Enough with the Sales Fluff

TV Technology Europe technical editor Craig Norris voices his views on why the combination of broadcast engineers and public relations is not a marriage made in heaven.

Marketing and PR people are not usually known for their humility. Even in the broadcast hardware business, which is relatively conservative when compared to some other industries, there's usually a thick layer of 'PR talk' engulfing the meaty technical aspects of a proposal document or a product presentation.

I always find it somewhat annoying when I read a proposal document and find that the information I'm looking for, like even the offer price for example, is buried somewhere deep under wordy PR salesmanship that tries to tell me how great the company is. In my opinion, the self-promoting glossy talk showering praise on one's own company should be in an appendix attached to the proposal, not in the cover letter.

It's also hard to find a good example of an executive summary. Too many times the executive summary in a proposal document is just another sugary piece of self-promotion rather than a concise summing up of what the vendor is offering in the proposal.

What makes it seem all the more ridiculous is that the company in question is already a big name in the industry, and needs no further introduction. Yes, a curriculum vitae, as an appendix, and filled only with items relevant to the proposal, can be helpful if the reader isn't fully familiar with the specifics of a vendor's track record as it relates to the project at hand. But generally speaking, we all know what the big names of the broadcast hardware vendor community can do.

Most TV stations are already very familiar with all the usual major vendors, and so it's a waste of time and energy for those vendors, and an annoyance to the customer, when a proposal is padded out with lots of useless sales talk.

But what if the broadcaster isn't familiar with a vendor? How can we know the true capabilities and track record of a company? I found myself in that situation recently because I had to take serious interest in the so-called 'new media' aspects of a television broadcast playout platform. Many TV stations are now in that transitional phase of learning how to make their content available on the Internet to web-surfing devices of all kinds, and over telco mobile networks to 3G telephone handsets.

When we step outside the usual baseband television distribution systems, and into the brave new world of very low bit rate distribution, as I choose to call it, we broadcasters find ourselves in unfamiliar territory because the companies involved as vendors are not the usual list of big names with whom we usually deal. Some of the vendors in this new field of distribution are household names. But most television engineers have never dealt directly with those famous companies. Microsoft, Apple and Adobe are examples.

Here's the first big question we face when we consider putting our television content on the web: what codec and player should we use? Microsoft's Windows Media Video (WMV)? Apple's Quicktime (QT)? Adobe's Flash? DivX? Vividas? RealVideo?

Most but not all of the six companies providing the above-mentioned products claim to be the worldwide leader in video compression and web or mobile distribution of video. And most but not all of these companies communicate to the world via an in-house or outsourced 'public relations' professional. The purpose of the public relations professional is to heighten the world's awareness of his/her client's company, products, services, and big wins.

The problem for broadcast engineering professionals is that we have a low tolerance for 'sales fluff'. If I may use a metaphor, we want the cake, not the icing. PR professionals don't usually bake cakes. They only mix and apply the icing. But when one surfs the Internet looking for good technical information about the various products and services for web and mobile distribution of video, one finds a lot of icing and very little cake.

My worst experience with the world of PR was on an exhibitor's booth at IBC a few years ago. That exhibitor's name had come up several times before in meetings I'd had with some of my clients, so I took it on as my duty to find out more about this exhibitor and to understand what products and services they could contribute to the projects that I might be managing in the future.

Well, let me tell you, it was the most frustrating sixty minutes I have ever spent at a trade show anywhere, because there was nothing but PR 'smoke and mirrors' on that booth. As hard as I tried, I couldn't actually form a mental picture of any actual product that the vendor was selling, except for 'consulting services' which in fact weren't mentioned in any of the signage or press materials or brochures on that exhibitor's booth.

The signage and brochures all suggested or hinted at a product of some kind in the area of digital asset management, but there was in fact no product. To deal with that company, you had to engage them for a consulting exercise, the outcome of which was supposed to be a working digital asset management system. Why didn't they just say that up front? Why didn't they promote themselves as a consulting firm in the area of asset management, instead of falsely leading the enquirer into believing there was a tangible product for sale?

As engineers, that's the story of our life. We want to know the facts, but we live in a world of PR smoke and mirrors. If five companies all say they are the worldwide leader in the particular field under investigation, which one can you believe?