Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Crossing the line with "control"

This is based on a true story about a debate over whether the cart should come before the horse, or vice versa, when it comes to unveiling a new product.

There's a cool new product, something that's quite visual and bound to get a great deal of consumer attention. The PR firm, in conjunction with the product's in-house communications mojos, arranges both in-person and phone briefings with top journalists and bloggers to discuss the product over the two days before the product press release is being issued widely. There will be no exclusives to any publication.

Journalist tick-off #1: give them very little time to write this story which is so important to your product.

A number of journalists ask the PR firm for an advance piece of information and/or artwork so they don't go into the interview blind. However, their client is so paranoid, that they turn down the request. As a matter of fact, the artwork is distributed after each interview.

Journalist tick-off #2: provide no opportunity to develop good contextual questions to ask about your product.

If our profession is truly about public relations, why do corporations and their PR firms abuse this last concept of "relations?" I realize that the fundamental concept of public relations is control, but at what point does it turn against you?

Clearly there are a small group of companies that can get away with this overreaching demand of faith because they are riding a crest of great buzz and admiration, like Apple Computers. However, most companies are not Apple Computers, and it is in their best interest to educate the journalists and bloggers who cover them.

I do not believe in springing information cold on journalists at key executive interviews. I'm not advising to show your entire hand beforehand, but you're doing a reporter an immense favor by sharing some basics on what's to come.

Never in my experience have I seen a journalist cut off an executive at the start of an interview saying they know the story, so let's get right to the questions. The executive always gets their time in to explain their announcement and put it in perspective. Then come the questions and the back and forth. And the questions usually tend to be better thought out as well.

At some point, with enough of this unfounded fear-driven handling of what can be shown and not be shown, what can be said and not be said, is going to backfire by provoking reporter anger. If there's some kind of safety net needed, ask them sign a fair NDA. But at some point, if corporations and PR firms are to establish a bond of trust over the long run, they have to help reporters out in advance a little.

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