Saturday Aug 07, 1999

My letter to PR flaks, as originally intended

Rebecca Eisenberg is a Bay Area writer. She also writes for CBS

More Net Skink.

A particularly unpleasant disturbance strikes me at least once a week:

I am engrossed in work, finally succeeding in beating dreaded writers' block or idea-drought, I have finally just managed to reach the contact I had left messages with for weeks, or I have finally just fallen into a badly needed morning of sleep after working far too late into the night, and the doorbell rings. It usually rings twice.

"FedEx!" announces the cheery FedEx woman who seems to take a grim delight in delivering packages to particularly disoriented recipients such as myself. "Nice suit!" she remarks, at those times she catches me while I am desperately trying to finish something up before a meeting. Signing her clipboard, I attempt to smile, but I know already what will be inside the envelope she hands me, and I am not happy about that.

It is a press release. Worse still, it is often a press release announcing the launch of an Internet product, usually a Web site.

"Thank you," I mumble politely, before tossing the release into a corner and returning to work.

This FedEx person, who bears the unfortunately regular burden of bearer of unnecessary news (which is even worse than bad news), deserves more than a polite mumble. It's not her fault that so many clients of her employer's delivery service seem to live to disrupt.

Thus, in the spirit of making her life easier - - not to mention my own - - I will finally do what I should have done years ago: give a little guidance to well-intentioned public relations personnel who would rather impress rather than annoy columnists who cover Internet companies.

Dear PR people: I know you are just trying to do your job, and it's not an easy one. You need to get the word out regarding your company. But see, I'm trying to do my job as well, and I can't possibly do my job if you keep interrupting me. And since it is in your best interest for me to do my job, the following guidelines will help you help me help you.

First, urgent mail of the overnight-delivery type should be reserved for urgent deliveries. Hint: overnight delivery is $15; email is free. I'm adding up those hundreds of $15 delivery stamps on your countless packages, and I'm not impressed by way your company spends its hard-earned venture capital.

Second, use email. Web site announcements have no place on paper press releases. What kind of Internet company ignores its most obvious, unobtrusive and efficient way to promote itself? This is the Internet economy, you are a new media company, and I cover the Net.

If you send in paper what obviously should have been sent in email, I assume that you don't understand your own product. Then why would I ever take your word for anything? Have you ever been on line? Here's how it works: you send a message, it reaches me without bothering me, and I click on the URLs you include.

Third, using email is the opposite of abusing it. And, there is only one right way to use email: plain text, no attachments. HTML mail may seem nifty to you, but to me it is bulky, annoying, distracting and takes too long to download. Worst of all, it is often completely illegible by other email programs. It just sucks.

Attachments are equally infuriating. If you have graphics you want me to look at, press releases you want me to read or photos of news executives you want me to admire, put those files on your Web site (you have a Web site, right? You are an Internet player, right?), and list the URL. If I am reading my email, that means that I am online. If I am online, it is far easier for me to visit your Web page than it is for me to find and open your attachments.

Attachments live lonely lives. They get dumped into my "attachments folder," along with their similarly named brethren, named "PR-release-092599.doc" or "PR-Final.doc," where they receive attention commensurate with the excitement their names invoke (little).

Photos in particular are the most hateful attachment of all. Let me be clear: I am not interested in downloading yet another multi-megabyte digital image of that pasty-face smiling homogenous white-guy executive. Can you blame me?

There is one thing you should include in a PR email, however. It is also the one piece of information you somehow manage to exclude: your company's URL.

Fourth, don't call me. Here's the scenario I ask you to wrap your mind around: You are at your office, trying to do your job. Your job is to tell the world about your exciting company. Meanwhile, I am hard at work myself, and my work almost inevitably has nothing to do with your exciting company. When you call me up, you are asking me to help you with your work at the expense of my own. And that's not very nice, is it? Much nicer just to send an email.

Fifth, less is more. If you have a point, make it. And if you don't have a point, leave me alone. Try this useful exercise before sending out any press release. Ask one question: "Why should I care?" If the first answer that comes to your mind is (and I suspect this is often the case) "Because this shows that I am a very productive PR rep," email it to yourself and no one else.

If the answer is something else, say, "because the Web site was redesigned!" or "because the company just signed a co-marketing deal with AOL!" or "because we have a new product!" understand that is still not necessarily exciting to anyone but you. Why should I care about your redesign? Does it download faster? Does it offer more free services for users? Will I receive any value from checking it out, beyond being proud of you? Does your AOL deal mean that your company will finally make money? (Haha, just kidding.) And how does your new product make the life of its customers easier?

Answers to those types of questions comprise "your point." Spell out said point in one or two sentences, and put those sentences at the top of the email. If they are not there, I may assume you have no point. A press release that invokes little other than "so what" is rarely better than no press release at all.

Sixth, appreciate the power of a good subject line. Quick test: which subject line will be more likely to compel a person to open the email: " PR news, Sunday, August 29, 1999" or "Free personalized Internet pizza delivery launches online at" (If you can't answer that, do everyone a favor and quit your job.)

Seventh, be believable. Your company is almost certainly not the "first" to offer its "revolutionary" new "never seen before" Web widget sprung from the minds of the "most visionary" management team on the planet. Messages like that communicate that you have no clue of the countless other companies also sending me similar releases, headed up by similarly visionary leaders providing similarly unique services. You may claim that you have something "newer," "better," "easier," "more functional," or "more affordable," but you are not revolutionary. You just aren't.

Eighth, try not to offend. Here's a true story: I once received a PR pitch from a formerly rational PR rep urging me to write about her clients, who qualified for coverage on the grounds of their status as "heirs of Silicon Valley" who all left their cushy jobs at Yahoo! and Netscape to "team up with Alpha Males" and "hit two home runs before they are 30."

"I'm sorry," I responded. "But alpha males are currently outside the breadth of my beat." The moral: arrogance is not a substitute for actual news.

Ninth, so-called personalized email services feel anything but. Do you really think that a subject line reading, "Rebecca Lynn, hear about GenericWebShop's exciting news," I conclude that you took the time to type in my name? Ha. Instead, I conclude that you were fool enough to believe the racket that spam e-mail that leads with a name taken from a database will magically emerge as something other than spam e-mail. Use the money you spent on that mail merging software to hire an assistant instead.

Tenth, check your grammar and spelling. That includes both knowing "its" from "it's" and, please, spelling my name correctly.

Finally, be patient. Sometimes your announcements don't fit into a publication's calendar. There's nothing you can do to change that. In other words, just because I didn't email back doesn't mean I don't care. Thanks for the e-mail. I filed it for future reference. Now please don't call me to ask if I received it. I did.

If nothing else, take this to heart: your cluelessness about the Internet, your unwelcome interruptions, your naivete about the Internet, your insistence on hogging my bandwidth, be it with downloads or phone calls or FedEx deliveries, do not impress. Rather, they reflect those poor manners and cluelessness on the company that hired you.

At bottom, when it comes to getting attention, one method stands out: doing something interesting. Now get to work.