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Deskside Story

As the latest buzzword suggests, PR firms are happy to drop by.

Graham Roumieu

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If your company has a public relations firm on retainer, chances are its people have recently pitched you, with all the enthusiasm they could muster, on the virtues of putting together a deskside tour. For those unfamiliar with the jargon, a deskside is a meeting at a journalist's cubicle.

Is this a profound breakthrough in the world of PR? Hardly. The concept of setting up a meeting between a CEO and a journalist has existed since time immemorial, and even the term deskside has been around for years. Lately, the word has enjoyed a renaissance, however, with publicists offering clients deskside visits, deskside briefings, and the more dire-sounding deskside alerts.

In the past, this kind of client-reporter confab has been referred to by publicists variously as a "one-on-one," a "meet and greet," or a "backgrounder." (Only a bore would rely on such straightforward nouns as "meeting" or "interview.") By constantly using different buzzwords, PR pros are doing what they do best: taking something commonplace and spiffing it up with shiny new language.

Questions of novelty aside, PR experts argue that desksides are effective. Though they are typically performed in conference rooms and coffee shops rather than literally at a reporter's workstation, the underlying appeal remains the same: convenience. Given that media companies have been cutting staff and expect their remaining workers to blog, podcast, and appear on TV, reporters often struggle to find time to physically leave the newsroom to interview people. A deskside meeting eradicates that problem.

From a PR firm's perspective, desksides are also a tangible way to show their clients that they're taking care of business. And a deskside tour can be a pretty heady experience for a client. That was the case for Chris Silverman, co-founder of Twenty Two Shoes, a San Francisco company whose boots and sandals have cracked the pages of InStyle, Real Simple, and Lucky.

The highlight of a recent deskside blitz, at least from Silverman's point of view, came at a magazine that didn't end up writing about his company. The shoe designer was sitting down for a deskside in the reception area at Vogue magazine when Anna Wintour, the fashion bible's fabled editor in chief, walked by. "She was totally checking out our shoes," recalls Silverman, still incredulous. (Kerry Fitzmaurice, Silverman's rep at KPR, a PR firm in Los Angeles, remembers the moment a little differently: "She did walk by, but I don't remember her looking that close," Fitzmaurice says in an e-mail.)

Rhoda Weiss, chair and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America and a 35-year PR veteran, believes that desksides fill a need for human interaction that technology has driven from the worlds of publicity and journalism. "There are a lot faster ways to disseminate information through new media," she says. "But when I look at the stories that I've been successful in pitching, I don't know that I've ever gotten a big hit by e-mail."

Desksides also help a company position a CEO or executive as an industry expert, which is increasingly the key to good PR, according to Diana Pisciotta, managing director of Denterlein Worldwide, a PR firm based in Boston. Product news has become such a commodity that companies can no longer rely on a launch for significant promotional mileage, she explains. Pop in for a deskside, and a CEO can win a place on the shortlist of sources whom a reporter calls for a quote when there's news in a particular industry. "You're much better off getting several hits" than striving for one long profile, Pisciotta says.

A deskside tour is not without potential downsides. Emily Hemmelgarn, a publicist with the Hong Kong office of the Hoffman Agency, a PR firm that works with technology companies, has sat through her share of client meetings gone awry. During one ill-fated briefing, for example, a reporter nodded off while her client was talking. (To rouse the journalist, Hemmelgarn coughed, moved her chair, and finally suggested getting a cup of coffee.) At another deskside, an editor ripped his jeans as he sat down, then proceeded to show off the hole in his pants to co-workers through the conference room's glass walls. Hemmelgarn's client was less than amused.

As with all things PR, today's enthusiasm is sure to fade, and deskside fatigue may in fact already be setting in among the press. As one of the authors of the popular Ed2010 blog, which caters to staff members at women's magazines, so politely put it: "If Ed gets ONE more request for a deskside appointment with a product-slinging rep lookin' for press coverage, he's going to stab himself in the eye with a pencil."




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