FOCUS HI-TECH PR: Hardware gets the soft touch - IT is reaching into the consumer consciousness through media which would previously have been out of the question

IT years can be compared to dog years in that each one equates to many more than it does in the real world. Such is the pace of the IT revolution, that PR has had to evolve rapidly to keep up.

IT years can be compared to dog years in that each one equates to

many more than it does in the real world. Such is the pace of the IT

revolution, that PR has had to evolve rapidly to keep up.

Although the revolution is being driven by phenomena such as the

internet, e-commerce and internet banking, computer hardware is still

the backbone of the industry.

In the early-1990s, the focus of PR work was on the ’bits and bytes’,

but most practitioners now agree that the best way to reach customers -

whether private individuals or business users - is to get under their

skin, via a broad range of media, rather than throwing the latest

product innovations at them.

’Brand owners’ attitudes to consumers have changed over the last few

years,’ says Samantha Munro, who heads the consumer technology division

at Grant Butler Coomber (GBC). ’It used to be: ’Here’s my product and

isn’t it wonderful?’. Today the message is more likely to be: ’What’s

going on in your life and how can I help you?’.’

The home PC market, in particular, has seen enormous growth which has,

in turn, impacted on PR strategy. Where once only computer nerds bought

PCs, now families are adding them to their wish lists of household


Some parents undoubtedly browse through specialist newsstand computing

titles, such as PC Magazine, PC Direct, Computer Shopper and PC Pro, to

help them choose, but most are likely to be influenced by television and

lifestyle press.

’Cars are always a good analogy for the PC market,’ says Jonathan

Simnett, director of corporate development for EMEA at Brodeur A Plus.

’Consumers may buy What Car? magazine and watch Top Gear, but what

really makes up their mind once they’ve made their shortlist is

after-sales service and customer service. At the end of the day, where

and how you buy is as important as what you are buying.’

Munro agrees, adding: ’The real differentiator to the consumer is value

added. After-sales technical support at pounds 1 a minute would not be

an economically viable choice for most families.’

With so many external factors influencing purchase, the challenge for PR

practitioners is how to communicate the whole package of benefits to the

target audience, in a language they can understand.

’A few years ago, the emphasis was on the product, but now it’s about

what the product can do for me,’ says David Hargreaves, a director at

Firefly, which counts PC manufacturer Compaq among its clients.

Compaq’s area of focus at the moment is the small and medium sized

enterprises (SMEs), such as travel agents and estate agents. Unlike

larger organisations, such as banks, SMEs are unlikely to have in-house

IT skills.

’A PC is not a commodity like a kettle which you just plug in the wall,’

says Hargreaves. ’Some companies will deliver a box to your door, but

you will not get the most out of your PC. Consumers need the back up and

support of a large organisation which is always building in new


For the PR practitioner working at the business-to-business end of the

IT industry, a bewildering number of specialist publications has sprung

up in recent years. They can be loosely divided into four camps:

end-user publications including IT Week, Computer Weekly, Computing,

Business and Technology and Network News; channel publications, aimed at

resellers, including PC Dealer, Microscope, The VAR and Network

Reseller; telecoms titles including Comms Week International, Telecomms

International, Communications International and Public Network Europe,

and internet titles including Internet Magazine and Internet


However, even at this end of the market, there is a need to cross-over

into the mainstream media.

Tariq Khwaja, managing director of August.One Communications, says:

’Five years ago, the brief was: ’Get us on the front cover of Computer


It was all about comparative features, such as which hardware runs the

fastest. Technology has now exploded out of darkened computer rooms and

into the mainstream, so naturally the PR focus has crossed into the

national papers and business mags to the lifestyle press, TV and


Khwaja, whose clients include Hewlett-Packard and Stratus Computers,

says getting coverage in the technical pages is now just one part of the

job. ’The consultancies which have a future in this market are those

which can get space in the nationals and on TV. Here it’s about business

and benefits, the issues, the human angles and testimonials from

technology users. The trick is to forget technobabble and talk plain


Mike King, managing director of Johnson King, concurs: ’Unlike

specialised titles, the mainstream media is not interested in networking

hubs or fast servers. The key is to demystify the technology and explain

the benefits the hardware delivers.’

Johnson King’s clients include Foundry Networks, which manufactures high

speed networking equipment and Juniper, an internet infrastructure


The agency had gone beyond the hi-tech press to reach potential business

users by targeting the business pages.

The story behind Foundry’s recent flotation in the US, which was said to

be the largest ever technology start-up IPO, was covered by the Sunday

Express, Wall Street Journal Europe and the Financial Times.

For Juniper Networks, the agency has positioned its chief executive

officer Scott Kriens as a visionary on the future of the internet,

enabling him to appear in business publications including the Financial

Times and Sunday Business.

Firefly employs a threefold PR strategy for Compaq, involving vertical,

mass media and regional campaigns.

In November, the agency ran a business-to-business campaign targeting

estate agents, using research conducted by Taylor Nelson Sofres which

showed that two-thirds of UK estate agents view the use of IT and

computers as ’mission critical’ if they are to succeed in the digital

age. The campaign was backed by information on how Compaq’s NonStop

Business solutions can help estate agents sell property over the


The agency also runs a number of regional campaigns for Compaq, which

centre around quirky local stories. For example, Firefly unearthed a

Yorkshire butcher who sells black puddings on the internet using his

Compaq hardware system.

While Firefly specifically targets SMEs, rival manufacturer IBM has a

broader focus. At Brodeur A Plus, Simnett says although the IT media are

still seen as the core target, there is increasing crossover to the


In November, the agency teamed IBM with Tatler and Tiffany to launch the

new Tiffany Lucida diamond at an exclusive gathering, ’the little black

book party’. The name played on the synergy between the black contact

book used by the fashion industry and IBM’s new sleek black portable -

the ThinkPad 240.

On arrival, guests, which included some of the UK’s most eligible single

men and women, logged on to an IBM ThinkPad 240, where they were able to

access the evening’s bar and buffet menus, as well as link up with the

man or woman of their choice.

Simnett says such a partnership between the fashion, luxury goods and

technology worlds would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.

IBM’s ThinkPad was positioned as a ’must-have’ product, as sexy and

desirable as a pair of Manolo Blahnik heels, but twice as practical.

In February, Brodeur A Plus organised a press launch for IBM’s latest

AS/400e web server. The launch took place in a chip shop in Ealing and

coincided with National Chip Week. The play on words this time was

between the chips in the new server and the potato variety. During

National Chip Week, IBM collaborated with two fish and chip shops,

allowing customers to order food over the internet. The showcase aimed

to show small independent retailers how to boost their business by

implementing IBM technology.

Simnett says that although the campaign appeared light-hearted, there

was a serious message behind it.

’IBM wants to be the leader in e-commerce,’ he says. ’The various

elements of the campaign enabled us to get national coverage and put the

e-commerce message across.’

Packard Bell’s breakthrough into mainstream media came when Grant Butler

Coomber devised the Class of ’81 campaign, which was launched in July

1998. A-level students born in 1981 - the year the first PCs appeared -

were invited to design a home for 2020. Teen magazine Bliss and the

Guardian and the Daily Mail covered the competition and the event was

used a springboard for future campaigns.

At GBC, Munro says Packard Bell has now entered a partnership with the

Parents’ Information Network to bridge the technology gap between

parents and their children. The agency is working on a resource pack and

establishing a number of Family Learning Zones up and down the country,

which Munro hopes will generate coverage in the mainstream national and

regional press.

The agency has also helped set up the Packard Bell Institute of Home

Computing across Europe. The institute aims to disperse data and

information on the home computing market, to reinforce its position as a

voice of authority. The institute’s most recent findings, carried out in

conjunction with the Louis Harris Institute in Paris, were launched in

Paris in September, and included the news that 84 per cent of British

people polled believed the internet and electronic mail would most

influence personal relations, a score that was seven points higher than

the European average.

Computer hardware is part of a growing number of business people’s and

home users’ daily lives in the UK. While this makes the media more

receptive to product messages, the market is much more competitive than

five years ago. PR practitioners must therefore be crystal clear on who

their target audience is, as well as finding ever more innovative ways

in which to reach them through the media.


Printers rank fairly low down anyone’s list of sexy products. So when

Harvard was asked by Lexmark to devise a media campaign for its new

Photo JetPrinter, it had a task on its hands.

Lexmark’s Photo JetPrinter produces prints directly from the camera,

making it the world’s first computer-less solution to digital


This technical wizardry was enough to ensure coverage in the specialist

press, but since Harvard’s brief was to reach a new, non-technical

audience, the agency had to come up with an innovative way of crossing

over to the mainstream media.

Harvard group PR director Gareth Zundel says: ’Following a brainstorming

session, we saw parallels between the product and the clutter-free

principles of the ancient art of feng shui. It is a popular topic with

the media, and has been linked with high profile followers.’

Harvard positioned the JetPrinter as the first ever feng shui-friendly

computer product after having gained the seal of approval from the Feng

Shui Consultancy of the UK. For the press launch, a feng shui-themed

drinks reception was hosted at Hamilton’s Gallery in London. The

’balance’ of the venue was first checked by a feng shui consultant

before the 60 journalists arrived from titles including Harpers and

Queen, Esquire, the Mirror and the Times.

Harvard spent two days at IPC Magazines to flag up the feng shui


It also arranged for home and lifestyle media - including Living, Ideal

Home and Loaded - to be given a Feng Shui consultation on their office


Competitions were arranged in titles such as Marie Claire and Good

Housekeeping and on the Ministry of Sound web site.

Coverage was widespread, including more than 30 pieces of editorial two

weeks before the launch of the product. The news hook was picked up by

the regional press, including Scotland on Sunday and the Birmingham


Meanwhile, the Evening Standard hired Lexmark’s feng shui consultant to

generate a feature entitled ’The Feng Shui Guide to Gizmos’.

Specialist titles also picked by on the feng shui angle, as did Radio 2,

London Services Radio and the BBC World Service. Lexmark would not

reveal the number of printers sold, but said there was a significant

increase in sales after the campaign broke.


Agreeing to put your client’s new product through a computer test in a

specialist consumer title can be a daunting prospect, especially since

review editors are not known for pulling their punches. So how can PR

practitioners ensure an independent jury returns a good verdict?

The short answer is, they can’t. The skill is in knowing whether to put

the product forward in the first place.

’It would be very unusual for us to put forward a product which we knew

journalists wouldn’t like,’ says Samantha Munro, head of consumer

technology at Grant Butler Coomber.

Group tests are one of the ways products are reviewed, with advance

warning appearing on computer magazines’ feature lists. Alternatively,

agencies can put a product forward for a one-off test.

Munro explains: ’We work with the PC press very closely. When we have a

new product, we organise tours around the publications and set up

meetings with review editors. Journalists don’t go into PC World and

carry out random tests.’

Each magazine has a range of criteria it tests against. Some may include

software, while other may award more marks for process speeds. Some may

even push for a ’drop test’, in which a reviewer picks up the machine,

and drops it. Understandably, most manufacturers are against this


When Packard Bell launched the EasyMate 800, a Windows CE handheld PC,

GBC believed it was good enough to be tested.

The notebook, which comprises a full range of applications, has no touch

pad and is controlled by a touch screen and stylus. Its battery life is

around eight hours.

The nearest competitor, Hewlett-Packard’s Jornada 820, delivers around

10 hours, while other notebooks deliver around two hours.

PC Plus, which reviewed the EasyMate 800 in November, picked up on the

impressive battery life, the user-friendly touch-sensitive screen and

its comparative light weight. It awarded very high marks for features,

ease of use, documentation, performance and value for money. However,

the screen was criticised for not being ’uniformly bright’.

The product has also been put through its paces by Personal Computer

World in October, and PC Pro in September. Both these magazines rated

the product highly, praising its ’large screen’, ’speed’ and ’zero boot

time’, but criticising its ’cramped keyboard’ and ’cheap finish’.

Munro says she is pleased with the reviews. ’Journalists are happy to

give a product four out of ten in a category if they don’t like it.

Anything above seven is good. If a review is not good, then perhaps it

has flagged up an important issue which needs addressing with the

client, or perhaps it was a dud machine. Either way it needs to be

addressed, but is not a crisis management issue.’

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