It’s not the most wonderful week of the year

It’s after 7 p.m. on the Saturday before Christmas, and I wrapped up my workweek and  checked off the last major Christmas chores barely an hour ago. Unfortunately, this is not a departure from my holiday habits.

I’ve never been one of those people who can have all presents purchased and wrapped by a week before Christmas. Every year, the back half of December has me scrambling to find worthy presents for family members until I’m worrying more than I should about Amazon shipping deadlines–or finding that I’ve slipped past the wrong side of them. The joy of the holidays escapes me too easily.

At the same time, the advent of CES–Evil Advent, if you will–and the usual onslaught of PR pitches for exhibitors at that enormous electronics show steadily destroys my ability to focus on my day job. My inability to learn from prior gift-shopping experience seems to be matched by the tech-PR industry’s inability to learn that flooding journalists’ inboxes with repetitive or irrelevant pitches–often coupled with invitations to CES events scheduled in defiance of that show’s schedule and traffic, and often followed by cold calls that are never a good idea—-does not constitute effective outreach.

Being treated as if I have an infinite amount of time to evaluate and respond to CES pitches that themselves assume I’ll have an infinite amount of time in Las Vegas during the show is especially maddening when I’m already feeling strung out by the holidays and struggling to write and file the year’s last stories so I might have a few days around Christmas to do as much of nothing as possible before getting on a plane to Vegas.

It is easy to slip into both workload paralysis and errand paralysis, feeling too overwhelmed to do anything that isn’t due this hour and then feeling lousy for getting so little done. That’s a cruel little cocktail of stress and shame, and I imagine many of you have mixed it for yourselves this month.

The last workweek before Christmas is the worst for this, since at that point there’s almost no time left for the holiday chores and the CES planning and the year’s last crop of stories. Plus, most of the good holiday parties already happened.

All of this stress boiled over Thursday morning, when call from a 646 number I was sure I didn’t want to take set Google Voice ringing on my phone, tablet and desktop. As I cursed at my computer and reached for my phone to dismiss the call, I answered it instead. Oops. There’s a Toyota publicist who probably thinks I’m some unhinged nutcase… which might not be that far off from my frazzled state this time of year.

Please stop asking for my “best number”

Too many of my interactions with public-relations types and the people they represent conclude with a pointless question: “What’s your best number?”

That query is a waste of time because my phone number, 202-683-7948, should be obvious: It’s in the signature that appears at the end of almost every e-mail I send as well as on my business cards.

Besides, as a self-employed individual in the 21st century, I don’t use any other number for work.

My absence of a desk line should be obvious: Why bother when I already have a smartphone on my person at almost all times? But the number on my wireless plan isn’t my work number either.

You might see me call from a 703-area-code number if both WiFi connectivity and mobile broadband are awful, but there’s no upside to returning my call at those digits. If I have any cellular signal, calls to my work number will ring through to my cell–and even if my phone is offline, they’ll still reach the rest of my devices.

Yes, I’m one of those people using a Google Voice number, even after years of Google’s intermittent neglect of that service. I’ve had this GV number–again, 202-683-7948, which may be easier to remember as 202-OVERWIT–since 2007, when a friend got me an invite to the closed beta test of GrandCentral, the company Google bought before relaunching its service as Google Voice.

And not only do I have those digits mapped to my regular gadgets, they also reach me in WhatsApp and Signal. I would have done the same with WeChat but couldn’t–which turned out not to matter, since my cell number is invisible in that app.

I trust that’s cleared up how to reach me telephonically. Now can you all also remember that if I don’t pick up when you call, you’re supposed to either leave a voicemail or send a follow-up e-mail?

How to get a CES PR pitch wrong

2018 is only six days old, and I have already received 725 e-mails mentioning “CES” somewhere–and that’s excluding those from colleagues at various clients.

Something about this gargantuan electronics show makes tech-PR types needier and thirstier than at any other time of the year–which, in turn, makes tech-journalism types crankier than at any other time of the year. It’s not a good look for any of us.

With that volume of pitches, any one CES PR e-mail faces dire odds. Those odds get a lot worse if the message gets some basic stuff wrong.

Undisclosed location: Proximity drives scheduling at CES, because the traffic is so awful, so I need to know where an event is at before I decide if it’s worth my time. If you don’t say where your event is at, am I supposed to think it’s at some venue miles from the Strip?

While I’m on the subject, a five-digit booth number is not that much of a help, since that could be anywhere in several square miles of convention-center space.

Unannounced time: More CES pitches than you’d think forget another Invitation 101 thing, telling me when an event is happening. Please remember to put that in the message–by which I mean in the message’s text, so mail clients can detect it and offer to add it to my calendar.

Micromanaged scheduling: The Pepcom and ShowStoppers receptions are an efficient way for smaller companies to get exposure to the press and for journalists to get dinner and a drink or three to numb the pain. I always attend them. (Disclosure: The ShowStoppers people put together my annual trip to the IFA trade show in Berlin.) I don’t mind PR pitches saying that a client will be at one of these events. I really hate requests to book an appointment at them; please don’t waste my time with them.

Breaking the laws of CES physics: Press-conference day and opening day of CES–this time around, Monday and Tuesday–are the two busiest days of the show. Coaxing journalists to some event that isn’t at the primary venue for each day (Mandalay Bay for press conferences, the Las Vegas Convention Center for opening day) is generally a doomed endeavor. PR folks reading this: I wish you good luck in convincing your clients to not try this next year.

Some of these event invitations come with an offer of a free ride to or from the LVCC. On opening day, that car will have to be of the flying variety.

Standard-issue mail #fail. CES is no better than any other time to forget about the BCC line in your e-mail and instead send a pitch to 258 people on the To: line. Somebody did that this time around, and it worked about as well as you’d expect. One recipient took the time to techsplain to the sender how he should check out the BCC option–“I heard it was rolled out at CES 1977”–and of course did so by hitting reply-all himself.

Spokespeople should (still) have names

I got a too-familiar question in an e-mail from a publicist after Sunday’s USA Today column ran: Can you please update the story to attribute my quote to a company spokesperson?

That’s a scenario I’ve been dealing with for years. PR rep e-mails me a comment, I run it with the rep’s name attached, they offer one of the following reasons:

• I’m not a company employee;

• It’s supposed to be the company speaking;

• That’s just our policy.

All of those blank-nametag rationales have some logic behind them, but they suffer from the problem that as a journalist, I’m not a mind reader but do have my notebook open all the time. And in that notebook, quotes normally follow the names of the people who said those words.

It is not my job to guess that you want to speak on a not-for-attribution basis if you don’t say so. And removing a detail that I know to be true after the story’s been published won’t hypnotize the Internet’s hive mind into forgetting that it was there before.

(This habitual insistence on anonymity is especially annoying coming from somebody paid to represent a social network that enforces a real-names policy–yes, Facebook, I’m talking about you. It’s also annoying when somebody wants to defend their employer or client as a faceless source, as if doing so without putting your name on the line somehow makes you more trustworthy.)

So I had to tell this PR firm’s staffer: Sorry, no can do. As far as I can tell, the staffer’s employment remains intact. I hope that continues to be the case.

But since people continue to be surprised by this, let me offer this reminder: If your job is to answer media questions for the company, I will use your name. If you ask me not to, I can honor that request–subject to my editor saying otherwise–but expect that I won’t shelter your exact words inside quotation marks. That’s a privilege I would rather reserve for named sources.

If, however, you want to talk without your name attached because speaking otherwise will risk your job or worse, your conversation will stay safe with me. Encrypted, if you prefer.

2008 called, and it wants its PR pitches back

The other week, I engaged in a futile exercise to avoid having to pay for extra storage in my Google Apps account by getting a few years’ worth of old pitches out of my PR folder. It would have been a quick process if I’d just dragged those thousands of e-mails off the server and into a local folder, but I had to glance over them first to see if I’d filed any important interviews there by mistake… and so went many hours stumbling down memory lane.

2008 calendar closeupBeyond my surprise at how many PR pros can still stand to deal with me (thanks for the continued tolerance, Jesus, Brooke, and Steve), I was also amused to see the PR pitches I’d blown off or misunderstood in just one year, 2008.

For instance, what if I’d known then that I actually would make this app my external brain?

Writing with a company called Evernote— not sure if you are familiar with them, but they have a fascinating story around how consumers can capture their memories in a completely unique and innovative way. The company has already been seeing a lot of buzz around their Web beta and we’re excited to finally be opening the product to the general public. Evernote’s CEO, Phil Libin, will be in DC June 4-6 and I wanted to see if you’d be interested in taking a meeting with him to get an introduction to Evernote and how it can become a user’s external brain?

I ignored the following because, I sniffed at the time, I don’t cover accessories. Look, anybody can ignore a story that becomes a $3 billion acquisition!

Monster, the leader in audio/video accessories, along with legendary artist and producer Dr. Dre and Interscope Geffen A&M Chairman Jimmy Iovine have teamed up to develop a brand new level of headphones, Beats ™ by Dr. Dre ™. The headphones were created to reproduce the full spectrum of sound that musical artists and producers hear in professional recording studios.

I actually did review the gadget offered in the following pitch. But I passed on the CEO interview, and my writeup spent too much time whining about the slow speeds of broadband and the limited availability of streaming movies (even if that remains an annoyance).

Good Morning Rob:

We’re happy to introduce The Netflix Player By Roku.

Please let me know if you would like additional information, JPEGS of the product or would like to speak with Anthony Wood, founder and CEO.

And then there were all the pitches I got for Yahoo sites and services, even after setting aside all the announcements and commentary about Microsoft’s unsuccessful attempt to buy Yahoo. Maybe I should have paid more attention to them?

Weekly output: custom-fitted headphones, virtual reality, Facebook auto alt text, connecting with journalists, FBI vs. Apple

This week featured my first trans-Pacific business trip–I spoke on a panel at the IFA Global Press Conference in Shenzhen, China–and my first travel to Asia since 2007. It seems that I don’t cope with that level of jet lag as well as I did in my 30s.

4/18/2016: For your ears only: Uvero offers earbuds with truly personalized fit, Yahoo Tech

I had a lot of time to try out these custom-fitted earphones on a 16-hour leg from Chicago to Hong Kong. They did not make the flight seem any shorter, but my personal soundtrack did sound better.

4/19/2016: What’s next in Virtual Reality?, IFA Global Press Conference

I talked about trends in this technology with my former Yahoo editor Dan Tynan, HTC’s Raymond Pao and AMD’s Chu Hanjin. The photo below may suggest that i was about to do a mic drop; in reality, I was talking with my hands as usual.

4/20/2016: Facebook launches technology experience to help the blind, Al Jazeera

I did the interview for this piece about Facebook’s efforts in automatically generating descriptions of images two and a half weeks ago. I didn’t know I’d be sitting in front of a TV camera when I got dressed that morning, which is why I’m wearing a green checked shirt instead of TV-friendly solid-color attire. Fortunately, the producers were willing to work with that, and the results looked alright.

4/22/2016: On Deadline: How to Best Connect with Reporters?, Mid-Atlantic Marketing Summit

The morning after I got back from Hong Kong (professionalism!), I talked about how PR types can be less obnoxious when advising the press about upcoming news. My fellow panelists: the Washington Business Journal’s Jim Bach, ABC7’s George Jackson, and Bloomberg’s Jordan Robertson, plus W2 Communications’ Tom Resau  as our moderator.

Al Jazeera FBI Apple interview screen grab4/22/2016: FBI hacking Apple’s iPhone encryption, Al Jazeera

I couldn’t get to AJ’s newsroom on New Hampshire Avenue for this, so they sent a camera crew to me instead. We did the interview in the lobby of the my conference venue, the Gannett/USA Today buildings in Tysons. Afterwards, somebody in Doha sent a screengrab to the producer who then texted that to me.

 

Okay, maybe this SXSW commercialism really has gotten out of hand

AUSTIN–SXSW is really two events. One is the long series of panels and keynotes that teach me new things and get wheels turning in my brain for weeks afterward–for instance, yesterday President Obama did a Q&A that was supposed to be a sales pitch for SXSW techies to lend their talents to making government work better but wound up being his most revealing discussion about device encryption ever.

Sixth Street during SXSW(Twitter was not pleased with Obama’s displeasure about “fetishizing our phones above every other value,” to judge from my own timeline.)

But there’s also the Marketing Spring Break that surrounds this conference, in which every other social media manager, PR rep, advertising executive, and brand ambassador in America takes their employer or client’s corporate credit card and goes on a spending spree with restaurants, bars and caterers here.

The result is a schedule crammed with happy hours, receptions and parties, this year even more so than in the four before that I’ve been privileged to attend this event. My own calendar this evening features five events, most overlapping each other’s time slot. I am not sure what I could say to a normal human being’s “I hate you” assessment:

2) “Don’t hate the player, hate the game!”
3) Actually, just go ahead and hate me.

It’s not just tech startups lighting their investors’ money on fire in the hope of repeating Twitter’s 2007 SXSW breakout. The social scene here also features a wide variety of big-name Establishment firms looking to capture “mind share” by giving away free beer, tacos and BBQ–anytime I am overcome with SXSW-scheduling angst over which panel I won’t be able to attend, I can chill at the Scotts Miracle-Gro Connected Yard, the McDonald’s Loft, the Budweiser Beer Garage, or the Comcast Social Media Lounge.

I don’t know how all of these companies can get an acceptable return on their investment. What I do know: I’m not getting out of this place any skinnier.