Time for tech PR pros to grow up

The special, elitist mindset of tech PR professionals made sense when most of the value was in selling tech to technologists.

The special, elitist mindset of tech PR professionals made sense when most of the value was in selling tech to technologists.

Just a few years ago, it was common for people to talk about e-commerce as though it were different from just plain commerce - or, in IBM's case, to distinguish between business and e-business.

Today, these distinctions seem quaint. What viable business isn't built, fundamentally, on a combination of computer hardware and software connected via networks to that business's customers and business partners? At this point, the differences among brands of PCs or accounting software or cell phones are no more meaningful than the differences among brands of dental floss. (This isn't to suggest they're meaningless, only that they're no more meaningful than those in other industries.)

For well over a decade, IT enjoyed a special pre-eminent position. Unlike building materials or consumer staples or agriculture, tech was cool - meaning, in PR terms, it was inherently newsworthy. But all that's changed, and - with apologies to the 40,000 people who gathered at Oracle OpenWorld in San Francisco this past week - tech may be alive and well, but it'll never be cool again.

The value of tech PR increasingly is in selling technology to non-technologists. Witness recent stories swirling around Hewlett- Packard, Google and YouTube, and Apple. These companies are grappling with business issues that extend beyond technologies, products, or even market demands. As PR practitioners, we can and should have a hand in addressing these issues; the challenge is to grow up, professionally speaking.

For one thing, those of us who have chosen to ply our PR know-how in the tech sector are going to have to get a lot more creative about communicating the value of technology. We need to abandon the notion that new advances in technology are inherently interesting. Instead, we must work harder to understand the needs and interests of the communities that will be most affected by those advances.

Tech businesses are increasingly required to understand and speak to a wide range of economic and social issues that affect their customers, investors, employees, and others. Think about privacy, security, personal identity, intellectual property, net neutrality, and antitrust. These and other issues are broad in scope, long in duration, and eclipse the traditional realm of tech PR, which, for the past couple of decades, has slavishly and myopically focused principally on supporting marketing campaigns.

The value of technology investments in general is becoming increasingly strategic, and we tech PR practitioners need to develop the ability to communicate that value effectively. Businesses like Visa or Procter & Gamble or Nike - while not tech companies in the traditional sense - would not exist as we know them without fantastically complex and sophisticated IT platforms underpinning them.

We don't question that value when considering companies like Amazon or eBay or Yahoo, but as communicators, it's incumbent upon us to explain and leverage that value in our work with non-tech companies, as well.

Growing up generally involves gaining humility. That's going to be particularly tough for an industry that has been defined as much by its bravado as by its true significance. In that context, the tech PR pros who succeed will be those who remain honest and transparent about their intentions, as well as what they don't yet understand.

Meanwhile, those who cling to the past will, like those behind Wal-Mart's Winnebago campaign, continue to provide fodder for the pages of this and other publications - for all the wrong reasons.

Stephen Astle is SVP and co-chair of the global technology practice at Fleishman-Hillard.

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