01 May 2007

OH.MY.GOD....briefing docs....

Following on from the ‘day in the life’ post last week, TWL received a briefing document.

A briefing document - or, for honesty’s sake, let’s call it a memo - can be the final key to a piece of smoothly implemented PR. A senior executive, say, is meeting a genuinely influential journalist who writes for a first class magazine.

The memo gives a concise overview of the topic to be debated, along with details of any recent and related contact. Perhaps it even highlights a couple of end-user examples that can be cited, or the detail of some research findings. It may end with a note about the suitable tone and manner for the interview. The senior executive reads the material, raises any specific queries and then conducts a solid interview that gets the company’s message across at the same time as hitting all the areas the journalist wants to cover. All very sensible.

Whether it was the layers of malignant in-house middle management that devalued and over-complicated the memo, or agency bosses that saw a tangible output as something that could carry a price tag, we’ll never be able to establish. Fact is, what should be a simple memo has morphed into a ‘briefing document.’

Yes, thanks to processes, templates and the self-serving interests of in-house PR people, briefing documents are now voluminous, comb-bound, acetate covered tomes, bulging with irrelevant detail. They include cab pick up times, recent news releases, messaging from all parts of the organisation, Q&As galore and Lord knows how many articles written by the journalist in question.

Given how tedious and involved creating a briefing document is, it’s almost never put together by the semi-experienced person that secured the interview in the first place. Instead it’s a junior PR or an intern of some description. That, of course, means the most useful part (what got discussed during the sell-in) is usually missed out.

Which makes it all the more bizarre when the occasional briefing document ends up in the hands of a journalist. Suddenly, the expensive and really rather useless briefing document, put together by a 23 year old on a Thursday afternoon, becomes a lot more interesting.

The predictable hue and cry over Waggener Edstrom’s “confidential dossier of 5,500 words” that was sent to a Microsoft executive to help him prepare for an interview with Wired made TWL smile (the 'secret dossier' got sent to the journo by mistake - by the client, happily).

In one corner were many uptight journalists and anti-MS zealots, claiming Microsoft was so wicked and nasty that a semi-senior spokesperson had prepared for an interview. In the other camp was a bunch of PR types pointing out that journalists normally moan if the person they interview doesn’t know the topic under discussion. It all went on far too long and got jolly boring (read the cases for and against, if you really want).

However, there was something remarkable about that incident that went almost without comment. The confidential dossier (briefing doc) was only 5,500 words. That is unusually concise for both Wagged and Microsoft.

Which brings us back to the briefing document we received. It is a Wagged briefing document for Microsoft that is over 130 pages – and more than 60,000 words - long.

It’s for a fairly senior US exec on a European tour. It contains an eight day weather forecast and currency conversion rates. The exec is accompanied by two spokespeople in each interview, one at a European level and one from the country being visited. There are percentages for the amount of time each should spend talking. Honestly.

Other useful nuggets include a note that many of the journalists on the European tour will not speak English as a first language. There's value-add. It is hoped that the tour proves ‘educational’ for local European media.

Every publication is covered in copious detail without actually departing any useful information. Take this whimsical meander down irrelevant lane:

“The Economist resembles an academic journal in many respects, and is labeled ‘a newspaper’ by insiders, due to its last-minute deadlines and dedication to factual, objective news coverage.” By insiders? The Economist is a bloody newspaper – that is how it describes itself. But anyway, what the hell has that got to do with anything?

It’s not Wagged’s fault. It’s probably not the spokesperson’s fault (although, let’s be honest, we’ve all had senior US execs that have made Whitney Houston’s travel demands look incredibly straight-forward). Blame lies somewhere in the layers of marketing middle management, who are so desperate to cover their arse that they give a travelling exec a hard copy of a 130+ page document to carry with them.

Briefing documents – bane of a PR's life.

A final wry observation? The electronic version of this briefing document for a Microsoft executive is a pdf. Oh, and guess what? Computer Weekly interviewed the US exec by phone….


Kasteera said...

My favourite are the templates that are passed down from on high for WW execs doing the grand tour. One I saw last year requested details of the journalists sartorial style and hair cut. Still to work out why this actually mattered.

SpiderJ said...

As an ex-Softie who did several media tours with WagEd and Edelman, I was always fascinated with why one of the junior minions at the agency would have to harras me to find out my flight details, just so they could tell it back to me in the briefing document!

They managed to leave out one of the most important pieces of information though - that one journalist I was briefing was narcoleptic, and often fell asleep in the middle of briefings.

It's a typical agency 'make work' thing - i.e. we need to show that we are doing work for you, so we'll bury you under piles of paper, unecessary reports and then charge you for it.

....the world's leading.... said...

I'm not so sure, SpiderJ...you're a spokesperson who doesn't value briefing docs, we're agency people who don't like them...my suspicion is that they're an in-house PR team 'make work' thing...