Technology PR: Selling the benefits

The IT sector is showing signs of recovery but PROs must take account of the new audience, says Mark Johnson.

Flicking through a copy of a British broadsheet newspaper, there is one major difference from a 1999 edition, apart from the fact it has probably gone compact. There is no technology section.

The loss of specialist supplements, daily sections and entire publications devoted to technology as IT spending and advertising dried up over the past four years dealt a critical blow to technology PR.

But as industry commentators begin to observe the signs of a recovery, the question is, have tech PROs learned from the downturn?

One lesson is the need for tech PROs to grasp the concerns of business, rather than just the latest sophisticated kit or obscure piece of hardware.

This is where companies and agencies will be tested in coming months.

'These days, to get attention from the press, technology companies have to go about it in a very different way,' says Johnson King MD Mike King.

'It's about giving technology a context in the business world.'

Increased investment

Press attention will be critical as the IT sector recovers, as it is forecast to this year.

Global research firm META Group says US companies are beginning to invest in IT at a rate not seen since the sector recession and the market is expected to grow by three to five per cent this year.

META Group director of research, EMEA, Will Cappelli says: 'The UK may not achieve all of that growth but it will be in that ball park. When people do their IT budgets, there will be an easing of constraints.'

But B2B companies have already been able to capitalise on the need for organisations to invest in major IT infrastructure projects, says King.

One of the biggest areas has been in protecting information and data as well as making it available, with recent corporate governance legislation and regulatory compliance such as the Data Protection Act. Understanding business concerns has played a major role in the success of most campaigns, says King.

But lessons have also been learned in consumer technology PR.

Computer Associates PR manager Lee Brooke says that the turning point in the way technology companies communicate about their products came during the marketing of mobile internet access.

'The big mistake was talking about the technology that made it possible,' says Brooke, who previously worked in PR for Nokia. 'The minute they started talking about getting football results wherever you are, it took off.'

The effect on the way tech companies communicate has been dramatic. In May last year, for example, Hewlett-Packard changed the way it segments the UK market, restructuring what it terms the 'front end' of its marketing department into four groups to reflect the needs of its customer base (public sector, enterprise, SMEs and consumer) while keeping its product-focused solutions group structure in the background for internal use.

Hewlett-Packard PR manager Tariq Ahmed says: 'Whenever we go out to the media with an announcement, we look at audience needs and then come up with relevant solutions'.

'Rather than just push product reviews we come up with campaigns that touch on the lives of consumers or enterprise customers,' (see box p28).

The change in the way stories are pitched to the media is also a reflection of the new business audience that tech companies need to reach, says Brooke. Anecdotal evidence shows IT expenditure is more a board-level responsibility than it was ten or even five years ago.

'We still sell to the IT manager or the technical architect, but to get the sign off for the order, that person has to go to the financial director or procurement manager,' says Brooke.

This in turn has evolved the need for a broader approach to communicating, in some cases offering support to the IT manager, the traditional target audience, when 'selling' the need for a product or solution internally.

According to Brooke: 'The IT manager may not have the means to explain where the value in your product lies to the business, so as a supplier we often have to help them articulate the reasons to the finance director or procurement manager. It requires that you communicate at several levels within the customer organisation.'

Sector sophistication

The fact that companies now assign IT spending responsibility higher up the food chain has meant PR companies have to take a more considered approach to targeting the new audience.

'The way we structure our campaigns is much more like an advertising agency,' says Brands2Life co-founder Giles Fraser.

'Clients are asking questions like: Who are the readers (of each publication)?

What are their behaviours? And they are using media mapping techniques to ask how best to reach target audiences.'

This sophistication has also affected the way the media covers the sector.

Brooke says: 'Until fairly recently, it was almost too easy to get coverage.

With the number of publications out there, everybody wanted content and you just had to hand it over. There was little concern for how many announcements were hitting the target audience, let alone influencing them.'

Nowadays, angles have to be strong and business oriented in the B2B media, with a strong focus on convincing business customers of the benefits.

'Selling big projects for these companies is hard work,' says Fraser.

'Our clients have to demonstrate a big and fast return on investment.'

The past few years have also seen widespread acceptance of new technology as a part of everyday life.

Ownership of mobile phones and PCs with broadband internet access has soared, and this has affected consumer tech PR.

Sales figures released by Apple in January illustrated the strength of demand for tech products. Sales for its iPod music player surpassed ten million units, pushing overall sales for the group up by 75 per cent on the previous year.

'The success of iPod has been a big factor in attracting media interest in consumer electronics,' says Fraser.

For B2B, Cappelli forecasts growth in particular IT sectors. 'The kind of companies that are likely to benefit are those with a major focus on integration networks, integration servers and middleware. And in what you could call the IT governance space such as project portfolio management.'

Recent M&A activity may have consolidated the IT market, Cappelli points out, but new companies are emerging in the spaces created. 'This year there will be vibrancy at both ends of the spectrum, with practices built around hot emerging tech companies as well as around multi-product companies, such as IBM and Microsoft.

But there will be less activity in the middle,' he says

These will be words of welcome relief to the tech PR sector.

MEDIA MAINSTREAM

Hewlett-Packard's the stress of commuting

Hewlett-Packard attracted coverage on the BBC, ITV and Sky, as well as radio and national newspapers with a campaign that highlighted to small and medium-sized businesses how mobile technologies can cut the grind of commuting, which can expose employees to more stress than a fighter pilot experiences in combat. Over three days, this human-interest story with a business-oriented message had a potential audience reach of 40 million.

UBIZEN'S RAPID RESPONSE ON SECURITY

Johnson King PR helped security consultancy Ubizen set up an issues development programme that would enable it to respond rapidly to issues relating to security as they developed in the media.

The subjects researched, developed and implemented were the parliamentary review of the Computer Misuse Act, the pros and cons of a UK identity card scheme and the McElroy computer hacking test case.

By offering rapid comment on news stories Ubizen has raised its profile and been able to associate the brand with security issues, says the company.

Coverage of these issues containing comment from Ubizen has appeared on BBC News Online, The Financial Times, The Guardian and The Business.

AC MILAN INJURIES PREDICTED BY COMPUTER ASSOCIATES

A campaign for Computer Associates looked at use of its knowledge management system at Italian football club AC Milan. The predictive software monitors player performance and so reduces injury potential, and the story garnered coverage on Silcon.com, VNU, the Irish Independent and The Times. Focusing on the injuries side for the mainstream press and the software for the tech press, the story generated 2.7 million opportunities to see the campaign.

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