Despite the popularity of PDAs and mp3 players, personal technology coverage has seen better days. But lifestyle outlets and tech websites still like to wow readers with sleek, hot gadgets.The lion's share of professionals in the US own as least one hi-tech gadget they take everywhere they go. And chances are, they're on the lookout for more - if not for utility, then for the envious stares of their colleagues the first time they put that new "toy
A few years ago, all forms of media were chock-full of reports on the latest personal technology products. While that trend has been tempered somewhat, there is still keen interest in devices that wow readers and viewers.
In many ways, it's hard to define what exactly constitutes a personal technology product, but in general, it includes portable gadgets such as digital cameras, cell phones, mp3 players, and personal digital assistants (PDAs). But personal technology reporters have been known to write about any new product - software or hardware, and portable or not - as long as it's new and interesting. "It has to have a 'gee whiz' factor,
explains Russell Rowland, SVP with HWH Public Relations, which represents Samsung Electronics America. "If it knocks you out of your socks, it's probably worth pitching."
The dot-com effect
But while continuing innovation has resulted in more and more new and cool hi-tech gadgets, the number of personal technology journalists to cover them has actually gone down thanks to the dot-com fallout and the subsequent drop in advertising rates.
Especially hard hit has been coverage in newspapers. "A lot of metropolitan dailies have been closing their dedicated tech sections and laying off personal technology columnists,
notes Jessica Switzer of Bay Area-based Switzer Communications. That's been compounded by the fact that many online sites failed, and even high-profile launches such as AOL Time Warner's On magazine struggled.
Even publications that continue to cover personal technology have cut back on editorial space dramatically. "A lot of magazines that kept their technology sections have reduced them to a page,
notes Rowland. "But that still gives you an opportunity."
This shakeout hasn't necessarily affected the top-tier reporters. They include Walter Mossberg of The Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek's Stephen Wildstrom, Peter Lewis of Fortune, David Pogue of The New York Times, Mark Kellner (whose column is syndicated out of The Washington Times), AP writer May Wong, and Ed Baig of USA Today.
"These are people who've been doing this for a long time, and really know their stuff,
says John Chier, managing supervisor with Fleishman-Hillard San Diego, which represents Kyocera and its Smart Phone product.
"So we try to get with them as early in the process as we can, providing they'll honor an embargo which, in general, they're very good about."
They are also fluent in the often-complex language of personal technology, which is not the case with other reporters and most readers. "Ultimately, we're talking to the consumer,
explains Rowland. "I don't really know what the reporter knows, but I pretty well assume the consumer doesn't.
In some cases, you may pass along a separate white paper to talk about the technology. But your main release should focus on what the benefits are, why it is different, and what's exciting about it - without a lot of technical verbiage."
Lifestyle outlets see the connection
And while media outlets devoted to personal technology reporting have declined in number, mainstream titles have been picking up some of the slack. Lifestyle magazines, especially those aimed at younger affluent audiences, continue to be on the lookout for new gadgets to introduce to their readers. "We've begun adding two days to our press tours to target consumer lifestyle publications,
says Switzer, whose firm represents Handspring and its Visor and Treo products.
Unfortunately, many of these outlets have room for little more than a photo and caption. "You can always tell which direction they're going, because if they want a review unit, they're probably going to write about it in detail,
says Steve Honig, SVP with Bender/Helper Impact, which represents LG Electronics' handset division. "If they just want art, we know we have to pitch it differently. But we've been able to get a lot of press through the use of visuals in magazines like Details and GQ."
Most of these PR efforts are aimed at men's outlets, but there are some opportunities to reach women's and fashion magazines as well. "You have to go for the style and sleek design,
advises Honig. "That gets their attention initially. Then we can talk about how it affects a woman's lifestyle."
What really keeps clients happy these days are accolades. Whether it's a Best in Show notice from a trade show daily or one of the host of annual editor's choice awards (given to new and noteworthy products by outlets ranging from PC World to Fortune), clients want that stamp of media approval.
"I've had a client tell me flat out that it wanted awards,
says one PR pro who requested anonymity. "They wanted something they could put on their box."
Unlike the leaders of many now-departed tech companies of the late '90s, today's CEOs don't necessarily need to be promoted in the press as visionaries.
Many now prefer to stay in the background, letting their products garner attention. "It broke my heart, but we had to pass on a major business publication looking at talking to top CEOs as to whether or not tech can pull us out of a recession,
says Switzer. "With Handspring, it's become a question of account management - it's how much time we can get from the executives. So we end up saying no as many times as we say yes."
While the number of print opportunities may have dropped, some say it's far worse in TV and radio. "Print has been hit, but broadcast seems to have been hit harder,
There is still the dedicated cable channel TechTV, as well as business outlets such as CNNfn and CNBC. But the fascination with gadgets once shown by general-interest news shows has diminished. "We're still getting on, but it's much tougher,
says Switzer. "We were on the phone with a CNN producer who said, 'Oh, technology is just not hot.' So we have to overcome that when we pitch broadcast."
Many stations have even let their technology reporters go, relying instead on b-roll or appearances by experts such as Dick DeBartolo and Andy Pargh.
"These people run their own deals, so it's best if you deal with them directly,
says Fleishman-Hillard's Crier, adding that another tactic is to participate in seasonal segments, such as those for Father's Day gift ideas.
Crier also recommends targeting vertical trade publications. "When GE Medical purchased 5,000 Kyocera Smart Phones for its staff, we were able to pitch that as a story to medical equipment magazines,
he says. "With vertical trades, it's all the more important to put it in context, such as mentioning that the Smart Phone runs on a Palm platform, so it has lot of applications."
Finally, PR pros stress that while the internet has lost some of its luster as an editorial platform, many early adopters still rely on online reviewers before going out and buying their next gadget. This is especially true of ZDNet and, most notably, CNET. "CNET reviews are very influential,
says Switzer. "It's like Consumer Reports, and we want our clients to get a positive review."
Where to go
Magazines: BusinessWeek; Time; Newsweek; Fortune; Forbes; Rolling Stone; Pocket PC; Fast Company; Consumer Reports; Wired; Wireless Business & Technology; US News & World Report; PC Photo; PC World; Pen Computing; Photo
Trade outlets: RCR; TWICE; Television Digest; Interactive Week; Net Economy; Telephony; Network World; Communications Daily; Telecommunications Magazine; TV & Radio: CNN/fn; CNBC; TechTV; NPR; Today; other national and regional morning shows
Websites: LightReading.com; PCWord.com; Networkworld.com; CNET.com; Wirelessreporter.com; Mobileinfo.com; ZDNET.com.