Public Relations Letdowns

[dropcap size=big]I[/dropcap] haven’t been doing this entertainment journalist thing consistently for very long. I’ve been in and out of practice since 2004, but I didn’t really do it consistently until I started with Buzzine, which was last October. Recently, I’ve found that PR events don’t always go smoothly and PR reps aren’t always at the top of their game.

Quantum of Information

One of my early assignments with Buzzine was a piece for the Bond film Quantum of Solace. The PR rep pitched a “Bond tech that exists in real life” angle to me and it seemed like an interesting piece to write, considering how the Bond Reboot was taking the franchise in a more realistic direction. So I agreed to write it.

The PR rep points out four technologies in particular: Bond’s phone, facial recognition software, a featured car and a mysterious innovation that has the ability to capture the world’s natural resources. Supposedly, the phone could track someone else in a crowd. That way, if you get separated from your companion – like your child, let’s say – all you’d have to do is check your phone to find them. The facial recognition program, according to the PR rep, was something that MIT was working on and used by MI6. I took that to mean “used by MI6 in real life.” The car was a hydro-electric vehicle that operated on electricity and water alone. As for the “thing” that could capture the world’s resources, the PR rep didn’t have much in the way of information.

I would have expected all of the information to be forwarded to me so that I could put together an exciting, comprehensive article. If I was in PR and pitching stories to writers, I’d try to control their articles as much as possible by giving them only as much information as they thought they needed. In this case, I received none, so I scoured the Internet. Eventually I found the one-sheets for these products on the respective manufacturers’ Web sites. From what I read, the products weren’t that marvelous after all.

The phone was just a phone with an above-average camera. There was no tracking feature available, nor can I guess how that feature would work. The facial recognition software was still in development and nowhere near being able to recognize anything with reliability. The car was as described, so no complaints there. I still couldn’t find anything on the resource collector thing, though. So I asked the PR rep for more information.

“It’s like a dam,” the PR rep wrote back. “I wish you could see the movie to know what I’m talking about.”

So I went back to Google to search for things that could collect water – since the QoS production notes mentioned water as part of the plot – and all I could find was some engineering company that sold pumps was taking advantage of the Quantum of Solace premier. One of the headlines for their company blog was something like “Our pumps provide a quantum of solace to irrigation systems” or whatever. So after a day of fruitless searching I just left it out.

When I saw the film, all I could think of was, “What the hell? How could anyone think that would exist in real life?” When Bond uses the camera it’s from the other side of a stadium and he’s able to get close-ups of people’s faces. Right. Then those pictures are sent to MI6 (the movie version, not real life) and they’re able to extrapolate mugshots from pictures at a three-quarter angle of the back of heads. Again, that doesn’t exist in real life. As for the thing that could collect the world’s resources that’s like a dam, that’s exactly what it was: a dam. Sure that technology exists in real life, but there was never any contention there. The point of the article – I thought – was to show Bond fans that the outlandish devices could actually be viewed and touched in real life. Instead, my article turned into a marketing copy. You can read my Technology of Solace article here.

The Need for a Speedier Event Setup

A few months ago, I covered the Los Angeles launch party for Need for Speed Undercover. It was held at the Hollywood and Highland Center with a car show preceding the party. This is one of those situations where the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. The event coordinators knew their jobs, but didn’t really have an understanding about the event as a whole. So that when I got there and asked a guy who was setting up video game kiosks where the car show was, he didn’t know what I was talking about. When I did find the show, I was told that I’d have to sign a waiver if I wanted to get through the gates, presumably because the cars might lose control and crush me under a ton of metal and rubber. They never got around to passing out the waiver.

Afterwards, we made our way up to the club where we were held back by security for at least half an hour because the staff hadn’t finished setting up. Furthermore, journalists were missing from the list and being turned away. Lastly, they weren’t giving out press credentials when you checked in, which begged the question that I asked, “What happens if I want to leave and come back and the press table is gone? How will security know to let me in?” The pretty girls managing the list just stared at me dumbfounded. New problem identified, security held us back again until they could think something up. Their decision was to just mark our wrists with a Sharpie marker.

Once inside, there wasn’t really anything to promote the game. Obviously, Electronic Arts just wanted to get us liquored up to grease the wheels on the journey to a good review. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the two necessary ingredients were miles apart. The kiosks were on the first floor outside by the street. The alcohol was in the club. Who decided that, I don’t know.

Before I left, I peeled one of the PR guys away from Maggie Q – who’s in the game – to ask for the names of the cars we saw that night. He stared blankly for a moment and then fell on an old standby that I’ve used many times when I didn’t know the answer during my customer service years: That’s a good question. Let me check on that for you. And then disappear for the rest of the night. Here’s my coverage of the Need for Speed Underground launch party.

We’re Just Not Into Using the Right Name

Recently I was given the opportunity to screen He’s Just Not That Into You. This came as a bit of a surprise when one of the other writers at Buzzine told me I’d be going with him. Still, I’m all for helping out the publication so I agreed to go. Unfortunately, a lot of factors converged on the day of the screening that affected my ability to actually see the movie.

First, the email invite was forwarded to us from Buzzine headquarters. That’s fine in and of itself, but some screener invites are sent anonymously, which means there’s no phone number and no sender information. The only way to RSVP is to hit reply when you get it, which is what the studio instructs you to do in the invite.

Second, we didn’t get a confirmation. I can’t say whether or not confirmations are typical in the scope of the business, but I will say that I’m used to getting them. The other writer and I decided that we would wait for confirmation before committing ourselves.

Third, I had to pick up my brother from his work and drop him off at his home right after I got off, which would cut into my drive-time budget for getting to Los Angeles in time.

With these three factors in mind, the evening played itself out like this:

The other writer and I emailed Buzzine headquarters throughout the day for confirmation. It wasn’t until around 5 p.m. or so that we got it. For some reason, they had Richard Elfman’s name plus one on the list instead of ours. It didn’t really matter as long as they’d let us in. So after dropping my brother off, I hopped on the 60 freeway only to be snarled in traffic of the damned. It was already approaching 6 p.m. and I was nowhere near being able to make the 7 p.m. screening time. I called the other writer and broke the bad news and he was very understanding. He said he’d go alone and I turned back home.

In the end, it worked out for me since the people running the screener didn’t let the other writer in anyway, saying his name wasn’t on the list. My name wasn’t on the list either. Most importantly, Richard’s name wasn’t on the list. Then they told him that the screener was full and turned him away. I can only imagine how livid I’d be if I fought that ungodly traffic and managed to make it on time only to suffer that fate.

Later that night, the other writer emailed me, giving me a rundown of his evening. He closed with:

Besides, I met another movie critic, and he said he fell asleep through his screening of “He’s not into you” and said it was a community service that they turned me away.

PR is Probably a Tough Job

I’d hate for anyone reading this to think that I have a low opinion of Public Relations people. I’m sure it’s a difficult job with nuances that I’ll never fully grasp. The point I’m trying to make here is that as a freelance writer or journalist, the people you rely on to help you do your job are going to let you down sooner or later. What’s important to remember is to stay flexible, be resourceful and prepare yourself for unthinkable disappointments.

And if you’re ever in a situation where you’ve traveled a great distance only to be denied access, make sure you know where the local bars are so you can drown your sorrows.