Media relations, the old-fashioned way

I attend a lot of conferences, and blog about them while I’m there. This is good for me in a couple of ways: it gives me lots of things to write about, hence increases my blog readership and therefore my exposure to potential customers and networking contacts, and I usually learn something by attending conference sessions. It’s also good for the conference organizers, since my blogging becomes publicity for the conferences or for related conferences or products. This symbiotic relationship is why I don’t expect to have to pay for admission to any conference that I’m blogging about, and why vendors not only give me free admission but also cover my travel expenses to attend their user conferences.

Some of the large software companies are starting to treat bloggers as regular members of the press, or as analysts, hence are including them in the expenses-paid press events such as conferences without special requests.

It surprises me, after that, to see the old-fashioned way in which some conferences still view the media credentials process. For example, there was a conference recently in Toronto (where I live, so no travel costs) that had a couple of interesting tracks on SaaS and Web 2.0, although large parts of it weren’t of interest to me. I received the standard attendee invitation, and emailed back to say that I was a blogger and ask for a press pass to the conference. Usually when this happens, the immediate response is “sure”, so I thought that it was weird to receive no response after a week. A friend of a friend recommended a different contact, I emailed again, no response. The friend of a friend then poked them directly, and finally I had a response from the conference organizer with a link to the media registration form on their site: a PDF that I’m supposed to fill out and fax back to them. No, that’s not a typo, I said “fax”. Welcome to 1985.

I then checked out their required press qualifications:

Media Category Please Provide
Editorial representatives One of the following:
• A business card with your name and title from an industry publication
• The masthead page of a current industry publication with your name listed
• A copy of a current by-lined article
Freelance writers • A letter from the editor of an industry trade publication stating your assignment is to cover the [conference name] Conference for that publication.
Web/Internet media representatives • Printed proof of the site demonstrating content to Linux/Open Source and/or Network technologies and/or Storage/Security technologies
• Proof that the site has subscribers that are qualified and the site is secure.
Videographer Reporters & Magazine Producers from recognized broadcast media • Business card with your name and title from a recognized broadcast media organization.
Press members w/press cards • A photocopy of your press card

I assume that I fit into the web/internet media representatives category, so checking out the qualifications… printed proof? As in printed on paper? This is starting to sound like a joke. And the second requirement: “proof that the site has subscribers that are qualified” — qualified for what? — “and the site is secure” — secure from what, in what way, or by what standards? Add to that the fact that the part of the conference that I want to cover has nothing to do with Linux/open source, network technologies or storage/security technologies.

I duly sent off an email to the publicist explaining that I’m an analyst and blog about a number of topics, including SaaS and Enterprise 2.0, and pointing her to relevant posts and articles of mine online. Of course, I didn’t fax it in, and I linked to the posts and articles rather than printing them, so I may have risked disqualification for those reasons alone.

Several days later, and only a couple of days before the event was to start, I finally heard back from the publicist:

There are some bloggers who request media badges, but they only blog every now and then and they just use it as a guise so they can attend events like [event name] for free. That’s why providing media badges to bloggers is evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

Um, yeah. I really wanted to blow off two days billable time in order to not get paid to go to a conference where I would pretend to be a real blogger.

The best part happened a couple of days after the conference, when the organizer (the one who couldn’t be bothered to answer my original emails) called me to complain that he felt my blog posts cast the conference in a negative light — although I had been mostly positive — and wanted me to change them, but was unwilling to post a comment on my blog because, as he said, “some things should just be settled in private”.

I don’t want to pick on this little conference or its organizers, since I see the same thing from much larger conference organizers and from vendors. In the past month, I’ve had a vendor ask me to change a post that I had made about their product but refuse to comment on the post themselves, and another vendor pay my expenses to be at their conference but not let me blog. Vendors and their PR people are coming under a lot of heat lately, and for good reason: the new world order of press is about transparency, and many of the big guys aren’t quite comfortable with that yet. There are many exceptions to that — I have to say that SAP’s blogger relations is a stunning example of how to do it right — but there needs to be a lot more open communication in the industry to make things better for the consumers of the technology.

6 thoughts on “Media relations, the old-fashioned way”

  1. Well, I think you have to face reality. Blogging is still a minor thing compared to how business runs. It might be getting more popular, but that takes time. Companies and conference organisers have to decide how they invest their budget and if they can get a bigger impact through ordinary channels, they will do that. Also, you tend to write hard critics about the events you attend and the demos you see. If I were a vendor, I don’t see the point why I should invest in your offering just to get a negative coverage. On the other hand, your readers might value that you focus on clear critics, but from a vendor point of view that is not valuable.

  2. Sebasian, I appreciate your comment. I find your comment “if I were a vendor” to be puzzling, since I read your posts about BPMN on the ARIS blog and understand that you work for IDS Scheer. I’ve attended the last two North American IDS Scheer conferences, as a guest of your company so obviously you do perceive some value in what I write while at the conference.

    Blogging is becoming increasingly influential, and vendors cannot afford to ignore it since their current and prospective customers often read blogs for information as much as they read the mainstream media. My “real” job (the one for which I am paid) is as a freelance systems architect and designer working for end-customer organizations to assist with their BPM projects, and as an industry analyst working for vendors to create research materials such as white papers or provide consulting on product direction. My blog gives me a platform for expressing my opinions on various business and technical topics, reviewing products that I have had a chance to see, and discussing the conferences that I attend. I’m not paid by the vendors (or anyone else) to blog, so these are really my opinions, and I assume that people read this because they place some value on my opinions.

    Many vendors value my opinions, even if they are not completely positive, for a variety of reasons. First, it gives them feedback on where I (and likely others) think that their product shortcomings lie. Second, they can refer my posts about their product to their clients to show an independent view, and their clients will believe it because it’s not a purely positive promotional piece by their PR firms. Third, they realize that publicity of any type, even if it contains a few negative bits along with the positive, is a good thing for name recognition. When I cover a vendor conference, I write a lot of coverage — usually one post for every session that I attend — which in turn drives a lot of traffic to the vendor website. Considering that their only “investment” is the cost of a plane ticket and a hotel room, since I’m not paid to be in attendance (and in fact am making the decision to forgo my billable work for a couple of days to be there, so I’m the one making the investment), I get a lot of invitations from vendors to attend their conferences, and end up having to turn some down due to conflicts. I also receive several invitations a week to review products, many of which I turn down if they are not in my primary area of focus, indicating that vendors find my posted product reviews of value.

    Not everyone is looking for a whitewashed, positive review of their product, since they realize that their potential customers won’t believe it anyway. Although the PR people may cringe when I say something negative about their product, most people within a company recognize that it’s better to have someone knowledgeable about the industry making those comments in the context of a balanced review of a product, rather than their customers hearing it out of context from competitors.

    As for non-vendor conferences, such as the recent one in Toronto about which most of this post was written, there is no investment on their part to have me attend: all they do is give me a free pass to the conference, and receive some publicity via my blog posts in return. This is true of the Gartner conferences that I attend, as well as the upcoming Enterprise 2.0 conference.

  3. First an important note: I wrote this comment as a private person and not as an employee of IDS. That is important, because I was reflecting on all your reviews I read and not just those about IDS and Process World.

    Second, I understand your business model and what you are offering to vendors and conference providers. I was just pointing out that vendors have only limited budgets and they will invest it so that they get the biggest impact. In case of the Toronto conference it might mean that they can get a bigger impact through traditional local media instead of a blogger with world-wide readers.

    Third: We people in the blogosphere are sometimes forgetting that there is a much bigger world outside and this world is not reading blogs or listening to podcasts. Therefore, traditional PR is not going to disappear, but it will be augmented with blogs and other social media in the next years.

    Fourth: I don’t believe that in the enterprise business anybody is buying a software just because of a positive review on a blog. In contrast, enterprise business is still working through personal relationships as it has been for many centuries.

    In summary: The thing you experienced with the Toronto conference is something you will experience again. It has nothing to do with people not understanding blogging or a new era of PR, but with different value propositions and different kinds of businesses.

  4. Sebastian, the cost to the Toronto conference provider was zero, except that I drank two cups of tea in the press room. 🙂 My “business model” for conferences is simple: I lose money every day that I’m at a conference since I’m not doing billable work for my clients, and hope that what I gain in exposure and networking makes up for it in the long run.

    I don’t think that traditional PR is going to disappear, but it is being impacted by blogs, and PR professionals are having to learn how to deal with bloggers just as they do with other press and analysts. In the BPM world, few of us non-vendor bloggers are press representatives just reporting on events, but are actually experienced analysts and consultants with opinions that people value; many vendors are including bloggers under their analyst relations programs rather than press relations, since that more closely aligns with what many of us do. In fact, many analysts from traditional firms such as Forrester are also blogging now.

    I agree with you that anyone who buys enterprise software purely based on a good review on a blog is a fool. Same goes for anyone who buys enterprise software purely because it’s in the upper right quadrant on Gartner, or because it was written about favourably in the New York Times, or because a consultant told them to buy it, or because it’s from IBM. Evaluating enterprise software requires information from many sources; blogs are increasingly contributing to the information sources, but no one — especially me — thinks that reading a review in a blog is a replacement for a proper product evaluation.

    You’re right that the blogosphere can become a bit of an echo chamber after a while, and we can lose sight of the bigger world outside that. However, we are having an impact, and the value propositions for vendors and conference organizers increasingly tips in favour of having well-informed bloggers writing about their event.

  5. Just one more comment about the Toronto conference. You say the cost for them was zero. That is not exactly true, because as they said on their own, they have to judge if someone is just claiming to be a blogger to get a free ticket. Therefore, they asked for proofs that you are a valuable channel for them. In traditional media this is solved, because it is measured e.g. in numbers of an edition. In the long run, the blogosphere will have to come up with something similar. Access statistics or Technorati rankings are not a real solution to that, because it is too subjective and possible to fake.

  6. Their cost seems to be about 15 minutes spent considering my information and adding me to a registration list — maybe I was overstating to refer to that as “zero cost” when it was actually 15 minutes of someone’s time. If they had a more streamlined press registration process, they probably could have done it in 5.

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