HI-TECH ROUNDTABLE: Tech PR adjusts to a new corporate climate

As the hi-tech roundtable hits the East Coast, Andrew Gordon discovers corporate PR, client-agency relationships, and global unification to be the dominant issues.

As the hi-tech roundtable hits the East Coast, Andrew Gordon discovers corporate PR, client-agency relationships, and global unification to be the dominant issues.

The recent spate of unsavory sagas in corporate America, along with the continuing bite of a bearish economy have led to something of a focus change for technology PR. Clients and firms alike are experiencing an emphasis-shift toward corporate communications. "There has never been a more important time for corporate PR and product PR to speak to each other," says Christa Carone, director of corporate PR at Xerox. "You can no longer assume you are going into a press conference to just tackle the product PR because that might not be what the media wants to focus on. The corporate side needs to be more of a leading factor in all PR decisions. The big picture issues are more top of mind for even deep industry consultants." "I've noticed a shift in budgets," adds Paul Jensen, president of Magnet Communications. "We were involved in a tech pitch this year that initially was two-thirds product and one-third corporate. By the time that process ended, there was a shift in focus, and the revised brief was two-thirds corporate and one-third product. Corporate is the product wrapper. The emphasis has shifted away from product toward corporate." As this shift continues, corporate executives are looking at PR with a more jaundiced eye, as "people are looking under the hood for how much they are spending," says Janet Swaysland, president of Brodeur Worldwide. And as companies move away from buzz toward the eternal struggle of ROI, hi-tech companies are focusing more on brand and are moving away from being labeled tech companies. "In the environment we are in right now, you don't want to be labeled a tech company," says Bud Grebey, Siemens VP of PR. "People are a lot more interested now in corporate governance than the cell phone with the mp3 player." "What we see from the corporate side is customers who want messages that are really revolved around risk management," says Bill Wohl, director of PR for SAP. "They want a sense of security and stability. Much of the hype that defined the tech industry for the past 24 months has now really caused people to think about what they were buying - was it a premise, a product, or a lot of smoke and mirrors?" "The smarter markets are getting away from that product-centric view," adds Jensen. "They are realizing the customers take a more holistic view. They are interested in price and how everything fits together. But journalists are still focused on what's fast." Faced with a hi-tech press still fascinated with the next big thing, Dan Greenfield, Earthlink's VP of corporate communications, says with fewer tech publications and pages to pitch to, he's looking beyond those writers to consumer publications, in order to reach a broader audience concerned more with the value proposition of Earthlink's ISP services. "If I get a hit in Self magazine or something like that, then I'd be very pleased," he says. Value proposition is key because audiences, regardless of whether they are consumers or businesses, care more than ever about "how can this product improve my productivity or life," says Jensen. Global unification Whether companies are selling products or selling themselves, there is a drive for consistency and clarity of message around the globe, so that audiences in Paris or Toronto or Tokyo all walk away with the same understanding of who a company is. "A lot of our clients want programs that are unified globally," says Steve Jursa, senior partner and global technology practice leader at Porter Novelli. "For a lot of tech companies before, if they were getting to the media in New York and the West Coast, maybe that was enough. Now it has to be unified in all the regions of the world. The number of programs that we've got that are truly global has gone up." Often, global clarity and consistency of message is a necessity not because of demands from within hi-tech companies, but because of the questions and concerns from partners, analysts, and other audiences. "When we get up at events now and talk about product launches, we have to prepare executives to answer all kinds of questions, such as what is your sense on the recent regulations on foreign disclosure," says Wohl. "We just got back from one of our big product events in Lisbon. Sixty percent of the questions related to the economy. That is not the focus we wanted." "Your executives are often not prepared to answer those kinds of questions," adds Carone. "This has become a unique challenge in the past year-and-a-half. We're having to brief a broader array of spokespeople. We have to make sure they're fully prepared. Most people would rather be in the comfort zone talking about their products." But no amount of wishing and hoping is going to make that a reality, especially when the media and customers are asking tougher questions and demanding honest answers. But to believe that a global company can control all its messaging from one point of origin - and one point of view is too much to ask, says Rick Clancy, SVP of corporate communications for Sony Electronics. "You'll never have totally consistent communications globally," Clancy argues. "We have a brand that has huge power. From that there are certain driving messages and visions. It's up to each country and business unit to implement a plan within the umbrella of their vision. Journalists aren't necessarily interested in service, pricing, or solutions. They want to know the significance of what you're discussing. How do you compare it to what else it newsworthy? How do you balance the corporate vision with the product reality?" But participants disagree on who should be responsible for coordinating that one-world, one-voice effort. Phil Greenough, president of Greenough Communications, argues that large agencies often run separate P&Ls, and that if integration is going to happen, the agencies need to get their act together and work more cohesively. But even using just one agency isn't the answer, says Clancy, as coordination between offices is not necessarily PR agencies' forte. "This is about the concept of having real-time business on a global level," says Paul Rand, SVP and director of Ketchum's global technology practice. "As communicators, if we are not tied into that we will fall behind. Businesses are moving very quickly in that direction, and we will find ourselves not very relevant if we can't keep up." Determining the message The responsibilities of the agency versus those of the client rose again toward the end of the two-hour discussion, when participants were asked what firms and clients can do to improve relationships. Clancy apparently touched a nerve when he complained that turnover at agencies is still too high. "The biggest challenge we have with PR firms, whether global or small, is their own ability to retain and develop talent," he says. "My biggest complaint is turnover in firms. The best consultants we have are those that have grown with us over time. They have shown their adaptability over time. If those working on an account are gone within a few months, it's a major issue." But sometimes the fault lies with the client, counters Jursa. A client must delineate their expectations. An agency must understand every aspect of a client's expectations if it's going to deliver. So it is often incumbent upon the client to explain its expectations to establish that foundation for the relationship. Top agency talents often want and expect a diversity of experience, and that often entails letting someone move from one account to another, adds Jensen. "The client also has a role in whether or not people want to work on an account," says Rand. "It's amazing that there are those clients everyone wants to work for because they are direct. They give praise when appropriate, they give feedback, and take a partnership approach to it. If the relationship doesn't operate as a team, then nobody wins. One of our clients, Kodak, people die to work on that account because the client gives direct feedback." "One of the biggest challenges is the trust factor," says Carone. "We often deal with confidential issues. One of the biggest complaints I get is that we don't share information. But reporters will say the biggest source of leaks is the agency person. And frankly, that's one of the reasons I don't have an agency doing media relations on corporate issues. I think your biggest challenge is figuring out a way to earn our trust on big issues." As Wohl points out halfway through the discussion, the hi-tech PR practitioners sitting around the table are talking about the same issues inherent in PR for the past 20 years. But if anything is new, it's that the audiences that corporate communicators and PR pros try to reach are changing. "Our audience has totally changed," says Greenfield. "Now we are focusing on the switchers, the ones who already have internet service and are looking to change providers. So we need to look at the rational reasons for going from AOL to Earthlink. We are going to publications to talk about how switching to Earthlink will change your life." Jensen points out that a recent article talked about the most influential people in technology and e-commerce, and the CFO topped the list. With more and more technology-buying decisions being made by those who control the purse strings, there is a greater emphasis not on speeds and feeds, but on the value proposition. So that leaves hi-tech PR faced with a very daunting question - is tech PR still relevant? "So much has changed," says Rand. "Talking about technology now has become such a consumer play. Clients have said don't bring in your tech PR team, bring in your consumer folks, bring in your business folks." Greenfield is probably not alone when he says that where he once looked for agencies that had product and tech expertise, he now looks for consumer insight. He much prefers a firm that can communicate how consumers can use Earthlink's products and services in ways that will help improve their lives. "When we went through our review process, one firm that came in made a two-and-a-half hour presentation about corporate responsibility, and did not talk about their ability to handle technology at all," says Wohl. "They said we think you need to talk more about corporate reputation. They didn't get the account, but clearly even some of the traditional agencies with traditional tech practices have rethought how they will handle their technology business. When they left the room, we were stunned. We said that was either pretty gutsy or incredibly stupid. It was unbelievable a tech firm would come in and spend so much time talking about that." You can still talk tech Even with all these strategic shifts, Jursa argues that there will always be room for agencies to focus on technology for the sake of technology. Whether it's b-to-b tech companies, back-end tech companies or emerging tech companies, there will always be a class of hi-tech agencies needed to handle that kind of technology and speak that kind of language. But the jury still appears to be out on whether hi-tech agencies are needed to promote consumer tech products that are being adopted at faster and faster rates, such as DVD players and digital cameras. But Swaysland sees the benefit in segmenting audiences. She touts Sony's incredibly broad range of customers, each niche group receiving its own different message. But in the end, it comes back to the quality of the product and experience. PR is getting closer to the revenue generation side of clients' business, says Swaysland. The message for affluent consumers is not going to appeal to Generation Y and vice versa. What matters in the end is the value proposition, and getting someone to buy into that proposition, and eventually buy the product. "We're spending less time on the vision, and more time on the reality," says Clancy. "We get very quickly into the substance. The best defense is good offense. Promote brand-technology products, as long as it's real." Clancy says when people think of the Sony brand, they think about cool designs, products that enhance their lifestyle and enable people to live their lives with more finesse. Swaysland says Sony has "the highest range of customers around," and each has its own message. The message for more senior customers won't resonate with the younger generation. But while each distinct message focuses on different values, the goal is ultimately the same - getting those audiences to buy. But Greenough argues it's difficult to engage in "niche-y" PR, particularly because of the time and effort involved in reaching such a small group. And with clients' expectations the same, despite smaller PR budgets, PR is expected to do more with less. But Clancy and Swaysland still tout the importance of targeting smaller, specific audiences. While they agree there is value in doing broad PR, you still need to speak to specific audiences about what value a product or service brings to them. "We're hosting snowboarding events with the editors of publications I've never heard of," says Clancy. "People are now less inherently interested in how technology works," adds Swaysland. "They just want to know what it's going to do for them. And that message is different for different groups." Relationships remain key So whether clients want to speak with one voice around the globe, or talk to multiple audiences with a multitude of messages, it boils down to relationships. And right now, agencies and clients are taking a long look at their relationships. They are realizing that after the arrogance of the dot-com days, a little damage control just might be in order. "Maybe the PR industry went to sleep during the bubble," suggests Greenough. "With all the IPOs and stock prices going up, maybe everyone got lazy. But it's hard to get people out of that rut. "It's hard to generalize the issues (between agencies and clients)," he adds. "You need to have their confidence. You have to instill trust." Jensen and Swaysland agree. If the client treats the agency team with the trust and confidence they do their own corporate communications people, "you would be amazed how hard my team will work for you," says Jensen. And Swaysland adds that inherent in developing that partnership is being as open and clear as possible. If agencies and clients can't communicate with each other, how can they possibly communicate to their audiences? "Be as clear as possible about how you're being measured and how we're going to be measured, and tell us when it changes," says Swaysland. "Things do change, so help us understand how you want to work. It sounds simple, but it's a step that's overlooked." Wohl says he knows that agencies want as close a relationship as possible. "Agencies don't necessarily just want to be the arms and legs," he says. "They want to be involved on the strategic level, not just the tactical level. But there is no one or the other. We get into these relationships for a while. There are high costs for frequently switching agencies. So I will treat you as part of my team because if you don't work with an agency at that level, you won't be successful. At the end of the business day, you must give (the firm) insight and a degree of trust. A cohesive team needs that to turn out good quality work."

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