Beyond the product

Tech companies are increasingly realizing the need to display as much forward thinking in communications tactics and messages as they do in the development of new products.

Tech companies love to tell their product story, but as competition in the consumer and enterprise market intensifies, a simple product-driven PR strategy by maturing companies might not cut it.

"The industry at large has to grow up, it's not just about pushing the latest and greatest product," says Tony Hynes, an SVP in Weber Shandwick's tech practice. "There are a lot of other profound elements that you must be aware of that affect your corporate reputation."

Take Apple, for example. The iconic Cupertino, CA company thrives on building hype around its latest and greatest gadgets, yet it doesn't retain the services of a tech PR firm, or even a full-service agency with multiple PR offerings.

But when news and consumer complaints broke over the faulty antenna of Apple's iPhone 4G last year, product-focused communications arguably failed to systematically handle a sticky PR situation for the company.

"One hiccup," says Hynes, "and arguably that was pretty mismanaged with the launch of 4G."

Attracted to integration

Small to midsize tech PR agencies and much larger firms offering a wide variety of PR disciplines in-house, including reputation management, analyst and investor relations, crisis communications, and digital expertise, both have their place in the tech world.

Yet some PR pros say the larger agencies with integrated services beyond product-focused PR are becoming more attractive to rapidly innovating and growing tech companies, especially as the lines of consumer and enterprise technology blur and technology becomes more commoditized than ever.

"Things can happen to damage your reputation and brand, and technology is more important than it ever was," says Ellen Roeckl, senior director of corporate media relations at Juniper Networks, the Sunnyvale, CA-based router and switch maker.

Roeckl says Juniper grew into a billion-dollar company that needed communications services beyond PR that just aggressively touted its products.

"PR has changed so much in the past five years," she says. "Now we need video, podcasts, and a blog strategy. We also need somebody managing our Facebook presence constantly and integrating all our digital assets and our ways of engaging social media. It requires a lot of different kinds of people. We would just never get all of these things from a boutique."

Juniper employs Weber Shandwick as its AOR in the US for integrated PR services that include strategy, digital, and mergers and acquisitions, as well as managing other agencies throughout Europe, says Roeckl.

The proliferation of consumer and enterprise technology is fueling new challenges - and opportunities - for tech PR pros.

"Technology companies nowadays are not just one dimension and are not just talking about their products," says Luca Penati, global MD of the technology practice at Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide. "They need to tell a broader story in a unique and authentic way because everything they do has an impact on their brand. If by integrated services we mean telling a broader story in a brand kind of way, I agree technology companies are now telling more than just a product-led story."

Such a transition, whether seamless or forced, creates growing pains for some technology companies. Even with all their innovating prowess and enthusiasm, they are comfortable just telling a product-centric story because it's what they've been doing for many years, he adds.

"The moment your product is undifferentiated, or it's difficult to differentiate, you must tell the story in a much broader and different way," explains Penati. "When you just tell a product-led story, especially when you go into the features of the product, it is a functional story, but not an emotional one."

A story that taps into emotions and functions and is told with integrated services reaches new audiences. Because consumer and enterprise technology is blurring, tech PR needs to integrate the two into something that simultaneously resonates with consumers and businesses.

Consumers, for example, may expect their favorite and most useful apps on their gadgets to be transferable to their business needs, and vice versa for business and enterprise stakeholders to the consumer space. What was just a consumer tech product before may suddenly be relevant to business and other stakeholders, which requires an array of PR disciplines, not just language that one specific audience wants and understands.

"Maturing technology companies need to go beyond product PR because they are reaching new audiences," says Penati. "Companies are beginning to understand the complexity of the environment. It's different and you need a more multidisciplinary approach."

If maturing tech companies and brands are just now embracing such a communications reality, it's because they've enjoyed, relatively speaking, what other industries haven't.

"The industry itself has gone through such tremendous growth over the past 20 years," says Weber's Hynes. "That's put it in a position of privilege where it really hasn't had to pay a huge amount of attention to the more corporate side."

And it's this corporate PR, including executive thought leadership, internal relations, and IR, that is less sexy and shiny than the tech product launch communications at which smaller tech agencies can be so adept.

Changing relationships

Specialized tech agencies, says Juniper's Roeckl, tend to be regional and have very valuable relationships with local and niche media to push product launches. But, she adds, "That relationship has diminished over time. So much of the media has turned over, relationships aren't as valuable as they used to be."

Kari Aakre, manager of consumer PR and social media at chipmaker Intel, knows about the PR challenges of having to appeal to a new audience. Long known as an "ingredient" product for consumer and enterprise computing, the company has never had the need to focus PR directly at consumers. But times have changed.

"We haven't had the challenge of creating an emotional connection with consumers relating directly to them because they don't walk into a store and go buy an Intel product, per se," she says. "That said, we live in a world that's very much driven by consumer purchase. The world of technology certainly has expanded greatly over the past several years in terms of the amount that is available to consumers."

With that, Intel products and the brand itself are moving into new gadgets, including smartphones, tablet computers, and other devices, says Aakre. To help with that, Intel employs the integrated communications services of Ogilvy PR, including thought leadership, strategic communications, creative direction, social media, and product launches. The integrated PR services of Ogilvy tie into overall marketing, too, she adds.

"You can't make as much impact with your audience if your marketing campaign, be it direct, online, or retail, doesn't match up with what you are doing on the PR side," explains Aakre. "All those wheels in motion working together are when you will see the most success."

She also values the varied client base of larger agencies, such as Ogilvy, for integration.

"We appreciate the experience they bring to the table by having worked with so many different types of clients," says Aakre. "That's probably something you wouldn't get on the specialty side. If you've got two people with two different plans and they are coming together after the fact, the total idea of integrating becomes that much more difficult."

This is not to say specialist technology agencies are irrelevant or obsolete.

"Size doesn't preclude an ability to drive holistic programming or services," says Michelle Herman, North America GM of specialist tech consultancy Bite Communications, a Next Fifteen Communications Group agency.

Bite is by no means a boutique, but it certainly isn't as large and encompassing as Weber or Ogilvy. She says specialist tech firms such as Bite offer services that an agency touting a broad array of integrated PR services can't.

"You can make the argument that the larger agencies have more services in-house," notes Herman. "However, that also means it's harder for them to specialize. Moreover, they are working across multiple industries and their ability to stay relevant, current, and truly plugged in is not as deep."

Indeed, staying current and being plugged in is almost the definition of technology now. Employing the services of a massive agency with multiple practice areas and PR disciplines all for the sake of integration may be empty if it doesn't have a front-line understanding of the product or service.

"By specializing in an area such as technology, we can claim expertise in information technology, and that's a huge asset because of all the convergence happening in the industry," says Herman. "So that becomes an opportunity to differentiate."

Bite, she points out, can also tap the specialties of its sister agencies. The Next Fifteen Group acquired tech finance PR firm The Blueshirt Group last year and also launched a full-service digital consultancy called Beyond.

The proper agency fit

For the full spectrum of tech clients out there, whether they are a startup, in mid-growth, or a multibillion-dollar global company, employing the services of an agency could just come down to personal preference.

"It's hard to find agencies where one size fits all," says Jennifer Caukin, PR director of North America for video call service Skype. "Some people are attracted to those big global names because they are a global company and prefer to work with one name in all the different markets they need to cover. For us, we really want to go with the best in each market."

Skype retains Kaplow PR as its North American AOR for consumer PR, with a focus on product work, as well as other agencies for separate regions abroad, she adds. Skype recently hired Bite for PR services targeted at third-party developers.

Lynn Fox, VP of marketing and communications at the San Francisco-based video streaming company Ustream, says the rationale for employing a global agency with integrated services versus a specialist agency depends on the technology itself.

"When you are talking about a product like a smartphone, then it definitely makes more sense [to use a bigger, integrated agency] because it is much more competitive and you have a lot of moving parts," she explains. "And when you are talking about all the controversy around the carriers, and who has what carrier, it does behoove you to have a bigger agency that can handle all of that as well."

Fox, who before Ustream was a PR director for Apple and Palm, says a large integrated agency can help a tech consumer brand by doing a lion's share of tactical PR work, including social media product placement and coordinating with consumer media. This frees up an internal PR team to develop strategic communications around product launches.

"It's having a turnkey approach versus being able to go to one place to get all your needs met," notes Fox. "It's a scale you might not have internally."

However, Fox isn't seeing tech companies make a mad dash to the Webers and Ogilvys of the world. The client landscape is filled with tech startups and early growth companies right now, she says, a market where specialist firms play a key role.

"A lot of times the bigger firms charge more, so it's hard for startups to pay the rates," she says.

The recently struggling economy has also played a role in shaping PR efforts.

"The moment you go into a recession, companies tend to go back to the basics," explains Ogilvy's Penati, "so technology companies tend to do what they know best - product PR."

As the economy improves, Penati expects more tech companies to take risks by developing sophisticated, integrated PR campaigns that go beyond relatively straightforward, product-driven initiatives.

"Maybe some companies chose to take their PR in-house until they got through the recession," says Fox.

Weber Shandwick's Hynes sees two choices.

"Basically there are economies of scale," he explains. "If you go for numerous different vendors, you've got a number of external relationships to manage and there's also duplication there. Or do you work with one firm that's got a solid ground in the tech sector and then also specializes across other business communications?"

If clients in the tech sector begin to seek a more integrated and sophisticated PR approach as the economy improves, several scenarios could play out in the specialist agency market.

"You are going to see more consolidation," says Hynes. "If you look at a company such as Bite, they just bought The Blueshirt Group, a finance tech PR firm. That gives some strength to Bite or Text 100 [another Next Fifteen agency]."

Hynes also points to Lewis PR's acquisition last October of social media agency Page One PR as a sign that some agencies are maneuvering to have a more integrated offering.

Some tech boutiques, says Penati, might also move to diversify by hiring PR pros with a different skill set beyond tech knowledge.

"In this increasingly integrated environment, it's going to be even more difficult for tech specialists because they don't have an understanding about how the other disciplines work," he says.

Challenges of innovative thinking

Tech companies that innovate and launch products rapidly is what, in many ways, makes tech PR dynamic and challenging. But the very attributes that move the technology industry forward can also be a paradox for professional communicators trying to tell their story.

"The interesting thing about technology companies that innovate fast is that they usually don't innovate as fast on the PR side," explains Penati. "They tend to be super innovative on the technology side and very conservative on the PR side. They tend to always go back to what they know best, which is usually product-related PR and media relations." 

But the story of a shiny new tech product or service must be told in a way that bridges what it does and what it means to an audience that is inundated with technology. As the tech industry matures, so do its consumers.

As Skype's Caukin says, there's a lot of noise out there.

"Now the industry has gotten really broad and people don't want these acronym-laden communications," says Juniper's Roeckl. "A large, integrated agency allows you to zoom out of that tech-speak a little more easily."

How Juniper avoids the pitfalls of tech PR jargon

"Inside each tech sector there is a little bubble and a little language all its own, and we just really can't communicate with the market like that anymore," says Ellen Roeckl (right), senior director of corporate media relations at Juniper Networks, the Sunnyvale, CA-based Ethernet switch and router maker.

Roeckl, who previously worked at both a boutique and large PR agency, says Juniper, as a tech company, is benefiting from the integrated and holistic PR offerings of a global firm, Weber Shandwick.

"We must be able to have a conversation with the market that is meaningful to the CIO all the way to the network manager," she adds. "That's where a large agency with access to lots of different kinds of strategies doesn't get insulated into tech speak."

Weber, Juniper's AOR in North America, coordinates global communications for the company as well. The firm does product launch work, digital, crisis communications, strategy, and financial PR for Juniper.

"They do a little bit of everything," explains Roeckl.

She says Juniper has matured into a multibillion-dollar tech company that requires a broad array of integrated PR services beyond what a smaller, specialist tech agency could provide.

"An agency like Weber brings to bear people who are versed well beyond narrow tech brands," says Roeckl. "It creates a more broadly strategic adviser than somebody who is narrower."

Skype is effectively served by an integrated approach

Skype, the video calling and messaging service, employs Kaplow PR as its AOR in North America.

The agency does product PR work involving both Skype's enterprise and consumer products, including corporate PR initiatives, says Jennifer Caukin (pictured), Skype's PR director for North America. She says Kaplow provides the integrated PR services and goals she seeks for her company.

"There's a flexibility I have with Kaplow I would not have with a large agency," adds Caukin. "There's a cost efficiency, flexibility, and just a willingness to over-deliver every time."

Caukin has worked with Kaplow for 10 years, the last four while she has been at Skype, the previous six while she was a corporate communications director at eBay. For Caukin, an integrated and holistic PR strategy stems from creativity and a strong agency PR team.

"We've been with them for a long time and I've known them for a long time," she says. "It's a truly impressive agency in terms of having little turnover on the team. I approach each PR plan from the perspective of what is that broader business corporate angle on how we get our message across."

Skype also employs Bite Communications for developer PR.

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