Press that's not completely approved
June 18, 2008
Running a user conference is no easy task, especially if your organization must partner with a powerful ally. There are many places where the gears can jam up on a machine that gathers thousands of people for four days of talk and learning.
But after 24 years of covering Hewlett-Packard user events, my experience with this sort of meeting has been changing — and I'm sorry to say, not entirely for the better. No, not crowded flights, 25 minutes to hail a cab, $12 burgers and so on. It's the restraints I feel tugged by HP. Years ago, editors and reporters were courted and curried at these events, meetings hosted and controlled by a users group, while the whole event was financed and supported by the computer vendor and its reseller partners.
Two events in the past two days suggest that those days of sway are long behind me and other editors. Yesterday morning I wanted to attend an OpenVMS roadmap breakout session. It was only an hour of the OpenVMS Security Product Manager talking about what's coming up for OpenVMS. (Luckier users, they are, than a customer who still must rely on the 3000.)
I was not so lucky getting into the doors of that breakout session. A "temporary employee" waved written instructions that the press was not to be admitted to any breakout sessions. Also barred from entry at that moment: Patrick Thibodeau of Computerworld. I might understand why a specialized newsman like me wouldn't get access, but blocking Computerworld seemed like a mistake.
And it appeared to be an honest mixup, one which the PR agency rep Chase Skinner fixed with persistent talent. But we sped to a quick meeting with HP's manager of press relations for the event — who treated us media types to a fine dinner just the night before — to educate me on the nature of "roadmap" sessions. They sounded like they've become sorta, kinda, well, the type which HP isn't keen on letting anybody into except customers and partners. Even though there's no confidential disclosure agreement (CDA) needed for anybody to pass into such a roadmap session. And believe me, there are plenty of CDA talks here where the "I promise not to tell" document is needed. The CDA is so ubiquitous that it's printed into the conference session guide, complete with signature line to fill in and submit.
Patrick and I got new badges rushed to us after we'd been escorted into the meeting. Our new papers were upgraded from a press pass that could not pass us into the hundreds of breakout sessions. Okay, a mixup, and an education for me about what a roadmap might mean now and in the future. Face it, HP: Roadmaps promise news, and that's what we get paid to write.
The education about my editor's access didn't stop at the revision of what a roadmap means, though.
After the OpenVMS roadmap, I was told in an editor's briefing that blade technology represents HP's biggest push into the enterprise server solution arena. So after a baffling blades talk where a customer finally asked "Are you going to talk about blades?" I went down to the HP booth to push through the throngs to find out more. I got just what I wanted to hear in just a few minutes, but was I got was also trouble as far as HP was concerned. My Senior Product Manager interview subject, who was standing at the booth, was told by a cohort "you're not press-approved."
Two days of this special handling from HP are making me feel like the vendor's information control has been dialed up to a level as uncomfortable as the heat outside.
I've got nearly a quarter-century of making a career at these meetings, always with the assignment of writing stories to report customer views and HP's messages about new products. But this has been one year I'd mark among the hardest of those 24, right alongside the time an Interex user group employee tried to bar me from the HP 3000 management roundtable.
This work out here in the desert and in steamy places like Houston is hard enough without changing the rules and building new barricades to communication. Confusing, restrictive access run by "temporary employees" — who need to walkie-talkie to yet another company (not HP, or a PR firm) to allow editors inside of meetings, places where we might hear customers talking out loud — well, it all smacks of a lot of unnecessary control. The roadmaps are presentations where HP future plans are discussed. They have been so for many years, and every slide in them has a stock footnote of "Plans are subject to change." The strategy of putting HP employees "not approved for the press" onto the show floor just doesn't befit a company of HP's history and stature in the industry. What can there be to approve, steer or shape about which blade server enclosure is the right choice for an HP 3000 migrating customer? Can HP really need to control what we hear about how concerned OpenVMS customers might be this year about their roadmap?
I can use what I learned in my floor briefing on blades with my "not approved for press" senior product manager, but because I don't want to get him in trouble, his name won't appear. But why the trouble, the alarmed management? Six years ago, when HP and Compaq first came together and Interex ran a shared user event with lots of confusion, somebody at a door wanted to keep me from reporting by invoking a rule that HP insisted upon, a new snag in my long-worn fabric of industry-to-press communication. Back in 2002 I asked in a NewsWire headline, "What's there to hide?"
I truly want to know the answer to that question, even if it means these events are no longer useful to our readers like they were in the past. As I've said more than once this year, you won't get far with a professional journalist by telling them they cannot have access to a source. I don't want it to be true that these user conference events, which have now content jointly managed by the vendor and the user group, have now become a controlled showcase for HP's polished product and strategy message. I am looking for another reason to explain the roadmap redefinition and show floor incidents of this week. "Never attribute to malice what can be explained by error," I remind myself. But if the Tech Forum is more useful to HP as a means to teach and train and test its partners, and influence customers in person, why not just say so?
We editors have been invited, most respectfully, to these events to help HP influence customers. In fact, I had a delightful interview with VP Lynn Anderson, an HP veteran since 1983 who started with COBOL and RPG on a 3000) whose title is "TSG Influencer Marketing." I'm an influencer, apparently, something that made us both giggle.
In a couple more hours I'll be back down on that show floor, invited as a guest of the new Connect user group for a reception, with all HP product engineers on hand. Since the press room is empty right now, I may have trouble getting a list of who is among the "press approved" HP staff I can interview. That might make for some trouble for me. But it will feel less troubling than the impression that the world's Number One vendor tightens the leash on editors who ask what's happening.
It's too early to draw conclusions for the future of user conferences, but I carry the hope that next year's press credentials will include access to all the non-confidential meetings, along with the ability to talk to anybody on an expo floor wearing an HP badge. That last one is most important to HP's stature. I'm old enough to remember a Hewlett-Packard founded by two fellows who would encourage that professional courtesy — especially at a meeting which bears the company's name.