Public relations “roadtest” create online tizzy

Stuart Bruce and Ellee Seymour both reflect on criticism of the public relations activities of Edelman PR and its client Microsoft, for giving select bloggers a computer to “roadtest” the new Vista software.  Interesting to see the veracity and ethics of this tactic being debated – primarily around openness (disclosure) of those undertaking the testing.

Vehicle loans and pre-sale launches are a long-standing element of public relations in the motoring world – with a “press fleet administrator” pro-actively managing roadtests of new and existing models – as well as responding to requests from the media.  How else are you to get coverage of new models?  Clearly you cannot expect the media to purchase every new car – so a professional loan system is essential.

There are some ethical concerns – it is expected that someone will write about the model (and they may not get further loans if felt to be “freeloading”) but fair criticism is considered part of a credible roadtest.  There has also been a lot of discussion about whether or not bloggers are comparable to traditional media in terms of being offered loans (something I expect we’ll discuss at the MIPAA Press Fleet Co-ordinators’ meeting next month).

Microsoft’s approach does raise some questions – as cited by Stuart the company told the chosen bloggers “…while I hope you will blog about your experience with the pc, you don’t have to. Also, you are welcome to send the machine back to us after you are done playing with it, or you can give it away to your community, or you can hold onto it for as long as you’d like. Just let me know what you plan to do with it when the time comes.”

In not even expecting to see a review, or at least receive some private feedback, the pc seems more of a “bung” – and there is an undercurrent of it being such in the “do what you like with it” feel.  Aren’t there some tax implications here? 

In the motoring world, pure “freebies” are the stuff of legend – associated with the millionaire Octav Botnar who founded Datsun UK in 1970 (and was wanted for tax avoidance when he died in 1991).  Giving away Datsuns was meant to prove Japanese reliability and I don’t remember hearing of anyone declining the offer. (BTW I took my driving lessons in a Datsun Cherry and wouldn’t have wanted one even for free)

Today, most car loans are short-term (usually a week), but long-term tests may be agreed with key media.  This is a “braver” strategy as problems may occur over time (especially if drivers are negligent) or finding something to say regularly may result in very minor niggles gaining coverage (see http://blogs.edmunds.com/roadtests/ which is an interesting development effectively blogging roadtests).

It seems bloggers are less familiar with this common PR tactic of “loans” and launches.  Sampling of clothes, wine, travel, fmcg are regularly part of a journalist’s job – I even heard from a former student of a visit to Venice last year for a bathroom suite launch.  What perhaps isn’t so common is the media making clear what costs have been paid for in resulting coverage.  Isn’t that more about journalistic ethics?

Clearly, if they are influential, it is not surprising bloggers are approached with the same PR techniques.  It will be interesting to see if there is more disclosure online or if, as seems to be common in blogosphere, it is another stick to question the ethics of PR practitioners. 

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Heather Yaxley

Heather Yaxley is passionate about PR - teaching the CIPR qualifications, lecturing part-time at Bournemouth University and running the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA). I'm undertaking a PhD looking at Career Strategies in PR. I love sharing ideas and knowledge - connecting news and views by blogging on public relations and educational developments, especially relating to accelerated and active learning. I'm also a published author, qualified trainer and experienced consultant.

5 thoughts on “Public relations “roadtest” create online tizzy”

  1. Disclosure of these bloggers is essential, and so is Edelman PR reading the likes of these blogs that are talking about their Vista blogs….

    I’d be pre-empting the onslaught if I were them. Here is their chance to rectify a possible problem by using the very medium in which they hope to help them launch their new software. Feedback before the product has barely touched the sides – not bad!

  2. Absolutely – both Edelman and Microsoft should be joining the debate to demonstrate listening and engagement with the blogging community rather than simply looking like they are trying to exploit it.

    In terms of transparency, I wonder what the response would be to Microsoft/Edelman publishing a list of those who have been sent the computers – that would show the companies themselves as being open – and they could actually link direct to any comments posted about the “roadtest”.

  3. I think it would be welcomed. If discrepancies show up in the product, in the blogs during the roadtest, then it may mean a delay while Microsoft gets back to the drawing board for while to rejig the design. If they chose to go down this road that is….Then the product would have been ‘tested by the people, for the people’ .

    But, how would they stop others stealing their idea in the mean time? I guess Microsoft is as good as it gets, so they’ve pretty much got the lions share of the market? Or a patent pending? Of dear, my memory is failing me (I’m a journo, we concentrated on copyright!)

  4. It will be interesting to see how the bloggers review Windows Vista, I hope Edelman will report on this. There is no reason why they can’t be unbiased, just like a journalist, they know their reputation is at stake if they are seen to suck up to a company in favour of an expensive gift like this.

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