I received a spectacular press release the other day. (I should note this is probably the only story you will ever read in a technology publication that opens so bluntly - many of our stories have their origins in spectacular press releases, but we'll never tell).
Anyway, this particular spectacular press release was from Columbia Tri-Star Home Video, and was informing me about upcoming DVD releases. In particular The Animal, starring Rob Schneider (a film I have not seen nor have any desire to see). After reading through the fairly pedestrian first paragraph I was floored by the second, which began "like a horse and a saddle, DVDs and extra features go hand in hand". Do as I did, and re-read that line. Think about the image it conjures up. Until I sat down to write this column, days after receiving the press release, I had not managed to read any further - a horse wearing saddles on its hands just stopped me every time I tried.
Tech journalists have a rather delicate relationship with PR agencies. On the one hand, much of what we write about as "technology" is, in fact, "product", and the way to find out about "product" is by a vendor telling us - thus, PR agencies feed us info we need. On the other hand, we all, deep down, have a need to be taken seriously as "real" journalists, and this means finding out stuff for ourselves, undistorted through the lens of PR - PR agencies act to stop us getting the info we need. It can be difficult.
Take, for instance, the launch last week of Windows XP. Spectacular launch, it was. Rove McManus is such a funny guy, and there was that fashion parade thingy, and more and more and more. Maybe not as exciting as the Windows 95 launch, but better than average.
Now, from your perspective, there is one useful bit of information here: "Windows XP is now available". End of story. Problem: you already knew. If you read ARN, or have even the inklings of a constructive relationship with Microsoft, you've known for ages this thing was coming, and you knew when. The spectacular launch party serves only one purpose: to make journalists tell you again.
The case studies you've read, about IT managers rolling out XP, and the problems they've encountered, and how you might overcome those difficulties - that's journalism. Any story you read about how spectacular the launch was -- that's PR (including, I suppose, this one).
The press release accompanying the launch of Windows XP contained one of my favourite PR techniques. It claimed that what Microsoft had launched that day was not merely an update to Windows, but "Microsoft's best operating system ever".
In this industry, we presume that each new product is at least meant to be better than the one before it. When a new vintage of wine is released to the public, you might expect to be told that it's not quite up to the standard of the great '73 vintage, but certainly holds its own in the company of the '79, '84 and '92 crops. Expect no such thing with Windows. No-one will say "XP is pretty good, but I still feel Microsoft has failed to recapture the magic of DOS 6.2". Microsoft had better damn well hope that XP is its best operating system ever, or why bother releasing it?
Same on the hardware side. I'm always being told that some manufacturer has released "its fastest machine ever". In truth, it just means it's faster than the previous "fastest machine ever", and all you need to know is "we're selling this one on the basis of speed, not features or price". Think about it: "ever" is roughly equivalent to "for all time", as in "happily ever after". "All time" includes the future, not merely the past - so if a company says it's released its fastest machine "ever", take it as meaning it has no intention of bothering to top that in future. It's a sad day for the technology industry, as we've reached the limit of how fast we can go - this is as fast as it gets, might as well give up and go home.
(And if you do start treating such statements that way, see how long it takes before you stop reading such claims in the press).
All of these techniques are hopelessly flawed, of course, and they point to terrible writing skills on the part of (usually uncredited) PR persons who write the releases. But the sad thing is this: In these few words I've told you about both Windows XP and The Animal with Rob Schneider on DVD.
They got me.
Matthew JC. Powell thinks this is his best column ever. Feel free to disagree on email@example.com