The Next Big Thing

Recent innovations in the technology markets are presenting lucrative opportunities for PR professionals to get in on the act. Mary Cowlett reports

The majority of tech PR shops report that recession has yet to bite. This may be bravado, but Firefly MD Mark Mellor is typical of many when he says: ‘Some clients are clearly under pressure. But the majority are sticking with PR and chopping back elsewhere.’

Also, unlike the previous downturn and the dotcom collapse, IT is not at the eye of the storm this time.

Nevertheless, tough economic times mean many tech PROs are exploring alternative revenue streams to insure themselves against future budget cuts.

Advances in technology and an ever-evolving consumer and business environment have opened new doors.

‘The sector has matured and is in a different place,’ says Tim Dyson, global CEO of Next Fifteen, which owns Text 100, Bite, Inferno, OutCast and Lexis.

Indeed, some areas of tech PR are booming, most notably around social media and digital PR. Moreover, in the b2b space, IT is providing many of the answers around compliance, risk management, streamlining, cost efficiencies and retaining top talent.

‘Over the past year, the buzz in the industry has been the change in the role of HR from an administrative task to a strategic function at the forefront of the CEO’s agenda,’ says Kelley Rotari, marketing director of EMEA for integrated people management software specialist Softscape.

Other areas enjoying mini-booms include online video, mobile, wireless and so-called disruptive technologies. ‘We’ve just closed a $100m investment round and are looking to expand into new markets in central and South America,’ confirms Jonathan Simnett, global director of communications at voice to text service, SpinVox.

Do ‘mini-booms’ and ‘investment rounds’ sound interesting? If so, you need PRWeek’s guide to where some of these emerging tech PR markets might be found.

Clean technology

Climate change worries, high oil prices and government CO2 reduction targets are fuelling huge opportunities in green and clean technologies. The UK currently leads the way in tidal and wave energy research, but innovation is everywhere, covering sectors from energy and engineering to construction and transport.

Indeed, according to the UN Environment Programme, investment in energy efficiency technology reached a record £1.3bn in 2007, a 78 per cent increase on 2006. By 2020, the same sector is expected to be worth a staggering £343bn.

‘At the moment the market is relatively small, but we’re helping biofuel and solar energy companies such as Sunpower,’ says Dyson.

Likewise, Hill & Knowlton sponsors the Greenbang Clean Tech Start-up Company Index published this month and has been working with firms such as Better Place, BrightSource Energy, Poweo and Solar Century.

‘Communication is essential to any new start-up,’ says H&K head of technology in EMEA Amanda Groty. ‘But we have the additional skills to help these companies raise funds, influence government regulation and communicate all the issues around the energy environment.’

Dyson agrees that the potential scope for communications is enormous. To this end, his firm is talking to venture capitalists and hiring specialist scientists and engineers. ‘The market is wide open and you almost can’t pick a bad option,’ he says. ‘The only real risk is the classic business dilemma of whether agencies want to be first to market.’

Healthcare technology

Covering everything from high-end hospital equipment to diagnostics and patient implants, the global healthcare or medical technology sector is also growing exponentially. Moreover, the UK is a centre of innovation, with ideas coming from companies of all sizes, from traditional pharma firms such as Smith & Nephew, to the hundreds of science and engineering-driven start-ups.

Cutting-edge technology areas on which to keep an eye include remote diagnostics, mobile testing, biomechanics and nanotechnology. ‘Companies in these areas are going to require a combined set of PR skills, which may include managing health issues, explaining innovation and technology to consumer and medical audiences, or maybe helping the company attract venture capital. Each requires different PR skills,’ says The Red Consultancy’s head of technology, David Vindel.

Good routes to market for PR outsiders include attending the relevant technology and healthcare events and raising the issues some of these companies may face.

Financial services

And despite the state of the global economy and recent disasters befalling some of the UK’s retail banks, financial services IT is experiencing a healthy business bounce. ‘Banks are pretty much technology shops,’ says David Bannister, editor of Banking Technology magazine. ‘And while many are being cautious, the main way they are looking to save money is by automating.’

Furthermore, as consolidation continues apace – for example, Commerzbank buying Dresdner Bank and Santander bagging Alliance & Leicester – technology is being used to drive efficiencies around mergers.

‘One of the other major drivers of growth is regulation and compliance,’ says Scott McLaren, director of tech PR shop Hotwire. He points to initiatives such as the UK’s Faster Payments Service introduced in May. Meanwhile, the Single European Payments Area, which aims to create a uniform EU market for payment services by 2010, is expected to cost European banks around €10bn to implement. ‘Because of time pressures, the majority of banks are buying the systems and solutions to do it rather than building them,’ says McLaren.

There are no quick routes into this sector. But, there is plenty of scope and variety across retail and wholesale banking, capital markets and wealth management.

Data management

Whether it is confidential government information on laptops, commercial data, medical records, or consumer text, picture and music files, there are growing mountains of data that need to be stored, moved, accessed, integrated and secured. And there are a growing number of smaller providers, besides the likes of IBM, Oracle and SAP, doing it well.

‘Many of our clients, such as data centre networking provider Brocade, have just reported record half-yearly profits, as the sector grows at exponential rates,’ says Spreckley Partners MD Richard Merrin.

Aside from the fact that data creation is reaching barely comprehensible levels –we will soon see data centres storing the equivalent of the sum of human knowledge – much of this activity is being driven by economic downturn itself. ‘We’re seeing the old systems being ripped out and replaced as large corporations use technology to really hone in on their profits and cost-efficiency,’ adds Merrin.

Likewise, Agility PR founder Miles Clayton reports that his firm has pitches out in the business intelligence area. ‘We see the sector enjoying a mini-boom for at least the next year and a half as firms look to cut their wastage and realise they need clever software and systems to do it,’ he says.

So as mature clients cut budgets, the sectors mentioned above could prove to be the major players in the next upturn.

Clean Tech Case Study: Wyse Technology

‘Thin computers’ run on a tenth of the electricity required to run a PC and do not need to be replaced as major changes occur in applications software. For business users this means huge cost savings and less energy consumption and wastage.

Last September, California-based Wyse Technology – a specialist in this area – asked its retained agency Grant Butler Coomber to extend its positioning from the product trade media to reach key corporate decision-makers and IT managers.

To position the firm as a thought leader for green computing in the workplace, the PR team collaborated with GBC Public Affairs and formed a working group chaired by MP Alan Whitehead. This resulted in a ‘Time to Wyse Up’ media round table in the run up to Energy Savings Week, generating coverage across business, environmental and IT press.

To maintain interest and build credibility, the campaign gained the support of sustainability charity EnviroWise. In addition, the CIO of one of Wyse’s largest clients, Reed, appeared on BBC World News explaining how the technology had cut his firm’s carbon footprint.

As yet, Wyse has no hard data on how the campaign has affected sales, but the firm was named as one of the ‘top ten innovators to watch’ by ClimateChangeCorp and won the green product of the year award at the European Green IT summit.

Health Tech Case Study: Bayer Schering Pharma

Oral contraceptive manufacturer Bayer Schering Pharma wanted to better educate savvy urban 20-something women about their contraception options and encourage them to be proactive in their choices. With delicate subject matter to consider and a target group bombarded with messages, The Red Consultancy approached MSN to use its Windows Live Messenger (formerly Instant Messenger) facility as a way for young women to converse with doctors in a private yet familiar and informal environment.

This was the first time a pharma firm had used Windows Live Messenger as a way to communicate with its audience.

Under the campaign theme of ‘Demand More’, a series of evening surgeries were held during Contraceptive Awareness Week, with media doctors including BBC Radio 1’s Dr Mark Hamilton, Closer’s Dr Mark Porter and GMTV’s Dr Sarah Jarvis. Each doctor had a specific email address and all consultations were one-to-one and designed to support the patients’ relationship with their own GPs.

The surgeries were backed by an advert on the Messenger homepage, full doctor biographies and endorsed by the popular MSN Health Channel, including a link to the landing page.

As a result, more than 17,000 UK women aged 18 to 24 visited the landing page during the week, while 1,194 consultations took place. Of these, almost three-quarters (72 per cent) focused solely on contraception, discussing the different benefits and choice of pill available and motivating patients to discuss their options with their GP.

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