PR Secrets I Learned at the PlayBook Launch

As analysts, we’re regularly invited to launch events for the latest gadgets. I imagine that from the outside these events can look quite cool, and indeed sometimes they are. That’s the idea after all. Sometimes they’ll be elegant catered affairs at fancy hotels. Sometimes they’re gaudy unveilings onstage at trade shows set to thumping music. There’s the occasional cameo from a celebrity or professional athlete. And of course there are the inimitable Steve Jobs shows where I’ve sometimes felt that normally well adjusted people would kill to get their hands on my press badge.

The point is that the events themselves are like products in their own right. There’s an art to an effective event just as there is to the product and corporate message the event must convey. Most of the subtlety is lost on me, by the way. I have an aesthetic sense like a set of house keys. But I try to be a student of these things and I sincerely consider it a privilege to be asked to attend.

Let’s talk about Thursday’s event to launch RIM’s BlackBerry PlayBook tablet. There was intrigue in the air. It had been a rough 36 hours for the marketing and PR folks at RIM, not to mention the executives.

RIM seeded PlayBooks with leading tech reviewers and bloggers, who promptly published reviews that were almost unanimously tepid. I must have read or scanned through at least 10 of these. I didn’t see any outright bashing, but the overall tenor was the opposite of what any PR or marketing pro would have hoped for. As if that wasn’t challenging enough, that morning brought news that co-CEO Mike Lazaridis had walked out of an interview with the BBC. I didn’t consider this a big deal, though I couldn’t help but feel sympathetic to the marketing and PR teams that try to make this stuff run smoothly and effectively.

This bad news for RIM was in the front of my mind as I headed into the event. I expected that the circumstances would at least dampen the mood among RIM executives. I figured RIM might even offer some messages that put a brave face on the day’s adversity.

I was about as wrong as you can be. RIM’s senior executives, including its co-CEOs, appeared in very good spirits. They seemed to mingle easily with the crowd of a few hundred journalists, bloggers and industry and financial analysts, answering questions and acknowledging challenges with relative candor, but also seeking informed feedback.

As for the event itself, there was a stage set up, ostensibly for a speech about the official launch. But there was no speech, just a few photo ops with some celebs. This would ordinarily seem awkward – a launch event with no main presentation — yet it seemed to work for the PlayBook launch. The convivial and casual atmosphere struck me as a welcome and possibly deliberate contrast to what must have been a difficult set of product reviews for RIM to digest.

This isn’t to say there aren’t shortcomings in the PlayBook. We’ve written extensively in our weekly Hotlines about these challenges. But in my opinion the PlayBook suffers far more from flawed product positioning than faults in the hardware or software.

RIM is to be blamed for letting what was initially seen as an enterprise-oriented product get put up against Apple’s device by so many in the media and analyst communities. In briefings months ago, the PlayBook was positioned as a business tool, aimed squarely at professionals and their IT buyers. I liked that, given the suicidal alternative of going toe to toe with Apple.

But I have a sense that RIM was unable or unwilling to market the device aggressively at the enterprise. There may have been concern about the stock market’s reaction to the inherently smaller sales opportunity in the business market, not to mention inroads by the iPad. More plausibly, RIM may not have wanted to close off a potentially massive consumer opportunity. Whatever the case, my impression is that RIM’s let the enterprise message slip. If this is true, it’s the mistake that let reviewers draw misinformed (and probably a bit lazy) comparisons to you-know-who. Worse yet, it’s the mistake that lets the technorati define the market position of a critical product.

For RIM, success for the PlayBook as a single product will look nothing like success for the iPad. You may be sure RIM has its own sales target for the PlayBook that’s orders of magnitude less than the iPad’s. And there are shortcomings in the product itself. However I’d argue that primarily because RIM has not controlled the product positioning message it’s lost the ability to credibly claim a degree of success with the PlayBook.

I didn’t expect to learn anything new about the PlayBook itself at the launch event. This isn’t a complaint at all. We’ve had various briefings and used preproduction models. But I did learn two new things, or at least I was reminded of two things we shouldn’t lose sight of.

The first is that technology PR and marketing can be one of the most morale-sapping jobs in the world. Anyone who’s a veteran must have the mental toughness of… well, someone who’s mentally tough. Maybe not Gandhi or Mandela mentally tough, but you know what I mean. My hat’s off to you all.

The second relates to perception versus reality. Analysts and the media too often let their perception become their reality. Perhaps it’s human nature. Of course sometimes we’re right about stuff, so our perception in fact is the reality. But too often we aren’t rigorous enough in our own self-scrutiny. How many times have well-respected analysts written RIM’s epitaph over the years?

It was clear to me on Thursday that my perception of a RIM that might be on the ropes did not fit the reality. You may cynically say that’s because we get lied to and otherwise manipulated by corporate representatives for a living. You’re partially right. But if the perception of the RIM employees I spoke to on Thursday is their own reality, I think we should reconsider what success for the PlayBook actually means. We should also be on our toes for some provocative developments at BlackBerry World in a couple of weeks.