High-Tech Public Relations: An Upstart Matures

Article excerpt

HIGH-TECH PUBLIC RELATIONS

From Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, to Silicon Valley in Northern California; from the languishing minicomputer scene in the East to the flourishing workstation business in the West; high-tech public relations, like the industry it serves, is growing up.

Despite the ups and downs in one segment or another as the high-tech field matures, the overall pace continues to be fast and furious. The electronics industry, which includes computers, components, communications, instruments and TV and radio, reached $266 billion in factory shipments in 1989, according to the Cahners Publishing Economics Department. It is now the largest manufacturing industry in the country, and is growing twice as fast as all other manufacturing businesses.

That rapid expansion, along with the far-reaching implications of new technology for all businesses and for our individual lifestyles, have made high-tech one of the most fertile and challenging specialties for public relations practitioners. When high-tech companies create or react to technological changes, the public relations professional must anticipate, define and communicate the implications of these changes.

"Communication is going to be the next really important discipline to assert itself in top management" at high-tech companies, says Robert Strayton, APR, former executive vice president and director of advanced technology, Hill and Knowlton, Waltham, Massachusetts. Strayton, who recently founded the Strayton Group, a public relations consulting firm, says that, by the year 2000, there will be a chief communications officer in virtually every important high-tech company - and that that person will have power comparable to the head of finance or MIS or operations.

But at the same time that they find their abilities increasingly in demand and their status on the rise, high-tech public relations firms and corporate practitioners find themselves struggling to balance traditional and nontraditional techniques, broaden their skills and expertise, and convince clients or managers of the need for greater investment in public relations programs.

Improving on the basics

In the '60s and '70s, and even into the '80s, public relations professionals engaged in what James Helbig, principal for Regis McKenna, Inc., Dallas, terms "meat and potatoes PR." A new product introduction consisted of a press release disseminated to the trade press, followed up with specification sheets. Products were defined only as being faster, smaller or requiring less power.

While there's still no substitute for strong publicity, as the industry has become more competitive and a company's ability to get its message across more difficult, practitioners have fine-tuned and adapted their messages and their use of basic publicity and media relations techniques. "Technology is moving much, much faster than people's ability to absorb or use it," comments Robbin Goodman, senior vice president, Makovsky & Company, New York. "The companies that are going to prosper are those that are able to communicate how to use their technology and the benefits of that technology. You can't just have a product anymore; you've got to have a position, a message and a way to get it out there to persuade people."

Bylined articles, application stories, media tours and press seminars and other staples remain important, but the selection and timing of these are now very much tied to specific objectives and analyses of which will pack the most punch at strategic points.

The major product launch continues to be a very successful tactic for some companies, but a ho-hum campaign is unlikely to generate a response that justifies the high costs involved.

Oracle Corporation, Belmont, California, recently made the most of a product introduction when it announced its relations database management system. Oracle's message was that its product was very fast among products that are traditionally slow. …