MEDIA ROUNDUP: Plugged-in PC press focusing more on functionality

The media lost much of its enthusiasm for the PC when the dot-com era ended, so it can be tough to pitch computers - but not if you focus less on the technology itself, and more on what it can do.

The media lost much of its enthusiasm for the PC when the dot-com era ended, so it can be tough to pitch computers - but not if you focus less on the technology itself, and more on what it can do.

One of the most interesting aspects of the current technology revolution is how quickly last decade's miracle product has become this decade's commodity. Take the case of the computer. Less than 20 years after the first personal computer created a media sensation and turned nerds like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs into full-fledged celebrities, the PC is now taken for granted by most businesspeople and consumers. This, despite the fact that both business and home computing continue to evolve at a staggering rate, with new breakthroughs in processing power, displays, and software being announced on almost a daily basis. But with the computing industry now entering its "mature" phase, the sizzle has gone from the business as far as many in the media are concerned, making pitching computer-related stories - especially to the general-interest press - as challenging as it has ever been. Part of this is simply a reaction to a public that remains disenchanted following the hype and collapse of the dot-com era. Fairly or unfairly, computers are lumped with all things technology, and the media simply isn't covering tech with the same fervor it did a few years ago. "The reporters are telling me that tech stories that would have been on the front page a few years ago aren't even making the business pages now," says Scott Hildula, a 20-year Silicon Valley veteran and principal of the San Francisco-based Red Umbrella Group. "In the past, there used to be two or three technology reporters at every outlet who could cover computers," says Sherri Walkenhorst, senior partner with Provo, UT-based Connect Public Relations. "Now there's one, and the technology reporter is sometimes taken off to cover other issues such as the shuttle disaster, or even recently to provide war coverage." The coverage that remains is less likely to focus on the computing products themselves, and more on what they can do. With, arguably, the exception of Apple, which stands alone in being able to differentiate its computer based on look and feel, the once-strong media obsession with "speeds and feeds" (or processing power) have been replaced by a media interest in functionality. "The gee-whiz factor has given way to a more pragmatic approach focusing on the impact it has on my business," says Paul Bergevin, president of Palo Alto, CA-based Citigate Cunningham, whose clients include Blue Arc, Sybase, and Sun Microsystems. "The reporters are not interested in products per se; they're more interested in how does this help a business solve a business problem," adds Walkenhorst. "The other thing they're interested in is trends, and what are the issues confronting business. Spam is a good example of that because it impacts both the average consumer as well as business, so it's become a big issue." Comfortable with computers After nearly two decades of intense coverage of the industry, PR people are finding that most computer journalists are now very comfortable with the most complex terminology and issues involving the business and home user. Walkenhorst says this is especially true in the leading computer trade outlets such as InformationWeek, Internetworld.com and Computer Reseller News. "One of our clients is Symantec, and when a new virus came out, a 'fizzer worm,' the editors we talked with knew quite a bit about it and how it worked from covering the subject on an ongoing basis," she notes. Among the reporters covering both business and personal computers are The Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg and Don Clark, BusinessWeek's Steven Wildstrom, The New York Times' John Markoff, new editor Josh Quittner at Business 2.0, veteran writer and radio host John Dvorak, PC Magazine editor-in-chief Michael Miller, and David Kirkpatrick of Fortune. But many of these veteran correspondents used to cover PC-related topics almost exclusively, and are now expanding their coverage to include consumer electronics and mobile devices. "What's happening is we are having to share the column with cell phones, mobile devices, and calculators," says Jessica Switzer, managing director of Ruder Finn/Switzer. "But what I think is suffering more than the computer hardware is the software. Columnists still really want to look at products they can hold, so it is really, really tough to get coverage of any software at all." Support from specialized titles The good news for many PR people representing companies targeting the consumer computing market is that though the general media interest is down, there is still a host of specialized magazines and websites aimed at the avid home user that continue to do well. "The PC magazines and the gaming magazines are still our bread and butter because they're always going to write about our products," say Carrie Cowan, public relations manager for computer graphics-card maker Nvidia. She also notes that the business press has increased its coverage of the company since Nvidia's battle with leading competitor ATI remains one of the few "hot" business stories for journalists who cover computing. Given the fact that there are fewer reporters covering computing nowadays, many PR people say it is almost vital to have a personal relationship with them. "There's so much damn spam out there that the guys at the top publications are still getting 350 to 400 emails a day," says Hildula. "It's not as bad as it was three years ago, but it's still pretty heavy. So if you don't have a preexisting relationship, you can forget about it." Steve O'Keeffe, president of McLean, VA-based O'Keeffe & Company, says the sheer volume of press releases still being issued by computer-related companies means that PR agencies need to think more creatively to rise above the pack. Part of that is simply cold-eyed prioritizing of the news a company is releasing, and making sure that everything that gets sent out is important enough to warrant coverage. But O'Keeffe also advocates looking at other ways to raise a company's profile, such as sponsoring a survey. "The survey may look at when was the last time you changed your PC hardware, why did you do it, what were the key factors," he explains. "What you want to do is frame a survey so that it provides interesting data points to the journalist in order to help them triangulate what's going on in the market." It also means that many agencies and their clients are taking a step back to make sure that any media outreach is aimed at driving sales and not just egos, especially in the business-to-business space. "With a large computer system, the audience you're trying to reach is a combination of the technology decision-maker and the business decision-maker," says Bergovin. "In which case, you want to target where technology decision-makers get their information, which is often trade publications, and similarly, you want to target the business decision-makers through the outlets that they read." ----- Where to go Newspapers The New York Times; The Wall Street Journal; San Francisco Chronicle; The Washington Post; LA Times; San Jose Mercury News; The Boston Globe; Financial Times Magazines PC magazine; PC World; Smart Computing; Maximum PC; Digital Hub; Mac Home; PC Advisor; Linux Journal; Laptop; Computer Power User; Computer Shopper; Wired; Business 2.0; Forbes; Fortune; BusinessWeek; Time; Newsweek; Computer Gaming World; Fast Company; Popular Science Trade Titles Computer Reseller News; InformationWeek; Infoworld; Computer World; CIO TV & Radio CNBC; TechTV; CNN; CNNfn; Bloomberg TV; NPR; Fred Fishkin's Bootcamp (Bloomberg Radio); CBS Radio's Computer Talk Internet MSNBC.com; CNet; ZDNET; Internetweek.com; CMPtechlab; Internetnews.com; Infoworld.com; Gamespot.com; Gamespy.com; TomsHardware.com

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