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On 'dysfunctional' public relations.

According to veteran publicist Greg Jarboe, most of what passes for high-tech public relations these days is literally -dysfunctional," a cosy exercise in misguided tactics. "Doing what you think is standard PR practice not only doesn't help you," Jarboe declares, "it actually hurts you. And it hurts your product. Which may help explain why fewer than one out of a hundred products ever becomes a roaring success."

Jarboe's argument--which is bound to inspire more than a few howls of protest--is that PR people spend far too much effort on product launches and other hard news events, and don't pay enough attention to reaching "relevant" audiences of people who actually buy products. If public relations is measured by its impact on sales (a reasonable yardstick, presumably), then getting ink in Business Week and The Wall Street Journal is usually just an expensive ego trip, Jarboe declares. The stories that make the cash register ring are comparative reviews in computer trade magazines--which he says usually end up as "maintenance PR" tasks handled by "the most junior person in the department."

Jarboe isn't an entirely nonpartisan voice, of course; he's currently PR director for Ziff-Davis, which just happens to be a publisher of the kind of computer magazines that Jarboe says do the best job of reaching hard-core PC buyers. But Jarboe (who has also worked for Lotus, Wang, and Data General) points out that more than two dozen separate research studies have reached essentially the same conclusion--the single best way to influence buyers is through the computer trade press, and specifically through comparative reviews.

For example, says Jarboe, a survey sponsored by Corel found that 69% of CorelDraw customers made a buying decision based on information they found in computer magazines, compared to just 16% who relied on general business publications. Among its Fortune 1000 customers, Corel found an even more dramatic tilt: 73% were readers of trade magazines, compared to 18% who follow the business press.

(One reason the business press doesn't have much impact on product sales, Jarboe points out, is'that its coverage tends to focus on investment decisions, not products. "And knowing that a stock is up or down slightly this week, or today, is not the way most people go about picking which peripheral, or which software package, or which 486 desktop to purchase.")

The bottom line, says jarboe, is that the real leverage in public relations comes from making the product review process work better, not from producing slicker press kits, news announcements, or media tours. "What will make you or break you is that crazy roundup of all the products in your category. That's where the fight is. That's where you ought to be. That's where it counts."

In particular, Jarboe offers three key recommendations:

* Learn how the review process works: "If you don't understand the arcane process of having a lab test your products, as I think Blanche DuBois said in 'A Streetcar Named Desire,' you're trusting in the kindness of strangers," says Jarboe. It's hard to influence the results of objective tests, he admits, but it is possible to warn developers about "which benchmarks are going to be important and which aren't." It's possible to produce reviewer's guides that do a good job of explaining design decisions. And it's sometimes even possible to convince reviewers and testers to rethink the criteria they use for evaluating products. "If you have a legitimate reason for why a new aspect of your product is really the more important thing to test, you can make that case to the testers."

* Schedule product rollouts for major roundup reviews: "Some people in the printer business launch their products in time to get into a PC Magazine printer issue every fall," jarboe notes. "In the old days, we used to launch a product in time for Comdex. Well, guess what will determine the fate of printers more than Comdex? The printer issue that PC Magazine runs." Although there aren't any software roundups that are quite this influential, says Jarboe, it's still "devastating" for a specialized product to miss a major comparative review of its category. "Moreover, the magazines publish their editorial calendars a year in advance, so there's no excuse for missing these deadlines."

* Track leads and sales: Unlike advertising and direct mail marketers, says Jarboe, PR people rarely analyze the payback from their efforts. Yet it's not hard to identify how many leads originate from editorial coverage by systematically tracking bingo card leads, telephone inquiries, and the like. For example, a utility developer surveyed its Editor's Choice leads earlier this year and found that 40% of the leads from that article actually turned into sales--worth over over $100,000 in revenue. Besides documenting that PR can contribute to sales, Jarboe says, data like this helps define publicity priorities: "If we started learning that some publications have more impact than others, that some kinds of articles have more impact than others, your whole behavior would reorient," he says.

Greg Jarhoe, director of public relations, Ziff-Davis Publishing Co., 10 Presidents Landing, Medford, Mass. 02155; 617/393-3320.
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Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Date:Oct 31, 1992
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