Killing the Rainmakers The dying art of high-tech public relations
Hal Plotkin, Special to SF Gate
Monday, March 29, 1999
Faced with shrinking profit margins and more competition despite strong sales, high-tech executives are cutting costs. And often, that means decimating corporate PR budgets.
The problem is these cost-cutting high-tech executives are eating their seed corn.
It appears they have started to believe their press clippings, all that stuff about how Silicon Valley is the epicenter of the high-tech world.
Superman doesn’t need a publicist.
Things were quite different in the old days, when Silicon Valley was still hungry. Back then, the Valley’s public relations prowess was epitomized by the likes of legendary Apple Computer myth-maker Regis McKenna. McKenna, you may recall, was the fellow who helped convinced most of the world that two guys named Jobs and Wozniak had invented the personal computer.
McKenna was, and remains, a public relations black belt. His firm always enjoyed a rock-solid reputation with tech reporters based, in large measure, on McKenna’s painstaking attention to the blocking and tackling that helps create good PR.
It’s exactly that kind of blocking and tackling that is not happening as often today. A few weeks ago, for example, I was working on a story about Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software systems, the software major companies use to tie their operations together.
Redwood City-based Oracle Corporation sells ERP software. In fact, it is a linchpin in Oracle’s plan to increase market share in the years ahead. So I called up Oracle’s PR department and politely asked whether the kind folks there could refer me to a couple of satisfied Oracle ERP customers.
That’s about as soft a pitch as we tech reporters throw. It should have been slammed right out of the park: a story about a happy customer is the best way to get more customers. It beats the living daylights out of any paid ad.
It took weeks before Oracle’s PR department finally gave me “no” for an answer. I was stunned. The company’s PR department did not refer me to even a single satisfied Oracle ERP customer.
That may help explain why most of us know more about Oracle founder Larry Ellison’s sailboat than we do his software.
Now, before Ellison goes and chops off someone’s head for this, let me add that his company is not alone in dropping the PR ball. It’s become something of a trend around here lately.
Another indication of this unwelcome development are the contracts several major local companies have signed to outsource PR work to one of Silicon Valley’s leading PR firms, which we high-tech reporters are coming to call, “The Black Hole.”
I tangled with this firm (editor’s note: firm was sold and its name was changed after this article was originally published) several times last year after requesting information, or trying to line up interviews with executives at some of their client companies, including Hewlett Packard and Cisco Systems, Inc. In the not-too-distant past, back when these companies handled more of their own PR, I had interviewed the top leaders at both firms. Each time, I came away with enough tidbits to write a dozen stories.
But this time, I had very little success hurdling Cisco’s and HP’s new outsourced PR gauntlet. Often, it takes weeks to get a response to the most simple requests, even longer to arrange interviews with key executives, if they happen at all.
For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why a public relations agency would be so completely uninterested in generating free ink for its clients. That is, until I wandered over to the PR’s firm’s website.
“We’re no longer in the business of going after a journalist to do a particular story on a company,” the firm’s founder explains in a helpful Q&A. Oh, I see. The idea that public relations should be, first and foremost, about helping reporters do their jobs is now passé. Instead, the PR firm’s website proclaims, the goal of a good, modern PR shop is to “influence corporate behavior,” whatever that means.
That’s when it hit me. Silicon Valley is becoming Washington, D.C. — only without the kinky sex. Kind of the worst of both worlds. In place of the more freewheeling, open environment that characterized Silicon Valley when it was young, we are witnessing the evolution of a local high-tech PR bureaucracy that increasingly sees the press as adversaries.
In place of information, we get “spin.” In place of accessibility, we get distance. Some of these new age high-tech PR gurus even use the tortured language of political consultants, promising to help keep their clients “on message” — a synonym for not answering questions directly. Silicon Valley’s Regis McKennas are being replaced by a bunch of toe-sucking, high-tech Dick Morrises.
I think the time has come to do our high-tech executive friends a favor. I want to share a little secret with them: fellows, (and they are, of course, mostly fellows), now I know this may come as a surprise, but Silicon Valley isn’t really the center of the universe.
There are lots of other places where smart people have cell phones and spreadsheets, too. If local high-tech CEOs don’t fix their dying PR machines soon, one of the emerging high tech centers, whether in Singapore, or South Dakota, or elsewhere, might eventually steal Silicon Valley’s thunder. Leadership in the high-tech sector is not a birth-right; it has to be earned, every single day.
It’s hard to tell an industry that is growing at twenty percent or more per year that it’s screwing up. But, the strong performance of many of these firms is a bit misleading. At this point in history, many of these companies are selling products that many of us want or need. As anyone who has ever shopped at a big computer store knows, the products mostly sell themselves.
It’s similar to the demand for life-jackets on a sinking ship. Not a tough sell. As a result, most high-tech companies with halfway decent products, including those with incredibly inept PR, can usually get their cash registers ringing.
But high-tech companies could do much better. Twenty percent growth could be forty percent growth, or even eighty percent. Better public relations could make that difference.
The job of public relations is to whet the appetite, to give a sense of what is possible, and what is coming down the pike. Good PR professionals don’t “find a need and fill it.” They are the rainmakers. They create the need.
High-tech public relations is a dying art form. It isn’t done by amassing a big mailing list of reporters and sending them all the same press releases at the same time. It’s done with exclusives. Most of us would prefer not to write a story that is available to everyone else.
The best public relations professionals know that. They get the job done by figuring out what individual writers like to write about and then giving them what they need. It’s done by making requested information available as quickly as possible, not with ham-handed attempts to imitate Washington spinmeisters.
It’s done by people who understand that yes, their job is to “go after a journalist to do a particular story on a company.” It amazes me that at least some high-tech companies are now paying agencies who brag out loud about their disinterest in such absolutely critical PR nuts and bolts.
The bigger danger in all this is what happens when individual high-tech companies suffer some kind of setback or, even worse, if and when the high-tech economy, or the economy in general, begins to falter.
One way high-tech companies will be able to ride out such hard times, when they come, is with effective public relations, with speed and timing, by answering straight questions quickly with straight, confidence-building answers. Right now, it appears that at least some of Silicon Valley’s leading high-tech firms might have a very hard time rising to meet that challenge.
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