The purpose of a Public Relations department is to provide a positive public face for a company or a product. So why is it that some PR departments do everything they can to avoid getting their companies good publicity?
When you’re in the business of reviewing things, you have to deal with a lot of PR firms. There are many good PR departments, that can ably represent their company and their product, sometimes even better than the product deserves. But some PR departments have been so clueless, so steadfastly clumsy, so incredibly resistant to performing actual public relations work that it boggles the mind.
Imagine if you had to cajole, pester, and beg a grocery store into exchanging money for goods. Or if you had to present a list of reasons to Radio Shack for why you needed to buy batteries. Or if it took weeks to get a restaurant to actually deliver a meal. These examples are ludicrous because they turn simple transactions into laborious exercises where you have to compel the other party to engage in a deal that benefits them as well.
In some ways, an agreement between a PR firm and a media outlet is similar to any of these examples. They offer information and the temporary use of their product–we remunerate with public exposure for said product. It’s a simple deal, and one that usually benefits both parties, assuming that the product is a good one. But all too often when dealing with PR departments, this simple exchange becomes an ordeal of the type outlined above.
Take for a moment the cautionary tale of Tapwave. A small startup company that manufactured the Zodiac line of gaming-oriented handhelds, Tapwave needed all the good PR they could get. They had no name recognition, no buzz, no stack of major games, and best of all they had absolutely no retail sales presence. You could only buy their hardware online.
Naturally, we were a bit dubious from the beginning about their chances of taking over the handheld gaming market. But we would have been happy to be surprised–everybody loves an underdog, right? And since people like us make buying recommendations to tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of people, you would think that Tapwave’s PR people would eagerly do their best to try and win us over.
We originally got a promise of a review unit from Tapwave in late 2003, back when the Zodiac was still new. And we waited. And waited. As continued communications with Tapwave eroded our confidence in the organization of their efforts, our review unit languished in limbo, and whatever small amount of enthusiasm we had for their efforts died a swift and painful death.
Just when you never thought it would happen, the review unit finally arrived. In June of 2004. It took six months before Tapwave’s PR people could be bothered to send a device to us for review. By that time, the Zodiac was quickly becoming an also-ran of the market. While you can’t completely blame this on their PR department, the image problem that dogged them over the months–the idea that they were a small fish, in over their heads, with a hovering death-cloud right behind them–couldn’t have helped. Tapwave ended up going bankrupt and shutting down in July of 2005.
But Tapwave is hardly the only offender. Many organizations, who shall remain nameless, suffer similar problems. Late deliveries, botched communications, and even units that just never show up. One company, which ironically makes smart watches, completely forgot that they had a meeting scheduled with our group at last January’s CES. I’ve worked a little PR in the past, and given that that was on a much smaller scale, I can’t imagine allowing such rag-tag efforts to proceed on so large a stage, where huge amounts of money could be at stake. What are they thinking?
Faced with incidents like this, I’m hard pressed to say which is worse–a company that fails to deliver on review units in a timely manner, or a company like HP that refuses to supply review units at all.
HP seems to feel that nobody needs to know about their products unless the reviewing site is a member of their iPaq “evangelist” program. The criteria for being an HP “evangelist” site are disturbingly cultish: you may not publish rumors about HP products. You may not let anyone on your site, in forums or comments, talk about HP related rumors. And another winner, you may not make “any statements… regarding HP” without HP’s prior written consent. HP implies that this mainly concerns vouching for product compatibility, but the way that it’s written lets it apply to any statements about HP. For instance, if you said that HP is doing poorly in the handheld market, or that their latest iPaqs are not very good, then they might interpret that as a “statement regarding HP,” and terminate your access to review units.
Apparently, in the eyes of HP’s PR department, if you don’t drink the Kool Aide, you don’t get a review device. No wonder that in the face of this, most sites–BargainPDA included–choose to buy their own review units, unencumbered by HP’s agreements.
To be fair, some PR departments are pretty good at what they do. Credit goes where credit is due. Palm and Dell have usually been very timely with the delivery of their review units, and their people reasonably helpful, despite the occasional ignored question or missing cable. They deliver fast, provide extensive information, and have good coherent lines of communication, all of which allows us to produce better and more timely reviews, which is better for everyone. Their laudable efforts, unfortunately, are too often the minority.
To those who want to learn from their mistakes, memorize these three things. One: slipshod marketing and communication efforts tend to reduce overall confidence in your product. Two: actually providing review units is essential to getting reviews. Free publicity is priceless. Third and finally: We aren’t your mouthpiece. Try easing up on the talking points and providing us with a little more actual information. We aren’t your biggest impediment to good PR.
The job of a Public Relations department should be relatively simple. Make people aware of your product, provide review units to prominent persons, distribute information, and answer questions. Is that really a Herculean task? The lackluster attitudes displayed by many company reps seem more appropriate to Sisyphus, the guy condemned to roll a rock up a hill for eternity. But either way, they need to try harder. There’s an old saying that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. That’s not true. No publicity is bad publicity, and for companies like Tapwave, it’s not something that you can recover from.