I hate learning things the hard way. It hurts! That I always expect things to go smoothly must be somehow hardwired into my inner bumpkin. I think the best thing you could say about my guardian angel?that habitual no-show who’s supposed to, at the very least, guard my dignity?is that she’s an underachiever.
I had this perfectly terrific idea that I’d attend the user conference of a major software vendor and write a column from the point of view of those responsible for putting the conference together. Events of this size are complex and require flawless systems-implementation-size planning and execution. I thought it might be interesting, for a change, to see the event through the eyes of those responsible for making sure the material was relevant, the venue and facilities were attractive, the events and buses ran on time, the food was hot and the beer cold. I selected CA World over the other large conferences for no other reason than it occurred early enough for me to make the July issue deadline.
Some months before the event, I spoke to my CA contact in the press relations department (let’s call him Fred) and explained (rather poorly, it turns out) my idea for the column. I was assured that I’d have access to the right folks. About a week before the event, I got a call from Fred telling me that a single interview had been arranged with an executive vice president whose department coordinates the conference.
“OK?” Fred asked.
Now here’s where the learning part happens.
I’m pretty sure that veteran columnists would have said, “Sure Fred, that’s great,” and then gone to the conference to surreptitiously find and interview whomever they needed to get the information. But not me. Oh, no, not this rookie.
“No, Fred,” I answered. “I don’t want to speak to a preprogrammed senior executive. I want to speak with the folks in the trenches, the ones doing the work.”
The dialogue that ensued was too lengthy and embarrassing to play back for you here, but it involved an escalating series of threats, including revoking my press credentials and making urgent phone calls to the magazine’s headquarters. This was followed by a string of conciliatory calls offering clarification and assurances of cooperation. Confusing to say the least. I headed for the conference not completely sure I’d be let in.
CA World was held in Orlando, Fla., this year and will be in Las Vegas next year. The attraction of these cities, of course, is the attractions (Mickey Mouse, Elvis impersonators) and great facilities like the Orange County Convention Center. CA appears to have taken over all 1.4 million square feet of meeting and exhibition space. The press packet mentions that there is 380,000 square feet of carpet used at the conference, a notable statistic, I suppose, because the carpet is patterned with CA’s logo. Everything the attendees see is first-rate, slick and color coordinated. During the course of four days, the press packet boasts, 10,000 attendees have access to 842 education and information sessions, special events including a keynote address by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and hundreds of product exhibits by CA and its partners.
On the Scene
One aspect of the event that I find particularly fascinating is the Customer Value Corner, an area sectioned off with a couple dozen cubicles for private meetings between customers and their CA account reps. The scene reminds me of a car dealership, where nervous and financially overextended buyers wait isolated while the salesman pretends to go talk to his manager. The CIOs that agree to meetings in the Customer Value Corner apparently haven’t heard the rule, “Never negotiate a contract on the other guy’s home turf.” Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.
Another area is reserved for the conference’s most, shall we say, “looked after” guests and is aggressively defended by security guards to make sure the average attendee doesn’t accidentally wander in. It’s an expansive arrangement of comfortable lounge furniture, fresh flowers, long buffet tables of perpetually stocked free food and beverages, a thoughtfully outfitted work area with workstations, network connections, phones, fax machines and copiers, and plenty of friendly CA folks standing by to offer assistance. You guessed it, it’s the Press Center.
The Press Center is an inner sanctum divided into four sections: a work area, a dining area, two rows of glassed-in interview rooms, and a large theater for press conferences. That the press conferences are held in an area out of sight of the average attendee is interesting, in that there is no opportunity for the press to hear questions (like “so what?”) that a customer might ask. In any case, the press can eat, drink, snooze, gather, write and file their stories without ever leaving the cloister or mixing with the attendees (although that is certainly allowed).
At the core of this largesse is CA’s considerable investment of time, money and effort to polish its image. Some customers I talked to said it’s working and some aren’t so sure, but those of us who remember dealing with CA 10 or 15 years ago can attest to the fact that the company’s image definitely needed work.
The Inside Scoop
We Dubya Bush Texas Republicans have long suspected press bias and the manipulation and filtering of information when the subject is political or social. But readers of technology magazines should consider that the large IT vendors that magazines write about are also their advertisers and largest source of income, no small matter in these times of declining ad revenue. The symbiosis (or parasitism) between writers and the industries they cover can be fraught with contradiction. A lack of access to senior executives can make you an ineffective writer. An unfavorable story can mean no access the next time you need it. Making a press relations person angry can have the same effect. That, in essence, was the gist of Fred’s threats.
In what, I guess, was supposed to be a compromise, I was given 40 minutes to interview the executive VP’s second in command, Bob Millin. Bob is not exactly in the trenches, but he’s certainly more hands on than his boss. Bob is a friendly, energetic guy who really seems to love his job. During our time in the little glass cube, a PR person (not Fred) sat and scribbled notes as fast as she could. Occasionally, Bob would shoot a self-conscious glance her way for a signal that it was OK to answer one of my questions, and occasionally she would interrupt and ask Bob to elaborate on something or tell a particular story that she, evidently, thought I needed to know. When we were done, I asked if it was normal to have a PR person in attendance at these interviews. In all of my time at Pepsi Cola and Dell, I can’t ever remember having one of our PR folks sitting in. As we walked out of our cube, she assured me that it was and began to steer me toward a press conference that was under way.
This press management overkill begs the question: Do honest, above-board companies with good products and services and nothing untoward to hide need a press relations department? Unfortunately, I think they do. I was the CIO at PepsiCo during the “syringe in the Pepsi can” scare of the early ’90s. If you don’t remember the details, a couple claimed to have found a syringe in a can of Pepsi. Their lawyer wrote to the county health department, faxed the bottler and distributor, and called the news on their behalf. Within days, dozens of copycat victims and the press breathlessly piled on, and the national chains began pulling Pepsi and our other products out of their stores, giving precious shelf space away to our competitors.
Those of us who were familiar with the bottling process, the lightning speed of the production line and the particulars of how the cans are handled during filling and capping knew these claims were a pack of lies. (One woman was caught on a store security camera opening a can, slipping a syringe into it and walking it over to show the cashier.)
Had it not been for the good counsel of the PR department, we might have all run to the nearest television camera to say just that. Given the press feeding frenzy that was under way, that would have been a huge mistake. Instead, we publicly expressed our honest concern, recalled our product and aggressively inspected our bottling plants, despite our certainty that there was nothing to find.
Before long, most of the would-be victims and compensation seekers confessed to the hoax. It took years to regain our market position, but things could have been far worse had we failed to manage our public persona.
Managing perceptions and maintaining trust cuts both ways. Writers, myself included, need to be scrupulous about what we’re willing to accept from individuals and organizations whose product offerings rely on a few well-placed reviews. The sight of a couple hundred reporters descending on a lunch buffet as the steam tables are brought out can be a little unsettling. The readers of CIO and publications like it are a savvy bunch. They will lose respect for, and interest in, people, institutions and disciplines that appear incapable of making straightforward, unbiased, comparative judgments.
Readers, for their part, need to understand and consider the underlying dynamics of managed access, ad revenue generation and the weird dance that goes on between reporter and subject.
So, lesson learned, I guess. Only a couple million more to go.