How Digital Tools and Audiences are Changing Public Relations for Technology Businesses

Copyright Jeffrey Geibel, All Rights Reserved

Simply overlaying digital tools on top of a conventional public relations program really doesn't gain you much - the unique characteristics of a 7x24 world requires a rethinking and new structure for your underlying public relations program. Here's what makes the difference...

Considering that public relations is a communications discipline, one would think that the rapid proliferation of digital tools and rapid communications technology would make public relations all that more powerful and effective. In certain consumer-related areas this has certainly been the case, but for most technology-based businesses, many find that they are not much better off than they were before the digital era. The acid test is how well your public relations program supports your sales and marketing, by building the critical sales front-end of credibility and competitive distinction. Most high-tech sales and marketing executives would candidly tell you (usually in confidence) how their current public relations program supports their sales and marketing - "...not very well."

The problem lies in the fact that many of the tried-and-true public relations tools were developed in a different era, and the use of today's digital tools are mostly just an overlay - with a result that is roughly akin to trying to fit a jet engine to what had been a horse-drawn carriage. Unless the underlying structure is redesigned to take advantage of the new technology, the wheels will come off. To be sure, the redesign utilizes the same basic principles, but now it is viewed as an integrated vehicle - not just a blend of old and new.

The same is true of your public relations program if you don't redesign it for digital application and digital audiences. This implies that in this effort you are dealing with someone who has the capabilities to be a public relations architect - turning your vision into executables - not just a hammer-and-saw trades person. Meanwhile, here are some of the deficiencies that you will encounter if your public relations program is not redesigned for the digital era:

Disrespect for senior management time

One of the problems with outdated tools is that they are highly inefficient. Nowhere is this more true that in using outdated public relations approaches that chew up valuable senior management time. For example, the rather tired concept of the 'press tour'. In a recent article, former 10-year Computerworld editor Bill Laberis (no stranger to press tours) estimated that at least one third of press tours would be eliminated if management simply questioned the need. Continuing his logic, if management added a rigorous cost-benefit evaluation (in terms of their time), probably another third (or possibly more) would be eliminated. In other words, the majority of press tours are a waste of time. They are the public relations equivalent of the sales cold-call. If you suggested to senior management that they go on sales cold-calls - they would quickly show you the door. So why are press tours still used? To be sure, in certain instances they are useful (where management is on the road anyway, say in conjunction with another road show for distributors, major customers, etc., or when developing a new sales region) - but those reasons don't explain the vast majority of press tours. Frankly, management may like being towed around and treated like a presidential candidate, and may even think that substantial coverage will arise - but if they did an audit later, they might be surprised at how little actually results. One client told me about their prior agency, that had arranged meetings with 19 analysts - and yet I couldn't find a single media mention on them that quoted a single analyst. With a digital public relations program, digital materials and tools do the front end work, and senior management time is respected - they are utilized in actual interviews, not in media cold-calls.

Failure to consider that you are addressing a digital audience

Conventional public relations tools - the press release, white paper, press kit - were designed at the turn of the century for a professional audience of journalists. In the digital era, much of your public relations program will be addressing non-journalistic audiences, such as sales prospects, customers, industry analysts, prospective employees, etc. These audiences are not accustomed to receiving information in the conventional public relations format, and will regard it as cumbersome and annoying. Your information has to be structured and formatted as a quick read if you want to get the message across - otherwise it gets ignored. A quick review of what gets posted to most web sites and the wire services (which are now accessed by Internet search engines and desktop news-retrieval software) will show you that the conventional press release format is still widely followed - and the information requirements of a digital audience are not being met.

Confusing public relations activity with public relations results

Two examples come to mind - the press tour mentioned above, and the public relations agency 'clip book' that you find in the lobby. A client may think that because they are being dragged around on tours, or a mindless press release is written every week (and perhaps even a one-paragraph clip appears) - that these are public relations 'results'. They really aren't - but they keep the retainer checks flowing in - for a while. Just as the rest of the company works off of an annual plan, so should you public relations program - and that plan should clearly delineate how the public relations program will support your business objectives. The most obvious support would be for the sales and marketing of your products or services. Mere product announcements are almost worthless - the real message is how does your technology help your customers to solve their business problems? How is this message being communicated to your digital audiences? How does this track with your sales and marketing objectives and plan for the next four quarters? This is the road map to digital public relations results.

Failure to 'refresh the screen' by creating a self-renewing story

Conventional public relations programs will have the press kit materials developed once, and then seldom updated except for the new press release. Unfortunately, press materials don't have a long shelf life, especially in high-tech. Yesterday's corporate backgrounder is tomorrow's quaint history lesson. I might be a history buff - but the majority of your digital audience isn't. You have to keep your press fresh and current - in other words, have a self-renewing story. The best self-renewing story is how you customers are using your technology to solve business problems - with each new sale, everything is updated - technology, market environment, economic considerations, etc. What could be better to keep your public relations program crisp and current? Yet how many application features do you see like this, that are generated as source material by a high-tech public relations program? Very few. In the conventional public relations approach, the press kit is sent to the targeted media, and the editorial staff is massaged in an attempt to get them to agree to assign a writer to get editorial coverage. In a digital public relations program, this cumbersome process can be bypassed and the end result feature story is self-generated by the company as the source material press release for the digital audiences. An additional benefit is that this is even more effective than a conventional release in dealing with the media, because then it does not take a lot of visualization to see the potential editorial feature - even if they rewrite it in their style. Why is this process not done more frequently? Because many public relations providers do not have the insights to understand how technology is bought or sold, or used to solve business problems. Their stock in trade is conventional materials and conventional dissemination - which is why so many high-tech firms all look the same to digital audiences and much of the media.

Confusing the need for customized responsiveness with dissemination

Hand-in-hand with appealing to a digital audience is the concept of one-on-one marketing. In other words, your response to a query is expected to be personalized to their information needs. This is especially true for the media. Simply disseminating stock material without customization does not engender interest. Responsiveness in this context of this challenge takes two forms: a targeted approach to certain media or audiences (e.g., industry analysts), and replies to incoming inquiries. For targeted digital audiences, the basic message is 'tweaked' for their interests, e.g., industry analysts want more of the 'big picture' overview and competitive market distinction, trade media would want more drill-down detail on solving the business problem, etc. For example, for one client I prepared three press releases on a single new product introduction - a general release, one for their distributors and one for the trade media. Same information - it was simply presented in a different format that reflected the unique interests and orientation of each audience - and it was obvious to the reader. With a digital public relations program- you know who your discreet audiences are and you can set up discreet channels to reach them - which requires responsiveness to their information needs in terms of customization. The second challenge - responsiveness to incoming inquiries, would seem to be obvious - but isn't. Rather ironically, writers and editors often comment that although they are badgered daily by conventional public relations types, many times their calls are not returned in a timely manner when they are working on a deadline and need some specific information or a response. In responding to media or other inquiries, it is important to respond quickly while there is still fresh 'mind share' - so that you maintain interest and a dialogue. The loss of a digital day can sometimes be a millennium. I have found that a quick response by telephone or email often stuns the recipient, and gains some additional mindshare. Additionally, many of these requests can be anticipated and material posted to your web site for 7x24 access. If it is material that is too specific to allow general web access - put it on a web page that has a discreet address that you only give to qualified individuals (e.g., is not accessible from the main web page.) If additional information from the client is needed, I buy time and maintain the dialogue by periodically faxing (digital era) press releases and other material, while I assemble a custom press kit which is Federal Expressed to the recipient. On an international basis, this will get materials anywhere in the world in about two days. Savvy digital era clients should require that inquiries be responded to within 24 hours at the most, preferably in the same working day. Otherwise, the editorial coverage you lose may be your own.

Digital public relations requires a rethinking and restructuring on conventional public relations techniques, not just a digital overlay. Several high-tech companies have attained industry visibility that is not necessarily justified by their market position or technical leadership, but rather by their ability to leverage the concepts of digital public relations. You should be one of them.

Copyright 1998 Jeffrey P. Geibel, All Rights Reserved

Related articles:

Articles Master Index Page for One Stop Browsing

Think Twice About that Press Release - You May Have Entered The Google Zone

Broadcast PR: Working with Community Access Television

‘60-Second' Elevator PR

Are You Sure You are "On-message"? (Sales Messaging)

Can Your PR Program Crossover to the Mainstream Business Media?

Developing a Thematic ReleaseSM Program for Channel Marketing

How to Build a Sales Public Relations Program

Marketing ROI Part I: Estimating Your ‘Reachable' Market Potential

Losing the Battle for Mindshare: A Guide to Ineffective PR

It's Your Website, Stupid!

Internet Damage Control: How to Prevent and Defend Against a Web Mugging

What Your Web Site Says About Your PR Savvy

Dot.Com Public Relations

Using Public Relations to Leverage the Hidden Code in Your Successful Sales

The Sales Autopsy [sm]

How Digital Tools and Audiences are Changing Public Relations for Technology Businesses

The 5W's for Direct-to-Web Public Relations

Looking for Mr. GoodInk - How to find the PR Advisor that is Right for Your Company

Complex Technology Requires an Intelligent, Sales-Based Public Relations Program

Caveat Expectation: Public Relations Strategies for Emerging Growth Companies

How to Bridge the Chasm, Not Just Cross It

Marketing Architecture for Business Sales

Kennedy Crash Shows Public Relations Lessons Learned from TWA Flight 800

Return to Index Page