Feature: Is a jolly worth the lolly?

Tech journalist David Murphy has been on his fair share of press trips. Here, he asks if the client gets value for money.

Ten years ago, when this author worked on What Video magazine, veteran technology journalist Barry Fox submitted a column in which he reported on the much-delayed launch into space of a new TV satellite. In a Freudian slip of a typo, Fox noted: ‘There had been so many delays, many journalists feared the lunch [sic] would never happen.'

Lunches are part of a long tradition in PR to stage ‘jollies', or press trips, for a wide variety of journalists.

Justifiable junkets
In 2006, consumer-tech PR jollies are still commonplace, and just as extravagant. Recent jollies by Samsung, for instance, have included trips to Shanghai and Krakow, while chinese electronics companies have also recently arranged long tours (see below).

But while there is logic in sending travel journalists to far-flung destinations to experience sunnier climes or hotels, can today's non-travel consumer PROs honestly justify taking a dozen journalists on an expensive trip abroad just to launch a £100 camera, computer game or cheap MP3 player?

Should time be called on junkets that hark back to when this was one of the only ways of distributing information to masses of journalists? More pertinent still, is the cost really worth the additional coverage - and do firms even bother to measure such factors?

Some agencies are certainly questioning their value. ‘I will always hesitate when clients say they want to take the press halfway around the world if there's no good reason for it,' says Hannah Shepherd, MD and co-founder of consumer electronics specialist Trilogy Communications, whose clients include videogame firm THQ, MP3 manufacturer Archos and DAB radio maker Dualite. ‘We have to justify every penny spent on clients' behalf. It doesn't matter if a trip costs £5,000 or £50,000; if it's not justified or you don't get a good return on it, it will come back to haunt you the next time you recommend something.'

Over-the-top outings
These rules do not always apply. Jim Hawker, co-founder of consumer agency Threepipe Communications, says: ‘If you have good relationships with journalists, you can get the same coverage without spending two grand a pop taking them away.' That said, he is still an advocate of ‘seeing is believing', and says there is value in giving journalists the chance to observe some­thing first-hand. Last year he arranged a press trip to Miami to let consumer writers see wireless technology in action.

Kate Robinson, head of press and PR for camera maker Nikon, says trips remain an excellent way of getting products in the hands of journalists. ‘Press trips are about hands on,' she says. ‘Media briefings in London hotels work well for getting a large group of people together, but they do not beat hands-on testing.  Journalists may write about the camera without the trips, but they are a fun way of making sure they understand the technology.'

Perhaps so, but do you really need to go to the expense of hiring a helicopter to send a load of journalists from London to Oxford, as Nikon recently did? ‘Le Manoir, where we took the journalists, has beautiful gardens, which we used for a 90-minute photo challenge, where the journalists had to use all of the premium features on the camera to have a chance of winning,' Robinson explains. Since one of the main objectives was to get journalists to write about these features, it may be hard to disagree with Robinson's logic. But what about that helicopter? ‘The cameras feature Vibration Reduction technology,' she says. ‘Where better to put that to the test that in a helicopter?'

If a 100-mile helicopter trip sounds over the top, how on earth does a PRO justify the expense of taking 120 people to Kenya for a product launch, as Canon did last March for its EOS 350D digital camera?

According to Andrew Boag, head of PR for Canon Europe, it was all about the light. ‘The product was technically very good and we wanted to show its strengths. We started by looking at European locations where we'd get good light. But we couldn't find anywhere at that time of the year [March],' he says.

To non-photographers, this might sound implausible, but good light is genuinely a big deal. So instead of Venice or Barcelona, Canon headed for the Masai Mara, complete with 3.5 tonnes of its EOS lenses, 30 jeeps, several hot-air balloons and a helicopter. The journalists spent four days staying in luxury tents, their time split between hands-on sessions with the camera, technical briefings with Canon representatives, and presentations from local experts on wildlife conservation.

Boag won't be drawn on the cost of the launch, but says ‘tents are cheaper than a five-star hotel'. Like Robinson, he says the trip was justified because of the ­opportunity for the firm to get its messages across, and for journalists to use the product.

In fact, Boag says the ROI on the trip was between six and ten times its cost based on the advertising equivalent of coverage. Boag feels there were other benefits, too, apart from the coverage. He says: ‘The key to any good event is not to make people feel rushed and stressed. We couldn't have delivered the same amount of information in London. Because the journalists were enjoying themselves so much, when it came to the serious bit they were interested and attentive.

‘PR is also about relationships, and when I go to events now I see journalists wearing their EOS Safari T-shirts and a smile on their faces because they had a good ­experience. That's important for any company.'

Choose the right participant
For technical products in particular, the press trip has become more important, says Paul Napthali, head of consumer at tech PR firm Hotwire. ‘If journalists don't understand the product, consumers won't either,' he says. ‘Sitting journalists in a room with a PowerPoint presentation might look like a cost-effective way of briefing them, but if it doesn't get the message across it's a waste of everyone's time.'

Time is an important factor in the press-trip debate. Publishers run tight ships these days, so if a journalist is ­going to be out of the office for two or three days, it has to be justified.

‘The shift in the perception of trips has been driven as much by journalists as by clients in the past few years,' says Annette Ryszkowska, associate director at Byte. ‘They need to justify trips, and they need to know that there is a story at the end of it. The media environment has got much tougher and journalists are scrutinising the value of trips just as closely as clients.'

Interestingly, while PROs and journalists both want trips that are worthwhile, Threepipe's Hawker says the process of selecting journalists for press trips is not always as scientific as might be imagined: ‘PROs get desperate to fill spots and all a lot of clients care about is bums on seats, so the quality of people can be sacrificed just to fill the places.'

Worse still, says Hawker, is that unless the client has a full-time, hands-on PRO in-house, it is likely to remain obli­vious to the futility of a poorly managed press trip. And, while press trips can be fun, the poorly arranged ones do stick in people's minds. One editor of a gadget magazine was recently taken on a seven-day tour of Japan, Hong Kong and Malaysia by electronics maker Onkyo. The pace of the trip - with briefings as soon as the editor landed - was described as ‘tortuous' with no relaxation time.

To avoid this and get the best ROI, Philips media relations manager Tina Withington says the firm conducts rigorous evaluation of every trip to ensure it achieves objectives.

‘We look at short, mid and long-term coverage, and at whether the right messages have been communicated,' she says. ‘If they haven't, we re-evaluate our invite list and approach.'

Bite's Ryszkowska says: ‘We regularly arrange press trips for Samsung to Korea, as there is interest in seeing how they design and develop their products at their R&D centres in Seoul. The trips are tailored to individual journalists and detailed itineraries are worked out to make sure the trip is worthwhile, gives an angle relevant to their publication and justifies a long journey.'

The approach seems to work. One recent press trip to Seoul resulted in a double-page in-depth feature on Samsung in The Independent.

Clearly, cost is not necessarily an issue, so long as the trip achieves its objectives. What matters is that PR has to be account­able. Philips's Withington agrees. She says: ‘If PROs want their companies to invest in PR and want to be considered professional and part of the marketing mix, they have to strike a balance between work and the social element.

‘If, as a PR person, you're just seen as a free drink, all you're doing is compromising the long-term professionalism of the whole industry.'

WHAT DO JOURNALISTS WANT FROM A PRESS TRIP?

Simon Munk, games writer for FHM, T3:

‘Give us some free time - all too often you fly out Monday afternoon, work, have dinner, go to the bar, wake up, work, fly out. If you take us somewhere nice, let us see the place. Otherwise, hold the ‘trip' in central London. Also, I'm vegetarian. I get told my requirements have been met. I've found this actually means they told the booking firm, who then filed my meal request in a locked cabinet down a flight of stairs. Flight meals are always missed off the list; Eurostar is even worse. Then at the other end, while meat eaters are feasting, you're served late trimmings.

‘And have a laugh. At the bar, PROs should let their hair down. It makes for better working relationships. So should client company execs.'

Caramel Quin, technology writer, Evening Standard:

‘Honestly, the first thing I look at is who else is going. It might be an overnighter to Butlins in Bognor, but if it's with a few other hacks who I enjoy spending time with then I'm instantly tempted if I can spare the time. After that it's timing. Not too long (too much time out of the office), not too short (all travel and no time to appreciate where you are), I'm looking for something just about right; that is, five to seven days if it's long haul, three to four days in Europe and one to two days in the UK.

‘Essentials include free broadband or Wi-Fi in my hotel room. I'm amazed that some PROs expect you to pay for this yourself, as if it was the same thing as a G&T from the minibar.'

WHEN IT GOES WRONG

‘We were in Iceland with electronics firm LG for a launch. On the Saturday morning we left our hotel at 9am in pitch darkness and headed across the island for a day's snowmobiling. We drove up the mountain with snow swirling round us and Pink Floyd on the CD. We were briefed in a blizzard. I couldn't hear what the guide was saying, except to keep the snowmobile in front, in sight. We set off, two on each snowmobile, with guides at the front, back and middle. I was partnered with fellow hack George.

‘Our goggles were so scratched you couldn't see through them, but once we turned into the wind, we had to put them on. Then we lost sight of the snowmobile in front. I asked George to see if the guide was behind us. He wasn't.

‘After our shouting didn't attract anyone, we went back the way we'd come. We should have stayed put, but hadn't heard that instruction. For the next four hours or so, we meandered around the mountain, coming off several times. Then George damaged his ankle…' Did they make it back in one piece?

PRESS TRIPS UNDER THE SPOTLIGHT

GOODWOOD

Product The reopening of The Kennels Club House and Ralph Lauren shop after an 18-month refurbishment
Date 5 June 2006
PR team In-house (Zanny Gilchrist)

The event A trip to Goodwood on the Orient Express and open-top vintage bus. There was a tour of the clubhouse, a party and a speech from Goodwood CEO Lord March, a firework display and Spitfire fly-past. Then it was back to London with dinner on the Orient Express. Ninety journalists went.

The PRO verdict Goodwood PR consult­ant Gilchrist: ‘The resulting coverage from the attending journalists has been very positive.'

The journalist verdict Nick Bagot, from the Mail on Sunday Live magazine, says: ‘The event was fantastically organised. It had theatre and atmosphere throughout. Even getting from the train to Goodwood became an event with the open-top bus and motorcycle outriders. It was a really enjoyable launch.'

THQ 
   
Product Company of Heroes videogame  launch (published by THQ)
Date 26-27 July 2006
PR team Trilogy Communications

The event Seventy journalists were taken to Cherbourg, France, given a WW2 tour, then on to Deauville to a five-star hotel. They were given the opportunity to play the game and there was a mock battle in which a Spitfire attacked two Dakotas. Journalists could also interview leader of the Dambusters Richard Todd, plus American and French war veterans.

The PRO verdict ‘There were lots of "money can't buy" kind of activities,' says Trilogy MD Hannah Shepherd. Since the event, the game has received a 94 per cent review in PC Gamer magazine.

The journalist verdict The Guardian's Greg Howsen says: ‘This was one of the best press trips I've been on - memorable and very useful. The entertainment was excellent. The tour guide was informative and I would have happily spent another day looking at the old battle sites.'

NIKON    

Product Nikon D200 digital SLR camera
Date October 2005
PR team In-house

The event Nikon took 15 journalists to Marrakech. The objective was to test the camera in harsh conditions. Journalists were each given a camera and asked to take photos. There were also one-to-one briefings with Nikon's technical team.

The PRO verdict Head of PR Kate Robinson says the event was covered by all the journalists, and all mentioned its messages. The camera received a five-star award in The Sunday Times and 93 per cent in a Photography Monthly review.

The journalist verdict Damien Demolder of Amateur Photographer says: ‘The trip was excellent, with technical detail, information and a great location and good company. Location is vital if we are expected to take pictures. Had the launch been in Watford only half those invited would have gone, and if they had got dull pictures, their impression of the D200 would not have been positive.'

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