HI-TECH ROUNDTABLE: Hi-tech audit: Where do we go from here? - Thelatest West Coast hi-tech roundtable delivered some frank opinions onhow PR can increase its relevance to the bottom line

That's a difficult question to answer, as more companies are reviewing international accounts, and PR firms are scrambling for substantial, long-term clients. "As an industry, we are at a point of inflection where we have to revisit what a conflict is,

That's a difficult question to answer, as more companies are reviewing international accounts, and PR firms are scrambling for substantial, long-term clients. "As an industry, we are at a point of inflection where we have to revisit what a conflict is,

said Sheldon. "It's not a matter to us of not feeling loyal (to clients). But it comes down to a business reality.

She added that clients need to be clear about what constitutes a conflict in an international context.

Some say more information on the nature of the account needs to come from the corporate side. "Some of the differences we are seeing here are in communications,

said Citigate's Hamilton. "Clients also need to be clear about what they really want when they say 'global agency.'"

"I think it comes down to simple business ethics,

said Galvin. He is also skeptical of some of the international promises made by PR firms.

"I am suspicious of agencies that tell me they can do everything worldwide, and (also) of those networks of small agencies. Those UN-type networks.

They say they have 47 'friends' around the world. No way am I going to hire that agency."

The very concept of "global

accounts may be a misnomer. "First of all, we need to destroy the notion of 'global PR,'

said Lark. "There is no such thing.

Lark's point is that what works for Asia will not work in Europe, and few PR firms can really execute within the varied regional terrain on their own. "There are probably 20 agencies with major networks throughout the world that can really serve you."

Getsey of Atomic said that true collaboration is the hard part. "From my own perspective, what you really get with a so-called global agency is a conglomeration of little, formerly independent agencies that have been acquired and aren't really collaborating with each other.

But he adds that coordinating projects is easier now than it ever was, thanks to new technology.

Other firms have taken steps to build organically through a common set of principles. "We've seen how difficult it is,

agreed Susan Baldwin, EVP at The Hoffman Agency. "We have grown all of our agencies from the ground up. We hire locals in the region, train them back at our headquarters, and then send them back to head up the regional office. Where the challenge lies is in working with the global company in the regions. They often want their own regional agencies."

Integrating agency work is tough, as Lettes knows. His CEO mandated that all PR processes be organized globally. Oracle has been going through a similar internal reorganization, also reducing its reliance on PR firms.

But some corporate partners, even those that seek a global agency, do not have a truly international structure of their own in place. Keavney said PR agencies can be "left out to dry

if the international direction of the company is not clearly defined.

"Global PR works if a company is fundamentally a globally structured company,

said Dyson. "An agency has to fit in with that. If the client company is not really globally structured, trying to retrofit global onto that will just fail. There's lots of blame being placed on agencies, but there are very few companies that can do global PR."

CEO "face time"

Does the PR agency need "face time

with its client's CEO, or at least a meaningful level of interaction? Is it not enough to deal primarily with the VP of corporate communications? These questions, while somewhat tangential to the discussion, provoked a strong response from both sides.

The question arose from Dyson's comments about the level of PR involvement with the CEO in Europe. "What do you want with the CEO anyway?

asked Lark. "The chief marketing officer holds the purse strings. Don't worry about the CEO.

Almost all the corporate reps said that PR firms do not typically spend time with their CEOs.

"I never guarantee access to our CEO,

said Lettes, voicing what seemed the common opinion among corporate attendees. "When you prove you need it, then you'll meet with the CEO.

But the agency participants had a different perspective. "Nobody communicates the strategy and corporate direction like the CEO,

explained Golin's Johnson. "We need to figure out where the CEO is going with the company."

Overall, it was agreed that agencies need to prove themselves as strategic problem-solvers rather than just bearers of bad news, before they will gain access to a client's senior leaders. "(On the agency side), there's sometimes a tendency to drop a snake in someone's lap," said McFaul. "In other words, drop a problem without offering a solution. The more we can show we solved problems ahead of the game - took the snake outside and got rid of it - the better."

For their part, PR agencies find it critical to know, at the very beginning of the relationship, how much CEO involvement they can expect from a client.

"From an agency perspective, it can be pretty simple,

said Hamilton.

"Is senior management of the client really interested in investing time in PR? I find you really need to decide up front if that's the case, and think a little bit as you go through the review process. If there is no flavor of that in the RFP, it can leave a bad taste in the mouth of the agencies.

For OneMonday's Dyson, Lettes' statement framed the essence of the problem facing technology PR practitioners today. "Isn't that kind of a statement of where the industry is?

replied Dyson. "I find it scary to hear a client say, 'If you prove you are good enough, you will get to the CEO. Doesn't that say something about how PR is valued or not valued?"

"If there is an important meeting, the CFO or general counsel doesn't have to do that, because he is seen as having fundamental information for driving the business,

Dyson continued. "PR is not yet at this point.

We haven't solved that problem. We haven't really addressed the issue."

Dyson verbalized an overriding theme that ran every thread of the roundtable, that of PR practitioners, both corporate and agency, finding a way to increase their relevance to the bottom line in technology, through relevant measurement standards, building solid global relationships, and demonstrating value to other marketing communications functions. The work is not yet done.

"It goes to the fundamental definition of our profession,

Getsey said.

"We just came through the boom. And what happened after the boom? The market has contracted, and funds are tighter. How do we meet the needs of our clients with these higher expectations and deliver value, and deliver to the share holders, the media?"

"We need to reinvent ourselves,

he continued. "The steel industry reinvented itself. Now it's our turn. There is a fleet of new tools available. As painful as it is to adopt changes, agencies do have to change, because this is not just a blip."

For an edited transcript, please e-mail prweekjh@sbcglobal.net.

When it comes to Silicon Valley these days, it's tempting to focus on the negative. Reading the news from the country's tech headquarters over the past year, it would be easy to forget that this is actually a region rich with innovation and thought leadership. That is not only true of the computer engineers, but also of the PR practitioners who have endured - a fact borne out by PRWeek's annual Hi-Tech Roundtable, held on March 28 in Palo Alto, CA.

"Everyone in this room comes from the top of the PR food chain,

said Andy Lark, Sun Microsystems' new VP of global communications and marketing, and a roundtable participant. "There are an amazing number of talented PR resources in this area. It's absolutely astounding how big a concentration of good agencies there are here in Silicon Valley."

Lark and 13 other senior technology PR execs from agencies and corporations tackled the issues of client-agency relationships, budget constraints, measurement, global PR, and PR's involvement at the top levels of corporate decision-making. Overall, participants from both sides of the fence identified a common objective: to increase the relevance of PR in the technology sector, and improve partnerships between agencies and corporate clients.

Client needs

"I think the biggest challenge for the agency side is to offer unvarnished and often blunt criticism of what a client needs to do, not just what we want to hear,

said Tom Galvin, director of corporate communications for VeriSign, voicing what must be welcome news to PR firms looking for opportunities to move past the tactical side, toward a more strategic relationship.

The corporate participants were asked to identify those things they want from agencies, and agencies were asked to tackle the same question about their clients. One of the points this revealed is that client needs vary dramatically depending on the size of the company. "We work with seed companies, and agencies ask us quite often how to get into those companies that we fund,

explained Barry Hutchison, director of media relations for VC firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson. "If you're not helping to develop sales for a developing company, you will not get past the board. That means helping the marketing team, and assisting with sales leads."

For Lark of Sun, however, tying into sales-lead generation is irrelevant.

"I think that's fine if you are a four-person start-up and you really need to get five customers, and the only thing you are spending money on is PR. You're going to put all your money on the big red square with PR on it."

As Lark pointed out, big companies have a different audience. "We have huge ecosystems of marketing executives. We have billions of dollars in marketing spend around this table,

he said. "What am I going to say to the advertising people, the direct-mail people, and the call centers?

It's absolutely naive to think I am going in to tell them how PR increased sales."

But Jennifer Keavney, VP of communications at Network Associates, said that contributing to the sales process does not have to be complicated.

"It can be as easy as getting a competitive review in the hands of the sales representatives. They don't usually even see the coverage."

Tim Johnson, MD of Golin/Harris' San Francisco office, agreed that focusing on the technology reviews is one way to connect to sales. He also said that PR firms are dissecting the varying needs of companies more than ever. "What's fun for agency folks right now is figuring out how to make ourselves relevant to many different types of organizations,

he said.

"The answer isn't always obvious. For example, we have some clients where we spend two-thirds of our time working with the human resources people."

Technology companies are still emphasizing the need for agencies to be able to execute on their ideas. Keavney said that some agencies will either focus on the obvious, basic solutions that the company is already implementing, or will propose a strategic idea that it can't implement.

"Sometimes agencies get into the role of pointing out problems I'm already aware of, and they propose things like a two-month PR blitz. Well, why wouldn't I be doing that anyway?

she said. Keavney added that innovative ideas need to be ready for execution by the agency, without requiring her to allocate extra resources from her corporate team.

Jeff Lettes, director of worldwide media relations for Applied Materials, agreed that the ability to execute is key. "It's all about the execution and careful articulation of what we can do, that (the agency) has the resources that we don't have to make it happen,

he says. "If you can't execute, I've just gotten my CEO really excited about something that isn't going to happen."

What agencies want

"I would love to have clients feel comfortable about taking a few risks,

said Casey Sheldon, president of Weber Shandwick Worldwide's West Coast technology practice. According to Sheldon, research done by her firm has revealed a dearth of PR innovation and challenge, while bread-and-butter tactics like analyst tours are considered cutting-edge.

"We need to do things that aren't so comfortable,

Sheldon said. "Now that things are tough, I have seen lots of people hunker down and just do the basics. And I have also seen some clients who just have $100,000 to spend decide to invest it in one great idea."

On a similar tact, agencies too often find themselves "feeding the beast,

said Joe Hamilton, president and COO of Citigate Cunningham: "(By this I mean) just handling the day-to-day processes. We need to step back and remember the long term.

PR firms that are caught in that cycle may have reason to worry their relevance will be undermined over time. "We know this is not ultimately the decision-making factor down the road in a review."

Stuart McFaul, president of SpiralGroup, worked on the corporate side before starting his own agency, and said that client companies need to answer three questions at the beginning of the account. "First, we ask, 'What do you want?' Second, 'What do you want three months from now?' The third thing is, 'What does the company really want?' That's the thing you learn over a period of time."

Measurement

One theme that emerged from both sides of the discussion was the need for the industry to measure its success in a meaningful way. Clip books were deemed immaterial from both the agency and client perspectives.

"If I see a four-inch clip book, (the PR agency) loses all credibility," said Network Appliances' Keavney. "There is nothing I hate more than a four-inch clip book."

"I also don't like clip books,

agreed Jennifer Glass, Oracle's VP of corporate communications. "And I don't want an e-mail with every single clip attached. I want a high-level overview of the big papers, and the issues and challenges we're facing, with a perspective that includes more than Oracle."

Not everyone eschewed the traditional clippings, however. Lettes of Applied Materials likes a clip book, but all agreed that in isolation, it is a pointless tool. Underlying the debate over this low-tech metric was the question of how PR demonstrates its overall relevance in the technology world.

"What a lot of you have talked about is a fundamental redefinition of what PR is,

said Golin's Johnson. "Ten years ago, the bigger the clip book, the better. Now it's connected to things like Barry Hutchison's statement: 'What are you doing to increase sales?'"

"Every thing we are hearing about is a problem of best practices,

said Andy Getsey, CEO of AtomicPR. "Everything is ad hoc, every agency has its own approach. What do clip books mean? Research and measurement tools are all the rage. The idea is to go beyond doing just what the client wants us to do.

According to Getsey, Atomic's measurement process "helps us negotiate objectives with the client, so that it's not just us nodding to the CEO about being on the cover of BusinessWeek."

Network Appliances asks its agency to put its money where its metrics are. "Our agency is paid by pre-set objectives,

explained Keavney. "If they don't meet the objectives, they take a 10% reduction. One of our objectives is that I need to see at least one hit in The Wall Street Journal index every month. It can be a small story, but it needs to be positive.

That's tactical, but every one of our top executives reads (the Journal) every morning, so it's important."

The issue of measurement is a vital component in boosting the relevance of PR to technology. "PR can get to the top because it does control brand value,

said Tim Dyson, CEO of OneMonday. "But we measure ourselves with clips and crap, instead of the fundamental value the CEO talks about."

Sun's Lark made the point that PR agencies do not always evaluate their staff using the same substantive metrics that they want to see implemented for PR programs. "Do employees get compensated for the metric I as a client really care about, not by the number of clips?

The answer around the table was, with few exceptions, "No."

Media hits will not help PR achieve the level of respect and cooperation among its marketing partners either, according to Lark. "The PR industry has been on this suicidal mission to have itself measured by last week's clip book, or doing a huge event followed by a huge clip book,

Lark continued.

"The success of the ad agency environment is it's almost entirely predicated on the idea that it takes three years to shift perception. How do we collectively determine where we stand as an industry?"

Branding

PR's role in the branding process varies across organizations. For the seed companies funded by Draper Fisher Jurvetson, it all comes down to positioning, and agencies that take time to learn the technology may benefit from getting in with a company at the ground floor. The payoff may not come until later. "The seed companies have simple needs in starting branding off properly,

explained Hutchison.

Lettes said branding for Applied Materials comes down to "banking goodwill, as my CEO says. It's about being honest and keeping the reputation intact."

Galvin said that the onus of VeriSign's recent rebranding has been on him, but Lark noted that PR people typically overestimate their contribution to the branding process. "When I talk to PR people, I always ask, 'How many of you believe you contribute to the branding?' Everyone raises their hands. Then I ask, 'How many of you were in the room when the brand research was presented?' and none of them raise their hands."

While it may be true that PR continues to be marginalized in the branding process for larger companies, the group did concede there is potential for expanding that in the future. "The opportunity PR has now is that no one understands behavior actions of marketing better than we do,

maintained SpiralGroup's McFaul. "We have a great opportunity to be able to drive this now."

The global account

"What are agencies doing to accommodate competitive issues?

asked Oracle's Glass, addressing the agency participants. "We had an issue with a large PR firm who worked with us in Asia. When they won the SAP account, they resigned our business. And we have competitors all over the world. Are you putting up more firewalls?"

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