PR Adds Needed Forecasting To Product Roll-Out Business Plans

Communications for Windows '98, Apple's Imac Control the Hype In the din of technology product roll-outs, advertising no longer provides the foremost sales fuel. PR has become a needed publicity generator and customer motivator. Technology companies typically devote between $250,000 and $500,000 for major product launches, according to PR NEWS sources. That is an impressive outlay when you consider that just a decade ago, some major companies earmarked that amount for their total annual PR budgets. Companies like IBM [IBM], Armonk, N.Y., are starting three months out to generate stories in publications like PC World. And other Fortune 500s use partners to grease the customer-relations skids to trigger hype during launch week. Although Microsoft [MSFT], Redmond, Wash., wouldn't talk to us about its grassroots PR for Windows '98, retailers like CompUSA [CPU] boosted the product's name recognition with promotional events that included giveaway coupons for $98 PCs. More than 150 stores nationwide stayed open late on June 25 for the launch. CompUSA's Director of Public Communications Carol Elfstrom wouldn't reveal the terms of its agreement with Microsoft, but said the company regularly partners with Microsoft and arranged for media events such as a photo opp with Bill Gates and its CEO Jim Halpin as well as B-roll for the press. It's rumored that Microsoft spent $10 million to market Windows '98, a launch the jury's still out on in terms of whether it delivered the punch the corporation wanted and a launch that comes when the Department of Justice is still knee-deep in closing its antitrust investigation of the company. Truly, Microsoft's Windows '98 launch might as well serve as a PR paragon for well-calculated hype. Although a senior account executive at the corporation's lead PR agency, Waggener Edstrom, Inc., Portland, Ore., said CompUSA' "late night" blitzes for the launch were "a pleasant surprise," she can't dismiss the potential PR payoff. But despite the obvious benefits, PR surrounding product launches can be one of the most delicate of applications. Communications in this mode becomes a lesson in time-release mastery. For instance, PR executives at Apple [APL], Cupertino, Calif., and its PR agency, San Francisco-based Niehaus Ryan, are key liaisons in one of its most important product launches. NR is helping keep reporters - who are champing at the bit to try its new Internet-based iMac - at arm's length for the July 10 appearance of dozens of these boxes at Macworld. The computer won't ship until August, says Russell Brady, senior manager of product PR. Its launch, however, was announced May 6 in an atypical scenario. To guarantee surprise, there weren't any non-disclosure agreements signed with journalists nor any leaks, says Brady. PR Provides Name Recognition Jumpstart "PR launches [product sales] and advertising pulls it through," says Bill Hughes, VP of communications for IBM's [IBM] Personal System Group division in Somers, N.Y. Hughes should know. He is the former senior VP and GM of Burson-Marsteller in Los Angeles. BM drove the PR surrounding Sun Microsystem's launch of Java. And Hughes said between $150,000 and $300,000 was spent on PR. In his new role, Hughes has helped spearhead PSG's integrated communications project for its "e-business tools," a fresh suite of products that includes servers, workstations, desktop PCs, IT management tools, hardware and the WorkPad, one of PSG's cornerstone products. When the products were launched worldwide April 15-16, PR continued as a key driver. More than 50 press interviews were arranged after the launch presentation. Favorable mentions appeared in ivory-tower publications such as The Wall Street Journal and in peripherals like Computer Reseller News. (Microsoft, 425/882-8080; Bill Hughes, 914/766-3770; Russell Brady, 408/974-6877; Carol Elfstrom, 972/982-4181) Some Windows Headlines Gates Shows Off Windows 98, Weather Crashes - IDG News Service, 4/20/98Little Excitement for Windows 98 Launch - Reuters - 6/25/98Low-Key Start for Windows 98 - The Washington Post - 6/25/98Consumer Wait for Windows 98 Slowed PC Sales - The Asian Wall Street Journal - 6/30/98

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