How not to do public relations

by brian d foy

I wanted to review some new software, so I wrote to the company's marketing address asking them for an evaluation license. It's one of the perks of writing about software.

I get an email back asking for more information about me, and the marketing person wants to set up a meeting with the CEO so I can ask questions. We set up a time for today, although I have no idea what I would ask that hasn't already been covered in all of the previous interviews and press releases. All I wanted was an evaluation license, but I figure I can listen to what they have to say.

Today, I get an "invite" from, which I think is some sort of software that displays a remote computer screen on my screen. It needs java and Internet Explorer and Windows Media Player and Flash. Well, I'm not installing those. I'm kinda suspicious of a Mac software company that wants to use Internet Eplorer and Window Media Player to show me something. And that's where things start to go south.

Apparently the marketing person can't do anything else. I try to explain to her that I pretty much already know the product from reading the manual (yes, I read manuals) and using the demo version. I'm already familiar with the technologies under the interface, and I don't think I would get much out of a live demonstration. The things get really bad. She feels insulted. I ask her if there is anything in the demo that isn't covered in the manual or the online material. She doesn't have an answer, and keeps insisting that I see the demo. I've been using the previous versions for years. I'm doing a hard-core techie's review of the product for a hard-core techie audience, and I've already done my homework. She says that I could ask questions, but I point out that it's the companies policy not to comment on future or missing features, and those are the only questions I have. I don't need to be sold on the product, and all I'm getting is the hard sell.

Then I realize that she really knows nothing, and that she probably doesn't even work for the company. She says "we" in an odd, insincere way. She's an outsourced public relations person. I've dealt with this situation a lot. She probably runs her own boutique public relations shop, so at the same time that she's supposed to be selling the product to me, she's trying to retain her position of authority as the owner of a company. I try to tell her that I already know it's cool to see HTML previews using WebKit and that I don't need anyone to show me how to do it. She insists on showing me the demo. She wants me to find another computer. I explain I don't allow Internet Explorer on any computer.

I think things have just gotten off to a bad start, so I apologize, and try to explain my background and the perspective of the article again. Two sentences later she's telling me how insulted she is that I don't want to see the live demo, but she can't tell me what I'll get out of it that I don't already know. It's an odd sort of role reversal where she acts like I'm inconviencing her and wasting her time. I remind her that she set up this meeting, and that I made my self available to her. I'm the guy who can potentially write damaging things about the product (and I've been less than kind in this forum when a company annoys me), and she's berating me. I try to remember that everyone has a bad day, but that's not helping. A good PR person would try something else: apparently the CEO is available for this live demo, but not for a phone call. Something really strange is going on. I didn't ask to talk to the CEO in the first place, she insists that he show me a live demo, but I can't talk to him on the phone.

Eventually I just hang up on her. For a couple minutes I ponder if I should hate this company too, and that's not what a real public relations person wants anyone to think after a meeting.


2004-09-08 16:25:54
cutting through the crap
The one boon I've seen in my industry's recent economic downturn is that I've had to buy less software, and so deal less with these PR people. I've had to listen to people argue that once I use their click-to-code interface I'll never miss the missing text editor. I've had dozens of questions answered with, "We can certainly work that out once you're installed." Or, the worst, because it's just so insincere, "I'll talk to the tech guys and get back to you." Anyway, why aren't the tech guys here? I'd rather have an hour of their time than four of the salesman's, even if he /is/ offering to take me golfing.

There -must- be a strategy for cutting through the crap, but why aren't more vendors awake to the fact that technical buyers want technical information? The thought that depresses me about the exchange you've described is that the PR jockey will now probably write you off to her client as "a problem customer." Or, worse, "someone you don't want."

2004-09-09 06:47:04
How not to do public relations
It's amazing what passes for pr competence in this day. I also clicked through on the link in your column, webex. Wow. Got to homepage and not only is this company trying to trade on a fedex name rip off, it 100% copies the fedex corporate colors. How innovative are they? I didn't other to even read about their product, I left. But yet again another "innovative" web company that isn't.
2004-09-10 13:20:28
How not to do public relations
It isn't WebEx we was talking about. It was a company that uses WebEx. I use WebEx's WebEx Meeting Center service on my Mac (Safari browser) and it works great. Sounds like a PR person who doesn't do their tech homework or adjust well to changes. Great piece.