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.

Advertisements

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.

Caring about social sharing, more or less

I recently made a non-trivial change in how I share links to my work on social media, and I’ll bet you didn’t notice: I stopped touting my work on Tumblr and resumed sharing it on Google+.

Social-network icons

But why would you, when my Tumblr presence has seen so little (sorry, buzzword alert) engagement since I opened an account there in February 2012 basically to augment my social-media literacy?

I had no idea at the time that in less than two years Yahoo would have bought Tumblr and that I would begin writing for a Yahoo site that uses Tumblr as part of its editing system. In other words, so much for worrying about being Tumblr-illiterate.

I kept on sharing a link to each new story to my several dozen Tumblr followers anyway, but a few weeks ago, Yahoo Tech switched to a new editing workflow that required me to set up a new Tumblr account. Having to log in and out of accounts on the same site as I alternate between writing stories and sharing them makes for a lot more work.

At almost the same time, I got some professional advice that Tumblr is not the right place to market your work anyway: At a panel during the Online News Association’s conference, Mashable’s Ryan Lytle said less than 1 percent of Tumblr posts are link shares, making that site “not a traffic play.”

Meanwhile, I’ve realized that while Google+ isn’t going to threaten Facebook or Twitter anytime soon, it continues to function fairly wel as an off-site comments thread. It does, however, remain the last place I share my work, after my Facebook page and then Twitter: Not only is my audience there smaller than on Twitter, Google+ doesn’t give me any useful analytics about how many people saw a post and clicked on its link. Maybe I’ll ditch G+ too in six months?

That ONA panel reminded me that I could be doing a lot more to flack for myself online–notice my absence from Instagram and Snapchat and my pitiful Pinterest participation?–but my leading occupational hazard is online distraction. I’d like to think that limiting my social-media marketing gives me that much more time to participate in the oldest social network of all, e-mail, but we all know how behind I am at that.

 

Unsubsidized words on subsidized travel

Two summers ago, I got an intriguing travel offer in my e-mail that had the added benefit of not being spam: Would I be interested in an expenses-paid trip to Berlin to cover the IFA electronics trade show?

I'm not used to having my country listed on these things. USA! USA!I’d already gotten interested in IFA after reading some of Harry McCracken’s coverage of the 2011 show, and the prospect of having anybody else pay for my travel certainly got my attention. In two years of full-time freelancing, I’ve yet to have a client reimburse airfare or hotel costs.

But being possessed by Catholic guilt, I replied to the sender (a publicist working with the ShowStoppers PR firm that runs IFA’s U.S. outreach) that I’d have to check with my regular editors to see if they’d object.

To my surprise, their responses ranged from “Should be fine” to “say hello to my old haunts!” So I took the mostly-free trip–I paid miles and cash to upgrade to business class on the flight over,  then the subsidy didn’t cover all of the high-end hotel the organizers had booked–filled my notebook, and learned a great deal about the non-U.S. gadget business that’s since informed my coverage back here.

I was also surprised to see the company I had in Berlin that year and again earlier this month after I accepted the same offer. The contingent of maybe two dozen U.S. journalists included full-time staffers for tech-news hubs like ZDNet, PCMag.com, TechNewsDaily and SlashGear as well as freelancers whose outlets include the likes of CBS and the New York Times–not some scruffy bunch of junket-grabbing hacks, in other words. And I got a lot out of comparing notes with writers I’d only known before through Twitter.

Were I still at the Post, none of that would have happened. The career-limiting move wouldn’t have been getting turned down after requesting permission to take a travel stipend–it would have been my being a jerk for asking in the first place. And even as a freelancer, I can’t sell to some places under these circumstances. My occasional client Ars Technica turned down my offer to file something from the show.

I recognize that letting somebody besides an employer or client pay for my travel can look bad. But I think there’s a meaningful difference between a company I cover paying for a flight or a hotel so I can go write something about its event or product, and the money coming from a third party organizing or sponsoring an event.

The first case looks a lot worse to me and would be harder to explain to readers, so I’ve declined the few invitations I’ve received so far. (Two digital camera vendors wanted me to try out their new hardware in scenic settings, and a couple of tech companies offered to cover travel costs to attend events in New York.)

I’m not going to say first-party travel subsidies are always an ethical foul. Cranky Flier blogger Brett Snyder, my favorite chronicler of commercial aviation, covers an industry in which the product can come with a four- or five-digit price tag; his way of dealing with that conflict is to disclose not just the subsidized trips he’s taken but the ones he’s declined. I continue to trust his work.

You can also argue that third-party subsidies are economically indistinguishable from Samsung or Google writing a check. But if you start looking at how money flows in the tech-news business, you’ll never stop–who do you think buys the ads that support tech-news sites? Besides, I already write for a blog sponsored by a tech trade association and before that contributed to a much larger tech lobby’s blog; turning down organizer-paid travel wouldn’t make me any less guilty under that argument.

Transparency is an overrated response to situations like this but still necessary. My disclosures page breaks down my sources of income but also notes speaking fees and paid travel I’ve picked up (usually for participating in one panel discussion or another). But I also remember that if I’m not going to find enough news or networking when I arrive to keep me busy, it’s not worth being apart from my family.

Edited 11/18/2013 to clarify what I see as the difference between a company directly paying for me to cover its event or product and an organizer or sponsor paying travel costs.

Weekly output: PR pitches, Google I/O (x2), photo-album apps, smartphone multimedia

I spent the workweek in San Francisco–as in, my flight left National Airport at 8 a.m. Monday, and my flight home landed at Dulles around 6:30 p.m. Friday. Next week will also involve a long commute: I’m off to Las Vegas tomorrow for the CTIA 2013 wireless trade show.

5/13/2013: Your Brand Message Sucks: How to Pitch Your “Amazing” Product to Journalists, Influence HR

I spoke on a panel with Reputation Capital’s Mary Ellen Slayter, the Starr Conspiracy’s Lance Haun and Angles PR’s Ania Kubicki about good and bad ways PR types can deal with the press. (What was I doing at an HR-oriented conference? Mary Ellen’s an old friend from the Post and invited me onto the panel.)

I talked to WTOP about Google’s I/O news on Wednesday, but that interview doesn’t seem to have been preserved on the station’s index for that day. Drat!

Google I:O Discovery News post

5/16/2013: Google Probably Knew About This Post Before Me, Discovery News

The headline for this Google I/O recap popped into my head almost fully formed. I’m glad the editors stuck with that; I’m a little disappointed nobody picked up the Suzanne Vega reference in the excerpt that shows up in search results and on D News’ home page.

I was interviewed again that evening–this time at a press reception, along with USA Today’s Ed Baig, by Thai tech journalist Chatpawee Trichachawanwong. I don’t know if that piece has run, or how insightful Ed and I might sound in it. (We didn’t have much time to prepare.)

5/17/2013: Google’s I/O News: A Reminder Of How Apps Don’t Just Write Themselves, Disruptive Competition Project

Here, I tried to put Google’s developer-focused I/O news in the context of iOS’s continued lead in one important area: profit potential for the average developer.

5/19/2013: Q&A: What’s the best basic Windows photo program?, USA Today

A question from a relative looking to prune the assortment of photo apps on his laptop led to this column. It also includes a tip about the difficulty you may have sharing some of the neater multimedia-enhanced photos your phone’s camera can take.

Most of this week’s posts on Sulia covered particular I/O announcements or sessions–for instance, a talk on Android’s design principles, an upcoming fix for buggy Bluetooth, an uncertain detail about Google’s stock-Android version of Samsung’s Galaxy S 4–but I also reviewed the Lyft and SideCar ride-sharing services and described my experience being served, slowly, by a robot bartender.

5/20/2013, 12:52 p.m. And here’s my brief Flickr set from I/O 2013.