One of my first jobs in the tech sector was working at Regis McKenna Inc., a noted strategic business and communications consulting firm in Silicon Valley. The company is well-known for helping to launch many noted companies and was credited with helping to design the famous multi-colored Apple logo. But that was before my time.
One of my first clients to work with was Go Corporation. The company created one of the first, if not the first (but I can’t remember for sure), PenPoint computers. It seemed like a great idea, full of creativity and imagination, and it felt as though we were ushering in a new era of futuristic computers. I figured we’d finally be able to buy hovercraft cars and jet packs in the near future.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the party. The handwriting recognition wasn’t up to snuff. Around the same time Apple came out with the Newton and, low and behold, the handwriting software still couldn’t cut it. I knew that the technology had entered the mainstream when the cartoon strip, Bloom County, took a few shots at the Newton and mocked its inability to correctly recognize a user’s handwriting.
So why am I getting all nostalgic? Well, sitting in the PR chair allows us communications folks to play gatekeeper on the B.S. meter. While we may be one of the last groups to get involved with a product launch, we should be the voice of reason when it comes to public perception. We have to have a strong understanding of what the editorial community as well as the general public will say about the announcement and play a central role in message development. We have to be prepared to not only orchestrate the launch (everybody likes stuffing press kits into folders in the middle of the night before a press conference, right?), but get ready to react to what the editors and the public say if something backfires. You think Apple might have been caught off-guard recently when the problems with the iPhone 4 erupted? What a nightmare.
Good communicators think ahead and try to plan for a wide variety of reactions when new products are launched. We have to think through the tough questions and figure out what could go wrong. Back in 1993 we thought Go Corporation was going to hit a home run and lead a new market. If Go had adjusted expectations differently – and more appropriately given the limitations of the technology – would Go have found some profitable niches and still be around today? Overhyping immature technology is always a mistake, and more often than not, fatal.
So what experiences have you had with product announcements that have gone awry? What are some tips you’ve found helpful to make sure you’re truly prepared?