10th anniversary: technology roundtable

Aarti Shah held a virtual roundtable in September, where she discussed with tech experts the trends affecting the industry

Participants:

Ann Finnie, worldwide PR Manager at Hewlett-Packard
Bob Pearson, VP communities and conversations at Dell
Phil Missimore, VP at Waggener Edstrom

Andy Getsey, Cofounder/CEO Atomic PR

David Hargreaves, General manager at Bite Communications

Aarti Shah (PRWeek): I'll start with a topical question, are we feeling the effects of Wall Street in tech PR yet?

Ann Finnie (Hewlett-Packard): I think the economy is indeed leading the media and community forums to make assumptions about the state of the business. PR has to work to effectively counteract rumors without adding fuel to the fire.

David Hargreaves (Bite Communications): I definitely think that we are starting to feel the effects. If you just look at the spending power of the financial services industry alone, it is hard to see how certainly clients selling to enterprises cannot be affected. In turn, this is bound to impact pressure on operating costs and PR spend. I think the impact has yet to really make its way through to consumers, but I personally think it is only a matter of time.

Andy Getsey (Atomic PR): There will be an inevitable impact, as spending from financial services is 20% of overall IT spend – a lot of that is in servers. So a good number of experts think that long-term plans will be put on hold and shorter term projects will come to the forefront. Many economists are also worried about a trickle effect into the consumer economy. And perhaps more significant impact maybe to innovation, which is largely venture and private equity funded. This creates opportunities for those in enterprise open source, on-demand services, and cool, free consumer products that do useful things.

Phil Missimore (Waggener Edstrom): Clearly, we live in the world at large, as well as the world of technology. The Wall Street turmoil is on everyone's mind, certainly in the business press. But enterprises are still planning on buying technology in 2009 and consumers are still buying devices. The picture is still developing in terms of long-term impact.

Shah (PRWeek): Good points. We can return to the economy if folks have more thoughts on that later. But let's go to a broader topic now. So amid turmoil in the economy and shrinking media companies, what is the future outlook like for tech PR? Is traditional media relations a thing of the past?

Getsey (Atomic PR): Agree with Aarti. Many of our sources feel this is different from the last downturn - more resilient. But the market needs clarity about a resolution to the current crisis and even the experts are unsure of long term impact. This is new territory.

Hargreaves (Bite Communications): The good thing about this time around is that there are fewer businesses out there with unrealistic business models. Even those businesses providing free consumer products that [Getsey] referred to have some way of making money.

Shah (PRWeek): So what about the tech PR business model - is that changed for the future? How much will agencies and clients rely on traditional media relations?

Missimore (Waggener Edstrom): If "traditional" means the kind of media-centric approach--treating trade press one way, business media another--then yes, it's gone. Do PR professionals still have a critical role to play in linking their clients or companies with influencers? Yes, more than ever.

Finnie (Hewlett-Packard): Adding to Phil's point, PR will always be a necessary tool to support consumer and enterprise programs. However, I believe PR leads will be under more pressure to justify project funding with evidence of a more direct tie to demand generation.

Bob Pearson (Dell): The key is to have direct conversations with your customers and to become relevant in their communities. The media certainly provides a great way to share your story, but it is not direct. In the future, we'll talk less about the type of media and more about the conversations we are having or not having

Getsey (Atomic PR): We hear a lot about that but don't take that view. The landscape is evolving. Blogging and social media has had a huge transformative impact on our industry and the culture at large. But it's the business model of much of traditional media that's suffering. Many [media outlets] still deliver huge audiences and traffic both online and off. And many "traditional" media have become excellent examples of modern communications enterprises; fusing their offline properties, journalists and producers, and audiences with blogs, social networks, RSS feeds, mobile, etc. The progressive ones are seizing on social media to transform themselves. And with the advent of blogging 2.0 and the fusion of blogs, social networks and other Web 2.0 technologies - the media world will expand and evolve even further. From our experience, pieces on the Today Show not only challenge some smaller company's server capacities - they drive tons of blog, Twitter, and Digg dialog too. It's a continuum - new things get added, not too many fully go away.

Hargreaves (Bite Communications): This is a really interesting one. Just this week we saw another company setting up a PR offshoring capability. I think cheap provision of commodity services is one area of change. Another area for innovation is the whole area of the vendor becoming the publisher, i.e. driving the conversations directly that [Pearson] mentioned.

Finnie (Hewlett-Packard): There will be a heavier focus on Web 2.0 programs. We're already seeing this shift to a more direct approach.

Pearson (Dell): Here's a question for any tech PR firm. About 500,000 people go online for the first time in their lives everyday. Do you know where this is happening and what do you recommend? Not many firms are thinking about this.

Hargreaves (Bite Communications): I also think there will be an increasing blurring of the lines between the role of the marketing agency and PR agency that reflects this shift to a more direct approach.

Shah (PRWeek): Dell has had some great examples of speaking directly to consumers. And I've heard of other companies acting as vendors and speaking directly to consumers. Do you think this is unique to tech companies -- or is this a broader PR trend?

Getsey (Atomic PR): Agree with [Finnie]. Lead generation is now an increasing part of the conversation and the crisscrossing of content from offline to on, and vice versa, is a powerful traffic driving dynamic.

Missimore (Waggener Edstrom): Totally agree on lines blurring between marketing, PR, and other forms of communication. It's all communication, all of the time. And it has to tie to business cases and tangible results.

Shah (PRWeek): Same question about the blurring of the lines between marketing and PR. Do you think this happening more intensely in tech PR? I ask this because tech PR often sets the tone for change for the rest of the PR industry.

Getsey (Atomic PR): It's less about speaking "to" people over emerging channels. Traditional media is great at that - and still effective. The online audience is more about engagement; and entirely new kinds of campaigns are needed for that.

Pearson (Dell): I believe tech companies often lead, but all of what we are doing is very applicable to small businesses right up through the Fortune 500. IdeaStorm is a great example. We believe it is a good idea to ask your customers for their ideas, share them widely in the company, and then act on those ideas that provide more value for all. It is much more interesting to listen to the views of tens of thousands of customers in real time than doing a typical focus group with ten people

Finnie (Hewlett-Packard): We're using our YouTube channels, community forums and blogs to feed news directly to the community and top tier blogs and media outlets. This is definitely outside the range of traditional PR, but it's increasingly becoming a responsibility for PR teams to lead.

Pearson (Dell): The Web is the ultimate democracy. Companies can send all of the content they want to anyone. But customers get to decide what they read, where they gather, and who is going to be worth hanging out with. We strive to be cool enough to hang out with.

Finnie (Hewlett-Packard): Agree. Becoming a part of the conversation is where we need to be. And frankly, it has more of an impact and is much more cost effective.

Missimore (Waggener Edstrom): It's also important to keep in mind the pressures that all forms of media currently face. Reporters are asked to do more in less time, editors are pushing their reporters to simplify their stories, make the technology more understandable. We are seeing a major shift in the demographics of media itself--not just demographics at the consumer level.

Hargreaves (Bite Communications): I am not sure if I am allowed to ask a question but I would be interested to know where the IdeaStorm initiative came from within Dell. Was it marketing, customer service, product management, R&D?

Pearson (Dell): Michael Dell asked us to create an idea community. We looked at Salesforce.com's Idea Exchange and then decided to partner with Salesforce.com to build the community. After that, our customers really drive it.

Shah (PRWeek): Engagement and social media are buzz words that have been circulating in the industry for years, but is it now easier to measure its effectiveness? What are the trends toward measurement?

Pearson (Dell): The media discussion is an interesting one. My gut tells me consumption of news is at an all-time high. Many folks tend to look at circulation numbers and assume there is less interest in media. But when you add in all of the feeds we can sign up for, Google Alerts, etc, I bet we're reading two times as much as we did before. [We're] just consuming in a different manner

Shah (PRWeek): What about measurement? How has social media changed the way agencies and clients measure the effectiveness of PR? What are the future trends for this?

Missimore (Waggener Edstrom): I think the noise level around media consumption is off the charts. The choices and sources are almost limitless. The question we have to be able to answer is--which sources are the most credible for the customer in question. We can answer any question but are we asking the right question?

Getsey (Atomic PR): Atomic uses our own on-demand analytics [application] to track and analyze offline and online dialogue relating to groups of brands or concepts and evaluate numerous aspects of performance in relation to each. We overlay the communications dynamics with Web-related and sales metrics to evaluate performance. But apart from the performance evaluation and results merchandizing aspect of things, which dominates most PR industry dialogue, a less discussed and perhaps super powerful use is to carefully plot strategy and set objectives.

Pearson (Dell): In social media, we have this drug called "page views". You hear folks talk of big numbers all of the time for views or visitors. The reality is engagement matters. [We should focus on] measuring participation, votes, comments, solutions things that matter to customers, not how many pages may have been touched. In fact, high page views can sometimes be symbolic of an inefficient site design forcing folks to look harder than they need to.

Finnie (Hewlett-Packard): Totally agree, [Pearson]. Measurement can be challenging because many of the bloggers don't disclose number of page views or demographics.

Getsey (Atomic PR): I agree with [Pearson]. Our social network and social media clients are deeply involved in defining the metrics related to what works. And our ad network clients and their consumer brands on the other side are interested in traffic and conversion. The Holy Grail of perfect knowledge is a tough one given all the dynamics between offline and online behavior, pricing, perceived value or quality, etc. There's some work to do.

Missimore (Waggener Edstrom): I agree with Andy. I believe that one of the benefits of the move toward online media is the ability to apply analytic tools and do the overlay against leads and sales. It's more precise and more relevant to real business challenges than ever before. Not perfect but it's more quantitative than ever.

Shah (PRWeek): What about talent? How has the new landscape impacted what you look for in PR professionals? Will this continue to evolve as the media landscape does?

Pearson (Dell): This is one of the best times I can recall in my career for communicators to learn and build a new discipline that is truly multi-functional. For those who become students of the field, they will do very well.

Hargreaves (Bite Communications): We are now starting to actively recruit people with broader marketing and content backgrounds. For example, we have taken on the [former] editor of one of the big labs to drive our whole user generated reviews service.

Missimore (Waggener Edstrom): [Pearson's] post on learning a new discipline is spot on. What I worry about is whether universities are able to rapidly shift their traditional journalism and PR curriculum to reflect this new reality. It's a critical point.

Getsey (Atomic PR): Us too. Over the past two years, we've been adding people with search, analytics, digital video, social media, and [word of mouth marketing] experience. And for our part, we're doing our best to offer a multi-dimensional range of opportunities; from financial to experience with cutting edge programs and agency management.

Shah (PRWeek): Does anyone have any closing thoughts on the future of tech PR -- big trends/challenges/opportunities? I'll open it up for anyone to address that.

Pearson (Dell): We talk about the idea of being a "conversation architect." I'm sure someone else coined the term, but the point is simple. It is important for communicators to think beyond the norm and ask, “Am I having the conversations in the place where my customers want to have them?” Am I having the conversation in their language of choice and much more. It's a more strategic role for tech PR professionals and it's cool to see everyone starting to embrace this world with more intensity.

Pearson (Dell): [Missimore] good point. I am finding interest at universities. Just spoke to [University of Southern California] and St. Edwards students on this exact topic. The students are eager. The question is if the curriculum is up to snuff. That is probably always an issue with anything new. Good point.

Shah (PRWeek): I'm hearing that some universities are making the transition faster than others.

Hargreaves (Bite Communications): I agree with all the above. Certainly in my career this is definitely the most exciting time but one of the biggest challenges is how we equip ourselves with the skills as a profession to seize the opportunity.

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