The Silly Season 2011 – How a hoax displaced real UK tech stories

Each year we patiently explain to overseas clients why large swathes of Europe are not open for business in July and August. A quaint local custom variously blamed on ‘harvest time’, being ‘too hot to work in France’ or ‘school holidays’, but increasingly in a world of flexible hours, Blackberries and hotel Wi-Fi, these are poor excuses for sunny non-productivity.

From a Tech PR perspective The Silly Season is a God Send. Now is the chance to review progress, line-up customers and reach out to writers and bloggers, ready for the news feast to come. In a normal year, we take advantage of the downtime to raise real-life tech issues with writers who, unusually, are not busy checking flights to conferences or speculating on upcoming gadgets announcements.

Sadly this year’s window of sanity has been squandered by two events, one important; Autonomy’s purchase by HP (of which, more soon) the other a simple hoax which in their own ways both indicate a disregard for real technology news.

[Please note, I am disregarding the sterling work of journalists trying to trendsurf this summer’s #ukriots and the UK tabloid hacking stories – well done James Murray of Business Green and Nic Booth of CityAM and well, various]

So it was that The Telegraph, CNN, Mashable and others ran a hooky survey story claiming Internet Explorer users were less intelligent than ‘the rest of us’ puffed up by a company none of them had ever heard of before – because the site was just two month’s old. Then the truth came out (for details see the excellent ‘Anatomy of a hoax’ for a dissection by competitive analysis expert Arthur Weiss). Some hacks, including The Register, were gracious in defeat. Others less so. The BBC pulled its own story but kept links to other technology writers in its amended story to point out other writers who had also fallen for the hoax.

Perhaps the Aptiquant yarn proves today’s IT consumerized ‘citizen journalists’ have more knowledge than generalist writers, but questions have to be asked as to why UK journalists, a cynical lot at best, fell for this ruse at a time when there is very little other technology news around. We suggest three major reasons

  1. It appealed to their prejudices.
    Tech writers prefer new, over good-enough. To some extent this is understandable. The IT industry innovates more than most. But labelling non-techy Internet Explorer users as Dummies, merely for sticking with the default browser on their not-very-new-and-shiny PCs, seems like a low blow or, at best, defensive. Especially when grannies use Facebook and Readers Comments act as due diligence, picking up fake stories.
  2. Damned statistics.
    Researching news is difficult, or more accurately, time consuming. These days, with fewer editorial staff than ever, PR surveys offer tempting pre-researched linkbait. But uncovering this hoax required very little effort. With 100,000 claimed subjects, this survey is unbelievably large. A moment’s pause would have realised that a no-name brand would never be able to fund research at this scale.
  3. Big brands have more power than (most) writers realise
    Most writers would rather face waterboarding than admit being unduly influenced by PR from Apple, Intel and others. The truth is otherwise. A national tech journalist Twitter DM’ed us to explain that ratings often trump news value (innovation). He refreshingly honestly admitted there were so many iPhone stories because ‘Readers like them, I’m afraid.’

So surely, the delayed iPhone 5 (4.5?) and with no press conferences for two months, the Silly Season is an ideal time for the great industry sector we work in to ask questions. Alas, playing into the hands of global brands, it has just become a backwater concocted ‘survey stories’ and thumb-twiddling until the next junket. Hands up we too have also fallen for hoaxes and cock-ups (remember the Samsung Filelogger red herring?) and we love the odd survey story too – odder the better, but paying that much attention to Steve Jobs’ lunch plans is neither innovative nor interesting.

It is always much more interesting to speak to real users and canvass Thought Leaders. This is not easy because they give out mixed messages, hold no ‘black and white’ views and don’t sponsor press events. However this way, rather than confirming existing prejudices, perhaps even during the Silly Season, we all might learn something real.

Feel free to comment, or for more real tech stories, contact us (details http://www.positivemarketing.org)

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3 responses to “The Silly Season 2011 – How a hoax displaced real UK tech stories

  1. Great article Paul- yes, it is indeed silly season in France! I’ll be in London early September for meetings with IBM- at our Paris meetings the name and spirit of Bob Howe were ever present 😉

  2. Cracking post.

    Basic crap detection would have busted the IE story. Its astonishing that so many journos got caught out. I think its symptomatic of the speed that journos are operating these days and the pressure to file.

    Its also been an usually busy period for mainstream news (financial crisis, Murdoch, Libya, drought in North Africa) and companies have almost certainly held back their corporate news because it would have been bloody tough to breakthrough.

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