Persistence, Creativity Key to Beating the Slump in Tech Market

Joe Blumenfeld still remembers the good ol' days. "During the bubble, a flurry of press releases and emails was sufficient to start telling your company's story," says Blumenfeld, director of worldwide PR for software maker Concord. "Today, it actually takes work." Most PR departments are feeling the pinch of the tight economy, but with the dotcom days a distant memory, technology companies are particularly hard-hit, struggling to gain attention from far fewer reporters on the beat. The journalists left standing in the technology marketplace are highly wary and have fewer editorial pages to fill. Consumers and investors are skeptical, too, and dramatically slashed budgets top it all off. Step into a Reporter's Shoes Success stories in this market are case studies for great PR in any industry. Solid presentation is the first step, according to Ed Gala, director of worldwide strategic PR at Xerox Corp. "The few contacts that are left are looking for better, more compelling stories." For Gala, this has meant creating a context within which to place his messaging. Take for instance Xerox's high-tech productivity tools: Rather than just say that these products make workers more productive, Gala's team conducted a nationwide study on the relationship between workplace productivity and new technologies. "The idea was to align Xerox with some of the issues, trends and developments in the digital workplace," he explains. Xerox also hosted a town-hall meeting in conjunction with the GraphExpo trade show, and it drew a standing-room-only crowd of about 1,000 leading commercial printers, Xerox customers, graphic arts press and industry influencers. Xerox promoted the event with a pre-show press release and online invitation. The PR team also had signage on site at GraphExpo. At the meeting, CEOs and analysts talked with leaders from the printing industry about the role of printing in the modern workplace. Gala says that kind of platform can help establish trust and strong messaging. "If you can find others in your industry who share your point of view, if you bring them together in a forum where they can discuss that and share those ideas, it can be very powerful. It is much more powerful than if any one company tried to communicate that message on their own," he says. Of course, it helps a lot if your product touches upon a current media interest. Ever since 9/11, for example, reporters have been especially responsive to stories about security, and that is good news for firms like Guardent, a producer of software applications that ensure enterprise security. While the security hook does help, the press still are more skeptical than ever before, says Jennifer Haas, communications manager at Guardent. In her efforts to overcome their cynicism, she is highly strategic when it comes to product launches. "With the decrease in advertising, editorial space in the IT trades is at a premium. Combine that with the fact that you have one shot to get it right when announcing a new product or service, and timing is king." Haas sometimes puts on the brakes rather than charging ahead. "The most successful launches have been when the service could be clearly articulated, customers could validate and the spokespeople were on-hand and prepped," she says. "This may seem like a 'no-brainer,' but many companies are in such a rush to be first-to-market that they end up publicly launching without a solid foundation." Thus Guardent won't do a launch "unless an industry analyst has been briefed, third-party references have been secured and the sales force is equipped with collateral and training to fulfill in-bound inquires - because at the end of the day, it's about driving sales." Those third-party references have always been a crucial component in a technology launch, but the present climate has made them even more vital. "The key word is 'proof,'" says Stephen Brown, director of corporate communications at software maker Macquarium Intelligent Communications. And if that proof comes from a customer, says Andrew Leibs, PR manager for Ecora Software, it's even better. "Even our friendliest editors never want to speak to anyone in our company when there is a customer who can say how they applied the technology." To meet that demand, Leibs needs to have customers who will talk to the press. "This has shifted my focus to developing relationships with our top customers, instead of our top experts here," he says. In order to develop those ties, Leibs works in close coordination with the sales force. "What I have found to be most effective is to ask people inside our sales organization to talk to customers about their experiences, and then whenever you have a customer who might want to be a reference, you get on the phone with them right away," he says. That being said, IT editors say that a handpicked client reference sometimes does not register as a major boost on the credibility meter. "Getting the balance between objectivity, on the one hand, and finding someone who is going to make the PR person happy - that is a hell of a balancing act," says Eric Griffith, managing editor of 80211-, an online site that reports wireless technology news. Griffith typically will use a PR person's client reference for a shorter article, but on more in-depth stories he still prefers to scout out his own sources. No strategy, however, can completely undo the fact that this is simply a tough time to pitch tech stories. That means corporate PR professionals must keep one eye turned inward, even as they scout the horizon for likely media. "Setting expectations is really crucial," says Kathleen Dunleavy, senior group manager for public relations at Sprint PCS. She is aggressive in positioning her department's efforts in the eyes of her firm's internal stakeholders and helping them to develop realistic PR goals. "I want them to know that we are going to get out there and hustle as much as we can," she says, "but I also want them to know some of the obstacles that are out there." (Contacts: Kathleen Dunleavy, 212/642-7229; Robert Dowling, 212/583-2775; Joe Blumenfeld, 508/303-4351; Ed Gala, 585-423-5230; Jennifer Haas, 781/577-6540, Andrew Leibs, 603/334-3144; Robert Dowling, 212/583-2775; Stephen Brown, 404/554-4224; Eric Griffith 607/257-4044) What Sells in Tech PR? Media interest in technology is fragmented these days. Here's what does - and does not - catch a reporter's eye, according to Robert Dowling, executive VP of Ruder Finn Technology in New York. Dotcom success stories: If a dotcom is still standing these days, the press is curious. Who survived the crash, and how? Professional services and consulting: "No interest whatsoever." Computer security, data backup: A strong sell since 9/11. Uncle Sam: Another post-9/11 trend is toward coverage of firms doing business with the government. Enterprise applications: "Those are extremely, extremely difficult right now." Editor Eric Griffith of meanwhile offers these helpful hints: While hot topics are nice, there always is room for something new. "It's great to talk about security," he says. "On the other hand, I will also keep an eye out for something that is different, something a little bit outside of the mainstream. The readers want to see something new. They want to know that there is actually some innovation taking place in this industry."

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