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Technically, You Need to Know Your Stuff

May 11, 2017

Technically, You Need to Know Your Stuff

Cell phones were getting smaller and cheaper. Optical networking was on the rise. And the internet was flexing its muscle in a big way, especially with the innovations that came along with it, like Java.

Tech was cool.

So I pivoted from what had been a generalist career (Mazda, Frito-Lay, AmEx, etc.) at a big firm, and joined a tech-focused PR agency in New York. I was brought in to be a telecom specialist, since I had experience with the carriers at the bigger firm.

My first day there included a one-on-one with the firm’s CEO, and he asked me how well I understood the technical side of technology. I told him the truth, that I understood it well enough to explain its impact on the world.

He shook his head and told me I was making a mistake.

“Why would you do that, when all the other agencies are doing that?” he said. “Don’t you want to be special? Don’t you want the reporters to know they can have real conversations with you? Are you planning on having a career that will be decades of just referring the media to other people who can actually help them?”

Could Marty Have Been Doc's PR Representative? How well did he understand the science behind the Flux Capacitor?


He was right, of course, and while this advice is applicable to clients from all sectors, it is particularly true when working with high-tech (and medtech/biotech, for that matter) start-ups. You see, working with a start-up company can often mean that your client contact will be the CEO, VP of sales and marketing or even someone on the engineering side. These are busy people who don’t have the headspace to generate story ideas and pitch angles. They don’t have the time to paint a picture. When working with start-ups, it’s usually 100% up to the PR agency to develop the story and suggest it to the client, rather than the other way around.

And, of course, it’s not possible to do that unless we understand what the company is offering, what’s happening in their space, and what issues their products will solve … and create.

Right now, we’re working with a client that was just today selected as a Gartner “Cool Vendor.” It’s a big deal for a small company that’s just starting to grow. But they’re so busy that they asked US to review the report and make sure Gartner got it right. In start-up PR/marketing, if you’re an outside agency, you’re part of the team … or you’re not.

Here’s a good test to help you know whether you’re in the details enough:

The next time you are facilitating a trade media interview for a tech client, listen carefully and take good notes. Jot down every question the reporter asks and every response your client provides. And then ask yourself:

Could I have stepped in for my client?

If the answer is “yes,” you’ve become solidly familiar with your client’s business. If the answer is “no,” it may be time to spend some time getting up to speed on your client’s space, business and technology. You’ll be a better PR professional and counselor once you do.

So how does one go about that? Here are five things every tech PR person should do to get up to speed on a given technology:

  1. Be Clear on What You Know and Don’t Know – We all know that it’s tough to admit when we don’t know something. But what’s worse, Saying you don’t understand something in your first meeting with a client, or pretending to understand it for the duration of the relationship? Be up-front with your client and with yourself.
  2. Ask Questions Early and Often – The same rule that applied to elementary school applies here. There’s no such thing as a bad question, except for the one that should have been asked and wasn’t. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarifications, explanations, details, etc. Your client will appreciate your level of interest in the subject matter, and the answers will make you smarter about their business.
  3. Devour Media Content – Read existing media coverage on a particular technology to understand it better. After all, the reporter who wrote the piece had to first get up to speed before writing, so s/he likely will include in the story a layman’s explanation of technical terms and concepts. So read, read, read, and your learning curve will become much shorter.
  4. Wikipedia is Your Friend – There’s no real need to explain this one. Not only is there great explanatory content, but there are also usually external links, which may provide even more depth of understanding for you. And let’s not be literal here. Wikipedia doesn’t just mean Wikipedia. It can be any online resource, including acronymfinder.com and others.
  5. Try Explaining It to Your Mother – If she can understand, that means you’ve got it. If she can’t, and asks questions about it, you know that you have more work to do. But also appreciate that her questions can serve as a guide for potential questions the media will ask as well. So, yeah, as usual, moms are helpful … even without trying to be.

These tips will be sure to put you in a better position for representing technology products and companies. You will communicate better on their behalf, help them to sharpen their messages and be much more aware of how their innovations fit into the larger landscape.