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The Care and Feeding of the Press

A guide for press relations staff (or those who play them on TV)

NEW AND IMPROVED!

compiled by Esther Schindler, with members of the Internet Press Guild; please see our copyright notice

Why this document?

Whenever groups of people with a common interest get together, the conversation turns to the subjects they have in common. Among the many ongoing conversation themes among the members of the Internet Press Guild (editors, writers, and freelancers on Internet topics) are the frustrations of dealing with PR professionals.

That's what we call you when we're feeling kind. The language is often much more colorful.

Like it or not, we need each other. You need us to cover the products you're responsible for, whether they're your own creations or you work for a public relations firm responsible for getting coverage for your company's products. We need information from you in order to get our stories done.

To save our sanity -- and to enhance our ability to work together -- we have put together this guide, explaining the journalists' side of the story. The purpose of the document is to raise your cluefulness level, to reduce the friction between us. It's not our intent to sound petty or to whine, even if our constant harping on what PR professionals do wrong makes it seem so. We're doing our best, in this long document, to explain what works for us and what doesn't. We want to improve the relationships between public relations people and the press (and the computer press, in particular).

We encourage you to share this information with your clients so that they can start thinking about the wisdom of current metrics (number of people called, etc.) of PR success. After all, in the end, it's not how many contacts you make that count, it's how many contacts lead to a press release actually getting coverage.

Do you need this document?

In person and on the telephone, most of us will treat you professionally, even if you make a faux pas. If we're kind enough, you might not even be aware that you're irritating us. So we've prepared this little quiz to help you determine how much you need to read the rest of this (very long) document.

  1. If you must use Powerpoint to get across your message, you limit it to five slides.
  2. You never follow up an e-mail to a reporter with a phone call asking if she received the e-mail.
  3. You know your reporter and what he has published -- before you make the first contact.
  4. You get the facts fast to the right people, especially when asked directly for them.
  5. You put full corporate contact and product summary info in all press releases and on the Web.
  6. You never send unsolicited e-mail attachments, of any kind.
  7. You'd never send out a group e-mail that includes your entire press list in the header.
  8. You fix factual inaccuracies quickly and dispassionately.
  9. You understand the power and limitations of freelance reviewers.
  10. You'd never even contemplate sending out time-bombed review copies, demos, etc., knowing that writers want the real McCoy.

If you can honestly say that you follow these rules, you can probably lean back and enjoy reading why we like you and why we spit at those other PR people. If you blushed even momentarily, keep reading -- so you won't ever have reason to blush again.

What's your message?

If you want our attention, please recognize that we writers are inundated with information. Professional magazine and trade newspaper writers get dozens of press releases every day; sometimes hundreds of them, during busy times like the weeks before Comdex (or other events in our specific slice of the market). If you want to work with us effectively, fit yourself into our way of working -- or at least do your best to understand it.

Making a press release worth our time

First, when contacting writers and editors, your job is to write a press release that makes us want to read it -- and use it.

Remember: Less is more. If you must write a press release that is longer than a page and a half, do so as if you will lose one article for every paragraph that goes over that limit. Write as if you're working for Joe Friday: "Just the facts."

Tell us who you are, what you're announcing, and why we should care. If you must include a quote from an executive, make it more substantive than, "We're going to revolutionize the field." Be specific. What is so revolutionary about your product that makes it newsworthy to a journalist who received 25 other press releases that day?

Cut the buzzwords. Do you think Joe Friday would finish reading something that started: "HYPERSOFT, INC. announces its all-new, interactive, interoperable, cross-platform, new multimedia solution"? Well, neither will we.

It's not required, but it helps if you include a quick, bulleted fact sheet:

  • What the product is
  • When it was first released
  • What platforms it runs on
  • What the configuration requirements are
  • How much it costs
  • Contact people for the press
  • URLs and other contact information for the general public

Give us the who/what/when/where/why as articulately as you can. Some vendors have the mistaken impression that by not mentioning the product's price or availabilty, we will be encouraged to pick up the phone to ask them. They're wrong. Incomplete information is far more likely to get your files in our trash bin than on our hotlist.

Remember, we receive more news than we can use. Your goal should be to make it easy for us to write the news story without contacting you. While this doesn't necessarily save us a lot of time for full-scale news stories, and we rarely do write an article without talking with you, your attempt to provide us with the complete overview saves time for all concerned. Plus, news briefs and company briefs are often written at 3:00am on Sunday night, or in a fifteen-minute period to fill a hole that appeared at the last moment before the magazine went to press.

A note on prices: If this is "a market-leading breakthrough price point," then give us the history of its pricing; such as: Introduced in Jan. of '94 at $12,500. Dropped in Jan. '95 to $495. Now $19.95 with free Ginsu knives. If you're announcing a price cut, tell us what the price was before and after. A price cut from $10,000 to $5,000 may be significant, but from $89 to $79 probably isn't.

If it's on paper, a good press release is typeset in an easy-to-read font at a reasonable size (at least 12 point on an 18 point sett); many of us writers are old farts who need reading glasses, and faxes don't make documents easier to read. Include publishable URLs, telephone numbers, addresses, and fax numbers. You can also provide a page of resource URLs, which point to downloadable, print-quality pictures (not Web-resolution bitmaps), white papers, spec sheets, and so forth.

Press release DOs and DON'Ts

Don't bother to include a trinket with your press kit. It won't convince me of the worthiness of your software, so in most cases it's a waste of money. True, some journalists find them useful as memory kickers. ("Oh, yeah, Xware . . . they were the ones who sent us the x-shaped kitchen magnets. Look, the URL's written on the side, where it says, "The URL is out there.")

In general, however, you're probably better off using the money to improve your product. Sure, I'll use your corkscrew. I won't throw it out. But it doesn't buy you anything, in any sense of the word. A competent journalist won't depend on knickknacks to get his information; he'll head to the search engines and the databases.

Do include, in the press kit, a short written explanation about what the product is, who it's aimed at, and what features or capabilities make it worth my time. Don't waste words telling me that your innovation is great, unique, or awesome -- I'll make my own decision about that, and ignore yours. In fact, the more superlatives you use, the more likely that a journalist, naturally inclined to distrust anything she reads, will want to knock you off your pedestal. A remarkable number of vendors forget the "basics," such as name, address, and e-mail, whether included on a business card or elsewhere in the kit. (Strangely enough, many vendors forget to put this information on their Web sites as well.)

Is the technology new (this means you have either invented the first firewall, the first proxy server, or the first streaming audio -- not just a better one) or an extension to something we already understand)? If so, do, by all means, include a white paper or something that explains the basic whats and wherefores with little diagrams. (However, we rarely trust a claim that this is the "first" or "only" product to do such-and-so. If you're sure that's the case, back it up.)

Even more important, have the developer or inventor ready to explain what I don't understand. Please don't tell me "you think that sounds right" if you don't have absolute knowledge, or tell me that you'll check, then play a game of "telephone" that leads to my getting an answer that doesn't address my question because you, or the PR person-in-the-middle, lack the technical expertise to properly communicate my question.

If you don't know, put me in touch with the person who does and get out of the way.

First Contact

Now that you have a press kit, you want to get it to us.

Sending press releases

Many journalists prefer that you send press releases via e-mail. You will find some die-hard snail mail folks, and a few who like faxes. If you're about to start working with a new journalist, and you're not sure how they prefer to receive their press information, ask. (And, if you do ask, abide by the request.)

That's especially true if you intend to send a fax, since faxes cost us time and money to receive. You'd better be sure I want to get that fax before you tie up my phone lines.

E-mail should be sent as a plain text file: the simpler, the better.

Many writers and editors routinely and automatically delete any mailing that's addressed to more than three people in the subject line, or which has a binary attachment; a virus could put many writers out of commission. Therefore, please do not blindly send binary attachments, such as Microsoft Word files or Acrobat documents or -- even worse -- huge graphics files.

We don't have a lot of time to spend reading press releases; so the quicker you can get the message through to us, the quicker we can respond. If you have a full press kit with screen shots and four-part harmony, mention in your e-mail message that a full press kit is available; but only send it to those who ask. (Doing so will save you money, anyway.) Better yet, put that press kit on your Web site, and provide the URL in the ASCII news release that you e-mail us.

Let's make this clear: unsolicited attachments merit the death penalty

Never, never send an unsolicited file, especially an unsolicited binary file. If you can take away only one message from this article, let this be it. Let me repeat, for emphasis: do not send us e-mail attachments, unless you are willing to bet your job that we want that file.

You may not realize it, but file attachments are really an imposition. You don't know where I am when I receive your message. I could be calling in long distance on my laptop, with barely enough room left on the hard disk to read my text messages. We certainly don't want to take the risk of picking up a virus from you (and yes, this happened to one PR firm). This is one of the major annoyances we journalists complain about among ourselves. In fact, most of us will delete unsolicited binary files without even reading them.

Above all, do not send us large graphical files which may take forever to download. With an average daily e-mail load of several hundred messages, we don't have time to waste with graphic downloads, no matter how cool they look. If you can convince us that your product is worth our time, we'll get in touch with you, and then you can send us all the pretty pictures and information files we need.

If the writer has said, "Sure, send me your information," and the file contents are more than 25K (that's only a few pages in Word), let the journalist know the size first. I may want you to send it to another account, or I may prefer to download it from your site, at my leisure. (Shall I recount the anecdote about the well-meaning PR guy who sent me a 4MB file via my 28.8kbps modem dialup account? When I was dialing in from a hotel room? And then he sent it five times, by mistake? No, I don't want to see you cringe.)

To whom should you send your releases?

The answer sounds self-contradictory: send it to everybody that might be interested in your message, but don't send it to everybody.

If you really want to find the "right people," your best course of action is to look at the magazines that cover your type of product. Get the e-mail addresses for staffers and contributing editors (regular freelancers) from the masthead or from the magazine's Web site. Often, the publication's Web site also lists the editorial calendar (which means less than you think it does) and gives a clue about which editors handle what topics. This process costs little or nothing, and it's the easiest way to be accurate. If the number of contacts is overwhelming, find the e-mail ID of an editorial assistant; it's the assistant's job to track the journalists' beats.

It's also important for you to figure out -- perhaps with the help of that editorial assistant -- which writers care about what kind of information. As a technology editor, I don't care about the name of the new CEO or the company's newest business alliance; I only care about products. News editors and feature editors have different perspectives. Sending me the wrong information annoys me, and makes it harder to get my attention the next time you try.

For instance, a well-meaning PR person sent me a message saying, "I thought the attached [product] review, which appears in the current issue of [competing publication] might be of interest to your readers." This PR person actually imagined that I'd reprint a review from another publication? Or was she naive enough to imagine that, since the other magazine had reviewed the software, I'd feel compelled to do so, too?

The answer is No. Even if I was tempted, my first response would be, "Well, we missed that one; someone else covered it already." If a PR person sends me clippings from six other publications, it doesn't make me more likely to write about their client; it has the precise opposite effect. It makes me think that the PR person is pitching a story that has been pretty thoroughly chewed over and digested already. Because we're looking for fresh news, I'm likely to move on at that point and throw the PR person's pitch in the trash bin.

If you send a product, e-mail, or press release to one person at a publication, don't assume that it reaches everyone at, or associated with, the publication. That's especially true of the freelance members of the staff. ("Contributing editor" means "a freelancer we like a lot." "Senior contributing editor" generally means "a freelancer we like a heck of a lot, and the editor-in-chief will buy her dinner when they happen to be in the same city.") Even within the on-site staff of big magazines, people barely have time to wave at each other in the hallways. Besides, even journalists who are friends actively compete with one another and tend to hoard certain information.

On the other side of the coin, though, note that writers, freelancers, and editors do talk with (and about!) each other. And yes, we talk about you vendors, both positively and negatively. That's our version of "shop talk." "Gee, you wouldn't believe what happened when I reviewed one of XYZ's products a couple of years ago. They spent twenty minutes on the phone yelling at me for giving them a bad review, when the stupid product didn't even install! They even threatened to sue the magazine." No freelancer who hears such a story will go out of her way to write about XYZ's products; and if they do work with the company, they won't do it with a trusting heart. The lesson here is: Don't screw us. We remember. And there's an old saying about not doing battle with someone who buys ink by the barrel.

(Perhaps that seems harsh, even threatening. It's not meant that way. However, an alarming number of vendors act as though it's okay to screw a writer, and they assume that the word never will get out.)

But which are the important people?

Whether you're a professional PR representative or a solo shareware author anxious to get mentioned in the press, please realize that every journalist is equally important -- whether or not he has a big name and a big reputation behind him. (You're thinking: Yeah, right. We get the best response from the biggest publications, and we want to reach as many eyeballs as possible.)

Yet, where do you think those big names come from? Every one of us started small. Treat a freelance writer from a tiny publication with the respect you give You-Know-Who. In three years, that freelancer might become a technology editor at a top-flight publication, and will remember the people who treated her well. (Why yes, that does describe my background. Guess which PR people's phone calls I return first?)

Although you may have your eye on the top magazine editors, you should really go out of your way to create a relationship with the freelancers and staff writers who write about products in your beat. This shouldn't be difficult to determine: search the Web, looking for authors of reviews of competing products. Often, the online review will even include the author's email address.

Freelancers make money only when they successfully pitch a story or review idea to an editor; they'll be happy if your product is worth writing about. If they already know the product category, they'll be more interested in covering your application and they'll do a better (i.e. more accurate) job. If one editor says No, they'll turn around and ask another, until someone says Yes.

Strangely, though, a lot of big PR firms act as though freelancers are child molesters.

Sometimes, an unknown freelancer will approach you and you won't know who they are; you may be wary that it's a freeloader. Learn to use a search engine to look at our work. It's reasonable to ask for our e-mail address and examine our Web pages. If you're really dubious, tell the freelancer that you'll need her editor to assure you that the freelancer has been given the assignment. (However, it's rude to ask us to send you "samples of our work," as though we're trying to pass a hiring interview or enter a secret society.) But do give a freelancer a clear answer. If you have a problem, we all need to know immediately, not when it's too late to pull the assignment out of the dumper.

Another easy place to get reviewed is in computer user group newsletters; user groups are always anxious for review fodder, and it's an excellent avenue for smaller vendors who want to be noticed. (You can find user group listings at several sites, not the least of which is the Association of PC User Groups and the User Group Academy.)

Don't call. Really.

You should not call us to find out if we received your press release. We realize that follow-ups are part of many PR organizations' normal operating procedure, but in many cases it's more likely to create resentment. It is appropriate to follow up on requested information, such as a sent press kit or product, but not on a blind mailing.

If we're interested, you'll hear from us. If we've already established an ongoing relationship because I've covered your products earlier, it's okay to send a follow-up e-mail a few days later to ask if I have any questions; but that's it.

Now, I know this next point goes against a lot of your training; but take our word for it: Nothing sets a writer or editor's teeth on edge more than an eager young voice saying, "I'm calling to see if you got the press release we sent." (It is, alas, common practice to have follow-up calls made by the most junior [read: clueless] members of an agency.) When we're in the middle of a tight deadline, the last thing we want is a phone call that contains no new or useful information whatsoever. Thus, by making such calls, you're harming both clients' and your own reputations. If you actually have something substantive to add, such as pointing out an error in a press release, that's another story; but you're still better off sending us an e-mail about it than calling us.

Possibly the worst phone call is when the PR person just reads from a document, and actually has no idea what he's talking about. If you're going to have someone just read, why not just e-mail me the information? If someone calls, it should be a person whom I can question a little bit about the news.

Are you sure you want to call, despite our advice?

Never call a reporter for a newsweekly on deadline day. It's Thursday for some publications, Monday for others, and if you don't know which day is for that magazine, send an e-mail. On deadline day, unless you're calling to say that the company CEO was killed in a car crash, news writers have no time for you.

When you return a phone call, identify yourself as completely as possible. "This is Walter Slovotsky from Mumble, Inc. You left me a message regarding an intranet roundup you're doing, and were interested in including our YapOData...?" This seems obvious, but I get a lot of calls that say, "This is Jane. You left me a message...?"

Many writers work at home. (While that used to be true mostly of freelance writers, it's just as true of magazine staff, nowadays.) That makes the "don't call" rule especially important. For example, some writers who collect, review, or judge Web sites sleep days and surf nights. (Otherwise, it would take us three times as long to do our jobs). These writers leave the phone plugged in because children are out of town or in school, or they want to be available to a spouse. Getting a call from a PR person in the daytime would be like you getting a call from a writer at your home in the middle of the night.

Between a writer's odd hours and time zone differences, it's entirely likely that an east-coast PR person will find herself waking up a freelancer at 6:00am. This is not a good way to make a first impression. Unless you're certain of the writer's time zone and/or schedule, think twice if you call before 11:00am EST.

And, whether the writer is home-based or in an office cube, never show up unannounced.

E-mail and telephone hygiene

Do use meaningful subject headers. Here are a few we recommend against: "Hello Robert," "Press Release," or "Leveling the E-Commerce Playing Field" (the latter about an online comic-book store).

Don't use subject headers that look like spam. Anything with repeated exclamation points, dollar signs or all caps makes me stab the delete key reflexively -- assuming that my e-mail client doesn't auto-route the offending message to the trash first.

Don't use Hotmail, Juno, yahoomail, or AOL, for the same reason. It also looks unprofessional and basically shouts, "Look, we're too poor to afford a real e-mail account."

Do use a signature file with your full contact info.

Don't send a press release to your entire press list, with the entire recipient list visible. (I received on e-mailed press release that consisted of four screens of TO: e-mail addresses, followed by one line of text and an attached Word document. The text read, "Hope to see you there!") When I look at a TO list that's bigger than most people's Christmas card list, I think, "Well, someone else'll be covering this if it's worth attention. I won't bother, because my article won't be unique." We all like to feel special, even if we know otherwise.

Do turn off the option in your mail program that sends a second, HTML copy of the message as an attachment.

Don't attach a vCard. You want me to know how to reach you? Use a signature file. And if you insist on auto-attaching a vCard, please use a filename besides "vcard.vcf."

Don't call to say, "I'm calling to follow-up on the e-mail we sent you announcing that the BelchFire Corp. introduced the ThunderMug 5000." Instead, say, "I'm calling for BelchFire Corp. to announce that we've introduced the ThunderMug 5000." It's a small thing, sure -- but the former phrasing focuses attention on the e-mail (who cares about the e-mail anyway?) while the latter phrasing focuses on what's really important: the announcement itself.

Don't start out a phone call by saying, "Is now a good time?" How can I know, if I don't know what you're calling about? It's always a good time to call with page one news. However, if I'm struggling to write a story that's already hours late, it's not a good time to call to ask me if I got the e-mail you sent me two weeks ago.

Don't use voicemail as a substitute for e-mail, at least not until we get voicemail systems with fast-forward buttons. If you can't make your point in less than a short paragraph, hang up and e-mail me instead. Begin your message with your name and phone number; don't make us listen to the entire five minute message just to find out how to reply to you.

Don't use the stalker mode of calling. Most of us have Caller ID. We can tell when you're calling three times in 15 minutes, to try to ambush us at our desks. (Not all of us object to this, but it's a pet peeve for those who do.)

Press on the Web

The biggest change in writer's roles, since we wrote Care & Feeding 1.0, has been the ubiquity of the Web. All of us research online, nowadays, both to find products worthy of coverage and to contact the people we need for the articles we work on. You can help us work together better by making your company's site friendly to the press.

Make the site deadline-friendly. Put the PR contact info where a reporter can find it.

Our biggest complaint about press pages is the lack of contact information. Ideally, each PR person on staff (as well as PR agency staff assigned to the account) will be listed online, with e-mail IDs, addresses, and telephone numbers. If the company offers more than one product, list each PR person's areas of responsibility.

When we're trying to find a PR contact, we're probably already late for something. If the Press Shortcut (how I long to see those words!) is part of an image map, make sure that section of the graphic is a separate image with it's own ALT="Press Shortcut" in the <IMG> coding. Try to put your whole text alternative menu or link to a text alternative page at the top of the site.

One of the worst things you can do is require that a press person register for access to the media section of the Web site. We know all the reasons that you chose to implement that policy, but we don't care. If we're writing a review, we're apt to access this sort of information at 11:00pm PST on Sunday night when the review is due at 8:00am EST. If we aren't yet writing about your company, you've presented us with one more barrier to doing business with you.

The press page should also include links to recent and not-so-recent press releases. Put the price and platform info both in the press release and in the details page about the product itself. Just because a press release on the Web is accessible to the unruly masses doesn't mean it shouldn't include a "For additional information" line with a contact person's name, phone number, and e-mail address.

The news and feature reporters among us also like a page listing the company executives, with their titles and a downloadable picture.

On the product page, give me facts about the product. It amazes us how many people leave out the price; last we checked, this was, in fact, a capitalist economy, and price is an important factor to consider before buying something.

Technical specs don't need to be on the main page, necessarily, but a link to them is useful.

Keep graphics to a minimum. A nice compact GIF or JPG of the product is plenty. If you want to offer product graphics suitable for inclusion in a print magazine -- it's a nice touch -- offer it as a downloadable link, in both zipped and stuffed files; don't force us to view them.

Once we're in touch

You want your product, or your client's product, to get as much ink as possible. You hope that when we writers say things about the product, the remarks will be positive. The single most important advice I can give you is to make it blissfully easy to cover your product. Deliver what you promise, when you promise it, and make it work. It's to your benefit to act swiftly and "look helpful" but stay out of my way, as if we were cooking together in a kitchen and I was deep-frying with hot oil.

I get new software dropped on my doorstep every single day. I might tell you, "Sure, send me a copy!" However, especially with freelancers, that does not by any stretch of the imagination imply that I will review it, or that I will even try to do so. I might not get a chance to look at it. I might look at it, but be unable to convince an editor that it deserves mention or that it fits their particular angle or is appropriate for their publication's audience. ("We don't review utilities here.") Requesting a product is not a promise that we will review it. It just means we think the product may be noteworthy; and if we do get to see it and we can convince an editor to agree with us, it might see print. Still, it is a good place to start, and you should always err on the side of sending out too much software than too little. Sure, someone will occasionally take advantage of you, but the unexpected reviews can astonish you.

Occasionally, two writers from the same publication will contact you simultaneously. Don't blow off one of them because someone else at the same magazine is talking to you, even if it's about the same product or announcement. Different sections of a magazine will go at a topic from different perspectives and, as a PR person, you don't know what is in the assigning editors' head. When it comes to reviews, let us know if there is a potential duplication, but don't ignore the request.

Conference calls

Once upon a time, I was bemused at the number of PR people who wanted to set up an interview with the CEO, even if all I wanted was a clarification of the company's pricing policy. This made a lot more sense to me when I learned that PR people are paid for every interview they set up.

On the technology side of this industry, most of us don't want to talk to a company exec. We want you to send us the software so we can review it. That means a full, working, non-expiring copy, and it means send it overnight.

When we do request a conference call, we don't need you listening in, especially if the details are too arcane for you to follow. Your presence is, frankly, more likely to cause communication errors. It makes it harder for us to hear, and it sometimes makes the technoids too nervous to talk. They aren't conference call people, and neither am I. Honestly, they all want to keep their jobs; so I sincerely doubt that they'll destroy your company if you let them have a conversation all by themselves.

Demos

Generally, we hate demos. We consider them a waste of our time, because the information density is so low compared to "give it to me and let me work with it." We've seen enough of them to know that's it easy to make a macro play over a fake background, or to demonstrate the few features that work... and then PR staff apparently think we'll write the product as if it exists.

For some complex or truly innovative products, a demo is really necessary -- but this happens much less often than you'd guess. If the product is complex, breaks with too many conventions to be immediately grasped, or is a novel hardware widget that we won't get a review copy of for another month, we might be interested. But keep in mind that demos are generally only useful in proportion to the amount of time that's left over for Q&A after the dog and pony show ends.

When conducting a demo, be aware of the extreme antipathy many of us feel towards PowerPoint slides or other computer-based presentation materials. PowerPoint, and its siblings, encourage lifeless, canned spiels delivered in a monotone. Choose your presentation materials judiciously.

Also, lose the endless presentations of statistics showing why this vendor is incredibly great and everyone else on the planet is dogmeat.

We also hate:

  • Tours of products that won't ship for another year.
  • Demos of things that we can check out on my own whenever we feel like it, such as Web sites.
  • Demos where the flacks assume we don't know what we're talking about, and so waste half an hour on some pedantic, PowerPoint-driven explanation of VRML.
  • And did we mention that we hate PowerPoint?

The same rules, by the way, apply to press conferences.

News versus features versus technology

Don't assume that news reporters will sign NDAs at the drop of a hat. Some publications expressly forbid this. You waste our time when you book a meeting and don't bother to tell us that it's under NDA beforehand. However, keep in mind that news and technology staff can operate under different rules; often, News won't sign NDAs but Technology will. If you're unsure of the publication's policy, ask.

If you have an announcement, announce it. If you don't, then don't bother us. A recent fad is for a PR person to call, saying, "I'm from Company XYZ, and we'd like you to cover our visualization announcement." We say, "By visualization, you mean graphics?" "No, more like monitors." "Oh, okay, well, we don't cover monitors, thanks, bye." "But it's MORE THAN MONITORS." "Oh, okay, what's the announcement then?" "I'm sorry, but we can't tell you that because it's not being announced until tomorrow." Perhaps, under the circumstances, we'd rather know about the upcoming announcement than not know about it -- but if you're going to call to tell me your client has an announcement but that you can't tell me what it is, we'll have to guess whether the announcement is newsworthy. Chances are, unless your client has revenue of $1 billion or more, I'm going to guess that your client doesn't have any news for me. (Don't try to be clever. It doesn't help for you to say that your client's announcement is "important," "really important," "really, really important," or "revolutionary.")

Just because a reporter is not going to a trade show does not mean he is not interested in news from that trade show. Often, a beat reporter will be assigned to cover an announcement by phone even if another reporter is on-site at the trade show. The beat reporter is better-equipped to handle the announcement because he understands the technology better.

Okay, you're being reviewed: Now what?

Apparently, you've followed all my advice explicitly, because you've received some sort of notice that a writer will be reviewing your product for some fancy publication. Cool! Now, how do you deal with the writer during this process?

Get me the information I ask for, when I want it, in the manner that I want it.

I promise you that I will want it immediately, with an unreasonable deadline. Cope with it. I have an unreasonable deadline, too. If I tell you that I'm reviewing your product, unless I tell you otherwise, that means "Send it FedEx overnight, to arrive by 10 a.m."

Verify that you have the correct address. Many PR people depend on a Media Map or Press Access (it costs them quite a bit of money, so they'd better do so) which lists all sorts of press people and media personalities, contact information, and a description of what they do. Unfortunately, at one time, Media Map had the wrong address for me, so anything sent by a "thoughtful" PR person who didn't verify my address sat in front of an unoccupied office in a bad neighborhood.

Also, many freelance writers are listed in Media Map under the publication(s) they contribute to. Sending products to those addresses, to the attention of the freelancer, is a bad idea; the mailroom doesn't know what to do with the package. Nine times out of ten, the product will never get to its intended recipient.

Always, when you send the package, enclose something that provides what I call the "About box" data. That's the information you'll find in the "at a glance" box alongside a review, citing the product's full name and version, the company's full official name, the product list price (yes, I know that nobody pays list), company address, phone (both 800 number and toll), fax, e-mail and/or Web address. I often have to scurry for this information at the last minute, which is generally 11:00 p.m. on a Sunday night. Also, throw in another copy of your business card when you pack the box. I know I have it somewhere, but it's a lot more convenient for me to keep all the information together.

If you're shipping me hardware and expect to get it back, also enclose the FedEx or Airborne airbills for the equipment's return trip and any special shipping instructions. If you do so, you'll see it a lot sooner. (That also confirms the writer's expectation that you do expect the equipment back.)

If you wish to include a reviewer's guide along with the software, feel free to do so. Some editors and writers will find them helpful, and others won't even look at them -- their philosophy is to only look at the same documentation that the customer receives. But it does no harm to include a guide, particularly if it includes background material that a customer would be already familiar with as a prerequisite to purchasing your product, but which the reviewer might not be aware of. If the reviewer's guide contains a full price schedule, version history, links to where online high-res graphics (screen shots, box shots), etc. would be, maybe even copies of the vendors' press releases for that product -- that would add value, and make the reviewer's guide worth reading.

Need a checklist? Here's what to include every time you send out a product for review.

  • Proper product name
  • Normal Configuration Details and Price (off-the-shelf--Street and SRP).
  • Reviewed Configuration Details and Price--Street and SRP, including price, for any and all installed options.
  • Spec Sheet including OEM vendors (printer engine maker, router chip maker, etc.) unless such are a trade secret.
  • Prices for any and all replaceable/consumable parts.
  • Proper company name (including the Inc., Corp., etc.)
  • Company address
  • 800 and local phone numbers for customer contact.
  • URL
  • E-mail for customer contact
  • RMA number
  • Return shipping form with all details filled in.
  • Direct phone number for technically skilled person for troubleshooting. Many of us don't want to wait for the PR person to muck about and find someone. When we need info, we need it ASAP; we also want somebody who knows the product inside and out. We aren't interested in talking to a marketing person who can't help us tune a printer driver, reset TCP/IP settings, and the like. (This doesn't preclude us from testing your tech support anonymously, but we always need the emergency troubleshooting number. Just in case.)
  • Direct phone number for product manager or person who can speak to product placement, marketing, and design. (If the PR person needs to be involved, that's fine; but if he doesn't want to give a phone number, he must be proactive about setting up an interview.)

Give us the real thing

If your application is the kind that the customer downloads from a Web site, or if it's a shareware application, cut a special CD for us so that we don't have to download anything. Don't think of us as too lazy to go to your Web site; we're usually juggling a half-dozen assignments, and the system from which we do our e-mail and downloads isn't necessarily the same computer on which we do our software testing. It might be on a separate network.

Besides, sending us a real box (or at least a CD) really works to your benefit. When I look around for a product to review (in an emergency, when a vendor lied and said that the software would be here by Monday and it isn't), I look at the stack of non-virtual boxes and disks and press kits. If I have an installable disk in my hot little hand, your chances of getting a review are magnified tenfold -- especially if your product is from a small company that wouldn't otherwise be a no-brainer to review.

Whatever you do, make it incredibly easy for me to do business with you. Don't tell me to go to an ftp site. Even if your application is a tiny shareware program, send me a diskette -- with the registered version, please.

Don't send a demo version; we don't review demos. We want to see the same applications that real people will see and use. In our review, we're judging the paying customer experience, not the experience of the trying-before-buying sales prospect.

Many of us got into this business because we really love software. If you send a version that expires, you practically guarantee that we won't pitch your product to an editor again, because we've been deceived and robbed. Sure, you've successfully bamboozled the reviewer and prevented him from playing with your product once the review was in; but he'll be around next year, and the year after that. And he'll be pitching products from other vendors -- your competitors -- that don't play head games. Besides, we can almost always tell that a product is cheesy before even plugging it in, because a small-minded vendor will put more effort into ensuring that we don't "steal" it than in making a product anyone would want.

Plus, I've had more trouble with time-limited demos than with the "real thing," and not just when I discover that the 30-day demo expired two days before I got around to installing the application. Make life easier for all of us, and send us the real thing.

Few of us are interested in looking at software when it's in beta. The exceptions are usually products that we're convinced are going to be important, or if the product is in our "beat," a product category we focus on. (For instance, someone who reviews accounting software all the time might -- might -- look at beta accounting software.) The problem is that you don't know which writers are interested. It's okay for you to offer a reviewer a beta copy, when the release is imminent, but don't be offended if we say No.

Being passive aggressive by covertly sending beta to a reviewer writing for a publication that won't accept a beta review wastes that reviewer's time, takes money out of his/her pocket and adds the vendor to that reviewer's Shi... er... Won't Cover list. Don't think the reviewer won't figure out they have beta on their hands, either. More than likely, he'll discover it when he has to call Tech Support because of a bug, and Tech Support knows nothing about it because it's beta. Be up front: Ask about the publication's policy, then comply with it.

Even more importantly, keep the reviewer well informed about product release dates; if the ship date slips (and we do know that happens) let us know soonest. If we have enough notice, we can reschedule a review and move it back a month or so. But if we're expecting the CD on Friday (expecting to give it a "first shot" review over the weekend) and you tell us on Thursday that it'll be another two weeks, that throws us into emergency mode. We're apt to cancel the review instead of just moving it back.

Communicating with us during the review process

Be available to answer any questions I might have, but don't be a pest.

It's fine to send an e-mail the day after I should have received the package to verify that I got it. (Don't call. An e-mail is friendly; a call is intrusive.) It's also fine for you to give me your own contact information and schedule at that point, and to offer assistance: "I'll be around all week, but if you have any questions about the product you might want to note that I'll be offline all weekend." Don't be offended if I don't contact you. Ordinarily, if I need technical support, I will do it anonymously if at all possible. My readers won't be able to call the PR department and get personal attention from the marketing manager, after all.

If I have a "long" lead time for a review (say, two or three weeks), it's okay for you to e-mail or call me about a week after you sent the product to say, "How's it going?" Some writers say they still don't want a call. I'd err on the side of e-mail, making sure that my contact info is included in the message. If the writer is having trouble, you'll get an answer. If they're not, you won't. Don't call to find out if he got the e-mail follow-up; that's certain to get you in hot water. Just be patient and let us do our jobs. If any minor questions have come up, this is the point at which I'd be likely to ask them. That one contact is enough, unless I make it very obvious that you're welcome to call or that I need more information.

If you promise me information, though, deliver it. And do so within the time constraints that I have to live with. Every time you fail to deliver, you make your company look bad, and that will affect how I regard your product. Service counts, especially when I'm forced to wonder, "If this is how they treat me, how do they treat an ordinary customer?" Besides, such delays also make me look bad to my editor. I don't like that. If it occurs with any regularity, I will refuse to write about your products henceforth. I want my editors to think well of me, because they are the ones who sign those pretty pieces of paper that say, "Pay to the order of."

Never try to get more attention by saying that you advertise in the publication I write for. To a professional writer, there is very little that is more of a turnoff. I don't know if you advertise. I don't want to know. I don't care. I'm not in marketing. If I do know, I ignore that knowledge. It has nothing whatsoever to do with my job, which is to examine the product from the viewpoint of my readers and to tell them: (a) what your company claims the product does; (b) how well it actually does it; and (c) whether my readers should fork over their hard-earned clams to get it.

To mention anything about advertising is to imply, intentionally or otherwise, that the content of my review should be influenced by your advertising dollars. I don't deal well with that sort of threat. If I permit myself to have any response to it, it will be a negative response towards your company, and possibly towards the product.

No, we won't tell you what we think of it

Understand that YOU WILL NOT BE TOLD AHEAD OF TIME ABOUT THE CONTENTS OF ANY REVIEW. EVER.

My editor is paying me to give my opinion of the product to my readers. While I understand fully that you want to know my response, I'm never going to tell you about it before it sees print. First, I'm writing for the readers, and not for your approval or disapproval. Second, if I said anything with which you disagreed, since my lead time from article submission to paper is usually measured in months, you would have the opportunity to complain to the publication (and to the world in general) before the readers even knew about the review. So much for objectivity! So I won't tell you what I said -- and neither will my editors. Don't even ask. You will see it when it reaches print, at the same time the readers see it.

Don't ask to see an article you've helped a writer research before it appears in the publication. This is an absolute no-no. The writer won't show it to you. In fact, the writer can't show it to you, since that article, once submitted, is the responsibility of an editor at the publication. The editor won't show it to you because every publication we know has a policy against doing so. So don't ask; all it does is convey to the writer the message that you don't trust her reporting, which is not a good message to convey. We know there are instances when a senior company executive is vitally concerned that she be quoted accurately, in intent as well as actual words. If that's a make-or-break issue, discuss it with the writer before the interview is scheduled. In some instances, the writer may agree to send out the actual quotes she wants to use. But don't count on it; such a request is more likely to send her looking for someone else to interview, likely at a competing company.

Don't try to tell me what to think.

Give me product information related to technology or usability. ("Our application is the only one that prints flowcharts in color.") Don't tell me how wonderful it is, or how much I'm going to like it, or how much my readers will be interested in this subject. That's my decision and my determination, not yours. I'm sure you love your product, and it's okay for that enthusiasm to show; but don't let it slop over to the point where it gets in the way of clarity.

Similarly, while I'm thrilled that you provide copious information, don't be surprised if I don't use the greater part of it. For example, some vendors have offered me bit-mapped screen shots of their products. Learn about the nature of the publication and its purpose before you even offer such a thing; also, ask what format they'd need it in. I myself would never contemplate including a vendor's screen shot in any review I wrote (though I've been told of other publications that would). I consider taking screen shots about my user experience to be included in the "tell the reader how it really works" part of my job.

Sometimes, publications do want a screen shot from you, because they'll use it in product announcements. Product announcements are very different from reviews; they don't speak about the publication's opinion of the product, but only about what the company says the product is or does. (Therefore, they can also print a picture of what the company says the product is or does, i.e. your screen shot.) Readers are expected to be able to tell the difference. Whether or not they can, I'm not so sure; but we certainly can! Note, though, that these are usually very tiny pictures -- often 1" square. You can't fit anything complex in such a tiny space; so anything that doesn't precisely fit the publication's own style gets dumped.

After the review prints

You anxiously, and quietly, waited for the article to come out. It's not in the issue that the reviewer indicated, though. What do you do?

It's okay to send an e-mail asking for clarification: "Didn't you say it'd be in the September 9th issue?" Never take it personally. Usually, an article is shuffled around in the schedule because something else newsworthy grabbed the attention, or because a full page ad arrived at the last moment and an edit page had to be cut. In any case, don't bug the freelancer asking when the review will print. Most of the time, the freelancer doesn't know, and the editor rarely bothers to tell him.

Before you worry that "it wasn't in the September 9th issue" online, look at the print edition. Magazine Web sites are usually not updated the day that the print issue appears on newsstands; they can trail by a week or a month.

If you liked the article when it appears -- we gave you an "editor's choice" or recommended that every reader mortgage his house, if necessary, to buy a copy -- it's fine for you to send a thank-you e-mail. We probably won't reply, but everyone appreciates a thank you. We won't be hurt if you don't say anything, though.

What if we wrote an inaccurate story?

Okay, let's say that I wrote a review of your product, and you're convinced that it's the most inaccurate thing you'd ever seen. You're incensed that I got product features wrong, that I said the software was fit only to line birdcages, whatever. What's the proper thing to do?

As soon as you discover the error, send me an e-mail, with a "cc:" to my editor. Don't simmer. Don't wait three months before you lodge a complaint. (If nothing else, if you're right and the author is wrong, you'll want the error correction to appear in print as soon as possible.)

As objectively as possible, point out the errors and omissions, and cite as many unbiased facts as you can manage. ("The reviewer said that our application won't print in color. This is incorrect, and I'd be happy to send you sample printouts to demonstrate this.") Don't mention that you're an advertiser; it's not relevant, and it reeks of powermongering. Don't accuse the reviewer of malice: That is extremely rare, especially among reputable writers. Don't let your anger get in the way; it may distract us from your perfectly valid facts. While writers do occasionally make mistakes, your best bet is to approach the situation with the attitude that surely there must have been some misunderstanding, and couldn't the editor help you unravel it?

At this point, your real contact is with the editor, not the writer. Since it's obvious that the editor will correspond with the review author about your complaint, you can save time by sending that cc:. If you're not sure which person to contact, this is one of the few times you can feel safe in writing to the editor in chief. While she might not be the appropriate person to handle the situation, she'll definitely forward it accordingly -- and it doesn't hurt to have her cognizant of your presumably justified complaint.

While all this is going on, hold your temper about the errors. If your customers write to say, "Hey, Mumble Magazine said that your application won't print in color!", then let them know you're talking with the magazine to find out what the problem was. Don't leave messages all over Internet newsgroups saying that the writer was an idiot and made factual errors -- especially if you don't bother to tell the writer or editor that you did so. (Yes, this has happened.)

First of all, we're assuming that you're trying to work things out with the magazine; and if the magazine agrees that they were mistaken, you can be sure they'll take steps to correct the mistake. Do you really want to piss them off before they do so? Besides, whether or not your complaints are justified . . . well, remember that point I made earlier that "writers talk to each other?" The vendor who prematurely rants and raves all over the newsgroups will have a hard time getting anyone to review his products ever again.

During this process, politeness earns you a lot. While everyone concerned can understand why you're upset (especially if you're right!), anger gets in the way of finding a peaceful resolution. If you behave well under fire, both editor and writer will notice; and you might win more in the long run.

But before you decide to get upset, take a moment to decide if there's actually reason to do so. In the last few years, I've seen a surprisingly high number of vendors take exception to positive reviews. While it's okay to clarify a minor inaccuracy, following an appreciative thank-you paragraph, you lose points for complaining bitterly about a review that told the reader that the product is a good value.

Stupid PR Tricks

After the Internet Press Guild published its first version of this guide, we received a few hurt messages from PR people who insisted that not every member of their profession was a congenital idiot. We do know that. When a PR person does his job well, we'll go out of our way to look at the press releases he sends, we'll respond with cheerfulness -- and even joy -- to a phone message, and we'll listen carefully to what he says. When you're good, we really do appreciate you and you earn our trust.

If you're among the truly good PR people, you'll be surprised at a few of these anecdotes. Here's a few examples of the sort of PR foolishness that get on our nerves.

We aren't editorial assistants

One IPG member received this delightful missive:

I'm trying to create a database and would greatly appreciate any help you can provide. I would like to know the following.
  • The business editor for [publication] (online version)
  • Reporters or Editors that would cover tech companies, REITS, or business, etc.
  • Contact e-mail addresses for these editors and reporters
  • Deadlines, and reporters' special requests when pitching stories.
Again, I would greatly appreciated your timely response, and if you deem it necessary, could you please forward to the appropriate persons.

"Well," said the writer, "He did one thing right: He addressed me by name (though I prefer not using first names unless I've actually had some kind of correspondence or contact with the person already). After that it goes downhill as follows:"

  • I haven't been at [publication] for a year.
  • Even when I was there, I wasn't the admin assistant -- the most appropriate person to answer this.
  • I have nothing to do with financial coverage, at [publication] or elsewhere.
  • He appears to have mistaken me for Media Map.
  • He expects me to forward his request to someone who cares.

It's actually your job to be helpful

If you're one of the good guy PR folks, you'll wince at the following. But these are true stories.

One IPG member wrote, "There are also the PR people you run into when you're trying to do not a product, but a news story about technology. Some of them know something, some of them will find someone who does, but the ones I remember, and who need to be made aware are the ones who know nothing and won't find you anyone who does because (???) they don't think your publication or question is important enough to bother someone at the company, they don't want the company to know they know nothing.... I don't >know<< why, but you can hear them making a big giant check mark by your name just because they called back after a week to say they'd 'try to find you someone,' or they'll even say they doubt they can. You know they won't even bother. This gets worse when you've got an assignment during a show, and you know you've been relegated to the 'nah' list because the pub you're working for is new, online only, or a PR person at one of the biggest providers has never heard of, in one case, 'Mecklermedia'(!)

"Then there are the PR people who think that if they don't know the answer, nobody does, or it isn't important. They will never refer you to anyone because they don't want it known that they don't know the answer, even though they're PR people, not engineers.

"Did I mention the PR people who try get rid of you by saying you have to fax your product request or news questions, and are never heard from again after you go to the trouble? Or, after you do what would be termed harassment with anyone in the real world, they try to get rid of you by sending back your questions with 'answers' that look like a kid trying to fake a test when they didn't study. Companies install these people to do a good job with press relations for the company, but some of them, either due to macho personalities that have to deny they don't know the tech stuff, or a corporate culture that wants them to handle things they can't (I doubt this), or whatever, can't let you relate to the company at all. They're just bouncers. Sometimes they pretend they want to help, but you know they won't, and sometimes the really junior ones will actually be snotty if they haven't heard of your publication, kind of like a sales clerk in an expensive store. Excuse me, but your job isn't to be a snob, or play "Princess Barbie the PR 'Account Executive.'" It's to actually put press people together with products, answers, or people with answers. One PR Ken, when pestered with questions a few times faxed his whole press kit, then, when bugged a couple more times, mailed the same thing, then, when faced with the same questions after all his extreme efforts, sent me the company's investor packet. If it isn't in the papers he's got, he has >no response.<< Asking to talk to someone in the company who knows the answers is like you've wounded him."

Thanks for listening

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Copyright © Esther Schindler 1999-2004, All Rights Reserved. This document may not be reposted on other Web sites or republished without written permission by the author. Permission is expressly granted to everyone to link to this page, as long as the presentation is not part of a framed display.

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