Big Company PR: turning the heat up on the PR kettle

It’s interesting. I’m hearing about more and more stuff (like I just linked to) from Microsoft blogs before hearing about them from big-name journalists (like Steven Levy at Newsweek, or Walt Mossberg at the Wall Street Journal).

It used to be that the only way to announce news was to talk with those two guys (and maybe a dozen or so others).

A lot of what these people do is keep relationships going with these journalists, hoping that they’ll write something nice when their product comes out. But the big companies still hold the big news for these guys. Why? Cause they still have immense influence due to the audiences that read their writings.

The hard part is when they want to give a jouralist an exclusive. Exclusives are important ways to reward journalists for writing a great review last time (which encourages them to write more good reviews, right?) but it also is just a way to reward someone for building an influential and large audience. If you were in corporate PR would you talk with, say, a geek with a few thousand readers like Scott Hanselman, or Walt Mossberg or Steven Levy first?

The thing is people in the new word-of-mouth network are figuring out it really doesn’t matter WHO you talk to first, as long as you talk with a diverse range of bloggers and make yourself available. Remember how I broke my news that I left Microsoft? I talked with 15 bloggers. I think only a couple of whom were in the top 100 on Technorati. The guy who actually broke my news? I didn’t talk with him at all and, in fact, didn’t know who he was before he broke the story. Total Z list (at that point).

Which is a key point. There is an invisible information sharing network among both big-name journalists as well as bloggers. When you put a journalist under NDA they tell their friends anyway. Or, at least give a good series of winks. Even something as simple as “I can’t tell you anything, but you should watch Google over the next few weeks.”

I call this “turning up the PR heat.” Everyone in the PR business knows it happens. They even have plans for what happens when news leaks. Usually they’ll have a list of other journalists to email or call if news leaks. That’s why when you see something happen it seems like everyone in the world starts talking about it all at once.

One thing about all this is to keep in mind Michael Gartenberg’s rule: those who really know don’t talk. Which is true cause they have signed an NDA.

It is something to keep in mind, most rumors turn out not to be true (or get blown out of relation because they are trying to read between the lines of a wink or a nod and don’t really have the right information). Remember the old “network” game we played when we were kids? Get 10 kids together, tell one of them something and tell him to pass it down. By the time it gets to the end of the line it sounds nothing like what the original thing was.

But it does get the line of 10 talking, doesn’t it? PR people know this intimately. They are experts at causing conversations to happen. The good ones are also expert at guiding the conversation so the right thing gets passed along.

This invisible information sharing network is real interesting. I remember the day when I learned about the “Universal Runtime” which was code name for .NET. I almost got fired for hearing about that six months before it was talked about publicly — someone who was in an Software Design Review told me “this will be a huge deal for software developers” and I used that information to email my own network about it. Someone told someone at Microsoft and I got in trouble cause, not only wasn’t I supposed to know that information at that time, but I just let a huge number of people know about it too.

Naughty, naughty.

Anyway, just cause it pisses off product managers doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen anymore.

Today my network is telling me that Google is showing around some sort of new Office-oriented suite of services. But they are holding everyone they are talking with to an NDA/embargo. My sources wouldn’t even tell me when the embargo ends.

But, this does cause some interesting distortions in the invisible news network. The pressure is building in the PR kettle. Sometime soon that pressure will release and it’ll be all over Memeorandum.

The weird thing is “does this PR actually get what companies want, which is adoption?”

Here, let’s check in again with Buzz Bruggeman, CEO of ActiveWords. He had a five star review in a USA national newspaper. On the front of the business section. With a picture even. He only got about 40 downloads from that. When he gets talked about on blogs, he gets a much higher rate of downloads (about 10 times, what he told me). He’s had quite a few newspaper reviews, by the way, and they, except for one in the New York Times, gave him small adoption increases.

Riya’s CEO, Munjal Shaw, says talking to bloggers is more important than talking to Walt Mossberg. I still don’t agree with that. Walt Mossberg or talking to the New York Times tech team is still more important, but here’s where I think Munjal is right:

If you start a PR campaign at the bottom of the stack. Yes, with Z listers, not A listers like me or Arrington or Om Malik, you’ll build a much better story.

It will only take a few hours for us to figure out something important is going on anyway and you’ll get a LOT more adoption that way. Plus, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal will have better quotes (from real users, even!) and they’ll be more likely to write about you, not less (you do have a hot product that everyone will talk about, right?)

So, who are the 40 Z listers you’re talking to today?

Hint: most big companies will never get this. They have to convince their bosses that their plans are correct. That means ALWAYS starting out with the A list and working down.

Anyway, even big-name journalists hate this game, they tell me, because it burns them more often than it helps them (and it puts pressure on them to only write nice things about the big companies, which they hate).

And the PR cycle continues. What you hearing from YOUR network? How are perceptions changing? That’ll tell you who has the better PR teams and methodology.

For myself? I used to believe in the “hand it to a big name first” methodology. I don’t anymore. When I have something to announce I’ll do it on my blog first, or I’ll show up at a conference where there’s lots of bloggers and show it to them equally there, with a blog to follow at first leak.

If you’re an entrepreneur, how do you announce your new products to the world?

Have you recently shipped a new product? Tell us about it here and link to your site.

Comments

  1. Am I correct in understanding that you are saying that marketing is now about a kind of two tier strategy:

    (1) The blogosphere – where you can work upwards if you choose to do so and linking behaviour is key

    (2) The non-blogosphere where key old media channels are still critically important

  2. Am I correct in understanding that you are saying that marketing is now about a kind of two tier strategy:

    (1) The blogosphere – where you can work upwards if you choose to do so and linking behaviour is key

    (2) The non-blogosphere where key old media channels are still critically important

  3. Steve: yeah, if I were in corporate PR, I’d definitely be working both of those channels. And, cognizant that many many press people read blogs anyway so the blogs are almost more important in getting the mainstream press to pay attention.

    If your product owns the top half of techmeme.com, believe me the press will come calling and trying to figure out what the heck you did to get the bloggers to talk so much.

  4. Steve: yeah, if I were in corporate PR, I’d definitely be working both of those channels. And, cognizant that many many press people read blogs anyway so the blogs are almost more important in getting the mainstream press to pay attention.

    If your product owns the top half of techmeme.com, believe me the press will come calling and trying to figure out what the heck you did to get the bloggers to talk so much.

  5. Robert.
    Great post, I am with you on encouraging relationships with smaller bloggers and building from there. As a blog reader and entrepreneur what I find is that although the awareness (or in web terms traffic/visitors) of hearing something from 40 small bloggers may be the about the same as hearing it from 1 “A” List blogger, the credibility is significantly different! Sure, I value what the top bloggers or journalists have to say, but this collective wisdom (as has been well documented) naturally has higher credibility. Product and company news that bubbles up from really niche sources, comes across to readers and commentators as much more genuine. Great brands are built from word of mouth and grass roots adoption, but with a hell of a lot of hard work behind the scenes.

    When we launched our Real Estate search engine http://www.trulia.com in Fall 2005, this was similar to our approach. We reached out to relatively small real estate and search/tech blogs as we knew they would be interested and understand the value of the product to both the consumers and the Real Estate Industry. Since then we got picked up by the nationals and mentions in WSJ, NYTimes, Time, etc. You’re right it does happen and we did not actively seek any of the national coverage we got.

    One of the challenges we face now as we are bigger is to understand what is the most effective use of our time and resources. There are just so many bloggers that we want to maintain relationships with, I can understand why PR teams often focus on the “top down” approach, the probability of any success is just that much higher. Really what we want to do is to think of bloggers in a similar way to the way we think of customers and consumers and to turn bloggers into evangelists in exactly the same way as we want to turn everyday consumers and customers into evangelists. This requires the right mindset, commitment and tools within each organization.

    We’re excited about the future, it will be fascinating to watch how media evolves!!

  6. Robert.
    Great post, I am with you on encouraging relationships with smaller bloggers and building from there. As a blog reader and entrepreneur what I find is that although the awareness (or in web terms traffic/visitors) of hearing something from 40 small bloggers may be the about the same as hearing it from 1 “A” List blogger, the credibility is significantly different! Sure, I value what the top bloggers or journalists have to say, but this collective wisdom (as has been well documented) naturally has higher credibility. Product and company news that bubbles up from really niche sources, comes across to readers and commentators as much more genuine. Great brands are built from word of mouth and grass roots adoption, but with a hell of a lot of hard work behind the scenes.

    When we launched our Real Estate search engine http://www.trulia.com in Fall 2005, this was similar to our approach. We reached out to relatively small real estate and search/tech blogs as we knew they would be interested and understand the value of the product to both the consumers and the Real Estate Industry. Since then we got picked up by the nationals and mentions in WSJ, NYTimes, Time, etc. You’re right it does happen and we did not actively seek any of the national coverage we got.

    One of the challenges we face now as we are bigger is to understand what is the most effective use of our time and resources. There are just so many bloggers that we want to maintain relationships with, I can understand why PR teams often focus on the “top down” approach, the probability of any success is just that much higher. Really what we want to do is to think of bloggers in a similar way to the way we think of customers and consumers and to turn bloggers into evangelists in exactly the same way as we want to turn everyday consumers and customers into evangelists. This requires the right mindset, commitment and tools within each organization.

    We’re excited about the future, it will be fascinating to watch how media evolves!!

  7. In past years, I’m not sure the average reporter or columnist would have agreed that a story “broke” in the blogosphere, if that’s where it first appeared. The story didn’t become real until it appeared in a traditional publication or on a network.

    That’s changing, and I think public relations practices have to adapt to the new normal.

    The news release was supposed to level the playing field between different media outlets so that everyone heard the same announcement at the same time. But it’s such an over-used tool that companies no longer know if a news release or news conference will get them the attention it once might have.

    Your idea of making announcements where the enthusiasts are already gathered is a good one. Not only are you able to get a bunch of peers talking about your announcement, but any media/bloggers present have dozens of experts handy to interview about their take on the announcement.

    As for whether you should leak to A-list bloggers, D-list bloggers, or reporters, I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all answer for that. Ignoring one group and pandering to another group leaves you vulnerable if you ever find yourself needing to explain your company’s actions to the group you’ve been ignoring.

    Apple’s announcement about the video iPod seemed to do just fine without major leaks.

  8. In past years, I’m not sure the average reporter or columnist would have agreed that a story “broke” in the blogosphere, if that’s where it first appeared. The story didn’t become real until it appeared in a traditional publication or on a network.

    That’s changing, and I think public relations practices have to adapt to the new normal.

    The news release was supposed to level the playing field between different media outlets so that everyone heard the same announcement at the same time. But it’s such an over-used tool that companies no longer know if a news release or news conference will get them the attention it once might have.

    Your idea of making announcements where the enthusiasts are already gathered is a good one. Not only are you able to get a bunch of peers talking about your announcement, but any media/bloggers present have dozens of experts handy to interview about their take on the announcement.

    As for whether you should leak to A-list bloggers, D-list bloggers, or reporters, I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all answer for that. Ignoring one group and pandering to another group leaves you vulnerable if you ever find yourself needing to explain your company’s actions to the group you’ve been ignoring.

    Apple’s announcement about the video iPod seemed to do just fine without major leaks.

  9. Should You Leak Stories to Media, A-List Bloggers, or the Little Guys?

    At the end of Scoble Week, I point to yet another post from one of my favourite tech bloggers. Having gained a lot of digital ink by leaking his departure from Microsoft to a bunch of bloggers, Robert Scoble questions the value of holding out the juici…

  10. Really, based on the post and the comments then, the blogosphere is the most important, right?

    From what I see, if you get the blogs, you’ll get (as you said) the “top half of TechMeme” from which point old media will notice and be curious as to what’s up.

    Heck, if you don’t even worry about old media and focus on the blogosphere, everything will ultimately fall into place.

    I think.

  11. Really, based on the post and the comments then, the blogosphere is the most important, right?

    From what I see, if you get the blogs, you’ll get (as you said) the “top half of TechMeme” from which point old media will notice and be curious as to what’s up.

    Heck, if you don’t even worry about old media and focus on the blogosphere, everything will ultimately fall into place.

    I think.

  12. [...] Scoble, one of my more favorite tech bloggers, has an interesting piece on how he views the relationship public relation people/companies once had with old media and how they are building new relationships with the blogosphere and online media in general. I think you can liken this “new” phenomenon to when PR had to learn to build new relationships with the communities their clients severed. We’ll always have new stakeholders to look after and that’s one aspect of this job that makes it more of an art then a science. You’ll always have a new group of people to manage and the old rules don’t apply each time. Technorati Tags: PR, Public Relations, Scoble, Communication, New Media, Blog, Blogger, Blogosphere, Business [...]

  13. Robert, your post is brilliant. Working in corporate PR, what we understand is that when reaching out to several audiences you now need to used more channels, as people are engaging with new media. Trust in ‘a person like myself’ is higher as never before, and blogs are among ‘a person like myself’. Companies need to understand the importance of diversifying channels, and that its no longer the tier 1 startegy the one that will work all the way.

  14. Robert, your post is brilliant. Working in corporate PR, what we understand is that when reaching out to several audiences you now need to used more channels, as people are engaging with new media. Trust in ‘a person like myself’ is higher as never before, and blogs are among ‘a person like myself’. Companies need to understand the importance of diversifying channels, and that its no longer the tier 1 startegy the one that will work all the way.

  15. surely this is just Google business as usual? their PR approach generally relies somewhat on secrecy – much like Apple. both companies have great external cheerleaders to pick up the news once its run. they create scarcity of information, which creates demand, and then ride that buzz into revenues. its a very different model from Microsoft or IBM say.

  16. surely this is just Google business as usual? their PR approach generally relies somewhat on secrecy – much like Apple. both companies have great external cheerleaders to pick up the news once its run. they create scarcity of information, which creates demand, and then ride that buzz into revenues. its a very different model from Microsoft or IBM say.

  17. Ah, but the most beautiful thing, the reason we are driving to add bloggers to our list of key publics, is what they give back. I’m in the enviable position of being in the midsts of launching our own BlogCorps campaign, making introductions to the bloggers in our world. It’s magical. It’s as if they’ve been waiting for us, ready this whole time to engage, and they’re giving back to us before we’ve even begun to ask anything of them.

    It’s a powerful message, opening the door. And it’s far harder now to keep it open, to figure out what’s appropriate and what’s crazy-making. But it’s time.

  18. Ah, but the most beautiful thing, the reason we are driving to add bloggers to our list of key publics, is what they give back. I’m in the enviable position of being in the midsts of launching our own BlogCorps campaign, making introductions to the bloggers in our world. It’s magical. It’s as if they’ve been waiting for us, ready this whole time to engage, and they’re giving back to us before we’ve even begun to ask anything of them.

    It’s a powerful message, opening the door. And it’s far harder now to keep it open, to figure out what’s appropriate and what’s crazy-making. But it’s time.