Technology Roundtable: Forward thinking

As privacy issues loom and innovation matures, tech PR is facing new issues in developing strategy and public outreach.

As privacy issues loom and innovation matures, tech PR is facing new issues in developing strategy and public outreach. Erica Iacono and Aarti Shah were in Palo Alto, CA for this Airfoil-sponsored roundtable

Brandee Barker, director of corporate communications, Facebook

Craig Berman, VP of global communications,

Peter Dobrow, director of communications, T-Mobile

Robert Dowling, head of North American tech practice, Weber Shandwick

Lynn Fox, VP of corporate communications, Palm

Kiersten Hollars, senior director of corporate communications, AOL

Jane Hynes, VP of global PR,

Tony Hynes, GM, West Coast, Bite Communications

Alan Marks, SVP of corporate communications, eBay

Tracey Parry, SVP and partner, Airfoil PR

Gabriel Stricker, director of global communications and public affairs, Google

Telling the innovation story
Erica Iacono (PRWeek): How do you communicate the innovation at your company, especially when there is so much competition to tell that story?

Robert Dowling (Weber Shandwick): Innovation is such a big word and it comes in lots of different forms. The temptation is to say, “This innovation is the disruptive, new, breakthrough technology.”

But really, what we're more concerned with on a day-to-day basis is introducing innovation that tends to be for products or services that are more mature. This requires more thinking on our part on how to make them relevant and show off the nuances of that innovation, when sometimes it's not necessarily disrupting the category, it's taking it to the next level, enhancing it, or extending it.

Peter Dobrow (T-Mobile): Taking a step back, in order to help inform how we communicate in innovative ways, we need to really identify a sound communications strategy. From a product standpoint, it's talking about the breakthrough and being realistic about how “breakthrough” that product actually is… Then it goes into impact. Can you quantify that impact?... Finally, context. Put it in the context of a broader trend or what's going on around the world. If you take a read on all those elements, you should have a great story to tell.

Kiersten Hollars (AOL): At the end of the day, you can't force an innovation story. If you are solving a customer pain point, especially a real-life customer pain point, you're golden. You can't force an innovation story or the consumers will see right through it.

Brandee Barker (Facebook): There's also an interesting tension that I've seen between innovation and the customer, or “user” in our case. Often innovation – at least in our world – can be threatening. In some cases, we have to bring [the users] along and listen to the feedback along the way. And we have to find that balance between what we and the product organization believes is innovative and the user not wanting change.

Lynn Fox (Palm): I don't think you should use the word “innovation” if it's not innovative. That's the first way to alienate users. If it's not in the product, it's not there, so you can't have talk about innovation. And honestly, I always try to stay away from using the word “innovation” because it's one of those throwaway words.

Tracey Parry (Airfoil): Some observations we've had, having been in tech for some time, is there is a much more reality-based approach that involves less ego, more humility, more consistent tie-to-brand.

Alan Marks (eBay): We do try to map back to the customer benefit. We've been very transparent about what we're doing to turn around eBay and how we're growing PayPal, what our three-year objectives are, what the customer pain points are. It's an overused word, so you have to be careful. But when we talk about technology improvements in our products, it's mapping back to the customer benefits.

Tony Hynes (Bite): The greatest challenge that I can see in our client base is the reality that being innovative necessitates risk. And over the past 24 months, every organization we represent has been risk-averse… The interesting thing is PR and communications – over the last two years – has been forced to change. Risk has been pushed on us through the innovation of social media.

Craig Berman (Amazon): I'm honestly shocked that “innovation” is becoming a bad word. I'm stunned. It's part of our DNA, it's such a part of Amazon's culture, and the business and product teams are innovating. They make our job in PR really easy because they make unbelievable products.

We constantly talk about innovating on behalf our customers. [As far as] experimenting, willing to fail – we talk about going down and planting a lot of seeds that won't show fruit for five years – and we're perfectly OK with that. I think if you're really innovative, you use that as a core communications point.

Fox (Palm): I completely hear what you're saying. I am also chagrined by it because I love the word. The problem is, if you overuse it, the industry is saturated. It's upon us as communications professionals to come up with new ways to communicate what innovation is because people see the word and just slosh over it.

Dowling (Weber Shandwick): The processes that we fall into as communications professionals, it's kind of like making the donuts. We have a machine, we pull the lever, and out comes the press release. It sort of looks the same and tastes the same and sometimes people like it… The same with embargoes. The process, the words, the lexicon – we have gotten away from generating stories and telling authentic human stories. We just fall back on that “What's the news? What are the features? What are the updates?” And put this in the package form that everyone is trained to do and then we spit it out into the world. And then you have this overprocessed X product, the innovative, leading, salami of PR.

Jane Hynes (Salesforce): I think a lot of it has to do with the positioning you bring with it. Are you positioning against a specific company or product or trend? And how are you playing in that context? Because you can make something more interesting than it may have been by putting it on an iPad. There are different things you do. “Trendjacking” might not be the best word, but even with competitive positioning, there are things you can do tactically.

Connecting with customers
Parry (Airfoil):
Customer alignment has been lip service for some time. Perhaps it was a recessionary item and I strongly suspect that it was. [But] customer attention and retention was never more of an imperative. Ebay has long seen the power of the community being the brand reflection, as risky as that is. It's authentic, it's true, and it makes for really great story-telling. That's what I'm excited about: How we can become a part of the customer-service function, as scary as that is.

Dobrow (T-Mobile): They should be our biggest advocates and we need to harness that power. And as T-Mobile is a consumer products company, we have about 25,000 employees on the front line selling our products and interacting with customers day-to-day. We need to harness that energy and be integrated in those efforts. Not only from a daily social media standpoint, as I know a lot of our employees are bloggers, etc., but also arming them with…our knowledge of what's being talked about in the media and being plugged in. Really articulating the customer benefit and helping them understand it.

Hynes (Salesforce): I totally agree. If your customers aren't your biggest advocates – basically your sales force – then you have to start over because something is wrong.

Gabriel Stricker (Google): I think the word [innovation] has become corrupted over time. It's been so abused that the sizzle-to-steak ratio is upside down. For that reason, you can't just talk about being “innovative” or “revolutionary.” I don't think you can talk about being responsible. Go be responsible, go show innovation, go do your revolution, and let other people decide that it is that… It's in the eye of the beholder, not the storyteller.

Marks (eBay): And the way to do that is, you demonstrate authentic customer insight and real problem-solving. The innovation there is, you really understand [customer's] needs and you've done something about it.

Iacono (PRWeek): But what role does communications play in that?

Barker (Facebook): I feel like innovation in my role is, if I'm not chasing my product team down and freaking out because they're about to put something out that I was only briefed on 24 hours ago, then I'm not at the company I signed up to be at four years ago.

Iacono (PRWeek): It's easy to say that you have to show responsibility, show innovation, but sometimes there is a disconnect between product and PR or customer research and PR.

Stricker (Google): It's usually the other way around. If you look back at the history of communications in last 10 years in technology, you see communications professionals being way out in front, with them saying, “That rodent being shot out of the cannon is innovation” and people are saying, “Wait a second. This has nothing to do with innovation.”

And I think what Brandee is saying is, you go into a room and you have some engineer fresh out of college saying, “Yeah, I'm working on this thing” and you look at it and your eyes pop out of head and you say, “That is the most extraordinary thing, I can't believe you're understating like this. That's revolutionary – all steak, no sizzle.” Then you go out there and tell that story. The greatest stuff will rise to the top. It will be self-evident.

Dobrow (T-Mobile): Or it's the opposite situation internally. And let's face it, it's tough times right now. We all have internal clients who are trying to bring something to market and everybody wants a high degree of attention from PR because they might not be getting it from marketing or otherwise. And they might be trying to tell a story that they have the greatest thing since sliced bread. But it's also our responsibility to be that neutral party that comes in, really evaluates what we're seeing from a product standpoint, and level-set with our internal clients and say, “Hey, maybe your expectations for PR and this product are higher than perhaps the media environment will drive.” I think we need to be that sound voice of reason internally. 

Fox (Palm): Two of the most valuable things I've learned over time are the ability to say no – internally and externally, graciously and sometimes non-graciously – and the ability to ask, “What is the goal?” People literally – universally – roll their eyes when I say that. But we really do have to ask ourselves what is the goal? What are we trying to do here? And it brings focus, which is an incredibly important thing in communications.

Hynes (Bite): The other element with innovation is that, as far as communications' role, it's our responsibility to link that to the brand and the brand personality or proposition.

Hollars (AOL): I have to say, the words “no” and “I can't” don't go over too well with the personalities and executives I know many of us in this room work with. I think we can help guide them and steer them in the right direction, instead of a “no” or “I can't.”  Anything can be done at this point and let's face it, a lot of the execs and personalities we work with will go promote it whether we let them or not. So I think guiding them, helping them down a particular path, helps all.

Hynes (Salesforce): It's about what is important? What's the goal? Sometimes executives get so spun up in what's important to them today, they forget about who is the audience, what is the end goal, and what are you trying to get done here. Is this customer communication or a market communication because there are different things you need to do for both.

Managing expectations
Iacono (PRWeek): In the tech community, there's always a lot of hype surrounding new products and services. How do you manage these expectations internally and externally, especially if it's a product that doesn't meet expectations? And how do you sustain the momentum?

Barker (Facebook): You adjust. You have the ability to adjust. I know Gabriel and I have been put in situations where we've launched things and you must have communications aligned with legal, policy, with product development. And everyone is willing to put the product out there, take the risk, and then maneuver very quickly to change that product. Google did a great job with Buzz, listening to users right away and making some changes. We've done that repeatedly with products, so I think that's one of the most important shifts I've had to come to terms with in my career.

Iacono (PRWeek): How do you manage the preceding hype?

Stricker (Google): We have a lot of different blogs, so there ends up being a lot of communication that goes out from a lot of different channels from us. Some of the time, I'll be in situations with reporters and they'll say, “Hey, I just saw this thing, it's on this product blog.” And you have on that product blog an engineer or project manager who is genuinely enthusiastic about this thing and who is communicating – rightfully so – about something they've invested a lot of time and energy in and it is significant. I think it's our responsibility at that point to let that enthusiasm have its voice. But it's also our responsibility to go to the reporter who calls us up and [know that] it's OK for us to say to that reporter, “Actually, this isn't that big of a deal and let me tell you why.”

Hynes (Bite): I think there are companies who are not represented in this room who want to create excitement before a product launch and that's increasingly difficult because the lack of desire for holding embargo. To manage it from that point of view gets a lot more complex.

Hynes (Salesforce): A lot of it is about prioritization. As a company, what are your goals? And prioritize the launches, the products, and projects that are going to help you obtain those goals. Then the stuff that isn't as important – it's not like they get turned off – but there are different tactics you can use. Not everything gets a press release or a blog. It's not just about launches, it's about keeping your name relevant and keeping it with the right company over time. So there are different tactics for that.

Dobrow (T-Mobile): Sustaining momentum after a product launch is hugely challenging. And it's also a matter of prioritization. One way to go about doing that – assuming it's a product for your own organization – is to find the new, fresh angle to your customers and build on that.

I'll use an example. T-Mobile works very closely with Google and the Android platform. And one way that we're effectively able to sustain momentum on major product launches on the Android is to talk about new and great applications that are coming to market on the Android platform that T-Mobile customers now have access to. Those stories are harder to come by on non-marquee products platforms, but whenever we have the ability to do that, we look to leverage and partner with Google to find those areas of opportunity.

Barker (Facebook): I would imagine hype is more important for a Palm, T-Mobile, or Salesforce rather than the Internet companies… Our philosophy is, when the product is ready – launch it. Don't talk about it until then and usually it's about managing leaks.

Fox (Palm): Palm is a company that provides hardware and software. But what I'm going to say is that it really depends on what you're introducing. So when we're developing a handset and new OS at the same time, the goal is to drive customers to retail at a certain point in time. So we need hype and so does the operator that is providing that handset… It's critical to get people interested in going to a place at a certain point in time. And to keep that hype going until that product is available.

Hollars (AOL): I know we did this a lot at Digg, but when you're talking to a certain type of community, whether it's developers or a huge group of influencers, [it helps to] launch something a little early – whether it's beta or not – and encouraging feedback to make that better. We got such amazing feedback from our community and users on things that we launched at Digg that truly improved our product. If you're realistic in your expectations and you're transparent that you want feedback, we're testing this, I think in some situations it really works.

Hynes (Salesforce): I'm the only one here that is in enterprise software and that's not sexy by nature. So depending on what space you're in, if you don't have consumer play at all you have to use different things.

Iacono (PRWeek): When should you use embargoes?

Dobrow (T-Mobile): You have to be selective on when you use embargoes. Use it for the really big things in which the end result would be a win-win for the reporter and the company…Now there are media outlets out there like The Wall Street Journal that don't abide by embargoes because when information leaks out, it puts them in awkward situation. I think a lot of media struggle with this.  

Hynes (Bite): I would say it has to do with there being fewer reporters and more news, so there's nothing in it for them anymore. I think that's one of the biggest challenges, [one] that is often overlooked from our side.

Marks (eBay): I think it's occasionally got its place. We use it selectively in the sense of, “How do I help a reporter understand what we're about to roll?” We've got multiple audiences to worry about. When we roll something we're primarily worried about the seller community – and do they understand what we're rolling. So our challenge on the media side is, if it's a major push, how do I help journalists understand what we're about to do. Because you're immediately going to see millions of blog comments from sellers reacting to what we've done.

We're going to have leaks and it's hard to time an embargo because of the way we preview features with our sellers. So it's not a set formula. When we think of embargoes, we think in terms, “If you are going to be engaged in this story, let me help you understand what the change is.” We find for the most part, on a selective basis, journalists are willing to engage with that type of embargo.

Barker (Facebook): I'd prefer never to do an embargo or a press release again. But I do agree with you that there are certain occasions where it makes sense. But I find owning the content strategy for the company to be more effective than any embargo. We can describe the product better than anybody else can. While I think it's important to educate all those journalists and while we certainly appreciate their role in all of that, we have a blog now that has 8 million readers, so if we describe it in several paragraphs and if we can launch it so that people can see it – why do an embargo? 

Berman (Amazon): I don't know what the problem is. We use embargoes whenever we want. That's my issue about the kerfuffle about the whole thing. As long as someone honors an embargo, the whole thing works if I have someone who I can trust and they're going to write a deeper story, really dig in, really listen to us.

And [then] I [might] have someone sitting over here who is really frustrated because he wants to honor it, but he is told he can't. He doesn't get bogged down in the playing favorites, he doesn't take it personally. He gets what we're trying to do. He's frustrated with his bosses and the point-of-view of his outlets because he's getting scooped… It's fine if an outlet doesn't want to write on us. It's OK.

I think a few of us big brands are afforded that luxury. I wouldn't advocate this if I were at a startup or smaller company. There is an ability to leverage your size to influence some of that.

Fox (Palm): I have a few devil's advocate points. There are times when you are just a no- name company and the only way to get a reporter to cover you… is if you give them an embargo or an exclusive. Even big brands, if you want major [product] reviews to happen at an in-depth level, you sometimes have to go out – in advance – allow certain reviewers to play with that device for a long time and give them an embargo. That can also be true for packaged – not Internet – software. It can't be a one-size-fits-all in technology PR. 

Berman (Amazon): If you have beat reporters, it's whom you'll go to. It's an extraordinarily trusting relationship. But even we have beat reporters whose outlets don't honor embargoes. We just say, “Sorry. After the news is out we can have a conversation.”

Hynes (Salesforce): That presents a creative opportunity for us to say, “OK, TechCrunch didn't cover this. What's the new angle we're going to take?”

Hynes (Bite): In my mind, and this is coming from a PR person, not honoring embargoes also forces a better level of journalism because it's not canned. It forces people to get the story themselves. It becomes more [incumbent] upon on us to work with the outlets and craft a unique angle with them.  

Berman (Amazon): I think it then gets into a race to post and it's whoever can get something first.

Stricker (Google): It's very hard to generalize, but I think this goes back to what [Dobrow] was saying about sustaining the day-after stories. This is all part of the same ecosystem. And [Berman] is right, we're not even at the point – in some cases – of saying the day-after stories, it's about sustaining the 15 minute-after stories. Part of the abuse of embargoes has been when you have PR professionals going to reporters and saying we're bringing all of you under embargo because this is a very complex story and all the media need this information. It turns out not to be that complex and it could have been just fine for everyone to get it at the same time. The extra eight hours they were given, they didn't need them.

There are certain instances, though, where I think using embargoes sparingly to help the reporters who are investing a tremendous amount of time to tell a story thoroughly, it's removing the handicap that they face by having the story go out. And then inevitably their editors will say, “That story has been written.” And the reporter is saying, “Actually, the story that I wanted to write was X column inches, super insightful,” and they got the rug pulled out from them.

Iacono (PRWeek): What role do the leaks play?

Hollars (AOL): At the end of the day, unintentional leaks – if they are a major problem – are a reflection of the company's morale.

Dobrow (T-Mobile): I also think it can reflect their enthusiasm for what's coming down the pike.

Berman (Amazon): Why would they submarine something like that? 

Barker (Facebook): In the age of social media – when it's not just blogging, people are tweeting, updating their status – there is this genuine excitement for what they're working or what they're building. I often find an engineer who is really excited about something, he posts a status update that makes its way to reporter via screenshot, and that makes us have to deploy “statements r' us.”

Privacy issues
Iacono (PRWeek): What about privacy? How do you communicate your stance on it and get it through to the consumer? Have people's expectations for privacy changed?

Barker (Facebook): I guess to some extent this is where an embargo comes in handy, when the press is involved. There is a tremendous amount of work that we do leading up to changes that we make in privacy… That is also an area in which preparation of our user base is useful. It's making sure that before we launch it, they understand where we're headed with it. There is a huge effort around education when it's launched. So every lever we can pull to teach the users – in whatever format they consume it other than experiencing it on the site – happens.

Most recently we went through the redesign of our privacy controls and all of that work went into it. We had several organizations that were critical of us going into it. As always, we experienced a protest from users, but it died down very quickly, relatively speaking. I think it was the user reaction that informed the critics and that brought everyone to a neutral place. There is a lot of strategy that goes into it now. It's also control. Yes, more information seems to be available than ever before, but people are also understanding more about what information online is available.  

Marks (eBay): I think all that is just table stakes. It all comes back to brand trust and engagement. Things are going to happen, you're going to continue to push the envelope, and it's going to be an ongoing source of tension as technology evolves. So there is that growing awareness of “I didn't know that what was going on” [among consumers], even if it was the same thing going on for years. And at the end of the day, as a brand, it has to be [about] trust, so when something happens you have that reputation and track record of doing the right thing.  

Parry (Airfoil): We found that with both e- payment and e-commerce, the key is making it really easy and simple. Imaginations can run wild, especially when the stories can run wild. So [a story on] three quick ways to protect yourself really works.

Hynes (Bite): There is some danger in making the physical world analogous to the online world because a lot of the rules and the access points are totally different. The analogy I like is, if I go into a store, pick up something off the shelf, look at it, and put it back. Then I go back to the counter and I have an exchange. But in the online world, anytime I touch anything on the store shelf, they know about that.

Parry (Airfoil): I think there's always some tension when you want to advance something at the same time. We've been in e-commerce for awhile and it was shocking to us that [last] year – 2009 – was considered the year that e-commerce was realized by many influential national, business media circles. How is that possible? How is the highly influential media so behind the curve in realizing the complexity around it? 

Fox (Palm): I think it's a failure to try and understand more and to look at what is happening. When I was at Google, I was shocked at the number of media questions related to people being able to see search habits. It was incredibly shocking to me how people were jumping to conclusions and not understanding before asking the questions and doing the real research. 

Hynes (Bite): I think the fundamental assumption people make is everything they do online is anonymous. If you eradicate that assumption, you're in a much safer territory. 

Recession fallout
Iacono (PRWeek): What are the long-lasting impacts of the recession?

Dobrow (T-Mobile): I think in some ways the recession has really benefited PR. It's helped internal clients, it has helped business partners understand the true great value they can get out of PR as marketing dollars and other dollars have been funneled out of the organization. This comes from a demand-generation standpoint, more and more internal clients and business partners are coming to PR as a lever to pull knowing that we deliver business results. And some of them may not have had that perception prior to the recession, prior to marketing dollars being pulled off the table.

Barker (Facebook): I think the recession has made the talent pool for communications much wider. To echo what [was said by Airfoil during the breakfast presentation], the changes in the media industry have benefited communications as well. Now there are more people with more diverse backgrounds – including journalists -- looking to come into communications. I do think the content piece is important and having those skills that journalists bring are super important to broaden what you can bring to an organization.

Hynes (Bite): On talent, we're feeling the pain of 2001 and 2002. We can't get people who have eight years experience because they just don't exist. That's the biggest challenge.

Hollars (AOL): I would love to see more agencies out here representing West Coast tech companies. It is not competitive and I'm seeing the same agencies in the same pitches over and over.

Aarti Shah (PRWeek): What do you see as the role of beta in tech PR now?

Stricker (Google): I think beta does matter. It certainly matters in the enterprise space and I think it's important to be able to articulate what it means. If you're lazy about it and use it as a crutch, I think that's a betrayal of trust.

We had a case just run in BusinessWeek about browsers. It asked what does it mean if it's in the developer channel? What does it mean if it's beta? What does it mean if it's stable? It was really helpful to have someone tell the story, like if the browser is in developer channel – if you're a user, we don't want you download it. And, in fact, we'll say, please do not download.

I think, like all these things, you have to be clear about what it represents. If you assume that people know what you mean when you say “beta,” it can be confusing. How long does beta last? It's different for every product. Every product has a different benchmark, for this to be out of beta, this is what we want to achieve. 

Prior to the roundtable, PRWeek and Airfoil PR hosted a breakfast event on tech PR with Gabriel Stricker, director of global communications and public affairs for Google, and Leah Haran, VP of consumer tech PR at Airfoil. Haran spoke about the opportunities for the PR industry in engage in content creation, while Stricker participated in a Q&A with PRWeek. Stricker talked about Google's recent foray into social media – and the ongoing privacy debate – with Buzz, its recent television advertising, and its philosophy on using video, blogs, and other content channels to connect with its audiences.

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