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July 14th, 2006

Voce Nation Q&A:A Talk With Brian Fonseca

Brian Fonseca, a long-time Voce friendly that has been reporting for tech trades like eWeek and InfoWorld for eight+ years, recently “defected” to the other side. Since he was handing over his press credentials for a replacement corporate ID badge we decided to pick his reporter brain one last time before he made the move into his own rendition of Office Space (just kidding, Brian!). He is now employed by IBM.

How did you get into journalism?
By accident? I graduated college with a Communications degree in 96 and wanted to get into Broadcasting as a TV Sports Producer. Just 2 weeks out of school I landed a job with a TV station in Providence, RI. After two years there – splitting time as a Weekend Sports Producer and daily News Producer – (and very little pay increase) I found out a local newspaper was hiring for significantly better $$. I knew leaving TV I’d never go back which was hard, but I had to eat and get my own apartment. Mom and Pop were great but it was time to leave the nest. Besides, how hard could being a reporter be? :) So, despite zero journalism experience, I interviewed for the job and lo and behold I was hired. I was lucky enough to work with a bunch of newspaper vets at the time to teach me hands-on in the trenches. Thus started my 10-year career as a reporter, eventually leading me to wonderful world of trade IT mags.

What publications do you subscribe to at home?
None. All my magazine reading is done online – and for free. No peeking.

You’re from Boston. If you had to choose, Pats or Sox?
Ouch! Hit me right where it hurts eh? I’d have to choose the Sox as I’m a partial season ticket holder going on 7 years. Being a Sox fan has changed a whole lot since they broke ‘the Curse’ in 2004. I liked it better when you didn’t have to promise your first born just to get a single ticket to a Tampa Bay Devil Rays game on a Wednesday night. Everyone is, ‘like, a wicked big fan’ these days and it gets aggravating at times. But boy I love those Pats too….Belicheck is a god.

Where do you typically score your leads for a scoop (or how do you most often stumble upon the story)?
Depends on the vendor and industry. I usually nab most of my leads through my contacts. Sometimes they’re folks at PR agencies I’ve developed a good relationship with, sometimes internal contacts at vendors themselves, and sometimes analysts too. I think more PR reps. are getting more savvy these days and can point a reporter in the right direction on a story without really saying too much. The good ones who can do so are far and few between, but they’re the ones who truly get it. FACT: Getting a client coverage isn’t always about scheduling a briefing. To me it’s about working in tandem with the journalist on the other end to develop a piece. Those are often the best stories to be honest. I also tend to get a lot of leads on earnings calls – vendors always try to impress wall street with newsy tidbits to come – and by looking regularly at beta sites, message forums, calling existing customers, etc.

How does a reporter distinguish between a good PR person and a bad one?
A good PR person can work the system to their advantage. They’re not shackled to a vendor’s whim. Far too many times PR people who contact me or I work with are simply secretaries, setting up a vendor’s news briefing or something. The good PR people are the ones who don’t need a specific reason to call. Or call me to work on a trend story they’ve discovered or pieced together, or call for feedback on what their vendor does well or isn’t doing too good. I guess it’s the ones who show a willingness to extend themselves in ways they don’t teach you in school. I always felt PR is a lot like journalism. It’s telling a story and getting the reporter to bite. The bad PR folks on the other hand, they’re too restricted. Uncreative. Can’t really answer a spontaneous question from a reporter. The ones who are ill-prepared can really get the dialogue off the track in a hurry. I know a lot of that comes with experience, but a willingness to learn should be somewhere there. I have yet to see a PR manual.

Quick: Name the top three brands in tech:
IBM, Microsoft, Oracle. Was that fast enough?

What three tech companies have the best PR teams, and why? (be honest!)
IBM – with Text 100; Microsoft – with Waggener Edstrom; and Network Appliance with, you guessed it, Voce Communications. These three vendors and their respective PR firms stand out because of three key reasons. They’re responsive, they’re creative, and they’re great to work with. From Text and WagEd’s POV, it’s great to see that despite having huge clients to work with the PR reps. keep focused on the job at hand. For the most part I’ve found them to be spot on getting me (and other reporters) appropriate information, contacts, and tools I need for coverage. It’s the same thing with Voce and work they do with NetApp. The big guns typically have the pick of the litter when it comes to choosing firms, nice to see at least their choices – the SAME cannot be said of every large IT vendor – uphold that responsibility but don’t lose sight of developing good working relationships with the press too. Very key asset and to me one that is largely ignored by many.

What TV show do you watch religiously? (and no fair claiming ESPN or any other news show)
I’d like to preface that I am a married man, and as such do my husbandly duty to watch TV shows I’d rather not with Mrs. Fonseca – can you say “Dancing With The Stars?” But I do draw the line at primetime soap opera fare like “Grey’s Anatomy.” There’s just not enough tissues in our house for two of us to make it through such a weekly tearjerker. Sheesh. For my preferences, aside from sports, I have two must-see shows: Lost and 24. I know it’s become trendy to watch Lost these days and try to figure out what is going on in the show, but I’m proud to say I’ve been there from Episode One and it’s been quite a ride. Amazing to see how popular it has become but that’s a testament to usually great writing and plot twists. Along those lines, I’ve also gotten into 24. That Jack Bauer (a.k.a. Keifer Sutherland) is one crafty and crazy S-O-B. I love it. Guy’s a loose cannon and will do anything for task at hand – kind of like a reporter!

You know that book, “He’s Just Not That Into You“? You’re trying to be nice — how do you let someone know the pitch isn’t working?
I’ll be the first to admit that I try every avenue to give a story a chance – even from the moment of the first pitch, but I’ve learned the hard way sometimes it’s better to just be upfront and honest from the beginning. If the pitch or story is not a fit, I try to explain to PR peep that maybe it’s just not in my coverage area, I may be too busy, I may have covered the technology or trend recently elsewhere, or it’s just not the type of ‘news’ (i.e. hirings, customer announcements, etc.) that I normally devote time to covering. If possible I always try to point them in another direction (suggestions for future coverage, a colleague better equipped to handle pitch, etc). I always try to at least give them explanation or time considering they took the time to call. Mom’s done raised me good like that. Politeness is a virtue.

How often do reporters get offers from the companies they cover?
You would be surprised how often it can happen. Typically it’s always done in the exploratory phase, gauging mutual interest, etc. But it really has to be the perfect fit in so many ways. Being a journalist is a big responsibility and as such professional ethics really come into play on that end. If you’re being influenced, time to pack it in hombre.

What’s your dream job?
General Manager of the Boston Red Sox (sorry Theo, but I could do better).

What was your dream job when you were 10?
A chemical scientist. Seriously.

Now for one self-gratuitous question. In your mind, how does Voce set itself apart?
Ah the loaded question. Well I’m not one to just throw praise around, so this is truly from the heart. I’ve worked with a lot of firms in my time as a tech reporter and as a result a whole lot of PR peeps. Whether by design, sheer luck, or a bit of both, Voce has assembled an amazing crew of people, first, and PR professionals, second. I’ve developed some (I hope) lifetime friendships with PR folk over there (must pause for a shout out to T-Bird and KC) but more importantly have done great work with the firm. Some of my NetApp coverage I consider to be among the best work I did as a reporter covering storage. From access to the CEO, to case studies, to building innovative and thought-provoking story ideas for readers, Voce does it the right way. I can honestly say almost all of my interaction with my contacts there was a pleasure, and that directly translated into my dealings with NetApp, whom I also had a very good relationship with. Before I get too lovey dovey, let me add that ALL good PR/Journo relationships are a two-way street. If one is lacking effort, enthusiasm, knowledge, or energy, it goes nowhere. Thankfully, that was never the case with Voce. There I’m done. Where’s my parting gift?? What’s that??!! No free trip to Aruba??!!

Any parting words of wisdom as you leave your post at eWeek?
Hmmm I thought long and hard about this last question. There’s pages and pages I could write here…but who has the time? I will say to all the great PR folks I worked with over the years, you know who you are and the difference you made, so thanks. It was twice as fun on my end – trust me. To all the not so great PR folks I worked with over the years, hey at least we tried. That does count for something.

Word o’ wisdom: When things are getting nutty, step back and take stock. Each of you on both ends (PR and reporter) are hustling and busting your butt to do your job. So take time to acknowledge and appreciate that. It’s a great business to be in and shouldn’t be miserable reaching out. And if they can’t…call another reporter and give them that attention. They just might say thanks…and…”so tell me about that pitch again.”

– Tiffany Curci

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