High-tech is the fastest-growing sector of the PR industry, and it
is the most challenging as agencies are charged with communicating IT
messages to consumers who are largely IT illiterate.
Most in the industry would agree that the consumer IT boom has developed
in waves, the first being triggered by the launch of the IBM personal
computer. The arrival of the home PC in the 80s and the internet in the
early 90s, saw computing break out of the domain of the business
community and become accessible to consumers for the first time. More
recently, fears over issues such as the Millennium Bug have helped
underline the importance of technology in most people’s lives.
At the time of the first boom, the average high-tech PR agency was
staffed by computer ’nerds’, adept only at communicating with IT
managers. Nowadays, PR practitioners are as likely to be targeting
technophobe chief executives in business-to-business campaigns as
business journalists. In their consumer campaigns, practitioners will be
working mainly with IT-illiterate journalists. This move away from
selling to an IT-literate audience has encouraged PR professionals to
take a different approach. The talk now is less about the
ground-breaking technology of a product, and more about how it can
improve our lives.
In practice, this often means trawling through pages of high-tech
manuals, picking out the most salient points, and then communicating
them in a jargon-free way. ’If you are IT literate and comfortable with
the jargon, you can’t tell if you’re talking jargon or not,’ says Nick
Hayes, managing director of Noiseworks. ’Our job is to turn pages of IT
drudge into a few sexy points.’
Chris Lewis, founder of Lewis PR, identifies another advantage PR has
over other forms of marketing, including advertising. ’Because new
technology is often a leap of faith, it needs the kind of endorsement
that can only come from unbiased third parties.
’Journalists aren’t interested in the latest widget or digit that can go
faster. They want to know what it can do for people,’ he adds. Gareth
Zundel, director at Harvard PR, agrees: ’PR people should make
technology relevant to peoples’ lives. They need to get under the skin
of the target market.’
Harvard client, SAP, produces software which manages the IT systems of
large businesses. Because senior company personnel are now more likely
to be in charge of IT purchasing, Harvard was careful not to mystify the
target audience with high-tech wizardry, but instead attempted to bring
a series of core issues alive.
Voice of authority
The aim was to establish SAP as the voice of authority in its field.
The team organised breakfast debates and exhibitions to discuss the more
easily understood industry issues, such as e-commerce, the Millennium
Bug and European integration.
These events were hosted by SAP and company bosses were invited to
In addition, SAP worked with the Confederation of British Industry and
the Institute of Directors (IoD) to produce industry-related events and
guides, and sponsored the IoD’s e-commerce activities. The result was a
17% increase in positive strategic coverage for SAP during 1998,
particularly in key business titles.
Consumer campaigns require even less technical information. Two recent
products - Nintendo 64 and iMac - focused on the lifestyle benefits to
the key audience, while adding some flair to the campaign.
Although the Nintendo 64 is 1000 times more powerful than the first
computer used to put man on the moon, Harvard positioned it as a cool
product which would appeal to 14-year-old boys.
For the launch of Nintendo’s Rogue Squadron game, based on the Star Wars
films, the company set up a Star Wars Week in the IPC Magazines
Food with a space theme was served up and interactive units were set up
for journalists to play with.
Similarly, Bite positioned the new iMac computer as a lifestyle ’must
have’ when it worked on the PR campaign for Apple last summer. However,
Bite was faced with a major problem - many in the industry did not
believe Apple had a future.
Clive Armitage, Bite managing director, says: ’We decided to run a
back-to-basics campaign. Apple had a great reputation for stylish design
and we needed to convince people that with iMac, Apple had gone back to
The launch, at London club Browns, ensured the campaign got off on the
right foot. The walls of the club were decorated to match the different
coloured iMacs and a DJ was hired to provide the music.
Following the event, Bite started its education programme and sought to
persuade journalists that Apple was back with a vengeance. Bite’s
tactics paid dividends, with blanket media coverage generated in a
diverse range of titles.
Unlike Apple’s psychedelic iMacs, few fridges can be described as a
lifestyle ’must have’. But when PR firm Grayling launched the
Screenfridge at February’s Future Focus exhibition in Reading, it chose
to concentrate on the lifestyle benefits of the product and not its
The Screenfridge, a joint venture between Grayling’s client ICL Retail
Systems and electrical appliance manufacturer Electrolux, includes a
barcode scanner. When this is linked to the internet, it is possible to
order the weekly shopping from the kitchen. The fridge can also receive
e-mails, check bank balances and pay bills.
Robert Fenner, director of IT at Grayling Group, says: ’We focused on
the anything, anytime, anywhere approach to shopping that current retail
technology makes possible.’ The tactic paid off with good national
coverage in the trade and consumer press plus follow-ups
internationally, including the New York Times.
While to some extent an ’intelligent’ fridge will sell itself, Lewis PR
was faced with an uphill struggle when asked to raise the profile of
data recovery service, Ontrack. The product was not only difficult to
sell - data recovery services are usually sought after the event - but
there was no obvious news hook.
Ontrack had no new products to launch, no announcements to make and most
of its spokespeople were busy at trade shows.
Lewis says: ’We came up with the idea of a dog eating a student’s
final-year project. We then approached Ontrack to find out if such a
recovery operation had ever taken place.’
It had, in the US. The story was initially offered to The Times’
Inter//face section and was then followed up by a raft other
publications. A second strand of the campaign was developed when Lewis
PR publicised the research it had commissioned into whether men or women
used data recovery services the most. It found that women used the
service the most because they were more willing than men to call in the
But no matter how creative a campaign is, it is only as good as the
product it seeks to promote, as Katie Kemp, managing director of Text
100, discovered with one client. It had developed a new product with an
extremely light battery which only lasted 30 minutes.
Kemp advised the client this would make it unsuitable for the business
market. But despite shifting the focus to the consumer market and
promoting other benefits such as good screen resolution, the target
market was not big enough to make a significant impact on sales.
The buoyancy of the IT industry has led to a proliferation of specialist
PR start-ups while the bigger agencies have responded by launching
dedicated high-tech divisions. Hayes, who started Noiseworks eight years
ago, because he ’couldn’t buy into another agency’s culture’, believes
there is now little to choose between the best specialist agencies and
the best high-tech divisions of larger agencies.
’The two have met in the middle. Ten years ago, the IT specialist
couldn’t talk to anybody outside the IT press and didn’t have an
international network, while the big agencies lacked experience.’
However, Kate Wright, head of IT at Fleishman Hillard, believes bigger
agencies have the edge. ’We have access to a wider range of expertise at
the drop of a hat without having to go and look for it. As the IT
industry becomes more sophisticated in its approach to public relations,
so do clients’ requirements. They need access to a much wider range of
skills. We offer one-stop shopping.’
The growth in specialist start-ups shows little sign of abating and
many, like Kemp, do not feel that saturation point has been reached. She
has, however, noticed a trend which she believes has contributed to the
industry’s recruitment woes. A minority of start-ups are being formed
with the express intention of being sold later for big profits. These
start-ups will poach the best staff from established agencies to net
’They artificially inflate salaries and we can’t compete,’ says Kemp.
’Where we can compete is talking to our staff about where we’re going
and excite them about clients. But if staff are purely money driven,
they will go to a start-up which can pay more.’
Kemp’s theory is one of many which attempts to explain the current
recruitment crisis. The most widely held theory is that graduates were
not recruited at the start of the 90s because of the recession.
This has led to a dearth of good account managers and account directors
with five to seven years work under their belt, so competition is fierce
for experienced staff.
’Every time we interview a good candidate, they also have an interview
with Brodeur A Plus, Text 100, Firefly and maybe a generic agency, all
in that week,’ says Noiseworks’ Hayes.
Investing in training is seen as the best method of retaining staff.
Jill Coomber, director of Grant Butler Coomber, says her agency invests
heavily in ’home growing’ staff, directing 8% of revenue into
Noiseworks has a dedicated recruitment officer, who also arranges
on-going training for staff, while Brodeur A Plus was one of the first
agencies to gain Investor in People accreditation. It also offers a
structured training development programme, the opportunity to work in
other offices around the world, ’extremely generous’ maternity benefits
and flexible working hours.
’It all comes down to the realisation that your people are your only
resources and they are your only sustainable source of competitive
advantage,’ says Jonathan Simnett, director for corporate development at
Brodeur A Plus.
As the IT industry prepares for the future, a new problem is emerging
for high-tech PR agencies. While much is written about IT success
stories, little is heard of the casualties. According to some PR
practitioners, the public are forming a wholly inaccurate picture of the
Hayes explains: ’The public believes that while Bill Gates is
undoubtedly the richest man in IT, everybody else is still raking it in.
The fact is that out of the top ten software companies, half will have
reported poor figures this year. The market is booming only in
Kemp believes that the illusion of rich pickings for everyone has led to
an unprecedented boom in start-up companies, which in time could
actually harm the high-tech PR industry.
’It’s such a competitive market that you can really be there one day and
gone the next,’ she says. ’There are new IT companies out there with a
great proposition, incredibly excited people and a little bit of money
from investor capital. PR agencies sign with them and six months later
the new companies are out of business leaving the agencies with bad
Have PR practitioners helped fuel the myth of an IT industry populated
by billionaires? It would be ironic if the high-tech PR industry has
shot itself in the foot by doing its job too well.
The top ten high-tech PR agencies
Rank Company UK high-tech income staff
1 Text 100 6,182,486 113
2 Brodeur A Plus 3,974,048 67
3 Firefly Communications 3,144,687 60
4 Harvard PR 2,717,820 55
5 Hill & Knowlton 2,625,420 243
6 Shandwick UK 2,538,400 382
7 Weber PR Worldwide 2,500,122 148
8 The Argyll Consultancies 2,363,862 52
9 Edelman PR Worldwide 2,352,009 65
10 AD Communications 1,497,264 20
Source: PR Week’s 1998 Top 50 Hi-Tech PR League Table
- The value of the UK high-tech industry in 1998 was pounds 60.7m. This
figure is based on the combined high-tech fee incomes of the Top 50
Hi-Tech PR Agencies.
Source: PR Week.
- In September 1998, specialist US market research company Killen &
Associates predicted that spending on IT globally will grow by 60%
between 1997 and 2002.
- High-tech is the fastest-growing sector of the PR industry.
Source: PR Week.