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* Tom's top tips for reaching the high-tech media *

By Tom Geller

Contents copyright Tom Geller, 1997. All rights reserved.
This article is available for publication: Write to me at the address below for details.


In my position as a reviews editor at MacWEEK, I probably met more public relations pros than most people meet in a lifetime. Every week brought dozens of P.R. reps flogging their products for possible review through an average of 75 e-mailed press releases, 20 unsolicited phone calls and two demos. As there was only space for each reviews editor to place one to three products per issue, most of these plays for attention went right through our sieves.

Usually, a P.R. rep's competence had little to do with why we chose the products we did: We tried to consider only factors related to a product itself, such as its technological importance or relation to competitive products. But clearly, P.R. reps played a part in convincing us that their products belonged in our magazine.

Below you'll find my top tips, designed to help you be the kind of P.R. agent that journalists appreciate instead of avoid. Having worked in publishing for eight years, I'm convinced that journalists are overwhelmingly receptive and considerate people -- as long as you treat them well.

--Tom Geller

(Noto bene: As someone trained in the print media, I think in print terms and therefore use the word "editors." But I believe that these principles hold true regardless of medium. If you're pitching to T.V. shows, substitute the term "segment producer" for "editor," and so forth.)


General tips

Tell the truth.

While few people willingly tell bald-faced lies, we're all guilty of other, "grayer" sorts of lies: lies of omission, or exaggeration, or known misunderstanding. So we say that a product will be released "in the third quarter" when we know it'll be lucky to appear on September 30, or that supporting products will appear simultaneously with our product's launch -- and then redefine "simultaneously" to mean "within 30 days." (Apple used this beauty for its launch of PowerPC-based Macintoshes in 1994.)

Folks, it's just not worth it. Your credibility is your most valuable asset -- your stock in trade -- and when it's gone, you can't get it back. Further, it becomes hard to remember what lie you told to whom, and conflicting information muddles your message. The truth is a wonderful and consistent point of reference: use it. Editors -- and the public -- will respect you for it.

Know the product you're flogging.

Besides lying, nothing ruins your credibility faster than being unable to answer a simple question about your product. More than once, I've asked a P.R. rep a question like, "Does this server work on the Mac or the PC?" and gotten the answer, "I'll ask the Product Manager and call you back." I instantly knew that my contact's information couldn't be trusted.

Build professional relationships.

It seems obvious, but editors will be more receptive to people they already know. After some time at MacWEEK, I learned to open my ears wider to P.R. reps who knew me, my magazine and my position, and who therefore had a handle on what information I'd find useful.


Making contact

Target your efforts.

Of the following two hypothetical scenarios, which is better? (a) You take four hours to send out 1,000 press releases. You receive 100 responses. (b) You take four hours to send out 10,000 press releases. You receive 100 responses.

Answer: (a). Why? Because only 900 people will have learned to connect your name with irrelevant press releases instead of 9,900. 'nuff said.

Contact the right outlet.

This is the most important part of targeting your pitches. I'd guess that at least 25 percent of the e-mail editors get is for products utterly irrelevant to their magazines. At MacWEEK, the percentage was much higher; I often got mailings for Windows NT programs and entertainment Web sites. Needless to say, they got no coverage and left only a negative impression.

Talk to the right person.

Even if your product is the biggest thing to hit the networking world in the last ten years, chances are the Graphics editor isn't going to care. Ideally, an editor should forward you to the right person, but that doesn't always happen. So take an extra minute or two before calling to check the media outlet's Web site: Many (including MacWEEK) have a list of who does what. As a final resort if you feel you're being given the run-around, call someone high on the editorial ladder, like the Editor In Chief, and ask to be forwarded to the right person.

Use the right language.

While many educated Europeans speak English, it's a myth that "everyone speaks English," and there are parts of the world where the general level of English is so low as to be useless. If possible, communicate in the language of your audience. Even if your target editors do know English, it's doubtlessly easier for them to work in their native languages, and they'll better understand your product if they don't have to wrestle with a foreign language.

Be familiar with the outlet to which you're pitching.

Get to know not only what it covers and who covers it, but also its deadlines and special programs. For example, many magazines publish extra issues (or, at least, extra sections) for major trade shows. There are often bonus P.R. opportunities in these -- but only for those who know about them far enough in advance.

Respect editorial's (non)-relationship with advertising.

This varies, but in the United States the rule is basically that the two don't mix. That is, editors by design have no contact with ad sales people, don't care who advertises in their outlet and are no more likely to say nice things about an advertiser than about a non-advertiser. If you try to mix the two, you'll offend editors; it's a suggestion that they are influenced by money rather than truth. Note that this etiquette isn't international: in some countries (Japan, for instance) it's common for advertisers to get preferred editorial space.


E-mail

Unless specifically requested, don't send attachments.

Your press release is much more likely to be read if it's included as plain text in the body of the message. I don't know of any editors who regularly download P.R. attachments. It's an extra step, the attachment may contain viruses -- the Word Macro virus is more common than you think -- and it may be in an inconvenient format.

Don't use HTML tags.

What looks great to you in Netscape Communicator looks like ca-ca to recipients using older versions of Lotus Notes, America Online, Claris Emailer... in other words, just about everybody. Also, HTML styling almost never adds anything useful to e-mail, and in the hands of non-designers just makes the text harder to read.

Strip out all eight-bit characters.

Like HTML tags, characters like the bullet and the trademark symbol show up in many people's mailing programs as gobbledygook, losing your original intent and adding distractions to your message. Find other ways of giving the character: an asterisk (*) instead of a bullet, for example, and the letters "TM" for the trademark symbol.

But how can you tell if a character is one of the verboten ones? As a general rule, if you have to press any modifier key other than Shift to create it (such as the Option key on Macs), it's an eight-bit character. One exception: "Curly quotes" are eight-bit characters. Use "straight quotes" instead.

Sidebar: Why are they called eight-bit characters?

Eight-bit characters are so called because they require eight binary digits, or "bits", to represent. The full set of computer characters was originally defined by a seven-bit code that yielded 128 characters (27=128). When it became apparent that the computer alphabet would have to expand to include other characters, such as the Spanish ñ, an eighth bit was added, bringing the total number of characters to 256.

The standard is now expanding to 16 bits, incidentally, to facilitate the thousands characters in Chinese, Japanese, Thai and other non-Roman alphabets. 16 bits per character will probably suffice for quite a while: this standard (called Unicode) allows for 65,536 discrete characters. (For more background information, see Henry Bortman's excellent article in the August 1997 issue of MacUser.)


Press releases

Know standard press release format.

I received one to two dozen press releases per day at MacWEEK; at larger or more-mainstream publications, it's not unusual for editors to receive hundreds of releases per day. Needless to say, editors can't afford to spend more than a few seconds determining whether a given release is relevant to their beats. Make it easy on them by putting the information in a format they'll recognize. That means:

  • A clear and descriptive headline ("hed") of 5-10 words.
  • A subheadline ("subhed") that summarizes the entire release in 5-20 words.
  • A first paragraph ("lede graf") that gives the name of the company; the name of the product; what it does; who its target audience is; its medium (Web site, Mac program, downloadable Java applet, etc.); its price; and its "hook" ("The first eight-port Fast Ethernet hub for under $500.") A good writer can do this in under 50 words. Really.
  • Contact information at the top of the page. If there are two contacts (one at the company and its P.R. agency), give both.
The rest is gravy, but nice. Other typical ingredients include enthusiastic quotes from users, statements from the company president, a history of the company, and so forth. Only the laziest editors would reprint these instead of getting their own material. But hey -- there are a lot of lazy editors out there.

Keep it short and sweet.

Having said that bit about catering to "lazy editors," above, let's not get carried away. Two sides of paper (about 500 words), max. Press releases should ideally serve to get editors interested enough in your product that they'll write an in-depth story about it, but realistically should give enough information to allow them to write a tight 50-line blurb about it without having to call you.

There's another reason for brevity: If you're sending your release out over one of the major newswire services (Business Wire, PR Newswire), they charge extra for every 100 words over 400. The additional charge is pretty low -- about 25% of the base fee -- but it's worth keeping in mind.

Don't cry wolf.

Be spare with your use of words like "revolutionary." Not everything's that important, and such words have become cliché. They're the sign of a writer who places style over substance, and editors have to go through extra effort to strip away such posturing. In the process, they'll come to distrust your message. Don't alienate them.

Get someone else to proofread.

Nobody proofreads their own writing well: If you missed a mistake when you wrote it, chances are you'll miss it when you read it. Proofreaders should try to improve three aspects of the text:

  • Technical correctness. (Is the price correct? The date? Do you say megabytes when you mean kilobytes?)
  • Writing style. (Includes focus and pacing as well as such mundane matters as grammar and spelling.)
Ironically, the bigger something is, the more likely people will miss it. Take special care with headlines, the product's name (yes, people have misspelled their own product's name) and so forth. Oh, and watch out for the kind of mistake I made above. (Did you catch it?)

Don't waste your time with Reviewer's Guides.

No-one reads them. Those thirty-page booklets that step reviewers through a product's features are somewhat insulting: They stink faintly of manipulation and suggest that the writer is too stupid to understand the product without being walked through it. If a reviewer doesn't understand a product after reading its sell sheet, seeing a demo and spending a couple of weeks with it, he or she will never understand it.

On the other hand, a one-or-two-page spec sheet that lists features, changes in the latest version, product positioning and other salient information is priceless. Keep it free of marketing hyperbole. Use the time you save to call the reviewer and editor and let them know that you stand ready to answer questions and give additional information.


Cold calls

Don't be afraid.

Strangely, I liked getting P.R. phone calls at MacWEEK: they broke up the day and gave me a chance to learn who's who in the industry. Even if I knew we weren't going to review the caller's product, I'd try to pass them on to someone who would give them some ink.

I think most editors feel the same way. After all, good P.R. agents make editors' jobs easier by calling their attention to new products and issues they might otherwise miss. If you don't think you're offering the editor a service, don't make the call.

Have a two-way conversation.

We've all been interrupted at dinner by telemarketers reading off of some script. You know immediately that they're trying to sell you something, but their scripts all start off with fake pleasantries: "Is Mr./Ms. _______ at home? How are you doing? Good. I'm calling to tell you about ________ (etc.)." I don't know about you, but I find those scripts obnoxious.

Again, editors are people, and they want to be treated as such. They want to know that they're more than just names on your list of people to call. Even if you've never talked with them before, try to learn a bit about their personalities as you talk and react appropriately. Maybe they're unfamiliar with the your product's category: Help them to feel comfortable enough to tell you that, and you'll be able to deliver a more appropriate message. Alternately, maybe they're experts in the field: You can form a collegial bond by talking at a higher level.

Be sensitive to time pressures.

Media pros work in a system of unforgiving deadlines, and sometimes have to put all else aside to meet them. Don't be put off if editors ask you to call them back. They may really want to talk with you, but be unable to at the moment. Remember to call them back later. And if they say that they'll call you back, give them a day to do so. If they don't, feel free to call them again.


Demos

Bring your own equipment.

About four months after I started at MacWEEK, we moved to a new building. In the process, the computer we used for demos got misplaced, and the monitor never quite worked the same. We lost quite a bit of demo time looking for cables, twiddling with the monitor and re-installing system software.

Your best bet is to bring everything on a portable computer, with cables and adapters to hook it up to every sort of monitor. If your product requires an Internet or network connection, provision it yourself (through a wireless modem or similar system) or make sure that there's one in the demo room. Don't expect there to be anything in the room except a power outlet.

Bring plenty of products and press kits.

When you set up the demo, try to get a feel for how many people might show up. Then, bring twice as many press kits. Make sure that you have product shots (as transparencies), screen shots (on the appropriate platform) and a few boxed copies of the product. Your audience won't use all this stuff, but it'll be good to have what they need at hand. And don't forget your business cards!

Pace yourself.

Find out what the audience wants or needs to see, and show them that first. I've been to too many demos that started out with a canned PowerPoint presentation about the company's history that left only ten minutes to see the product itself. Plan the demo to take less than the time allotted, and use the rest of the time interacting with your audiences. Clear up misunderstandings, and feel free to ask them questions. If they're seeing your demo, they've probably seen those for competitive products, and therefore have valuable perceptions and the market and your place in it.

Get used to small audiences.

At any given outlet, there may be only one editor who writes about products in your category. Don't be offended if that's all that shows up. A bit of research will often uncover additional editors you can tweak into attending; call them well before the demo and let them know it's coming up.


Goodies and spiffs

Don't be stingy with copies of your product.

If your product costs you under $20 to produce, that's a drop in the bucket compared with its value in the right editorial hands. You should give away the exact same boxed product that the consumer gets. Altering it in any way -- or including extra pieces not available to the general public -- gives editors a false view of your product, and could lead to inaccurate stories.

There are a few unspoken, industry-wide rules to know. They are:

  • Editors get to keep software. Give only full, "uncrippled" versions.
  • Editors are expected to return hardware. Be sure you make it easy for them to do so by giving them a return airbill or, at least, the name and address of the contact to return it to. Make sure it's clear that you expect the equipment back when you give it to them; typical terms are 30-, 60- and 90-day loans.
  • If your hardware product costs you under $50 to produce, consider letting the editor keep it. It'll probably cost you that much to process the return and repackage it.
  • It's universally considered unethical for an editor or writer to resell press copies. If you think you know someone who is, tell the outlet's Editor In Chief.
In any case, be clear about your terms when you turn the product over.

Finally, don't feel hurt if you see your product on the bottom of a stack in a corner. Few editors have time to try out every product they receive.

A bag of bagels is worth its weight in gold.

If your demo is at nine in the morning, bring breakfast. You'll double your audience and be, um, well-liked.


Finally...

Enjoy yourself!

High-tech P.R. is difficult, exciting, challenging and wonderful. You get to meet some very smart people, own some cool products and be the first to see cutting-edge technologies. After twenty years of playing with computers and three years of computer-related publishing, I still discover new aspects of the industry that fascinate me, every day.

But not everybody shares my love of the field. If you don't, you're better off looking for something else to do with your time. As William Faulkner wrote, "You can't eat for eight hours a day nor drink for eight hours a day nor make love for eight hours a day -- all you can do for eight hours is work." If you spend that time doing something that doesn't interest you, you're -- pardon me -- wasting your life.

Do you like music? There are thousands of bands in this country needing good media representation. Have an environmental bent? Non-profit groups everywhere need talented people to help them get the word out. Honestly, there's a job out there for every love. You may have to create it yourself, but it's out there.

And ultimately, those who sincerely enjoy high-tech P.R. do it better. For editors are really just ordinary people, and like everyone else they're more receptive to messages delivered with honest enthusiasm. Remember that, be good to them, be kind to yourself, and you can't fail.


Other sites with P.R. Tips

If you know of sites that should be included here, please let me know! I always rely on the kindness of strangers.


This page was last updated on Friday, January 06, 2012 at 12:17am UTC. All contents copyright 2005 by Tom Geller.