MEDIA ROUNDUP: Wireless communications: Tech PR gets personal in wireless education boom

The technology buzz is back with a new emphasis on wireless communications. David Ward discovers that editors have learned a valuable lesson from the dot-com era: proceed with caution.

The technology buzz is back with a new emphasis on wireless communications. David Ward discovers that editors have learned a valuable lesson from the dot-com era: proceed with caution.

For journalists and PR professionals who lived through the dot-com bubble, it may be a case of deja vu all over again. In conferences and seminars from Las Vegas to Los Angeles to New York, the buzz in technology is back, only this time the focus is not on connecting personal computers but rather wireless devices such as cell phones, laptops and personal digital assistants (PDAs). Wireless telecommunications companies are currently in the middle of one of the biggest consumer education programs in recent memory as they attempt to convince the average American that the cell phone they already can't live without can now be used for much more, including games, e-mail, stock trades, restaurant reservations, and even taking photos. Smack in the middle are reporters who either have wireless as a specialty or a sub-beat. Criticized for their over-enthusiastic coverage of the internet boom, most journalists are trying to maintain the right tone with their coverage of wireless telecommunications. "I think the press is doing a good job," says Chris McKie, president and principal of Silicon Valley-based McKie Headstrom, which represents the Mobile Wireless Internet Forum. "They are covering it with the right amount of caution, as well as the right amount of enthusiasm. They're showing what the world could be without over-hyping it...the way many of the dot-com stories did." Valerie Christopherson, account director with Bock Communications, adds, "It's not just the journalists that are more cautious. Before companies make announcements they're waiting until products hit the market." This wireless telecoms revival is facing a different journalistic climate these days, primarily due to attrition over the last few years in the overall technology press. "From a general technology standpoint there are far less opportunities," notes Emily Callahan, account supervisor with Edelman Worldwide's Dallas office, which represents Wi-Fi company Wayport. "We've seen a lot of the general tech trades go under, especially those that specialize in one specific segment or another. But most general interest outlets still have a tech journalist and there's a heavy focus on the wireless side." Explaining complex technology In many ways wireless journalism can be divided into two segments. One part is the complicated world inhabited by service providers and enabling technology companies that is steeped not only in spectrum issues but also competing standards such as CDMA, GSM and TDMA. "What makes wireless more exciting than other tech categories is that everybody is talking about the future," says McKie. "But for wireless technologies to actually work it's extremely complex - complex beyond complex. And there lies the rub. The general news media wants to cover things in layman's terms. Editors don't need a lesson in electrical engineering to understand what wireless technologies will bring to them." The other, and these days much larger, portion of wireless coverage focuses on the hardware devices and what they can do for consumers. "This wireless side is very different from your hard-core technology journalism because it's really a consumer technology story," explains Callahan. "And a lot of consumer technology stories are still doing really well. It might not be in a full-blown technology section, but the opportunities are still there either in the travel section or business section." If there's a silver lining from the tech boom and bust of the late 1990s, it's that it's left many journalists, even those that aren't specialists, with at least a solid background in how many new technologies work. "Even if we're dealing with a consumer publication, we've found that most of these editors are very tech-savvy," notes Bender Helper Impact SVP Steve Honig, who represents the handset division of Korean manufacturer LG. "So they completely understand 1X and 3G. But what they want to focus on is what that means to the consumer." "The evolution of cell phones - and to a lesser extent PDAs such as the Palm Pilot - into lifestyle accessories has opened the wireless stories in lifestyle outlets ranging from Maxim, FHM, Stuff and XX Large all the way to Ladies Home Journal and Cosmopolitan. The catch, of course, is that much of this coverage can be fairly superficial. "They are not really reviews but they'll profile four handsets with artwork, description and pros and cons of each," Honig says. Consumers depend on placement While wireless aimed at business users can skew older, the bulk of the consumer coverage of wireless products is squarely aimed at a younger demographic. What's surprising may be how young one can go. "We've actually gone to some of the outlets aimed at grade school children," says Christopherson. "You'd be amazed at how many kids 8-12 have cell phones." These campaigns usually combine a direct pitch to the children's publication with additional outreach to parenting outlets with story ideas on how to use cell phones as a way to keep track of your kids. Given the flood of wireless products currently coming to market, PR ends up playing a key role since consumers are increasingly turning to the media to sort through the clutter. "Consumers are relying a lot more on product reviews and articles," Honig says. "Because there are so many different handsets and features, consumers are looking for guidance and you don't get that from advertising. So a lot of consumers are going to places such as Cnet to check both the editor's review as well as comments from other consumers." The PR pros PRWeek spoke to note the lion's share of these wireless opportunities are in print and online outlets. But the right product can also generate television and radio coverage without a lot of PR. "There's tons of interest on radio and tons of interest on broadcast," says Nancy Morrison, SVP at Fleishman-Hillard's San Francisco office, which represents wireless-device maker Danger. "Our main problem is that we don't have enough devices to circulate to everybody who wants to put it on air." Callahan notes that television and radio are also ideal for trend stories focusing on bigger themes, such as the desire to stay connected and debates over whether or not the nation has become so tech happy that we can't live without cell phones, laptops and handheld devices. With the exception of the trade and business press, few reporters focus exclusively on wireless. The leading ones tend to come from a number of different beats, include personal technology reporters like The Wall Street Journal's Walter Mossberg and Rolling Stone's Steve Morgenstern; USA Today's Edward Baig and Andy Backover; telecom business writers such as Jesse Drucker of The Wall Street Journal; and trade journalists Jason Meyers of Telephony, Tracy Ford at RCR Wireless News and Bill Menezes of Wireless Week. There remain a few business reporters who focus on the stock price of telecoms companies and thus continue to lump wireless companies in with the still-depressed overall technology market. But by and large, journalists from a variety of beats are giving this reemerging market the coverage it deserves by providing consumers a glimpse, albeit a careful one, into an anytime-anywhere connected future. ----------- Where to go Newspapers The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today Magazines BusinessWeek, Time, Newsweek, Forbes, Fortune, Maxim, Rolling Stone, Stuff, Ladies Home Journal, US News & World Report, Pen Computing, Handheld Computing Trade titles RCR, Wireless Week, Infoworld, Eweek, America's Network, Wireless Review, Wireless Business & Technology, Network World, Communications Daily, Telecommunications TV & Radio TechTV, Today, Good Morning America, NPR, MTV, CNN, CNBC, CNNfn, Bloomberg TV Wireless Services Reuters, Dow Jones Newswire, Bloomberg Financial Web Cnet, ZDNet, Totaltelecom.com, Wirelessweek.com, LightReading.com, TelecomClick.com, Networkworld.com, Wirelessreporter.com, Maximmag.com

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