TECHNOLOGY: Wired to the future - PRWeek asks leading lights how they see the fastest growing sector in PR shaping up

2001 sees the actual start of the new millennium, as those calendar

pedants will tell you, and with it PRWeek has re-branded its rather

old-hat sounding 'Hi-tech' features with the more contemporary title of

'Technology'.



For 2001's inaugural feature on this dynamic sector, PRWeek has spoken

to three agency gurus, Don Middleberg, founder of the eponymous agency,

Larry Weber, head of global PR giant Weber Shandwick (see page 18) and

Text 100 CEO Aedhmar Hynes, as well as a pair of in-house leading

technology players.



The in-house people featured are Imogen Bailey, who is the manager of

executive communications at technology giant Cisco Systems and Nick

Mason Pearson, director of corporate communications at ISP AskJeeves

UK.



We have asked them to review the state of the sector and, more

importantly, where they think it's headed.



Technology has traditionally been PR-led, which comes as no surprise if

you consider that your average consumer or business needs to cut through

the techie jargon and explain things in everyday language.



One thing that all five make clear is that those who fail to keep up are

going to be left behind for good.



Technology permeates our day-to-day life. It is everywhere, at home, at

work, on your way from one to the other, and it is proliferating at a

rapidly increasing rate. So, ignore it at your own peril.



Another theme that is expressed by all is that as well as using the

communications process to sell technology the communications process

itself will increasingly have to use technology.



As the dot.com bubble deflates the industry's leading players give their

predictions for the dot.com and broader technology sector.



The advent of broadband means faster and sexier access to the internet.

TV and personal computers are converging and will soon be one and the

same thing.



Technology is racing forward, and it's vital to keep up especially in

PR.



IMOGEN BAILEY Cisco Systems



The IT industry is coming out of adolescence and about to celebrate its

coming of age, according to Imogen Bailey, Cisco Systems manager of

executive communications, EMEA.



'When I entered IT, it was a young teenager. Now it's approaching 21,'

she says.



What this means for PROs in the sector is a more grown-up approach. No

more techno-babble and utopian pronouncements about how a certain piece

of IT wizardry will change the world. 'Quite frankly, it won't' is

Bailey's dismissive response to this type of patter.



Instead, she says firms need to provide more hard economic facts about

how their technology can help the bottom line: 'When I joined A Plus

eight years ago there was a plethora of IT companies talking about bits

and bytes and all the techy stuff, but few were talking about the

economic advantages of the technology,' she says.



'Now the focus is on the need to develop a brand, so the message is

relevant to the business audience as well as the trade and technical

audience,' she says.



After A Plus, Bailey moved to smaller firm, MCC, then on to an almost

obligatory spell at a US start-up organisation, in her case

Stratacom.



In the past four years she has entered the big league. First at computer

systems firm Unisys, where she was European PR manager, and now at Cisco

Systems, the £200bn internet and intranet networking supplier.



The sector has become much faster-paced in this time, says Bailey, but

the one constant factor has been change: 'You have to love change in

order to thrive in this industry. It has just moved light-years in terms

of how things were two years ago to how it is now.'



PR teams' creativity has also moved light-years in this time, she adds,

but agencies and in-house teams have to be ever more innovative if

they're to succeed in the future. Just sending out press releases is no

good anymore.



'When someone comes up with a good idea and a way of doing things, the

others very quickly jump on the bandwagon. Therefore the levels of

creativity are having to go up,' she says. 'Companies are demanding so

much more from their PR, such as an integration of their message in to

the marketing strategy and many other areas, so PR is becoming much less

of a standalone entity'



As she represents a company which has made its billions via internet

technology, it is hardly surprising to hear Bailey pronounce that PR

agencies which do not have a strong net capability will fail.



'We are becoming more web-enabled. Any agency which does not have that

will be left behind,' she warns.



AEDHMAR HYNES Text 100



Aedhmar Hynes became CEO of Text 100 International in October 2000,

heading a $35m global technology agency with 25 offices. In her

12 years in PR she has worked exclusively with technology companies,

spending the last ten years with Text 100.



'I'm very passionate about the future of technology. I truly believe it

will continue to improve all of our lives, and I believe we've only seen

the start of this,' she says.



The dot.com bubble may appear to have burst, acknowledges Hynes, but the

market is still healthy: 'Right now we're probably seeing a greater

demand for B2B over B2C as companies rapidly drop the dot.com from their

domain name and focus on more traditional goals like making profit,' she

says.



Continuing advances in technology will ensure technology PR 'has its

hands full for a very long time,' thinks Hynes. 'Unlike other industries

tech PR does not drive the industry, it is the other way around. This

means our sector of PR will need to react very quickly to changes in

technology to make sure we stay at the cutting edge.'



Hynes believes one of the core tasks of technology PR is taking complex

technology and helping millions of people understand its benefits. She

thinks that for technology PR agencies this means 'getting away from the

parts of the tech sector that are no longer cerebral'.



Really using technology well in the future will mean taking advantage of

advances in communication technology, and in particular broadband

technology.



'High speed access both to people's homes and to their cellphones will

change the way we share information. This in turn will change PR. It

will become more direct, more in your face,' she says. 'In a broadband

world people will not want advertising on their phones or PDAs (Personal

Digital Assistants), they will want information. That information will

be driven primarily by PR.'



As companies get closer to their customer, Hynes believes PR will need

to rethink its current model: 'On the one hand you will have information

that is created with a predetermined set of messages (much like

advertising is today), and on the other information which comes through

a trusted source.'



But because PR agencies will continue to provide information through

'trusted sources' in the media, Hynes is confident their stock will

continue to rise over advertising agencies. 'A PR agency has to convince

an influencer - an independent arbiter if you like - before the public

sees or reads about the information, therefore the message has

integrity. PR is grounded in truth and that's one of its greatest

assets,' she says.



NICK MASON PEARSON AskJeeves UK



Some technology PR agencies just don't get excited enough about their

chosen business for Nick Mason Pearson's liking.



As a confirmed technology buff, the director of corporate communications

for web search engine AskJeeves UK believes the only way to do PR for an

IT company is to get enthusiastic about it.



'Often what you get (from agencies) is formulaic PR applied to

technology, in the same way as it would be to, say, a can of beans or

washing powder,' he says. 'They are trying to apply too many consumer

principles to what they do. If they are not interested in the technology

itself, how are they going to make journalists interested?'



If you're not bothered about it, don't bother pitching for it, is his

advice to the half-hearted.



But even for the most devoted IT PROs, keeping the media interested in a

new product or service is the major difficulty for the sector because of

the fast-pace of change and the constant barrage of launches, Mason

Pearson explains.



He cites the example of car manufacturers' prototypes, displayed in a

fanfare of publicity at exhibitions but which no-one ever expects to see

on the roads, as an example for the IT industry of how to sustain

interest.



Such 'magic cars' showcase the talent at the company and whet the

market's appetite for its future products while still getting an

immediate hit in the press on the release day.



'The challenge is balancing short-term needs with some

forward-thinking,' he says.



As a former account manager and director of three major agencies, The

SPA Partnership, Biss Lancaster and Text 100 in the 1990s, before

joining AskJeeves UK last year, Mason Pearson is well placed to

future-gaze about the hi-tech PR industry.



But he is surprisingly old school in his thoughts, right down to wishing

that PR professionals would improve their all-too-frequently lamentable

writing skills. Technology will streamline some of the processes of

doing business in the industry, but it will not alter the fundamentals,

he argues.



'I think technology is going to have an effect on the PR industry but

only up to a point,' he says. 'PR is about relationships. My belief is

that you can't replace picking up the phone and talking to a journalist

with attaching an e-mail and sending it out to them.'



Where agencies should take advantage of new technology is in their use

of the net, somewhere that Mason Pearson believes they, and in-house

teams, are lagging behind.



'If they are using the net for research, for finding ideas and new

avenues to get the message out and widening awareness, then they're

using it well. But I challenge a lot of agencies to tick all of those

boxes,' he claims.



DON MIDDLEBERG Middleberg Euro RSCG



Don Middleberg founded the agency that bears his name in 1989 and in the

early 1990s was one of the first PR practitioners to recognise and

understand the impact the internet would have on PR. He is now widely

regarded as a guru of digital public relations, frequently lecturing on

the subject and appearing on TV and radio in the US.



The internet has been the cornerstone on which Middleberg has built his

business, so his enthusiasm for the medium is hardly surprising. 'I'm

passionate about the future because I'm passionate about the future of

the internet. The net is here to stay and it's only going to become more

exciting and touch more aspects of our professional and personal lives,'

he says.



Having experienced the highs and lows of the dot.com revolution,

Middleberg has no doubts that the technology PR sector has grown up:

'While the dot.com shake-out has been painful, I sincerely believe that

the technology PR sector is much stronger as a result.' He says

companies that have withstood the shake-out have proved their business

models are effective, and the dot.coms now entering the market are

generally better prepared: 'The most exciting indication of the

maturation of the technology PR sector is that traditional

bricks-and-mortar companies are entering the digital space in a much

more meaningful and strategic way than ever before.'



Middleberg remains convinced that technology agencies are best placed to

service dot.com business. 'What makes the technology sector special are

the distinctly different constituencies that agencies must deal with,

including tech industry analysts, journalists, venture capitalists and

those key influencers we call the 'digerati'. These audiences have their

own lexicon, message points, even their own culture. Messages must be

highly targeted and crafted in the language they understand and are

motivated by.'



But with a spread of clients including American Express, Greenpeace,

Reuters and United Airlines, Middleberg recognises the need to bring in

expertise from other areas, recently hiring senior executives in the B2B

and financial areas. He says that business is now coming primarily from

the B2B sector - recent clients include IBM and Reuters America.



But he adds: 'We're now starting to see a host of traditional

consumer-product companies entering the digital space, so we can expect

a spike in the B2C segment.' While tinged with optimism about the future

of technology and the PR sector that serves it, Middleberg is realistic:

'The technology PR sector is going to continue to grow in both the short

and long term. It may not do so at the astronomical rate of the late

90s, but the sector remains strong.'



Like others in the industry, Middleberg's optimism for the future of

technology PR is founded on the certainty that technology will continue

to develop at an astounding rate. 'In the future new business

opportunities will result from such emergent technologies as the

wireless internet, the increasing use of video and audio in websites,

and hand-held devices allowing continuous and immediate communications.

Agencies will benefit not just by representing the new tech companies,

but also by serving the traditional companies that leverage these new

technologies to stay competitive.'



Speed will remain a key factor in technology PR, feels Middleberg, and

agencies will need to adopt the technology they promote if they are to

flourish: 'We can expect to see agencies adopting greater numbers of new

technologies in the quest to provide their clients with faster and more

effective service. Agencies will continue to capitalise on real-time

communications and wireless developments.'



Investment in training will be a key factor in agency survival, he

thinks: 'I see the leading-edge agencies turning to big-time internal

training through intranets, tapping wireless for enhanced internal

communications and engaging in virtual communications with clients for

everything from billings to white papers.'



Middleberg's message to agencies that don't recognise and understand the

pace of change is clear: 'Those agencies that play ostrich and hide

their heads in the sand will fail.'



LARRY WEBER Weber Shandwick



Larry Weber is the boss of the biggest PR company in the world, and he's

proud that it has its roots in the technology sector. The merger of

Weber PR, the company he set up in 1987 in Cambridge, Massachusetts,

with Shandwick isn't the end of the road for one of the most respected

technology PR gurus in the world, however - he's still got far too much

ambition and drive for that.



Weber has always been ahead of the game - when he set up his own company

there were only a couple of hi-tech PR firms in the States, and within

four years he was running the biggest hi-tech firm in the world. When he

opened the London office his only real competition was from A Plus, and

Text 100 which was just starting. Now Weber says hi-tech PR accounts for

around a quarter of all PR fees billed, and he's convinced this will

continue to grow. He also expects Weber Shandwick to be 'the first

billion dollar agency'.



One of the reasons for the importance of PR to the hi-tech sector, he

says, is that 'technology has always looked to PR first, rather than

advertising'.



Back in the 1980s, 'it took time to build credibility, so companies went

to PR. There were also a layer of industry analysts who didn't respond

to advertising - they wanted long textual papers, and that's what we

produced for them,' he says.



Weber had some luck along the way, including working with Lotus and

being in at the inception of Tim Berners Lee's World Wide Web

Consortium. 'I didn't know what they were talking about but it sounded

interesting from a communications perspective as it would affect the way

human beings would communicate with each other,' he says.



When Weber sold to the Interpublic advertising group in 1997, he was

able to step up his aggressive acquisitions policy on behalf of the new

owners, buying 23 companies in three years.



He has developed the idea of hyper-practices to describe the way he

thinks the industry will go: 'Within technology public relations, we

must be able to offer experts in wireless, broadband, enterprise

software, semi-conductors, and so forth. These experts should include

not just people with PR backgrounds, but also problem solvers from other

professions. And we must bring this expertise together as markets

collide and combine in areas such as healthcare public affairs and

financial services technology communications.'



The convergence of the telecoms sector is one of the opportunities for

technology PR, but there are challenges ahead, too. 'We haven't been

good in figuring out how to consumerise complex pieces of technology -

that's why we launched Red Whistle last year to focus on PR and

marketing strategies for consumer tech leaders,' he says.



Weber also sees a lack of corporate communications expertise in the

hi-tech PR sector that will need to be addressed: 'General Motors calls

itself a hi-tech company - it says cars aren't about transportation

anymore, but are becoming digital centres, with e-mail, and voice

activated controls. Communicating that to Wall Street and other

stakeholders is a different communications experience.'



For Weber, though, it's not just about doing PR for technology companies

- it's about the company, and the industry, embracing the use of

technology to do PR better.



'There's a long way to go before PR harnesses the power of technology in

communications - we're babies at the moment. Three years ago we couldn't

sell a webcast - it was like pulling teeth. Now Weber Shandwick does

about one a day. This is only going to continue as websites become

24-hour channels,' he says.



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