Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The tunnelvision of tech PR

If some tech PR firms can't find enough people to hire, it may be because they are far too rigid in defining the skills that will help their clients.

Over the years, I've seen the shortcomings of many tech PR firms, a number of them borne out of Silicon Valley and setting up New York City outposts. These drawbacks have periodically helped me win new clients, yet it's been striking that the reasons they've been fired have been as repetitive as a broken record.

Many tech PR firms always fall prey to the same malaise a number of the music business publicists I ran into in the 80's did: they are tremendously insular to the point of not knowing about anything else outside their world. In the music business, it was all about begging grungy rock critics for album reviews and interviews with new artists. In tech PR, it's about hammering the same group of journalists and bloggers without any stepping back to think of different, bigger, better and more creative roads.

Since the dot com boom, tech publicists have been cranking out press releases non-stop on their clients' dimes over the paid newswires in hope something will stick. To me, it seems like a convenient excuse to tell their start-up client that they issued a press release and here's the proof.

Public relations is not just writing and issuing releases, but finessing and relationships, and finding new ways of telling interesting stories. It's an easy fallback to go to the same group of journalists and bloggers time and time again.

Recently, I sent a rundown of my accomplishments to a San Francisco-originated tech PR firm and the co-founder e-mailed me that one of the reasons I was not a right fit for working with them was because my background was not "majority tech-focused." I'm not quite sure what constitutes a "majority" in this person's mind or how much tech-focused PR means you know what you're doing. I was working with Scholastic's joint Internet venture with AOL back in 1997, won a few Internet PR awards along the way, won my first round in PR Week's PR Blog Competition by beating Edelman Worldwide's social media guru, and spent about one third of my last 10 years working successfully with some major digital clients, producing some terrific results that I post on my own portfolio site.

In the end, tech and Web 2.0 companies want to build and maintain their brands with power and intelligence. This is what they are looking for in their public relations partners, to build their brands, be influential, win many constituents, become known to marketing and advertising partners and ideally, draw more rounds of investment. They want their PR partners to not only be acclimated to what they do, but think outside the box and bring something fresh to the table, not robotically issuing press releases over PR Newswire and expecting that to do the job. They do not want them confined to that same group of tech media, forever imprisoned by the musical chairs within those quarters, or else they are just plain short-sighted.

Without a growing and loyal audience, along with an ad clientele, the investors will have their doubts. The best way to draw an audience and ad clientele? Public relations that pays its dues with that tech media corral while at the same time branches off into wider business and consumer media, drawing them into the applications, the stickiness, giving them an emotional stake to come back and use the product again and again.

To do that, it takes creativity and having a greater understanding of how to exploit your client's capabilities and stories into popular social media, word of mouth, business press, and spilling into consumer media... even the ink-on-paper pages of a real honest to God newspaper!

A few years ago, hip hop clothes designer Marc Ecko made it clear that he was hiring us because we were not a fashion PR firm. His marketing director called me saying that they dismissed Paul Wilmot because not only did they handle competitor Rocawear, but they pitched the same small circle of journalists. They approached us specifically because we built the Maxim brand into a household name and they wanted that same kind of firepower.

Recently, one of my corporate executive friends was pitched by a typical NY branch of a well-known San Francisco-based tech PR firm. While their presentation was classy and immaculate, my friend was unimpressed that they didn't know what he called "the New York City media landscape." He asked them who they knew at the NY Post, and they drew a blank. They were history.

Until they learn to widen their horizons about what it takes to grow a brand -- Web 2.0 or not -- many tech PR firms will continue to roll that same rock up the hill, only to find it crashing back down on them.


Jeff Donald said...

Nice post - I couldn't agree more.

Everyone in the process just has a "check the box" mentality. I always think of the chief marketing officers and others hiring "Tech PR" firms who also don't want to think outside the box. They're trying to justify ROI and attempting something new and different isn't worth risking their job.

If their CEO questions why the PR didn't work, they can blame it on the PR firm so long as they took the same route every other company did. If they try something novel, then it becomes solely their risk.

Since the client has that mentality, it probably behooves the PR firm to also adopt it. They check their boxes by hiring just "Tech PR" guys so that if things can go south they can also blame it on external forces since they did what was expected.

I always love it when people praise and make case studies out of those who thought differently and succeeded, but very few are willing to walk the walk.

PRJack said...

Nice post. Sad but true. The thing is, is that agencies that have a diversified client base tend to be both better suited at finding realistic, newsworthy angles for their clients and are more likely to handle market fluctuation with less disruption.

But here's a curious thing... years back when I worked at an agency that did a lot of tech (it was our 'major' if you will) we would pitch new business with specialized IT companies... say fibre optic networking. These companies would look at our roster (of heavy hitters, multinationals, small innovators) and say - ah, but you haven't worked on fibre optic networking so you don't understand our business. Sure during the tech boom some companies could afford to do that. But what this highlights is a two-way mentality of the those that 'over-specialize' ... that while 'laser' focus is good at times, it tends to stifle creativity. And when dealing with the media and stories that often have limited newsworthiness, creativity is key.

Doug Haslam said...

Great topic Drew. Underlying this is that diversification is what helps any company survive-- this goes from taking different types of clients to reduce exposure (my "tech" PR firm, SHIFT Communications, has taken a number of consumer brands in addition to the strictly technology clients.

From a hiring standpoint, I love looking outside of people with agency experience (while also including them of course). I came to Pr from journalism- and it wasn't tech-- so there.

I also find, like you have, that potential clients looks for experience in a certain kind of technology- WE ARE COMMUNICATIONS EXPERTS- YOU (clients) ARE THE TECHNOLOGY EXPERTS- and looking for narrow experise is generally not a good, or easy, way to go.