PUBLIC RELATIONS: Redirecting the high-tech message - New technology is a burgeoning area for PR, and agencies face the challenge of ensuring consumers are not blinded by science. Stephanie France reports

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.

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

its roots.’

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.

Lifestyle benefits

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

advanced technology.

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


Product quality

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

portfolio-enhancing clients.

’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


Staff investment

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

IT industry.

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

                                       97, pounds

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.


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