The Trouble With Harry: Pottermore, Nokia, And How Not To Launch A High-Tech Product

Two curious and awkward press events this week put a spotlight on the act of unveiling.

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Yesterday, after a short period of global intrigue, J.K. Rowling revealed what exactly Pottermore.com will be: an interactive website with new content from Rowling and a portal to sell, exclusively, the e-book editions. Tech industry watchers may be nonplussed, but it's a smart, high-tech maneuver for a brand already worth billions.

The PR strategy, however, doesn't quite live up to the innovation. Rowling's team seemed to be planning a very regimented press affair. And they decided to show the site to journalists beforehand—and expected it wouldn't leak out. Which, naturally, it did.

Pause here for a minute. Switch over to another sneak-peek leak.

Nokia's CEO Stephen Elop showed a room packed full of journalists the Nokia's first Windows Phone 7 device this week, and asked the high-tech-savvy crowd to turn off their cameras and not leak the device's details. Which then, of course, leaked.

Back to Pottermore. Among the crowd in the room at the first Pottermore event was the BBC's technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones, who of course did what every self-respecting tech journalist would do (and which the online public now counts on for news from such launches): Cellan-Jones live-blogged the press launch. At least part of it. Specifically, he began tweeting details about Pottermore an hour before it was officially unveiled. He followed with a pithy tweet that cut right to the heart of the matter: "Sorry—you can't launch a product for digital generation in front of cameras and journalists—and tell them it's embargoed.#pottermore."

Meanwhile, Nokia's Stephen Elop was speaking at a press conference about the new N9 Meego smartphone, and surprisingly launched into a reveal of Nokia's upcoming Windows Phone 7 smartphone—an incredibly key product that the company is pinning much of its future business hopes on. It's such a high-profile device, and one so closely guarded by Nokia, that Elop admitted:

"Now I'm just going to ask everybody to put away your cameras, turn off all of the recording devices. I'm serious, because I'm going to share something with you that—there's a big debate, should we show this in front of what will be thousands of people around the world, because this is something that is super-confidential and we do not want to see out in the blogosphere, wherever it is."

He then proceeded to show a detailed demonstration of the codenamed Sea Ray smartphone, Nokia's first windows phone. Elop even chastised, angrily, one person who tried to snap a photo. And, of course, the video leaked out and the world now knows about how the N9's core design features are being taken into a Windows device.

Both of these stories are examples of careless low-tech thinking in a high-tech era. Not the products, we mean, their rollouts. The Pottermore press team really did expect journalists to comply, it now seems. But they didn't expect the nearly instant leak. In an era when writers carry smartphones and 3G-connected iPads and work on a minute-to-minute schedule, the team, according to Cellan-Jones, actually asked the assembled media to shut off their devices, those oh-so precious links to the newsroom. Instead of having all their technological ducks in a row, with a simultaneous product launch and press event, achieving the maximum possible impact, Pottermore's news thus seeped out gently and slightly awkwardly.

From Stephen Elop's tone and demeanor, it looks like he really did hope people wouldn't reveal the Sea Ray. Of course it's not going to do Nokia any harm to have this news out there, considering the generally positive reviews the N9 has just received. But it does feel like a slightly bungled way to get the world excited about a product that's not due for many months. And are investors, and the thinking public, going to be confident about a company that bumbles around like this?

One excellent counterexample to this is Apple. As frustrating and often stonewalling as Apple's press team can be, Steve Jobs-helmed Apple pressers are incredibly sleek. The company's secrecy is annoying and restrictive, but it works. Events are timed exactly to real-time updates to Apple's web presence and (sometimes) simultaneous product launches in stores. The result is no less than a "boom."

Apple doesn't own the exclusive on this. Recently EA Games nailed the release of its highest-profile game on the horizon for the PS3: SSX. The original game was one of the most successful launch titles for the PS2, and a new version has been eagerly awaited by fans for several years. The game's not due until January 2012, but EA has been teasing it with some behind-the-scenes videos for a month or so. And then at the recent E3 games conference, EA Sports president Peter Moore swept onto the stage after a highly eye-catching preview video of the game was shown, announced some details and revealed news about some of the in-game characters, which really drive the game. The slick presentation was accompanied by updates on EA's Facebook page that revealed yet more teaser details, and resulted in a lot of excitement about a product that's still seven months away.

If you're trying to launch a high-tech product nowadays, you have to think high tech yourself when planning the press coverage. You can try some "leaky" PR trickery, but don't be surprised if it backfires and leaves your company looking slightly silly.

[Image: Flickr user thiru]

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.

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