that stop you from sending out "general" releases.

Trust me, you'd much rather deal with journalists who don't want your information, than journalists who think they've been left out of the information loop.

Chris - Appreciate the insight and the link.

Sending a release all by itself presumes the same thing as a general, dull invitation...the media are supposed to sift through it all and find a story.

You are right in asking for PR people to tell you why you should care and why your readers will care.

Meeting with a member of the media simply because you happen to be in town on business? This is painful for everyone involved unless the CEO has something to say that is truly newsworthy.

The one person that did not take my counsel on this was stood up by the editor. So only one person's time was wasted, but if I am going to contact that editor in the future the news will have to be really big and exciting.

I feel for tech journalists and am glad I no longer practice in this industry.

Ben,

I agree - so many of these turn up that this approach must be good enough to get some bums on seats. However, the invitation that triggered this post had gone through a number of people before I saw it, they had all decided it was not for them. I suspect two or three editors picked up on it overall and only because the company concerned was smack in the middle of their subject areas. They didn't need any information about the company in the invitation because they had already written about it. I had a quick look at the coverage of the company over the last two or three years and it was either people stories in local papers or product launches in highly specialised trade mags.

In the past, I think the bland invite worked better because we had more time to do interviews speculatively - if you've got the time, make another contact. But, it's a lot less attractive now to slot one of these in even if it's before or after another another meeting in town - there's other stuff to do. I've heard so many PRs complain about journalists not coming out to meetings that I think the hit rate for invites is dropping fast although I clearly have no hard numbers.

Which brings me to David's point. I'm not asking for personalised invitations, just a bit more care in putting together reasons as to why anyone should turn up. The invitation was so lazily put together it made me wonder what the agency was charging for. It was stuff that looked as though it was culled from the client's website or a glossy brochure. If that was the most the PR could do, why should I bust a gut to find out whether there was any value in doing the interview? There are plenty of other things to go after.

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