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 pounds 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 dollars 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.