TECHNOLOGY: Tech PR mirrors change - Contrary to popular belief, tech PR is an attractive sector to be employed in. Adam Hill reports

Ten years ago, said one PRO, a career in technology was viewed as

the public relations equivalent of a diplomatic posting to Kazakstan. He

was only half-joking; the sector has traditionally been in the shadow of

its more attractive sibling, consumer PR. 'It's not only boring, it's

scary,' said another. 'Ask anyone what goes on in a PC or mobile phone

and they stare at you blankly'.



A recent report backs up this view. Dr Cherry Taylor, MD of research

agency Dynamic Markets, is author of Resourcing the Hi-tech PR

Industry.



During interviews at the end of 2000 she found that the sector remained

unattractive to job seekers.



And although sector growth was estimated at 'conservatively' 30 per cent

this year, the pool of available staff has only grown by an average of

12.5 per cent over the last 12 months. 'It is seen as a bit naff and

boring and not that sexy,' she says.



But in-house PROs at technology companies refute this negative picture

of the industry. Vodafone Group UK head of PR Corinne Norris says that,

while understanding the products is important, 'technology is the

enabler.



It's the application that's interesting'. As are the add-ons, she says,

which include high-profile sponsorship deals such as the one with

Manchester United.



'Applications change so much faster,' she says. 'Mobile phones have only

been around since 1985 and strategy and tactics have to change faster.

It has also become more global.'



Cisco Systems UK and Ireland senior PR manager Angela Hesse agrees that

technology's place in the scheme of things has changed markedly: 'Ten

years ago it was less sexy to the general public. It was harder to make

people listen and you had to sell it out of trade publications and into

the national daily press.' That is not so much of a problem anymore, she

says.



'There are not too many industries where new technology is developing

and becoming part of more and more consumers' lives,' says Dell UK and

Ireland home and small business PR manager Annette Condon. 'Instead of

being seen as the preserve of the computer nerd, products look sexier

and the interfaces are easier.'



From the punter looking for a laptop to the company seeking storage and

servers there is a range of interest in technology, she says. 'People

are less interested in 'speeds and feeds', especially at the consumer or

small business end. We certainly don't have a problem with staff

attrition. It's fast-moving and exciting. The rewards are good too.'



It is a mark of how much technology PR has changed in the last decade

that talking to the trade press about widgets is no longer the only game

in town. Connecting to the small business landscape and working with

mainstream media such as broadcasters and broadsheets to build brands is

seen as crucial while talking about products has, in many cases, taken

the back seat.



Nick Mason Pearson, director of corporate communications at search

engine Ask Jeeves UK, agrees: 'In technology PR, there is definitely an

advantage to having 'broader than technology' experience. With us,

there's a need for brand marketing rather than widgets marketing.'



David Josephs, whose clients tend to be infrastructure firms fuelling

the dot.coms, agrees that the received wisdom of technology PR having

less allure is changing. However, the Citigate Technology MD says: 'It's

a challenge; a lot of technology companies say they want to talk about

business issues but traditionally they are more comfortable talking

about the technology.'



There are still varying degrees of interest for potential employees,

says Edelman director of technology David Ingle. This is the difference,

say, between handheld devices and mainframes. With PalmPilots, 'it's GQ

or Loaded, it's edgy, you're out there, you're connecting,' says Ingle.

'But give them an AS400 to worry about ... and no.'



Simon Merrick is PR managing directot at SNS Group, a Kent-based agency

whose clients are involved in software, semiconductors and industrial

technology. At the graduate account executive end, 'PR and marketing was

their focus, they have good writing skills and have gone on to learn the

technology,' Merrick says.



Grant Butler Coomber head of human resources Paul Morris agrees with

this approach: 'We aren't looking for highly techie-type people. Our

focus is on finding people with top-class PR skills. Every aspect of

business is almost completely integrated with technology anyway. You

want an eye for a business story, rather than tech wizards. You're no

longer selling a piece of business software to newspapers, you're

selling a story. But there is a shortage of people if you were

recruiting at a very senior level.'



And this means that poaching staff is a fact of life. 'Yes, there's a

good network of practitioners, a core set of skilled people,' Ingle

says. 'Our staff regularly receive phone call approaches.'



Josephs says: 'It is no secret that staff turnover rates in the

technology sector would seem to be worse than other PR areas. I always

feel it takes people six months or so to understand the landscape; you

do need to understand the context. It is more intellectually challenging

than consumer PR or 'old style' technology PR.'



Clive Armitage, managing director of Bite Communications agrees that

there is a perception that technology PR is 'dry and boring'. 'When I

started out I had that view but found that the reality turned out to be

that it's a sector that is challenging intellectually.'



Anthony Wilson, Hotwire founder and managing partner agrees. 'A lot of

people leaving university would tend more towards consumer PR.'



But broader social changes should be to the advantage of the technology

PR industry. 'Today's graduates are more at home with technology: all

understand the internet, all students use e-mail. Look at quoted

technology companies - they are so much a part of everyone's life. Two

years ago, no-one really knew what a dot.com was,' says Wilson.



But it is not a homogenous beast, he says. 'A lot of people say they

'do' technology but we thinks it's rather dated as a concept.' Hotwire

has six practices, including new media, enterprise computing and

telecoms.' This inevitably leads to a degree of specialisation early,

which suits someone with an interest in, say, IT storage and security

but may not appeal to someone who likes the stimulation of dealing with

a computer manufacturer one day and an entertainment dot.com the next.

On the other hand, Wilson says, the agency is 'giving people the chance

to follow their passion'.



But passion for technology is not the only thing to worry about; it is

increasingly difficult to ignore the chill west wind of recession.

Things have certainly changed since the heady days of 2000. Potential

staff for agency and in-house technology jobs have been aware of their

worth during the tech boom of the last two years.



Ashley Chace, MD of specialist PR recruitment agency The Works, sums up

what they have been looking for: 'August.One and Text 100 have very good

packages, including duvet days and a menu of benefits you can pick

from.' Toni Castle, HR director LEWIS, says the way to attract and

retain good staff is the same as in any business - 'Good salary, and

benefits package ... and a structure that allows them to develop'.



So are there good candidates out there? 'At a senior level, people lured

away into dot.coms are now back on the market,' Chace says. 'There is

still a shortage at the lower end. But there are fewer consumer tech

jobs around. It tends to be B2B.'



In fact, according to Market Dynamics' report, today 40 per cent of

technology PR firms are not recruiting at all; the focus of those which

are is at account manager, rather than account executive, level; and

only nine per cent are recruiting at all levels.



AskJeeves is one of those with no recruitment plans at present. 'People

are beginning to evaluate and revise their business plans in the light

of what's going on in the US.



The companies laying off the big numbers are the global companies,' says

Mason Pearson. 'But in Europe things are slightly different; the UK

advertising market has not cooled off as severely as in the US. But

there will be some retrenchment and budgets will be squeezed.'



Argyll Consultancies chief executive Crispin Manners says there is

trouble on the horizon for those not geared up for change: 'Pretty well

any company in the IT Top 200 has announced redundancies. Those who've

got their product right and communicate it well will do well. The next

six months will be extremely hard and I will be very surprised if there

isn't some business pain.'



As US tech clients retreat back inside their own borders away from

Europe, Mantra co-founder Debbie Wosskow says: 'We will see some pushing

back on fees and we will see people being more results-focused. This

year is not about growth, it's about consolidation, being sensible,

hoping you've picked the winners and come out the other side.'



But whether catering for the dot.com explosion or the subsequent

'dot.bomb', in-house departments and agencies still have to find the

right people. And Taylor still thinks agencies are missing a trick :

'Hi-tech PR has its own PR to do.'



RECRUITING AND RETAINING TECHNOLOGY PR STAFF



The predictable things are important when it comes to attracting and

retaining technology PR staff: interesting products, decent training and

varied work. But salary is, of course, also important.



According to Dynamic Markets MDCherry Taylor, graduates with a year's

experience could be earning pounds 21,000, rising to pounds 40,000 or

more five years later: 'There is vast room for improvement in terms of

communicating that to potential employees.' Last year, agencies were

scrambling for staff - with remuneration to match - as dot.coms and the

rest expanded. 'They are now committed to those salary brackets,' Taylor

continues. 'What are they going to do, demote people? It is a very

interesting time for them.'



Salaries have dipped since last year, says Debbie Wosskow, co-founder of

Mantra - which has gone from two to 30 people in 15 months: 'It is

cheaper to recruit now than it was eight to ten months ago.'



Porter Novelli Convergence Group MD Tom Watson insists that employers

must be clear about what they are looking for: 'Everybody who works with

us is a PR professional first and a technologist second.'



Wosskow agrees: 'It's not about techies anymore; it's about people who

can bring learning from the old economy.'



Hotwire co-founder Anthony Wilson says culture is vital: 'PR is a

creative business and people are looking for a culture where they feel

at home.



It's not the money that's important, they are looking for an exciting

career. We have a meritocratic approach: people can immediately be

travelling abroad and dealing with the national media if they prove

they're up to it.'



NOKIA LOOKS TO NEXT COMMUNICATIONS CHALLENGE



That old Chinese curse 'may you live in interesting times' certainly

applies to the telecoms sector at the moment, particularly in mobile

technology.



Every week another of the big players seems to announce thousands of

redundancies, thanks to the market for mobiles reaching saturation

point, and the beginnings of a global economic downturn.



Couple this with the halting transition to 3G technology and ongoing

fears about the safety of mobile phones, and the communications

challenges are certainly interesting.



Nokia is the global market leader in mobile phone units, and despite its

strong brand and solid profits, it is not immune to the difficulties of

finding good people for its communications function in such a

climate.



Speaking to PRWeek, Nokia corporate communications senior vice-president

Lauri Kivinen says he believes more skilled young people are attracted

by PR because the impact of globalisation and the fast growth of

technology businesses means the function is more respected.



His concern is that despite being more attractive to people with broader

business backgrounds as a result, in-house PR, particularly within a

specialist market, is still often viewed as a narrow function.



Nevertheless, Nokia has the benefit of being a strong brand, which has

helped in recruiting. The company is open to where its communications

people come from, and also encourages moves into PR from within other

departments. For example, the recently-appointed UK senior

communications manager is Mark Squires, previously its business

development manager (PRWeek, 11 May).



'We still need new blood and skills. Mark knows the company and the

product and has been a key spokesman. Giving him this job will also

challenge the way we communicate because he will bring fresh ideas,'

says Kivinen.



He is a firm believer that because 'PR is about a love of language and

communicating with people', it's important for PR managers in each

market to be natives. 'In Hungary, we have a Hungarian PR manager, and

so on across the world,' he says.



Nokia now has around 100 PR people in-house across the world, based in

key markets and where the individual businesses are big enough to need

their own communications support outside that handled from head

office.



This is unlikely to grow much further, though.



'In the past five years, the number of our PR people has roughly doubled

to 60,000, along with the number of countries in which we do

business.



The next step will come not through adding people but through

technology.



The use of the web in communications is at a very early phase, and we

will see tremendous improvement to the service we are able to offer

journalists, for example,' says Kivinen.



One area where he thinks there will be growth is employee

communications: 'It's an area where professionals will clearly be

needed, especially in fast-changing and developing environments.

Businesses like ours are changing fast, with global challenges and high

pressure, and our global head of internal communications has to work

very closely with the HR function.'



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