I’ve been a bit out of the habit of writing here – for the last couple of months most of my free time online has been spent scouring Seattle Eastside real estate listings trying to find a house we would like that is both affordable and within a reasonable driving distance of Redmond. We recently signed a contract on a beautiful place on Hollywood Hill in Woodinville that meets all those criteria, so I’m able to devote a few spare synapses to the weblog again. Now if I can sell my house in the vastly less robust market here in Ann Arbor ….
But anyway, today’s random synapse firings were triggered by Paul Graham’s essay about the role of PR in the high tech industry. “One of the most surprising things I discovered during my brief business career was the existence of the PR industry, lurking like a huge, quiet submarine beneath the news.” Naturally, much of the article was about how PR works, but I was most intrigued by a bit on why it works:
Reporters like definitive statements. For example, many of the stories about Jeremy Jaynes’s conviction say that he was one of the 10 worst spammers. This “fact” originated in Spamhaus’s ROKSO list, which I think even Spamhaus would admit is a rough guess at the top spammers. The first stories about Jaynes cited this source, but now it’s simply repeated as if it were part of the indictment. 
All you can say with certainty about Jaynes is that he was a fairly big spammer. But reporters don’t want to print vague stuff like “fairly big.” They want statements with punch, like “top ten.” And PR firms give them what they want.
This resonated with me because my colleague Michael Rys is trying to explain to an industry analyst that the spin IBM has put out about SQL Server 2005’s XML support is definite, punchy, but wrong. Read Michael’s posts for the details, suffice it to say that SQL Server 2005 does indeed have “native XML” capabilities. I don’t know how the definite, punchy, but simply wrong idea got stuffed into the analyst’s head, but perhaps Paul Graham’s article suggests some clues.
As an aside, it’s a bit spooky that my karma from a previous life touting “native XML databases” may have come back to haunt me. Five years ago, before SQL Server did have what could be considered “native” support for XML, a good bit of my day job was devoted to promoting this idea to the trade press and analysts. I felt a bit like a PR flack myself sometimes .., I’m trying to summon up the moral courage to go back and read a few of of the 13,100 pages I may have directly or indirectly inspired on this subject to see if I was prophetic or pathetic 🙂
Paul Graham wraps up the piece with some arguments that I do not find particularly compelling.
Whatever its flaws, the writing you find online is authentic. It’s not mystery meat cooked up out of scraps of pitch letters and press releases, and pressed into molds of zippy journalese. It’s people writing what they think.
While it’s true that most weblog authors aren’t offered the dubious products of the PR industry, we have the same human weaknesses that journalists and industry analysts have: information overload, egos, preconceptions, and conflicting motives. Most importantly, we are just as susceptible to those ideas which are definite, punchy, but grossly oversimplified as everyone else is. My favorite example is the recent infatuation with REST by a lot of people who know perfectly well that it is an idealized description of the web itself and a dubious prescription for how to build services on top of the web infrastructure. The trouble is, the more nuanced description of the real benefits we all get from HTTP and XML’s ubiquity and how the “AJAX” approach is useful in a large number of scenarios (but not in many others), and likewise how the web services technologies have a place, yada yada yada … do not make for “zippy journalese” or punchy blog entries. Another example is the related idea that we just need to simplify this horribly overcomplicated technology stuff and get back to basics. It’s a lot more appealing to write (and read!) a punchy weblog or definitive speech lamenting complexity than to wallow in the multiple, contradictory implications of “simplicity.”
The appeal of the PR mode of thinking is pervasive. It’s not completely harmful by any means, for example, it’s a Good Thing to be able to clearly state your most important beliefs or value proposition in a punchy “elevator speech.” The problem comes when when the clear and simple story gets in the way of honest confrontation with the devils lurking in the details.