Pt Reyes
Point Reyes Lighthouse - California

Why Technology Public Relations is Such a Disappointment

Copyright 2022 Jeffrey Geibel, All Rights Reserved

The scenario was one that I had come to expect. I was having a meeting with a colleague who is VP of sales for a technology company. He was grousing about what their ‘name’ public relations firm was doing (or not doing). He shoved a document across the table and said "They're getting a monthly retainer for this." What he gave me was an academic exercise in positioning and tag lines, meanwhile, the company’s lead-generation program had been a disaster, and his sales people where engaged in the brutal hand-to-hand combat of cold-call telemarketing to get sales for the company’s new clud-based product. In another example, I saw some press on a fairly trivial topic from an app development company where I knew the VP of marketing. The coverage was too organized to be serendipitous. I called him and found out that he had a ‘name’ high-tech public relations firm on retainer for 18 months, and the ‘cutesy’ press coverage was all that they had obtained in that time period. Finally, I came across an article by a marketing director at a high-tech firm that described how to use public relations for high-tech. The article was somewhat basic and superficial, but I was curious as to how much of it had been put to use. I did an on-line search and found that there had been no editorial coverage or press releases on that company for several years!

What gives? Why is technology public relations such a disappointment and cause of frustration for most technology executives?

Quite frankly, it is because technology public relations is not clearly understood by most of the contracting (buying) executives. There is no ‘mission statement’ for what they want their public relations to do, and it is not tied closely enough to their sales and marketing, where the results are quantifiable and measurable. Often, the public relations program has nebulous objectives of ‘awareness’ or ‘influence the influencers’ - which is curious, since I haven't come across a technology company yet who met their revenue goals by selling to industry analysts. To be sure, it may be to get visibility in order to get venture capital - but that is a specific audience with specific objectives.

What steps can a technology executive take to get the most from their public relations effort and advisors, and make it part of their competitive advantage? Here are some pointers that will help to identify the program objectives and capabilities that you need to effectively employ public relations:

  • Keep the public relations effort closely tied to the sales and marketing effort. Have 12-month goals and three month milestones of tangible industry visibility (editorial features) of your customer applications. Also, instead of the typical, boring product announcements that quote your own executives and the ‘usual suspects’ of industry analysts - try showcasing the value-added of your beta applications.
  • When evaluating public relations advisors, make sure that they understand your technology and vision. Prior to the first meeting, send them your material or tell them to visit your web site, and then spend most of the first meeting having them sell your vision back to you - just as they would to an editor. Don’t expect quite your own level of expertise, but suppress the natural desire to ‘help out’ and just listen. Do they grasp the major concepts and can they sell (not just ‘pitch’ - but proactively sell) your vision and technology to someone else? If you’re not sure, have your top sales person sit in on the meeting as a cross check. They know selling skills when they see them. If you are not convinced - neither will be an editor. Look for industry awareness and positioning with respect to other technology and industry developments - the same acumen that your sales people (hopefully) have.
  • Don’t be seduced by the line that ‘we have contacts’ or visions of coverage in the Wall Street Journal (Dirty little industry secret - all of that information is in published trade databases. And the ability to get coverage in one technology area doesn't necessarily translte to geting coverage in a totally different technology.) Have the agency candidates draw up a list of key trade publications in your major markets, and have them walk you through a media penetration strategy - how they would research and approach the publications, and why.
  • Customer applications (vision creation) are the most effective way to sell technology. (Customer applications differ from the more common ‘happy talk’ success stories in that they walk the reader through the business problem, the value-add of the technology, and the customer’s buying-cycle issues. Their development requires a keen understanding of how technology is bought - which is why you seldom see application profiles (they require knowledge of the sales process) - but mostly ‘success stories’.) To confirm the capability of a public relations advisor to develop and employ these solution-vision applications, have them provide you with three representative customer application profiles that they developed for their clients, and the resultant editorial coverage. Read through the applications. Do you understand the technology and vision, or do they just use the right words, but have a shallow grasp of the technical and business value-add? What are the quality of the editorial placements? Significant or puff pieces? Again, what you see is what you get.
  • Lastly - ask a public relations advisor for their definition of high-tech public relations and listen carefully. The more nebulous the answer - the more nebulous will be the services you get. Perhaps not surprisingly, a lot of public relations providers really don’t have a clear understanding of technolgy (or difficult-to-sell products) public relations, much less how it can support technology sales and marketing. They can get away with being retained by high-tech companies, for among other reasons, because they are almost never questioned on their understanding of technology public relations. This is because the technology client often has no clear goals or objectives for the public relations program - but allows that criteria to be given to them (directly or by default) by the agency. If you hear the line ‘you just don’t understand public relations’ - it’s a smokescreen, chances are they don’t either. This is one case where you get what you specify - not necessarily what you pay for.

Technology public relations, when used effectively, can help to create competitive advantage and more importantly, help to shorten the technology sales cycle. However, the effective use of public relations services requires that the savvy technology executive be somewhat of an ‘expert’ buyer of those services. They have to know what capabilities they are looking for to helpthem use public relations as an effective sales and marketing tool, and should be prepared to provide both direction and identify measurable goals for the effort.

Caveat: Public relations has undergone a significant change in personality in the last decade or so. Traditional public relations (based on knowledge of the technology and channels of communications to reach high-potential prospects) has been largely replaced by a heavy social-media channel marketing industry. The giveaways are a lack of significant in-house market research capabilities (customizable to your customers) and a strong orientation toward entertainment or gimmickry (public relations or advertisements with special effects, etc.) rather than vision creation (knowing how public relations supports the sales effort) which is the value of the solution - in other words - knowing why the cusomer would buy. Copyright 1997, 2022 Jeffrey Geibel All Rights Reserved

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