web analytics

Technology companies talk up their products and technologies. Let’s not mince words: they are hype merchants.

They hire professional public relations consultants and advertising agencies to whip up excitement on their behalf.

Sometimes they convince people in the media to follow suit and enthuse about their new gizmos or ideas.

Occasionally the media’s constant search for hot news and interesting headlines leads to overenthusiastic praise or a journalist swallowing a trumped-up storyline.

Hype cycle

None of this will be news to anyone working in the business. What you may not know is that the IT industry’s shameless self-promotion has now been recognised and enshrined in Gartner’s Hype Cycle.

Gartner Hype Cycle

 

Gartner analysts noticed a pattern in the way the world (and the media) viewed new technologies. This is a huge initial burst of excitement rapidly followed by a sigh of disillusion and, eventually, a more balanced approach.

This observation evolved into the Hype Cycle represented graphically in the diagram. The horizontal axis shows time, while the vertical axis represents visibility.

Five phases:

In the first phase, Garter calls it the “technology trigger”, a product launch, engineering breakthrough or some other event generates enormous publicity.

At first only a narrow audience is in on the news. They may hear about it through the specialist press and  start thinking about its possibilities.

Things snowball. Before long the idea reaches a wider audience and the mainstream media pays attention.

This interest gets out of control until things reach the second phase, which Gartner calls “the peak of inflated expectations”. At this point the mainstream media becomes obsessed – you can expect to see muddle-headed but enthusiastic TV segments about the technology.

You know things have peaked for sure when current affairs TV shows and radio presenters pay attention.

At this point people typically start to have unrealistic expectations. While there may be successful applications of the technology, there are often many more failures behind the scenes.

Trough of disillusionment

Once these disappointments become public, the Hype Cycle shifts into what Gartner poetically calls the “trough of disillusionment”. The mainstream press will turn its back on the story, others will be critical. Sales may drop. The idea quickly falls out of favour and seems unfashionable.

Occasionally ideas and technologies sink beneath the waves at this point, but more often they re-emerge in the “slope of enlightenment”. This is where companies and users who persisted through the bad times come to a better understanding of the benefits on offer. As a rule of thumb, most of the media has lost interest and may even ignore things, the good stuff just happens quietly in the background.

Finally, the cycle reaches the “plateau of productivity”. This occurs when the benefits of the idea or technology are now widely understood and accepted.

Any fool can write a good press release that hits its target audience and creates an impact.

Writing one that fails means work. There are people who have mastered the art.

As an editor I’ve seen some great efforts over the years. I’d like to share them with you.

Here are my top ten tips for making sure press releases get minimum attention:

1. Cripple its chances of reaching editors and journalists

Everyone can read plain text messages in the body of an email. The message will almost certainly get through to any kind of desktop email clients, all flavours of web mail, as well as Blackberries, iPhones and Palm Pilots.

To reach less than 100 percent of your potential audience, try putting some of these clever barriers in the way.

Attachments are an effective way of cutting down the reach of your press release. People reading email on mobile devices have trouble reading them. Spam filters treat them with suspicion and if you’re lucky the recipient may use Lotus Notes as a client and have difficulty decoding the attachment.

Another advantage of attachments is that you can trim your audience further by using difficult-to-open file formats: such as the new .docx file format used by Word 2007 – many journalists will struggle to read them.

Attachments are great for bulking up the size of your release so it won’t squeeze through email gateways. If you’re clever, use high-resolution logos in, say, your Word attachments. These add  nothing to the press release but can swiftly push the file size over the email gateway threshold.

A further reason for sending a press release as an attachment is its invisibility to email search. So, when a journalist decides to look for your press release among the hundreds and thousands in their email in-box, it will be difficult to find.

2. Minimise relevance

One of the best ways to make sure your press release fails is to make sure it has no relevance to any sane audience. For example, if you are a technology company and you buy a new fleet of cars you can squander your PR budget and make sure any future release goes directly to an editor’s recycle bin by sending the story to the technology press.

3. Send it out whenever

Timeliness is everything. So send releases out when you feel like it to boost your chances of failure. Better still, for print publications try waiting until five minutes after the final deadline. For online publications wait until the story has already broken elsewhere. Editors love that.

4. Organise schedules so contacts are unavailable for interview

Good journalists are annoying creatures. Rather than printing your press release verbatim and passing the contact details over to their advertising departments, they may want to speak to the people mentioned in your releases.

A tried and tested technique for avoiding these complications is to send the people overseas shortly after dispatching the release. International communications are good these days, so just packing them off to a partner conference in Atlanta isn’t good enough, you need to make sure they are on an 18 hour trans-pacific flight or, better still, holidaying on a remote island.

5. Use poor writing skills

Obvious when you think about it. If your writing is poor and confused so that editors and journalists can’t understand your message you kill two birds with one stone.

First, you’ll make sure the first message gets spiked in the too hard basket.

Second, as a bonus, you can establish your reputation as an illiterate idiot that isn’t worth bothering with under any circumstances. That way, your future releases will go straight to the junk pile without even being read.

6. Try bullying

Sadly this powerful technique is underused. By threatening to talk to a journalist’s editor, or an editor’s boss about their poor response to your press release you can permanently undermine your relationship with scores of people (remember journalists talk to each other so this is an efficient way of burning lots of bridges).

Another approach is to tell the journalist the company in question is advertising thus triggering their professional editorial independence.

7. Don’t bother with photographs

Journalists and editors like photographs. They love good photographs. By making sure they are no photographs of any description you’ll increase the chances that your press release is regarded as useless.

If you think that’s taking things too far, try sending out crappy, unusable photos. Photos with dozens of un-named people work well in this respect. Getting people to hold champagne glasses, stand in front of company logos, gather around an unreadable normal-size bank cheque or impersonate public enemy number one mug shots are all effective techniques for creating instantly ignorable press release photographs.

8. Send it to everyone regardless

This is a great way to upset journalists and degrade both your personal and company reputation. At the same time if you work for a PR agency you can bill the client heaps for having a, er, comprehensive, mailing list and then bill them for time as you and your staff spend all day on the phone dealing with angry editors.

9. Keep things as dull as possible

Journalists prefer interesting stories. Public relations professionals recognise this and use clever tricks like passive sentences, boring ideas, irrelevant background facts, tired clichéd adjectives and implausible anodyne quotes to turn them off and help speed their press releases on their way to the great recycle bin in the sky.

In-house and government public relations people are usually better at delivering boring releases than agency staff – if you’re worried your writing sparkles too much, they have much to teach you.

10. Make sure the subject line obscures the message

Even experienced public relations operatives can slip up by giving an email release an interesting subject line. The danger is that after putting in all the hard work required to guarantee nobody takes the slightest notice of their press release they use active language to put a relevant, timely subject line message that tempts editors and journalists to open the document and read more.

The good news is there are fail-safe subject lines that are certain to turn off editors and journalists so they can just skip past your release. A classic subject line like press release will probably work, if that’s too simple try important press release or important press release from Company Name.

A neat by-product of badly written subject lines is they can fool spam detection engines into rejecting a message altogether; phrases like important announcement from Company Name or message for Clark Kent can come in handy here.

New Zealand’s technology press is well past its peak oil moment but there’s still life left.

Once there were more than 20 active locally published print titles covering computers and related technologies. At the top of the market, the collective circulation of these titles would have run to more than 400,000. Today the total circulation of local technology titles is under 100,000. Some titles have gone to the great recycle bin in the sky. Others, particularly those serving smaller niches, have now switched to online-only publication. Others may follow.

We’ll look at the online titles in a separate post later, but for now here’s a master list of the main specialist technology publications published in New Zealand:

ComputerWorld New Zealand

A weekly information technology newspaper, it frequently breaks local news stories before mainstream newspapers. The print edition is in tabloid format. ComputerWorld is mainly read by senior technology executives and other people who work with IT. The title has been printed in New Zealand for more than 20 years.

ComputerWorld is now the dominant specialist IT news publication in New Zealand.

New Zealand PC World

A monthly A4 magazine mainly sold on bookstands, in supermarkets and petrol stations. PC World is read by technical types who get to choose or heavily influence the products they use at work and home. Contains reviews and how to features. Coverage is largely focused on personal aspects of computing. Includes some games and consumer electronics material. The August edition featured the recently introduced 3G iPhone on the cover – a sign that PC World had moved way beyond just covering conventional desktop computers.

For more information see: PC World

New Zealand Reseller News

Fortnightly tabloid newspaper for people who sell and otherwise work in the IT channel. Has strong news focus with emphasis on business and people stories long with regular advice features and commentary. Now more than ten years old. New Zealand Reseller News is only sent to qualified readers (i.e. people who work in the IT channel)  who have requested the publication. In recent months Reseller has broadened its coverage to include more product related stories.

CIO New Zealand

Influential A4 magazine focusing on the business and strategic aspects of large-scale IT. Mainly feature based. Read by the people who make corporate buying decisions in large organisations. Published since 1999. Has a strong, active community with a comprehensive events program.

Gear Guide

PC World spin-off now on its second edition, essentially a buyers’ guide for home computer products and consumer electronics. A4 magazine format sold on bookstands.

Tone

Good-looking monthly A4 bookstand magazine covering home entertainment, technology and hi-fi. Heavy product focus, i.e. mainly contains product reviews and product-related features. Technology content is relatively minor compared to Tone’s consumer electronics coverage.

The Channel

Monthly A4 magazine for the IT channel. Feature-driven, lots of guides and “how to” stories. Now two years old.  Distributed to people working in ‘the IT channel’. Much of the content is paid ‘advertorial’. Tends to run pages of photographs from events without identifying the people.

iStart: Quarterly A4 magazine for “business and IT managers needing to improve their business with technology.” Mainly contains paid-for case studies. Has appeared on bookstands in the past, but the print edition doesn’t appear to be on sale any more (can anyone confirm this?).

New Zealand Netguide

Monthly A5 bookstand magazine aimed at less-technical readers. As the name suggests the publication largely covers Internet-related stories, but it also has product reviews and some games coverage. Recently sold by ACP Media to Action Media.

Telecommunications Review

According to the web site’s subscription’s page, the print edition of Telecommunications Review will return in May or June 2008. At the time of writing, this hasn’t happened. When Telecommunications Review was previously published it was a monthly, glossy trade newspaper for people working in the industry and their more technically advanced customers — in practice, this meant pages of stories about Telecom New Zealand the dominant player in this market.

IT Brief:

A monthly A4 magazine of “peer-reviewed industry comment”. (Although some of the content appears to be written by public relations companies). It is aimed at senior business and IT executives within corporate, government and (sic) enterprise businesses.  Disclosure: I’ve only seen a photocopied version of this so far.

Interface:

Published eight times a year (twice each school term), Interface is an A4 magazine aimed at school teachers responsible for using computers and information technology in the classroom.

Actv8: A quarterly free magazine for school students. Distributed via schools and supported by the Ministry of Education. Actv8 promotes careers and higher education courses in technology-related areas. The stories are short and written for teenagers. The design is colourful and loose.

MyMobile: A monthly mobile phone buyers guide with reviews and articles on how to get the most from mobile phones. Sold on bookstands. A5 size.

Without fear or favour | The Australian.

Miriam Cosic writes in The Australian about journalist Nick Davies. He says more than half the news in Britain’s top five newspapers was generated by public relations companies or taken from wire services.

Davies is in Australia to promote his book Flat Earth News.

While this is a great background piece that makes me want to rush out and buy the book – I will look for it this afternoon – it paints a depressing picture of the state of journalism.

I’ve worked in the industry for almost thirty years. I can’t help but agree with Davies’ basic premise that today’s journalists are now expected to do a once-over-lightly job and rock the boat as little as possible.

Blame the large media companies

Davis points the finger of blame at the media corporations. This analysis can’t be separated from the widely reported decline of traditional news media.

Conventional thinking says people are moving away from newspapers, magazines and broadcast news because of the Internet. I believe the audiences would be declining even without the arrival of online news because news audiences are being turned off by the news media.

One aspect of this whole issue that was overlooked in The Australian story is that public relations companies now massively outgun newspapers in terms of personnel, expertise and experience.

This is particularly noticable in New Zealand. Here the newspapers appear to be largely staffed by young reporters in their 20s and early 30s while many of the brightest and best of the older generation are now employed by PR companies.

This post was updated at 20:00 on August 25.

Marketing communications – telling customers about your products and services – has two parts: advertising and publicity.

Advertising is straightforward. You pay money, the media company publishes or broadcasts your message. You control your message and its presentation.

Advertising is a commercial transaction.

Publicity is different

Publicity also costs money – plenty of businesses accept payment for promotional services .

With publicity you don’t usually pay the media to promote your message. And you have no say over timing, placement or presentation.

You can’t even be sure your message will run.

In theory, you get publicity when the story you tell is so compelling journalists and editors fall over themselves to publish it. Remember their idea of compelling isn’t the same as yours.

Editors need to give readers, viewers or listeners the hottest news, up-to-date information, the most relevant background features and the best stories. They also look for entertaining material to brighten their pages. They can be grumpy.

Editors are not your sales team

Editors don’t care whether their stories help you or your business if they are doing their job properly.

There are publications where this doesn’t apply.

A common misunderstanding about publicity is a press release is best way to get it. This is a pre-written version of the story you’d like to see in print. Press releases are usually written in a highly stylised format, containing the basic facts together with background.

Press releases can work. Usually they don’t.

Many go straight into the bin. And rightly so. That’s the place for rubbish. Press releases mainly exist because clients like them – they create an aura of useful media activity.

Press releases just part of the mix

Some of the best communications professionals – they may call themselves public relations consultants, press agents or something posh sounding like ‘media consul’ – will tell you press releases are only one, not particularly useful, strategy and account for a tiny fraction of their work.

We look at the press release mechanics elsewhere.

Publicity involves enticing the media to write or broadcast information about your company, product or services because you have something new, important, exciting or otherwise interesting to say.

The best way to do this is to call a journalist and tell them, quickly and concisely, just what your story is and why it may interest their readers. Like everything else in business, this is about forming the right relationships.

Media training

If you don’t feel comfortable doing this, get some media training or hire a press agent to call on your behalf. Good public relations professionals know who to call and how to pitch stories in a way that makes them more interesting to journalists or editors. They introduce you to the right people, set up face-to-face meetings or organise phone interviews and help you prepare for these.

Occasionally when you have something important to announce, you may want to hold a formal press conference or maybe host a less formal gathering of journalists for morning tea, lunch or afternoon cocktails. This kind of event works best when used sparingly, it isn’t always the best way of telling a story, but it is a great way to make or maintain contact.