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July 2000, Week 3 -- Out of Sight and Out of Mind

 

 

 

   This is the part where the columnist goes nuts. He rants, he raves, and in general disports himself like a man beset by demons. Stick with it, though, because if you're in business this could save you a bundle.

   I was out of the office for five days. When I returned I had 466 e-mail press releases waiting. In the regular mail there were another 80. Forget about faxes. Long ago I turned off my fax machine forever, because if you leave it on, "they" will send press releases all day and all night.

   It's an interesting experience to see them in a bunch like that. And to try and go through them in a bunch like that. If you give each release five minutes of your attention it will take 45 and a half hours to go through them, assuming you never eat or go to the pertinent facilities. Here's where the good advice comes in.

 

 

   It costs a lot of money to put out all those press releases. I once sat in on a meeting between a couple of computer company executives and a team from their public relations firm. And one of the executives remarked right at the start: "You know, this meeting alone is costing the company $2,000 an hour."

   Press releases come in just a few types. To wit:

 

1. "Our widget just won an award." (Who cares?)

 

2. "Our widget works with their widget." (If it didn't you would be in big trouble.)

 

3. "Our widget is going to work with their widget, and we're working on that right now." (You are in big trouble.)

 

4. "Our widget will be on the market soon." (We're going to lunch.)

 

5. "Our widget breaks new ground." (You mean it's a shovel?)

 

   Then there are the internal promotion releases: "Figby Farnsworth has been promoted to vice president of heavy thinking." No one but Figby and his mother cares about this, but internal company politics dictate that we all stand at attention for a few minutes.

 

   Nearly all the press releases quickly state that the company president is available to be interviewed. That would be a little over 500 interviews a week. I'll pass. In 20 years of trying, I never got any good information from a company president.

   All of this stuff is being paid for, let's remember. Whether it's an outside public relations firm or produced "in house," as they say, it costs thousands for every release. And yet, who is doing it?

   Over half the releases publicizing a new product list no price for that product. Does it cost $10, or $1,000? It's a mystery. Do they really want to sell it? Because not many people are interested in a product with an unknown price. Of course, it will only take about 300 phone calls to correct these omissions.

 

   Most press releases are unreadable. You probably think I'm exaggerating here. I'm not. Of the nearly 550 releases that came in during the week, four were easy to read and readily understandable. The others? Close to absolute drivel. I recall most clearly a press kit which not only contained releases describing the product but a letter from the company president with his description of the product. I read it all carefully, three times, and I still have no idea what the program does. Remember, company finance officer, you're paying for all this.

 

   The difficulty in reading high tech releases apparently stems from a failure of the schools to teach plain English. Among the many new and ever fascinating inventions of press release language are things like "relationship management." What is this, my wife asks; do they mean running singles clubs? And then there's "interactive communications." Or, improving "interdepartmental interactive communications." Do they mean talking to each other? All this effort devoted to interactive communications (a good fourth of all the press releases) reminds me of a comment by humorist Tom Lehrer, who once remarked: "I wish all of the people who can't communicate, would just shut up."

 

   This all sounds pretty cynical, but the stunner at the heart of it all is that somebody is paying for this flood of misinformation and non-information. There is a certain madness going on. If I perform any public service at all, it is to ask company officers to get a grip on this, because you are spending a lot of money to get someone's attention, and I'm here to tell you that unreadable or unfathomable releases do not get attention. They get placed in the "to be dealt with later" file. Later in this case means the next millennium.

 

   For the readers, you should know that only about one product in 40 actually makes it into the column. With very rare exceptions we don't write about products that don't exist at the time of publication. The exceptions would be something worth an early warning alert, nothing else.

 

Internuts

-- www.pnv.com For and about truckers: truck-stop locator, traffic conditions, events, fuel prices, classified ads, etc.

-- www.webhelp.com A new search site that offers personal help in searching the web. You can ask for help from a human.

 

-- www.hottelephone.com Free phone calls through your PC, anywhere in the U.S. and internationally to 30 countries. More countries are being added regularly. This is a new site and one of many that carry phone calls over the Internet. But they claim to be the only such site that is completely free. An interesting variation with this service is that the answering party does not have to be connected to a computer to receive the call. The price you pay is watching their ads as you call.

-- www.internetstudios.com  A small suite of sites for buying and selling rights to various entertainment products -- films, dvd, tv, radio, etc. It's new, so only a few things are covered.

-- www.mycomputer.com  Services for web sites -- visitor tracking, domain registration, visitor polls, etc. Simple services are free if you agree to post one of their ads on your site; more complex services have a charge.

-- www.9to5cafe.com  A site for games to be played during office hours. If you see the boss coming, a click of the mouse hides the game and puts an Excel spreadsheet on your screen.

NOTE: Readers can search more than three years of columns at the "On Computers" web site: www.oncomp.com. You can e-mail Bob Schwabach at bobschwab@oncomp.com or bobschwab@aol.com.