PR basics for free software projects

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

May 05, 2011 GMT
Bruce Byfield

A handful of free software projects, such as the Apache Software Foundation, market themselves as professionally as any corporation. However, the marketing of most projects could be greatly improved with a few common-sense practices.

Why bother? Several reasons spring to mind, even if your project isn't commercial. To start with, marketing is a way to give credit, and receiving credit remains a strong motivation for many project contributors, even when they are paid for their efforts. Just as importantly, the more easily people can find your project, the more likely they are to use it. In addition, publicity can attract donors and volunteers (and show me the project that has too many of either).

Many developers, of course, have a strong antipathy for marketing, and consider it dishonest. However, there is a difference between putting the truth in the best light and mis-representation by omission or commission. Ethical marketing need not be an oxymoron.

Moreover, if a project's developers dislike marketing, publicity duties such as preparing the website, writing announcements, and dealing with the press can always be done by non-coders.

Publicity Pre-Requisites

Publicity consists of making information easily available to both the public and the press. The first step towards this goal should be making sure that your project page has clearly visible links for frequently-asked questions, recent news, and contact information. These steps seem obvious, but they are overlooked surprisingly often.

FAQs and recent news are useful, because anyone interested in covering your project can get background information at their leisure. Besides information about what the project does and its history, this background information should include the proper way to refer to the project (for example, KDE, not K.D.E, and openSUSE, not Opensuse), and brief instructions on how to present any logo properly. It can also include the names and short bios of leading projects members. Media kits, video demos and download links are other possibilities, although some of these extras take more effort to produce.

Contact information should include an email link and telephone number, for the simple reason that email and phone are the media with which most people are comfortable. By contrast, some people will be intimidated by dropping in on an unfamiliar IRC channel, while an HTML form creates an impression that emails will be filed and forgotten, regardless of how quickly you respond.

You might also consider using social media tools like Twitter,, and Facebook. However, for all the uncritical admiration given these tools, they have the disadvantage of requiring a great deal of upkeep. You need to use them constantly, and you largely waste your time if you only use them a glorified RSS feed. If you aren't prepared to use them effectively -- which means creating personality-based publicity -- you might as well not use them at all. Better stick to the static presentation of a website, since it needs less upkeep.

No matter what tools you use, the next thing is to make sure that all possible points of contact are constantly monitored, so that any inquiries are answered as soon as possible.

In the international world of free software, that means having someone ready to answer queries every day around the clock. When journalists request information, they frequently need it in a matter of hours. Despite the diminished market for online ads, websites still want the first story on a subject because it is the one that most people and other stories are likely to reference. A delay of a couple of hours may mean that they lose that advantage, although sometimes a later, more detailed story can be almost as valuable as the first one.

Some people, including me, suspect that getting a scoop is as meaningless as the old first posts on Slashdot, but editors still see scoops as a means of counting coup. Help journalists please their editors, and their coverage of your project is more likely to be favorable -- not because of any conscious corruption, but simply because anyone is likely to think better of people who make their life easier.

Writing News Releases and Blog Announcements

A decade ago, a group seeking publicity would write a news release. The news release would then be sent either to a wire service -- a company that charges to distribute releases -- or sent via email to a list of media contacts.

A news release remains a popular way of announcing news. These days, however, the news is just as likely to be announced as a blog entry reinforced by tweets -- or, increasingly, instead of. A blog entry is particularly popular in free software because most free software journalists spend considerable time scanning the web for breaking news.

Regardless of how you announce news, the basics are the same: Give the basic information in the headline, then in more detail in the first paragraph, and in more detail still in the rest of the text.

I like to say that you need to write as though your audience has Adult Attention Deficit Disorder. I mean that you can't be sure that busy journalists will read everything you have to say. As a result, you need to make sure they get at least the basic information before they quit reading.

For a news release, you should also be sure that you include contact and background information; on a blog or microblog service, this information should already be available.

With any announcement, the goal is to communicate why anyone should care about your news. For major software, this goal can be mostly ignored, since new release of projects like GNOME or Ubuntu are going to receive attention regardless of your efforts, but other projects might need some help in getting coverage.

For example, instead of simply announcing a new release, emphasize what it does than the last release doesn't. Does it give more customization options to users? Increase an application's speed? Mentioning these benefits will draw far more attention than lists of features. Tell readers what the new features will do for them, and they will be more likely to pay attention.

Another way to keep readers' attention is to use quotes from experts or leaders. Quotes break up the narrative and add a personal touch in the body of your message. You can ask the person being quoted for a quote, or (as PR specialists have done for years), write a quote for them and ask them to approve it.

My personal preference is to add a quote in the second or third paragraph, just as readers' attention might be drifting. If an announcement is long or complex, I might add more quotes later on, just to keep readers interested or to emphasize major points just before closing.

Another time-honored trick is to end on a call to action, explaining -- for example -- where to download a new release or who to contact for an interview. Anything that you can do to keep readers' attention without misleading them (and rtherefore angering them), and to help them cover your news is worth trying.

But always remember the most important rule of all: keep your announcements short and their message clear. Don't try to cram in too much information -- you'll only muddy your main message.

When you are ready to send the release, you can either pay for a wire service to distribute it or release it yourself. You might think that a wire service can do a better job than you could, because it can distribute far more copies of your release than you possibly could. And,very likely, a wire service has contacts you lack.

However, distributing releases yourself can sometimes be just as effective as a wire service, because your contacts are likely to be interested in your news. There is is no point in paying to distribute ten thousand copies of your release if only a hundred of those copies are read, much less followed up.

Working with the Press

Typically, the writing of an article begins with a journalist who has read your announcement arranging a time to talk in person, on the phone, or via chat or email. At first, chat or email may seem less stressful, and to have the advantage of giving yourself time to think, but both require far more effort on your part than a telephone or face to face meeting. The information you convey in a half hours' conversation might take you two hours to write.

Besides, you will almost always sound more formal if you write your reply -- and formality has a way of coming off as stiff when the article is read.

No matter what form an interview takes, try to anticipate the questions that might be asked; your effort can also be used for writing an FAQ at some point. Practice your answers, or at least think about how you might respond to the most likely questions. You don't need to be an accomplished speaker, since most journalists will only quote you word for word if they dislike you (a time-honored way to make anyone look like an idiot; just watch how politicians are quoted as their careers decline), but the better you sound, the better your project will appear.

If an interview worries you, some people suggest taking a single drink before hand. But for many people, alcohol enervates instead of invigorates, so I suggest a light meal and perhaps fruit juices an hour or two before the interview as an alternative. For especially bad nerves, long, slow cardiovascular workout or mental visualization techniques might help.

During the interview -- in fact, the whole time you are talking with a journalist -- the tradition is that anything you say may become part of an article. Ethical journalists, however, will listen if you say that a particular comment is off the record, and not repeat it. Nor will they use anything said before they indicate that the interview is starting, or after they indicate that it is ended. After all, they may want to talk to you again. Still, if you have any doubts about a journalist's integrity, you might record the interview, so you have proof if you want to complain to an editor or publisher.

You might also want a journalist to agree to an embargo -- that is, to promise not to release an article until a certain date and time. Many journalists will honor an embargo, if only to keep on your good side, but if one journalist disregards the embargo, the accepted practice is that anyone else who has prepared a story on the subject can publish without breaking their promise.

In general, cooperation goes a long way towards establishing friendly relationships with journalists. However, be careful not to make a nuisance of yourself. For example, don't follow the sending of a news release with a query the next day about whether a journalist got the release; the excuse is hollow and will only annoy. If a journalist plans to write about your news, they will get in touch. But even the friendliest journalist may not be able to cover all your news, since editors and publishers always want variety in their articles

Nor should you ask to see an article before it is published. Maybe your intent is only to help improve accuracy, but many editors worry that previews might unduly influence an article. To avoid even the appearance of undue influence, reputable journalists will also refuse freebies for software, hardware, or travel, either returning or reimbursing for the cost after the article is written or, in the case of small articles like flash drives that are not worth mailing back, giving them away when they are no longer needed.

Should a published article contain factual errors, polite requests for corrections are fine. However, don't complain about negative reviews, and remember that opinions you disagree with are not the same as factual errors. Simply agree to disagree, and move on.

As you grow more comfortable with the press, you may develop ongoing relationships with the press. Such relationships can be to everyone's benefit: journalists always need story ideas, and appreciate being given a scoop, while you can get more frequent coverage.

However, don't make the mistake of thinking that such relationships automatically results in giving you a steady stream of supportive coverage. Any self-respecting journalist writes what they think, and they may see reasons sometimes to criticize you.

Nor is an occasional bit of criticism by a journalist you've cultivated apt to hurt your project in the long run. If anything, it makes that journalist's praise of your project more balanced and, therefore, more credible.

The most you can hope for is that a long-term relationship means that journalists soften the wording of criticism, or sometimes give you the benefit of the doubt. Yet, even so, these relationships can be mutually beneficial, giving you publicity and the journalist articles. Over the years, they can even result in personal friendships.

When It's Time for an Expert

At times, amateurs may actually do publicity better than a professional because they know the free software community and business worlds -- despite the frequent delusion to the contrary, successful publicity depends on a deep knowledge of the market. A strange to free software, for example, is unlikely to know the importance of staying on good terms within the community, even if your project is commercial.

All the same, a time may come when you want to consider hiring a professional, at least part time. A professional may have contacts your project members lack, to say nothing of a greater awareness of current trends. They may be able to establish your basic marketing practices, and, before departing, teach project members how maintain what they have done. Or perhaps your project has no one willing to gain competence in marketing, or has grown so large that publicity for it is no longer a part time job, and requires the efficiency that only a seasoned professional can bring. Under any of these circumstance, hiring a professional only makes sense.

But until one of these moments comes, an individual or a small team can manage publicity perfectly well for the average project. All it takes is someone with the ability to bring themselves up to speed with a bit of online research and the ability -- at least for an hour or two -- to sustain the illusion of being an extrovert.

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