Ethical Voices

Ethical Issues of Promoting Vaporware – Eric Berman

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Joining me on this week’s episode is Eric Berman, an innovative results-focused communications director with more than 20 years of experience in corporate communications and public relations. He is currently the industry relations marketing director for realtor.com. He discusses a number of important issues, including:

Why don’t you tell us more about yourself and your career?

I was a journalism major in college, with a concentration in public relations. I was actually a member of PRSSA while I was there. I have spent my whole career in public relations and communications with the last 19 being focused in housing and real estate.

What is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?

I used to work for a software company right before the dot com bubble burst. I had the opportunity to work in a company that had a pool table, foosball and the like, and there were lots of beer and pizza, so that was good. The company had just gone public recently, but many of its competitors had not. The competition to make the numbers was significant.

I was doing industry analyst relations, and I can’t say at the time I saw this as necessarily ethically suspect, because we were all wrapped up in that trying to succeed. But I think the challenge for me was that we’d be announcing the launch of a version of a product, but yet had yet to deliver on the previous version or the previous two versions, because this was enterprise-wide software that took six to nine or 12 months to actually fully implement.

So, here I was having to talk to these industry analysts and being able to really only talk about what it was going to do. It was essentially vaporware. I was promoting vaporware. I had to trot out to the same customers, and they were talking about really what they were doing in a previous version. They wouldn’t even able to talk about what they were doing in the version that you’re announcing.

I’ve been in tech PR for all this time, so I’m very familiar with the challenges of vaporware. What’s the advice you give to PR pros dealing with that or when your company is making claims that are just a little bit too far in advance. How do you keep from stepping over the line?

I could tell you that I was in housing and real estate for the previous 19 years because I wasn’t very good at it. As I look back, I’d say that one of the reasons why I wasn’t very good with that was because it was difficult to reconcile that. But in terms of advice, I would really stick to what the new product would potentially be doing based on the feedback you’re getting from your current customers on the current product and use it to promote the fact that you have a good relationship with your current customers and really listen to them.

Did analysts ever push back at you saying, “You keep on trotting out the same customers. I want somebody new”? How do you handle that request or desire for newness?

That was one of the problems. It was hard. That’s one of the reasons why I wasn’t very good at it, quite honestly, because it was very difficult to talk about something new and make it different when you were just, vaporware.

You have to really develop that network of clients that you’re really working with that are abreast of what you’re doing next and that they can talk about it because they’re having an issue or having a challenge that need to be solved and you’re helping them solve it. But I think it’s difficult and I truly don’t envy companies that are in that position.

Beyond vaporware, what are you seeing as some of the key ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?

I would say that we’re recording this in early January, right after the things that have happened in Washington, DC. and one of the things that I would say without being political is cite your sources. We hear about all these things. It’s too easy to make an argument by saying, well, this is what I’ve heard. This is what I read. This is what they’re telling me. And then making it a real issue when maybe it’s not a real issue because it’s a lie.

How do brands and the representatives of brands educate consumers when you’re facing attacks from false information?

That’s very difficult. The best thing you can do is to prepare in advance. If I’m going to prepare a spokesperson, they’re relying on me to provide them with background or key messages. I’m going to make sure that I have sourced my sources. I need to make sure that I have gone through and made sure that what I’m giving them is the best information available. There’s lots of ways you can verify it, but if you can’t verify it, you’ve got to be careful. It will bite you if you do not.

That’s one of the challenges that we’re seeing. Another challenge is the rush to be first. So how do you counteract that?

You need to be prepared for last minute stuff in advance. We used to put out emails to promote classes to our membership when I was at the Massachusetts Association of Realtors. We had 25,000 members and I would often get a request like, “Oh, we need to put out a last-minute email.” And I would say, well, “We shouldn’t have a last minute email. We should have a last minute email already drafted in the queue with the understanding that it will go out at a certain time. And if we don’t need it, we can pull it.” So my advice in that type of situation would be similar. Think about having the stuff in advance. It’s easier said than done. But if I was in a situation where that was my client or my company, that’s what I’d want to do.

I think it’s a really good point. I always believe in you game plan and you prepare for the scenarios and then you just hope that preparation doesn’t leak.

It’s funny because it’s like when Bill Belichick from the Patriots, talked about how the Eagles had their Super Bowl parade already planned back in their third Super Bowl win. The fact of the matter is Boston already had a plan too. It just didn’t leak out.

You’re right. Everybody has those contingency plans in place. They need to. Beyond citing sources, are there other areas you’re concerned about ethics right now?

Actually, I do, and it has to do with social metrics. When working with clients and with members of the Realtor Association are you really reporting on metrics that matter? Is it just likes? Is it just impressions? Is it just engagement? What really is the important metric and what’s the vanity metric that doesn’t really mean anything? Which one are you putting more weight in? And are you being really honest with that client on that data?

How do you recommend PR professionals be more ethical and accurate in their measurements?

I think you have to be a pro. I think you have to hold yourself up to that point where you have agreement of what is considered success and why it’s success, and not potentially hold the lack of knowledge that your client or an internal client might have versus knowledge that you have. You have to explain it so they understand it, and it’s really up to you to tell them why you think one metric is better than the other.

I always believe in tying it to business results whenever possible, because who cares about outputs and who cares about likes? What does a like really mean? It’s are you improving yourself in the consideration set? Are you reducing concerns around X?

Exactly. Everyone has a business goal. That’s the reason why you’re doing it. So can you tie it to that, and are really impression going to make the difference, are likes going to make the difference? Or is it going to be the fact that someone actually engaged with you or downloaded something? What’s more important to meeting that business goal?

What is the best piece of ethics advice you were given?

I can’t remember who told me this, or if someone actually did tell me this, or if I read it somewhere, so let’s just chalk it up to I heard it somewhere, but I’ve been using it my whole career.

It’s okay not to know something.

It’s okay not to know the answer to a question that a reporter might ask you. You can say, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out and get you the answer,” and then actually do it.

It’s impossible for me to know all the answers. I think I really work hard on making sure I know the people who do know the answers.

Kirk Hazlett, a former PRSA Boston President, told me he loved it when students would ask him a question to which he did not know the answer. He’d say, “You know what? I don’t know. Let’s look it up together.” And it was a good way to get people trained to admit that they didn’t know everything and get them to find out what the real true data points are.

For sure.

Was there anything I didn’t ask you that you wanted to highlight?

When I was at the Realtors Association, I pushed out a lot of data and I made the very conscious decision to make it pretty matter of fact.

It would be fun to write some really great headlines like this is the biggest or the worst, or be very superlative in any direction about the market. But I wanted to support the realtors. I wasn’t a cheerleader. And I wanted us to be taken as professionals that we were. So, I wanted to make our data as matter of fact as possible, and then have the leadership comment on their professional opinion to give context to the data. I thought it was important not to be rah-rah because I didn’t think that would be the best for my membership.

That’s a challenge because people can have fun with data in so many ways. I had a great conversation last week with Adam Blacker who was talking all about that issue. And I know I’ve talked to Katie Paine and others in the past about it. What’s your advice when your executives are pushing you to sensationalize the data? How do you effectively push back?

It was my old boss who really got me to look at it from a perspective of there’s always two sides to the data. In my case, it was a question of, well, what might be the other side of the issue and is there a possibility to look at that other point of view? In my case, the real estate market tends to always benefit somebody one way or the other. So when prices are high, it obviously benefits a seller, which means it doesn’t benefit the buyer. And when prices are low, it benefits the buyer. Obviously doesn’t benefit the seller.

I had realtor members who would have clients on either side, it was very difficult to really bang the drum for, oh, this is a great time to buy, or this is a great time to sell because there was always somebody on the other side, and a good communications person is always going to point out to the executive or their spokesperson what some of those other sides are, because they might not be thinking about it.

For example, the foreclosure issue that we had when the mortgage industry went bust was pretty bad across the country. Was it bad in Massachusetts? Yes. Was it as bad? No, but it was still pretty bad.

But there was some opportunity there too. It gave us a chance to talk about, well, it’s a necessary part of the cycle and it’s not great for the community or the neighborhood where a foreclosure happens, but it also might be the opportunity for a first-time home buyer who didn’t have the amount of money to get into the market. They could now get in the market, be in that house, bring it up to the standard, and now the neighborhood’s better for it. So, look at it from a different perspective, make sure that the executive knows that someone could be hurting just as well as they could be benefiting from the news you put out. Always keep both sides in mind.

Check out the full interview, with bonus content, here:

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Mark W. McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA, is the general manager of C+C's Boston office. C+C is a communications agency all about the good and purpose-driven brands. He has more than 20 years of tech and fintech agency experience, served as the 2016 National Chair of PRSA, drove the creation of the PRSA Ethics App and is the host of EthicalVoices.com

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