Computing was pivotal in putting a man on the moon, but the technology was hardly more powerful than one of today's computers. Well into the 1990s, computers were things of great power and mystery, and their evolution led to the establishment of specialist technology agencies that helped IT companies communicate with their customer - the IT director.
Today we are well into the information age, and with greater awareness and understanding, the need for a specialist tech agency has all but disappeared. This is perhaps best reflected in the change of titles that one finds in large enterprises. The 'IT director' has been replaced by the 'chief information officer'. We have moved smartly on from features to benefits.
But what has this got to do with cleantech? Well, in many ways, the cleantech sector stands where the IT industry did in the 1980s. In a recent Financial Times feature, Alan Salzman, co-founder of cleantech venture capitalist VantagePoint, described cleantech as the industrial revolution of the 21st century. 'We need to change, so we don't have resource pressures and poison the planet,' he said. 'It's not a false trade-off - we're making profitable successful companies that exploit the silliness of our antiquated energy system.' But Salzman also pointed out that this is a slow revolution and much of the technology we use today - lightbulbs, coal, gas and nuclear power - has hardly changed since the 19th century.
The cleantech sector is not mature. There is considerable volatility, with many companies and technologies competing to be the next success. The maker of the Tesla electric car is valued at $2.9bn and is seriously challenging the established automobile manufacturers. Against this are some notable failures, such as Solyndra, the California-based producer of solar panels.
Cleantech is similar to the early days of computing in that we are dealing with complicated technologies that we are promoting to other technologists, businessmen, investors and the public. Cleantech is relevant to so many stakeholder groups, which requires a special combination of skills. Foremost among these is the ability to master the technology and effectively communicate features to very different stakeholder groups via a host of comms channels.
Companies recognise the need for specialist support. They understand that it's not just about having the best technology, but also about educating and communicating benefits to wider stakeholders. Many are dynamic SMEs needing a partner that can provide them with pragmatic and powerful comms support. The key to delivering this is established relationships with key opinion formers and influencers; an in-depth understanding of environmental technology and business communities; and an experienced team with a passion for the subject.
In cleantech, things move slowly and require a more sustained and considered approach. Cleantech venture capitalist, Ira Ehrenpreis, of Technology Partners, captures an essential quality of the sector when he says: 'There is ripe opportunity in cleantech to do what has been done in computing and semi-conductors. But it is not like Moore's law - innovation cycles in energy are measured in decades, if not centuries.'
As mankind faces the challenge of saving the planet, the need for effective comms is great. The specialist cleantech agency that can ensure the knowledge is shared quickly and effectively with all stakeholder groups will be essential in supporting the sector in its journey from niche to mainstream.
VIEWS IN BRIEF
- Which film title best sums up the spirit of your agency?
- Specialist journalists make the best specialist PROs. True or false?
Journalistic abilities are just part of the PR tool-kit. An understanding of all comms channels is crucial, plus the softer skills such as people development, mentoring and management. PROs are chameleons, journalists aren't.
- How do you find spokespeople to whom your market responds positively?
They must be knowledgeable, sympathetic, succinct, understand what is required in terms of narrative and comment - and have something of consequence to say.
Louise Stewart-Muir is joint managing director at Say. Cleantech.