FOCUS: HI-TECH PR - Finding a good home for the PC. More people are buying PCs, but are they leisure consumers or business users bringing work home from the office? By Stephanie France

The PC is no longer the preserve of the workplace - it is establishing a firm foothold in the home. However, opinion is divided among PR practitioners as to whether home users are a group in their own right or whether most of them are simply using their homes as an extension of the office.

The PC is no longer the preserve of the workplace - it is

establishing a firm foothold in the home. However, opinion is divided

among PR practitioners as to whether home users are a group in their own

right or whether most of them are simply using their homes as an

extension of the office.



Although research into home PC use is in its infancy, it is clear that,

where once a simple message communicating the benefits of a home PC was

enough, the market has fragmented, requiring many different

communications.



David Fuller, principle director of The Red Consultancy, says: ’It’s

different strokes for different folks. You need to break down the choice

the home PC offers, in the same way that TV promotes different

programmes for different people.’



Giles Fraser, managing director of information industries at Hill and

Knowlton, agrees. ’For example, people use it for doing business from

home, or for entertainment - or parents use it as an educational tool

for their children,’ he says.



’You can also look at branding. Do people look for a high performance,

easy-to-use or cool PC?’



The results of two surveys into this market were published at the end of

1998, both of which generated extensive media interest. Fuller has been

working with Microsoft to promote a survey, conducted by Opinion

Research International, in which 500 family heads in five UK cities were

interviewed about home PCs.



The survey, which continues until 2000, discovered that one in four

households have a PC and that half the users are using their PCs between

6pm to 8pm - when popular programmes such as Coronation Street and

EastEnders are being shown on television.



Fuller says: ’The media sees home PC use as a preserve for the rich or

anoraks. Our aim was to raise awareness of the PC in British lifestyles;

it plays a phenomenal role outside the business environment.’



Fuller adds that the research will inform Red’s PR work for

Microsoft.



’We’ve always done ’snatch and grab’ research for ad hoc statistics to

hang a story on, but this research is a landmark for how we approach the

market. It will be pivotal to the nature of the activities we launch

from now on.’



Microsoft’s findings were backed by a second survey, The British and

Technology, undertaken annually by MORI for Motorola.



Now in its fourth year, the 1998 report found 24 per cent of adults

regularly use a computer at home. MORI, which this year interviewed

1,000 adults and 347 children, also discovered that 60 per cent of

children have access to a home PC. Firefly director Kieran Moore is

working with Motorola on its findings. For example, one in ten employees

spends more than 21 hours, or three working days, per week working from

home.



Moore says: ’Many of them are using traditional applications, such as

Microsoft Word and Excel, transferring what they do in the workplace to

the home. They use the internet twice as much at home, so the message is

that, unless they are exploiting the new media, your clients will be

left behind.’



BourneRiver PR director Matthew Bantock also believes the internet is

key. He says: ’The evolution of the PC into a high-powered leisure tool

will lead to a massive growth in the convergence of information and

entertainment on the web.’



He adds: ’The convergence of home and business computing demands a new

breed of PR campaign, based on a blend of consumer and

business-to-business techniques. On-line information providers, will be

key to the success of this world and it would be a smart move for

agencies to go after those accounts now.’



But for Noiseworks director Nick Hayes, Motorola’s findings suggest a

true home PC market does not exist. ’Everyone talks about there being a

home PC PR market, but I’m not convinced of it,’ he says. ’You are

unlikely to buy a home PC unless you use one pretty heavily at work. If

an agency wants to influence home PC users, it is already getting to

those people though existing channels, such as business magazines. This

is where the impetus for the home PC market is coming from.’



But Samantha Munro, head of consumer PR at Grant Butler Coomber, refutes

this. ’To suggest the home computer market consists solely of people

taking work home, and should be targeted through business titles, is

like suggesting that office workers are likely to furnish their homes

using office furniture styles suggested in Contract Furnishing

magazine,’ she says.



Munro agrees with Fuller that PR messages and campaign strategies need

to be formulated with a specific audience in mind. She used this

approach in work for PC supplier Packard Bell.



’One of the major consumer user groups of PCs are children and students,

with education being the major reason for home purchase,’ says

Munro.



GBC devised the Class of ’81 campaign for Packard Bell, to celebrate

that year’s birth of the PC. Launched in July 1998, the campaign invited

students who were born in 1981 and who are taking their A Levels in the

1998/99 academic year, to dream up a vision of the home of the future in

2020. The most inventive responses will share over pounds 25,000 in

prizes.



The first stage of the campaign has involved mailings to 3,500 schools

and colleges, sponsorship of the Internet Cafe at careers fair

Directions ’98 and contacting education, women’s and teenage press. From

January, entry highlights will be drip-fed to the press.



’To date, there have been over 700 registrations, with coverage from The

Guardian to teenage magazines such as Bliss - not a publication read by

your average office PC user,’ observes Munro.



Caraline Brown, managing director of Brighton-based Midnight

Communication, also concentrated on one target group for internet

service provider, ArgoNet.



Following research which revealed a suprising number of customers were

over 60, Brown invited a group of pensioners to an internet cafe as part

of the media campaign and was surprised by what she saw. ’We had assumed

they would wish to visit travel and gardening web sites, but in fact the

majority asked for information about how to check their share

prices.’



All the evidence points to a boom in the home PC market: research by

Microsoft shows one in three homes will have a PC by 2001. In response,

manufacturers have launched models which are particularly attractive to

home users. These include Apple’s iMac, Acer Group’s XC and Packard

Bell’s first laptop.



Ken Deeks, managing director of Arrow Public Relations, believes that

the way PCs are purchased today presents new PR challenges. ’In the

early part of the PC’s market lifecycle, the knowledge was with the

vendor. Now it is with the customer,’ he says.



Consumers are increasingly confident, he adds, and are more likely to

buy from an electronics retailer, such as Dixons, than a PC

specialist.



Given that the channel is now as important as the product, Deeks says:

’PR should give simple messages which build on the brand, making it

aspirational and therefore giving it maximum push.’



iMac: Apple takes a fresh bite at the consumer market



The launch of the iMac marked Apple’s return to the consumer computer

market after a two-year absence.



Apple founder Steve Jobs, who had returned to the company as interim

chief executive, announced its development on 6 May. He outlined Apple’s

product strategy and unveiled the iMac - the first computer in recent

times without a floppy disk drive and boasting the facility to plug

straight into the internet - to the surprise of both Apple UK and its PR

consultancy, Bite.



The surprise announcement meant Bite had to hit the ground running to

answer press enquiries and supply images of the iMac. ’As soon as it was

announced, we had to get as much information as we could from the US and

posted material on the web site so we could also direct journalists to

there,’ said Apple account manager Caron Jenkins.



After an initial flurry of news stories, Bite built interest in the iMac

over the four and a half months before its UK launch on 5 September.

With a budget of just pounds 20,000, it aimed to push consumer sales by

gaining maximum coverage of the iMac, take the Apple brand to a wider

audience and position the company as a serious player in the IT sector

again.



Photography was used to position the iMac as the ’must have’ gadget, as

the product itself would only arrive days before the launch.



Bite arranged a series of interviews with UK managing director Jon

Molyneux to coincide with the US launch on 15 August. This received

coverage on BBC Business Breakfast, Sky News and in the Times’

’Interface’ section.



The arrival of the first iMacs in the UK kickstarted briefings for the

computer and internet press. Positive reviews showed the iMac offered

more than just attractive styling. And, while US customers had

complained of some problems connecting the iMac to some printers and to

the internet, Bite linked up with UK internet service providers to make

sure that UK customers would not experience similar problems.



Following the launch, at Brown’s nightclub in London’s West End, Bite

pushed the ease of use and appearance of the iMac to sections of the

media that would not previously have looked at computer technology.

Competitions and product placement supported the campaign.



IMacs were placed on the sets of TV shows such as and So Graham Norton

and Ant and Dec, in the window of the Paul Smith shop and in the Design

Museum. Competitions ran on shows such as The Big Breakfast. The

corporate story was also strong, with Radio 4’s In Business profiling

Apple’s resurgence.



Apple claims to have sold 278,000 iMacs worldwide in its first few

months of availability and it has won plaudits from magazines such as PC

Magazine, T3 and MacUser. - Suzan Leavy



ICL: From mainframe manufacturer to service provider



IT systems and services provider ICL has evolved from a mainframe

manufacturer, but has until recently lacked a PR strategy to reflect its

more consumer-orientated approach.



The mainframe business, which it started 30 years ago, now accounts for

just six per cent of ICL’s turnover.



Owned by Fujitsu and headquartered in London, ICL now provides a

comprehensive range of systems integration and IT support services to

over 70 companies. For example, it managed the design, construction and

implementation of Eurostar’s passenger check-in system, integrating

hardware from suppliers such as Dassault and Digital with software from

British Rail.



Neil Pattie, who joined ICL in July 1997 from British Aerospace’s press

office, is head of media and PR and oversees a team of three PR

managers.



He says: ’When I joined, my remit was to move the image of ICL from a

tired, 1960s manufacturer of mainframes to a nimble, fleet-of-foot, IT

services-orientated company and to beef up the company’s profile in

preparation its flotation on the London Stock Exchange in 2000.’ Pattie

discovered that ICL’s PR function was largely decentralised, with many

divisions retaining their own PR consultancy. An audit revealed that ICL

employed an incredible 14 agencies, accounting for an annual PR spend of

pounds 1 million, with little co-ordination at a corporate level.

’Journalists didn’t know who they were dealing with and there were mixed

messages going out,’ says Pattie.



It was Pattie’s goal to have just one PR agency, but he realised many

divisions would see this step as too radical. His first task, therefore,

was to get them on board by listening to their views and involving them

in the whole process. Next he issued guidelines to the divisions, ’so

the messages we were pumping out were consistent’.



At the beginning of 1998, Firefly was appointed as ICL’s main agency,

with almost unanimous agreement from the divisions.



Two more agencies survived the cull - Grayling, which continues to work

for ICL’s retail division and Financial Dynamics, which works on ICL’s

City PR, providing strategic advice leading up to flotation.



In addition, marketing communications staff in each division have been

trained in PR and work closely with Firefly on their own projects.



Pattie says: ’My three PR managers have been given virtual account

manager responsibilities. Each of them takes several divisions under

their wing, working closely with staff and Firefly.’



Pattie’s strategy seems to be paying off. In a survey published in

Computer Weekly on 3 December 1998, 78 per cent of respondents perceived

ICL as a service supplier this year, compared with 41 per cent last

year.



Pattie says: ’Although I don’t dare presume this is all down to PR, the

message has got through to many in the media and this has had a positive

effect. In the absence of brand advertising, PR is the most potent

weapon.’



Dixons: Tackling the charge of profiteering head on



While the press likes nothing so much as a good war of words, it is

indicative of the current interest in the PC market that an apparently

off-the-cuff remark made by Intel’s chief executive about Dixons Group

should receive so much press coverage.



Leading computer chip manufacturer Intel fired the first salvo in this

now very public argument when its chief executive Craig Barrett accused

Dixons of charging ’ridiculous margins’, thereby exploiting its supposed

market monopoly. Barrett, who was speaking at a computer trade fair in

Las Vegas at the end of November 1998, offered this as the reason why

the UK market was not performing as well as the US.



Barrett’s remarks were first picked up by the Financial Times, then

quickly spread to the rest of the UK press. Former Secretary of State

for Trade and Industry Peter Mandelson wrote to the Office of Fair

Trading (OFT), bringing its attention to the recent press coverage.



Faced with a barrage of criticism, Dixons Group’s press department

offered an immediate string of rebuttals. Press officers were quoted as

saying Dixons Group’s UK market share is just 14 per cent, not the

reported 50 per cent; its margins on PC sales are less than ten per cent

and that the relatively high cost of computers in the UK is, in part,

due to the amount of VAT and duty the Government charges on computers

and their components.



Steve O’Brien, Dixons Group’s head of corporate affairs, says he was

surprised by the amount of coverage given to Barrett’s remarks, but was

not caught napping. ’It was one of those things which seemed to gather

some momentum of its own. All we can do in those circumstances is to be

very confident and clear about our arguments and present them as quickly

as we can.’



Dixons’ position changed as the week progressed and became more

proactive.



’At first ours was effectively a reactive position - we marshalled our

arguments and presented them back as clearly as we could.



The following weekend, the story took a different twist with the

involvement of the DTI, at which point we put out a press release, which

also appeared on our website, in which we welcomed any enquiry into UK

PC prices,’ explains O’Brien.



There were two key messages which O’Brien believes it was essential to

transmit. ’Firstly, we had to allay any consumer concerns there might be

out there and secondly, we had to ensure that the market understood

where we were coming from, which I think we did.’



Intel’s press office declined to make any comments about its PR strategy

and, as PR Week goes to press, Dixons Group has received no notification

from the OFT of any enquiry. It is clear that its speedy and clear

reaction to a potential crisis prevented the issue from causing any

serious or lasting damage.



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