Kevin Murphy is bureau chief for Computerwire in San Francisco. (Disclosure: He's covered the industry I'm currently involved in.) He knows his crap and has a ferocious wit, as you'll see.
He writes a post today about "How to Blag an Interview" that will look not only familiar, but exactly familiar to, oh, about every single PR agency operative of the most recent generations. In my opinion, it should be required reading for the next several to follow -- it shows how staid, predictable and all-too-full-of-pretense briefings have become.
This is uncomfortable to me as well because I've conducted briefings like this one. Many times. But I hope my thinking has evolved now to the point I can find my way clear to do something more valuable for both sides involved.
What would be better? How about a conversation? One where there's genuine listening going on, where everyone in the room asks smart questions about what's interesting to the other? How about some brainstorming on what the journalist wants to cover, and where he can find some useful resources?
And here's a barn-burner: How about doing this before you ever launch a product?
Mostly I don't like anything that has to do with "how to pitch like a pro!" because usually it's pretty superficial advice. But some of what's here is pretty good, because the common thread is "have something real," which is my own personal cardinal rule.
Like this one:
Damon Darlin, New York Times Damon wants PR pros to say, "Look, here's the background, here's the problem we're facing...I'll put you in touch with these executives and they'll tell you how they're going to solve the problem." It's brave, we know, but weekly we hear from journalists looking for this level of honesty.
There's a review here of a new book titled (not entitled) Fame Junkies, about our endless obsession with celebrity.
I don't know why I continue to be nonplussed, but I do. I am always amazed at how much attention is devoted to the superficial lives of celebrities. It's so ingrained in our daily culture that the books author found that:
Given a choice of becoming the CEO of a major corporation, the president of Yale or Harvard, a Navy SEAL, a U.S. senator or "the personal assistant to a very famous singer or movie star," almost half of the girls -- 43.4% -- chose the assistant role.
When given an option to become stronger, smarter, famous or beautiful, boys in the survey chose fame almost as often as intelligence, and girls chose it more often.
When you look at how this kind of BS is influencing teens' decision making, it crosses from amazement into anger, at least for me, because it leaves the arena of amusing and goes directly into damaging. The more obsessed we are with the trivial, the more we live in that bubble, the less prepared we are to deal with the real world and, equally, its opportunities and problems. The less we're prepared, the more the problems will hurt and the opportunities will slip. I guess at some point we'll all wonder why cheerleading camp and video game playing aren't equipping us with the value you can exchange in the market for a good living. But frankly, I'm not sure our capability for self-realization will be developed enough to make the connection or do anything beyond complain.
Wow, there you have the rant for today. Should have had a grande instead of a venti.
This is an AP article I saw in yesterday's Oregonian about NASA's effort to keep interest alive in space exploration. NASA has done some math on its ambitions vs. its anticipated available staffing and figured out they're in danger of no one bothering to care about its efforts ten, twenty, thirty years down the line.
I read this article and my brain went a number of different directions because this is interesting to me in several ways:
Space travel is de rigeur. Of course, it isn't really, but it's perceived that way. In 1981, when the first shuttle was launched, I was in the 8th grade and our school effectively closed while everyone watched. At that point, we were right at the 20-year mark of the active US space program, and only 12 years removed from walking on the moon. In the 25+ years since, we've been to space hundreds of times. No one notices space travel any longer (as noted in the article).
There is too much competition for wonderment. In 1969, and even in 1981, you didn't have all the crap we have now screaming for your attention. The video game my kids played last night is more engaging to them than the scene of a shuttle launch on TV. Even the prospect of someone living on Mars -- wildly imaginitive and barely believable to me as a kid -- sounds about right to kids today.
How is space travel relevant? For a long while -- from Sputnik probably into the first stages of the shuttle program -- there was the constant tension of competition with the Soviets for parity, or superiority, in space (and in the cold war in general). That tension is absent today -- as we know, our greatest threat now is from an entirely different source. There is a generally unanswered question today about why we explore space at all (so that what happens?) -- and I would venture that until that question is adequately answered interest will not rebound.
Which leads me to this point: NASA's PR tactics are probably going to be ineffective. I don't have all the facts and would love to talk with someone at NASA about this, but hiring David Duchovny and Patric Stewart to shill your agency in the absense of an answer to (3) above is sort of like papering over the hole in your wall. They have not answered the substantive question that would form the foundation of any honest and authentic marketing or PR effort.
To that point, let me copy a bit from the last paragraphs of the article, with my own comments in italics:
NASA Administrator Michael Griffin believes ventures to the moon and Mars will excite young people more than the current shuttle trips to low-Earth orbit. Looks like an unvalidated assumption to me. What's in it for them that will make moon and Mars exciting?
At an October workshop attended by 80 NASA message spinners, NASA has 80 message spinners? Good God. young adults were right up there with Congress as the top two priorities for NASA's strategic communications efforts. That sounds about right.
Tactics encouraged by the workship included new forms of communicatin, such as podcasts and YouTube; Ah! Tactics of the moment will save us! enlisting support from celebrities, such as actors David Duchovny ("X-Files") and Patrick Stewart ("Star Trek: The Next Generation"); will they have something substantive and real to say, or just try to lend celebrity power to empty messages? forming partnerships with youth-oriented media such as MTV, or sports events; OK, but see same question about celebrities and what would be said and developing brand placement in the movie industry. Same root issue (relevance) question applied to a different tactic.
When I was a kid, I read everything I could about John Glenn. I was already in love with the idea of being a pilot, and the thought of taking another step and being an astronaut sounded like the perfect adventure to me. I got only as far as the pilot's license, but that's OK -- I'm still a big fan of the space program (I think I understand the long-range benefits) and want to see it succeed. I hope they take care of the root question, though -- without it, I'm afraid they're in for more of the same problem.
I asked a question that I thought was both interesting and had a high likelihood of actually being answered. You can be a tough guy all day long, but asking Bill “With it’s worldwide dominance why does it take so long to get a new Operating System out of Redmond?” isn’t going to lead to an interesting answer.
I interview companies every day, and there is only so far you can go with the tough stuff. People just shut down or go into PR speak when you go to far.
I’m not concerned about not getting invited back by asking a tough question, I’m concerned that I won’t get an interesting answer.
He's getting some disagreement in comments on this thought, but I agree with him. Too many people want to be Mike Wallace and give that air of "I'm a watchdog, pal, and the public has a right to know." There's no need for that or any other kind of acting. If you have an authentic exchange of questions and information, and act like a human being, you'll get all the info you need.
There are exceptions, but in general, people default toward wanting to disclose. I learned this as a reporter. I learned this further when I started working in PR and began interviewing clients on the raw data you need to create a marketing plan -- probing, smart questions get you a lot farther than nearly anything else.
I also found that to be helpful when coaching clients on how to handle reporters. I believe too many execs feel at the whim of a reporter. To be sure, you need to respect the reporter's orientation, deadlines, etc., but like any other conversation, one with a reporter is just as eligible to be an information exchange than is anything else. If you carefully ask the right questions, you not only can help the reporter better by providing exactly the right information, but you can also avoid some land mines.
I'm extremely hard-pressed to say it any better, so I won't try. But it's right on the money -- it's not the process, it's the content. If your content is no good, forget the process. It still won't work.
Interesting comment string follows his post. He asks in the context of web services, but as you know authenticity is very, very high on my personal list of desirable attributes, so I zeroed in on this question.
My take is that no, it cannot be faked. It might be temporarily, at best, but in the long term, as enough pressure is applied toward delivery of expectations, it will become obvious when the proverbial emperor has no clothes.