Talking technology need not be exact science

Company spokespeople always need to understand the audiences to whom they're speaking, whatever their company's business may be.

Company spokespeople always need to understand the audiences to whom they're speaking, whatever their company's business may be.

But particularly complex industries like computer networking and telecommunications require a bit more prep time than others, according to a number of PR agency pros.

The tech industry has a broad range of media outlets covering its goings-on, from super-technical titles, such as IEEE Journal and Telecommunications Magazine, to the general-interest business reporters at local newspapers. Steve O'Keeffe, founder and principal of O'Keeffe & Company, notes that agency executives simply need to read the publications.

"As long as you understand the audience and you can speak about issues that are relevant and engaging, there's no problem," O'Keeffe says. "If you're trying to change the reporter's frame of reference in every interview, you [will] fail."

While PR firms specializing in tech can't expect staff to be rocket scientists, they certainly want to hire staff with tech-oriented capabilities and interests. But such employees, particularly in the mid-level range with five to eight years' experience, are tough to find, says Evan Weisel, principal of Welz & Weisel Communications.

"I think that's true across PR" no matter the subject matter, Weisel says. "If you can find someone that's a good person, that's a rock star, that learns quickly, then, sure, it's worth the investment. But if I hire someone with 10 years' experience in healthcare, but they can't even do basic [PR] stuff, like create a press list, they wouldn't know with which magazines to start."

PR pros need not comprehend every detail of a technology to conduct a successful campaign, says Peter Arnold, CEO of Peter Arnold Associates. Typically, they must be educated enough to facilitate interviews between journalists and appropriate company contacts, representatives who are able to accurately describe the business and its offerings.

During these interviews, Arnold adds, agency representatives can assist reporters by monitoring the use of company jargon or acronyms: If the reporter gets "lost" during the interview, the company probably won't get mentioned much in the resulting article.

"You need intelligent people in your firm who can listen and flag phrases or words they don't know, and figure out what they mean in the context in which they've been said," he adds. "If it's too technical for the reporter and they can't understand, they'll usually deal with someone they can understand."

Apart from making sure their tech clients are comprehensible in interviews, PR pros also help craft messages about why a particular piece of technology is better than another, or at least worth covering.

"Differentiation is always an issue with any market, whether you're selling soap, or shampoo, or a sophisticated computer router," Arnold says. "Several years ago, people were talking about 'vaporware' - software that didn't really work that well or better than other stuff. So there's skepticism all around and you deal with it."

It's also important for both journalists and agencies representing tech clients to provide examples of products in action via in-person demonstrations, says Richard James, VP at APCO Worldwide.

"To see demonstrations and meet with the broader [corporate] team, not just the communications team, helps give a sense of what products are about [and] what is their value proposition."

Key points:

Tech companies' media reps need a clear understanding of the audiences to which they're speaking

PR execs need to feel comfortable discussing technology with reporters

In-person demos can help spark journalists' interest in a product

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