Great moments in public relations stunts

February 15, 2011

Watson’s “Jeopardy!” appearance reminds us all that simple, fun, and creative is often the most powerful PR strategy of all

I just had to tune in. For weeks, I have been waiting for the big showdown between Watson — the IBM supercomputer — and two all-time “Jeopardy!” greats, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. Truthfully, I do have a dog in this fight, considering so much of my work lately has been with IT consulting firms struggling to tell fresh, iconic stories about their brand.

Well, IBM put on a tour de force in storytelling last night, and by doing so, reset perceptions about mainframes. Funny, in the Google age of server farms, most of us think the mainframe disappeared somewhere in the late 1980s along with Cray supercomputers.

But here comes IBM and a full-blown public relations stunt to reeducate us all and reset the gauge on mainframe computers and their place in the global economy.

The entire show had its own sense of style and poetry. Filmed at IBM’s Watson Research Center in New York, every element was masterfully controlled, right down to Watson’s elegant avatar whose lighted lines move faster the harder it thinks.

The entire set looked the part — simple, fresh. Certainly not a campy remake of the Starship Enterprise, or anything else I have ever seen related to technology. IBM went out of its way to present its engineers and spokespeople as engaging, brilliant tacticians — no short-sleeve, button-down shirts or pocket protectors. Thank God.

The entire evening and the next two days of shows are supported by a comprehensive public relations push that includes the release of the Stephen Baker book, “Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything.”

Baker, the former senior tech writer at Businessweek, competed against an earlier version of Watson and has been making the talk show rounds educating and reeducating us all about mainframes.

How successful was IBM’s PR stunt? A Google search for “IBM Watson” returns 16.5 million hits.

The entire effort has reinvigorated media coverage about mainframes. IBM’s announcement last week that it plans to build the world’s fastest mainframe, leapfrogging China, added a delicious double-barrel PR shot that allowed IBM to dominate mainframe media coverage in the week leading up to Watson’s “Jeopardy!” appearance.

At the same time, the media have been awash in infographics about petabytes, the next great measure of mainframe computing power. I mean, where did that all come from? IBM, I presume.

If you think the public relations around Watson was great, the show wasn’t too bad either. Watson got off to an early lead, destroying Jennings and Rutter in the first round. But then he started missing some surprisingly easy questions. I am sure his programmers will never let him forget that trains stop at terminals and not finis.

As for the campaign, IBM took a page right out of old-school PR in an effort that reminded me of the PR stunts David Sarnoff used to popularize TV in the 1940s. IBM even stole from its own playbook of the 1990s when Deep Blue beat World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov.

By doing so, IBM proved that all of the words in the world aren’t enough to reinvigorate a brand or communicate a compelling value proposition. You have to show it, not tell it — a fact lost to many IT communicators consumed by debating the meaning of classic IT clichés, rather than building great stories around their brand in order to redefine their products and services in terms real people can understand.

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Frank Freudberg
8 years 3 months ago

Greg, in your post you wrote the eight most important words in the business: "You have to show it, not tell it." You also mentioned that that is a fact lost on many IT communicators — well, there are also many PR professionals who would do well to heed those wise words, too.