“Dealing with PR companies is like stumbling about in the dark waiting to get mugged!” one channel player told me recently. You’ve got to love his honesty. And I’ve been working in this sector long enough to know why he feels that way. But it doesn’t have to be like that.
Not all PRs are like the shark that Louis Armstrong once warned us all about. Yes, we have pretty teeth and we show them, pearly white. But there the similarity ends. Armstrong’s murderous ballad contrasted the glittering world of the rich and powerful with the dark world of the poor. We PRs are the same as you. We’re on the same level of the human ‘communications stack – but we can understand your syntax and connect them with journalistic protocols! We are translaters.
Still l love Louis Armstrong as much as I loved the reseller’s joke. Never let pedantry get in the way of a great line – an editor told me that.
So I am certainly no Flack the Knife. Neither do I have teams of murderous hacks a lurking ‘out of sight’.
My confidant was wittily painting a picture of the PR and content maze he’s negotiated over the years. He’d almost given up until I persuaded him to give it one more try. Interpreting the problems of ‘Tech Suppliers’ and articulating is what I do. I love it. It’s my raison d’etre. It’s a craft I have been perfecting for 30 years in the channel.
I started off in the late ‘80s as a true PR greenhorn, deciding to set up my own agency at the age of 23, after cutting my teeth at one of the key tech agencies in London (when there was only a handful of them and the bigger players hadn’t switched on to how lucrative the marketing was going to be) which was a spectacular mix of youthful arrogance and naivety. But I did have the tech boom on my side and began working with large distributors, who were offering free PR to their new vendors. This meant my small agency was incredibly lucky to act at a PR taster service for companies including Cisco, Novell, Banyan, McAfee and a host of others who grew to be a lot bigger than they first started out.
It was different, and easier, then. PRs today have a much tougher gig than we did in the early days of tech PR and so their clients do too, unless they are the real big dogs of the industry. It means you have to be smarter about how you do things and make sure your content isn’t weak and self-serving.
Fit the technology around the story
Over the years, I have seen the business partners for vendors evolve so fast you’d start to believe in creationism! It was no longer enough to see the technology, you had to have an intimate knowledge of how your customer’s business actually works and how to fit the technology around it.
You see what I mean: it’s not just the technology, it’s the technique that matters. Technology is the gun, but technique is the markswoman. Or marksman – it could be a man these days! The world is changing.
In the old days, a reseller might expect the customer to work around the technology. The modern service provider is fine tuning the technology constantly in order to make it work around the client’s business.
Which is why the tech suppliers these days seem to be defined by the industries they support. They really have to know how those internal processes and external supply chains work before they can create demonstrable productivity boosts. That is an incredibly difficult full-time challenge.
Public sector bodies, which are generally staffed by congenial souls, are no longer accepting the ‘install and withdrawal’ method IT sales.
But shaping technology is not easy and tech suppliers spend a lot of time with customers and hardly any with the press. It’s little surprise that they can be vulnerable and struggle to understand the PR and media industries. They’ve already got enough on their plate.
In those circumstances, anyone would be suspicious of a profession they don’t understand. How do tech suppliers know they are getting value for money? Some do get taken advantage of and spend a lot for very little return. Many companies can be led down a back alley and mugged by Flack the Knife, as my friend feared. Those scarlet billows are from marketing budgets that are ‘oozing life’. The more modern term for them would be ‘account retainers’ and that particular sting is likely to be set up in a company with a huge reception area and enormous shin level seats that you could swallow a channel swimmer whole.
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Demystifying the process
I always think the best way to treat a tech supplier is to treat them how they’d treat me. So, let’s kick off with demystifying the whole process.
We need to talk about content – it’s such a little word that cheapens everything it includes. Shakespeare’s plays, to some heathens, are ‘content’. As are classic novels and films. Imagine the conversation: ‘I love that content Citizen Kane. For me, it’s right up there with the Shake’n’Vac advert and Love Island.’
Imagine if we treated technology services with the same irreverence. It we lumped Amazon web services in the same category as a teenage web site developer. (The latter pays far more tax – allegedly.)
I would encourage any business embarking on the road to marketing communications to work out what conversations they want to have. And with whom. When. Why. How. And in what context? If those questions sound familiar, that is because those are very similar to the classic questions that journalists ask.
Everyone thinks they can do someone else’s job better than them. That’s why fat men in bursting T shirts shout at professional footballers to ‘sort the defence out’. It’s why millions of people bought their own PC networks in the 90s, only to discover that this IT business is a lot more complicated than they thought.
Now, with all these publishing platforms, everyone is an expert on writing. Apparently. So instead of doing the job they profess to be passionate about, they are filling blog space with lines of cliches about ‘innovation’ and the clunking ugly product names that would even drive a robot’s eyes off the page.
I like to keep it simple, so that the client knows exactly where we are on our journey and we all understand our shared objective. We work as a team with mutual respect and understanding of our respective talents. That way we can get the most out of each other and achieve the results we all want. It’s important to shape your language and tone around the people you want to be having conversations with.
What you have to be prepared to do
You will have to be prepared to give some of your time to your agency. We don’t carry wands in our pockets, and will need input and information from you to do the job properly. The longer we work for you, the more we know but at the outset please understand that we don’t know what we don’t know – if you invest time at the outset it will be well worth it. Expect a slow start. We will get to know your business and able to able to prepare comments and quotes on your behalf to take some of the burden from you. When we have deadlines from editors to meet, we always strive to give you the most notice we can, but sometimes we hardly get any and so, in order to get the coverage, a quick turnaround is required.
Unless you are paying for the coverage, we cannot ask a journalist to show us the copy he is going to file after interviewing you, either. It’s a huge no-no and PR people rapidly get themselves to the top of an editor’s idiot list by even asking the question, so any good PR won’t do it. There are certain magazines that you will have to pay to get coverage these days, too. It’s the way the market is going.
If you can talk about some good wins, please do. It’s what editors want to hear about. Case studies are also a big favourite – even though they are difficult to get past clients. It’s their rarity that makes them like the holy grail – and you will score massive brownie points with vendor partners by producing these out of the hat for them. I have found over the years that they’re great bargaining currency for MDF applications.
You want to reach the right people? Interact with them, share experiences and confidences and build trust in what could be a highly valuable working relationship. Accept that not all PRs are the cliché you’ve come to expect them to be. But choose wisely, because the channel is a very special place and not many agencies really get it. They will have to understand the way it works and have decent contacts in order to make an impact. Don’t be afraid to ask them who they know and what they’ve done. They should be proud of their track record. I eat, sleep, breath and repeat the channel and I know it very well but it can be like the wild west at times (even now) and you have to know the audience.
It’s crowded out there.