High-tech PR expertise in short supply

Here's the PR challenge: Your client, a dot-com enterprise targeting the business market, is eager to make its mark at the upcoming Internet World show. How do you ensure that the firm gets the kind of attention it wants? Do you:...

Here’s the PR challenge: Your client, a dot-com enterprise targeting the business market, is eager to make its mark at the upcoming Internet World show. How do you ensure that the firm gets the kind of attention it wants?

Do you: (a) send out as many press releases as time allows; (b) get on the phone and start calling venture capital companies in the hope that they’ll listen to your story; or (c) rent a tank?

If you chose (c), congratulations! You may well have what it takes to specialize in high-technology public relations – in which case, there are some PR agencies that would very much like to speak with you.

The tank idea, as it happens, is one that Toronto-based Cohn & Wolfe has developed for client Salesdriver.com, a firm offering sales incentive programs over the Internet. And, according to Carol Panasiuk, C&W’s senior vice-president and general manager, it serves to illustrate an important point about high-tech public relations: It may be complex new terrain for some practitioners, but it still demands the same basic skills as a more traditional practice area, such as packaged goods.

Now that said, it’s also true that many high-tech clients prefer working with public relations professionals who can talk the talk – who have a sound grasp of the technology fundamentals, and know how to speak the language. And industry insiders say there just aren’t enough practitioners out there with that kind of skill set.

‘There’s a huge demand for people to service [the high-tech] sector,’ says Ruth Clark, vice-president, human resources with Toronto-based Hill & Knowlton.

The technology practice at H&K employs approximately 30 people. There are openings at all levels, Clark says, but it’s the junior positions that tend to be easier to fill.

‘You see a lot of graduates coming out of school now for whom technology has always been a part of their lives,’ she explains. ‘They’re already comfortable with the technology. It’s very intuitive for them.’ (Indeed, junior candidates for high-tech positions will often refer Clark to their own Web sites to promote their skills.)

As a rule, good senior people prove somewhat more difficult to find. ‘There’s not much out there,’ says Panasiuk, who notes that Cohn & Wolfe recently ran into difficulties trying to recruit a vice-president to lead its technology practice.

It’s not necessary to grasp how a microchip works in order to help a technology client tell their story, Panasiuk says. Dot-coms and other high-tech firms, after all, have the same communications needs as companies in any other sector: crisis management, investor relations, the handling of mergers and acquisitions, and so on.

When it comes to recruiting high-tech practitioners, she argues, the best approach is to hire a candidate with top-notch communications skills who’s capable of learning the essentials of the technology.

It’s not hard to figure out why there’s such an under-supply of high-tech PR practitioners these days, says Sandra Matteson, president of Matteson Management, a Toronto-based firm specializing in public relations recruitment. Dot-com enterprises have proliferated in the past several years, and a growing number of them are beginning to realize the importance of PR to their overall communications strategy. At the same time, many high-tech specialists from the agency world are breaking away to start their own boutiques dedicated to serving dot-com clients, and are poaching skilled staff from other agencies or technology firms – all of which just serves to heighten the perceived shortage.

Matteson says the PR industry as a whole needs to work on reducing this under-supply. For starters, she argues, agencies should be more willing to take well-educated generalists and teach them the necessary technological knowledge.

When students in PR programs come to her, Matteson says, she generally points them toward high-demand practice areas such as technology or pharmaceutical. And it would be helpful, she suggests, if there were more effort throughout the industry to steer young people in these directions. Agencies, for example, could offer workshops for PR students while they’re still in school. ‘Where else are we going to find these people?’

Also in this report:

* Dot-coms put best face forward: PR playing a larger role in communication strategies of online enterprises p.B2

* Branding dot-coms with PR poses challenges: Companies must resist impulse to move too quickly, or to shift positioning constantly p.B4

* PR meets investor relations: Disciplines converging in high-tech world p.B5

* PR firms must show creativity in hiring p.B7

* Web impacting corporate reputation: Companies want to know what’s being said about them online – and by whom p.B8

From Karen Howe’s dining table: Creativity, COVID and Cannes

ICYMI, The Township's founder gathers the best of the best campaigns and trends so far.

Cannes Base Camp

By Karen Howe

I’m attending Cannes from the glory of my dining room table. There’s not a palm tree in sight, yet inspiration and intel are present in abundance.

Cannes Lions is a global cultural pulse check. The social course correction in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and BLM has delivered far greater diversity in the judging panels as well as the work. And we are all better for it.

I’m proud to say that creativity defeated COVID, which speaks to its power. Great work and big ideas flourished, despite unimaginable odds.

The work from the past two years spans a vast emotional range. From the profundity of Dove’s “Courage is Beautiful” to the hyper exuberance of Burberry’s “Festive,” they are opposite ends of the spectrum, but each answered a need in us.

Take note, the ascendency of gaming cannot be understated. Smart brands have embraced the channel. It makes sense, because gamers participate to meet others around the world, not just to play. And they represent a huge and powerful community. That’s why QSR Wendy’s gamified their iconic gal in RPG’s Feast of Legends.

Burger King sponsored the unknown Stevenage Football Club, transforming the team into online heroes and vaulting BK into the fray at the same time. Once again, the brand embedded itself in culture.

The birth of gaming tourism arrived when Xbox snuggled up to travel guides and created a brilliant baby: a travel guide for gaming worlds. It, too, embedded itself in culture.

From the standpoint of social good, Reporter Without Borders showed how it worked with Mindcraft for its “Uncensored Library” to bypass press censorship, with Minecraft providing a loophole to a space where young people could be educated. It provided youth with a powerful tool to fight oppression: truth.

COVID changed us in unexpected ways. We learned how to pay attention again and there was a notable lack of 30-second commercials. Instead, longer format content thrived. Apple’s WFH was seven minutes long. Entertainment reigned king, so we find ourselves returning to our advertising roots.

Seeing competitive brands form partnerships was one of this year’s other great surprises. The brilliantly simple “Beer Cap Project” by Aguila to reduce binge-drinking saw the brand reach out to competitive beers to join in. Aguila put incentivizing (keyword: free) reminders to drink water, eat food and get home safely on its bottle caps from all sorts of fast food chains, ride-share co’s and H2O brands.

On a personal level, I’m so proud of Canada again this year. Given that it was two years of work from all over the world being judged, even making the Cannes shortlist was an accomplishment. Canada is herding in the Lions in tremendous numbers – and it’s not even over. Fingers are crossed.

KAREN-HOWE-PIC-higher-rez-300x263Karen Howe is a Canadian Cannes Advisory Board Member and founder of The Township Group