High-tech PR for a post dot-com world

With so many tech companies feeling the sting of the market meltdown, it's appropriate to take stock (pun intended) and look at what tech PR should be doing in these post dot-com times. The truth is that this long overdue 'market...

With so many tech companies feeling the sting of the market meltdown, it’s appropriate to take stock (pun intended) and look at what tech PR should be doing in these post dot-com times. The truth is that this long overdue ‘market correction’ is simply a signal that the technology sector is finally maturing as a market. That means, of course, that technology companies will now be treated as grown ups, and should start behaving more maturely in their public relations, too.

Let’s be honest: the giddy times at the close of the 20th century were incredibly exciting, for tech companies and their agency partners alike. With the markets at an all time high and the whole ‘Built to flip’ mindset at its peak – it seemed that just about any Web-based business idea could get financed and promoted. And we all bought into it – we all helped make it happen. The Internet bubble was largely inflated by hot air pumped in through the worst kinds of PR excesses.

Everyone was swept up in the frenzy – vendors, agencies, even the most sober media outlets joined in celebrating the excess. Now it’s like waking up the morning after a night of dancing on the tables to High-Ho Silver Lining, and remembering you’re 37 years old and not really built for that kind of life any more.

B2B now translates to Back to Basics – for tech companies and their agencies alike. A winning business model and a Super Bowl ad do not a dream IPO make. The market expects revenue, profits, and (here’s the rub) some clear idea of what you’re really in business to achieve – for the long term.

So in this more cautious, more conservative climate – what should your PR efforts focus on? Blowing thousands on the flashiest, best-catered event is not likely to impress these days. You’re more likely to alienate your customers, irritate your shareholders and completely underwhelm the hardened media who’ve seen it all before (only the other guys took them to Hawaii and had it catered by Wolfgang Puck). How do you get your story across, when stunts, hype and tchotchkes just aren’t enough?

The first thing, of course, is to figure out what your story is.

It’s the single most important thing to do, in every aspect of communications: tell a story. This is so simple, so obvious; I’m almost embarrassed to even say it. Nothing is more interesting than a story. Yet so many tech companies forget this basic fact and continue to pepper the newswires with non-stories, in the vain hope of lifting their stock price out of the doldrums.

Remember: the main reason you write news releases is to get coverage. If you don’t have enough ‘news’ to make for an interesting story in tomorrow’s paper, you should think long and hard about even issuing a release.

Most (surviving) tech companies do have terrific stories to tell – but they often let the buzzwords and business-school speak get in the way and end up with nonsense. Even after the meltdown, tech journalists are still drowning in a jargon-salted sea of ‘e-business solutions,’ ‘P2P exchanges’ and ‘leading global innovators.’ Fall into the trap of trying to tell your corporate story with these paper-thin terms and you might as well pump Novocaine straight into your audience’s brain stems – the dulling effect will be at least as pronounced.

News releases do not exist to make the company feel good about being at the cutting edge of business model innovation. The job is to inform, educate and interest an audience – whether that audience is from the media, investment, analyst, client or partner communities. If your news release gets the management team nodding in heated agreement that you’ve described your company’s present reality and ‘willed future’ in motivational, inspirational terms – well, great. But if no one outside the company can understand your story – all you’ve served is your own corporate ego.

This is a persistent challenge with many PR initiatives. I know exactly how it happens: everyone gets into a room, loaded with caffeine and sugar, and brainstorms the right things to say about the company. In the best cases, you end up with terrific rhetoric – full of strongly phrased, truly powerful statements, pared back to the minimum short form description to fit the limitations of the medium. In the worst cases, you end up with ‘end-to-end P2P e-business solutions portals,’ or some such gibberish.

The problem is often that the context of the discussions and longer explanations end up left behind on the meeting room floor. Anyone reading the resulting news release, who doesn’t have the context from working with the team in that room, is left trying to figure out what the strained language of the shorthand description means.

The purpose of marketing communications is to demonstrate that you fully understand and can clearly talk to your marketplace. You want the media to help as a vehicle to relay clear and powerful messages to your customers. You want the target audience to quickly ‘self-identify’ from reading your coverage, and pick up the phone to find out more.

Get too clever with the jargon and you’ll mumble the story. Expose too many possibilities for alternative interpretations of what you mean, and your market will never cut through the confusion to find you.

To bring it right back to basics, all stories anchor around exactly three ingredients: character, problem and movement (towards a resolution). Or, put another way:

• Who are you and who are your customers? (character)

• What pain or opportunity do you address? (problem)

• How do you make things better and what’s the benefit? (movement)

The best possible communications strategy for any company should try to combine these elements in succinct, simply worded paragraphs.

One of the single most important, defining strengths that many tech companies have, of course, is their people – ‘character’ in the most literal sense. In the new economy, Human Capital is the first, most important part of any organization. ‘Character,’ in PR terms, is also where you define the nature, purpose, personality and behaviour of the company. Without spilling over into egotism, your PR efforts should celebrate these aspects. Give us human voices saying human things: that’s interesting.

Defining the ‘problem’ is where you illustrate what’s wrong with previous models of operation, or name the pain points of your target clients, such that they can easily see you’re talking about them and you understand their needs. ‘Movement,’ of course, is your opportunity to trumpet your services in addressing the problem.

Start with these three elements in your news releases, ruthlessly trim the B-school flummery, and stop trying to claim you’re a ‘leader,’ and you might start getting your story across.

Michael O’Connor Clarke is a VP and director of Cohn & Wolfe’s technology practice in Toronto.