High tech public relations: Happy 25th birthday

Public relations was born over a drink at a swanky NYC nightclub on 50th Street in the 1930s. Strategy: Alluring debutantes were posed and photographed with their heads thrown back in glee, cigarettes dangling from their fingertips, selling glamour to entice the part of the public – women — who didn’t smoke. It worked. The gossip columnists went gaga and ran back to their typewriters and a 2 AM deadline. Sales shot up.

PR was a man in a teddy bear costume at a 1950s auto parts trade show. He was the mascot on the logo for a muffler company, his photo taken with his huge paw around traveling salesmen who stopped at the muffler company’s booth. (I have a photo for every year my father attended the show. My father aged over a series of photos but the giant teddy bear always remained the same.)

Tech public relations was born over a cup of coffee in a SFO café. A journalist and an MIT engineer decided to ditch their day jobs. They put up a shingle and started talking to the papers and the public about the tech companies sprouting on a spot on the map in a farming area that became Silicon Valley.

In an industry that started with testimonials on soap powder and ribbon cutting and WOM (word of mouth), turned into thousands of high tech public relations agencies in California, Texas, Chicago, New York and everywhere in between, then jumped across the pond to London, where tech public relations happened over drinks and cigarettes. Instead of debutantes, tech public relations was the new chic: enterprise software, apps, servers, security, consumer electronics. And green tech, and medical devices and mobile.

Hollywood had Marilyn. The tech world had IBM.

The big shots in PR saw a growth industry and spun off – and are still spinning off – tech divisions. Some of them got hungry and waltzed into off markets and snapped up all the little tech PR shops so that they could control the entire tech PR scene. In one country, a major U.S. PR agency gobbled 49 competing boutique tech PR agencies. Public relations is such a hot commodity that the major advertising agencies are going into tech PR too.

Then there was the specialization scramble. If there were enough clients – maybe 2-3 – in a specific sector, an agency could claim this was their niche. Most backed off because a niche means that one client’s tech could bump into another and raise conflict of issue issues, the bane of an agency’s life. The cardinal rule: “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” The London boutique agencies tried to convince themselves while convincing potential clients that their agencies had Chinese walls.

Germany stepped in, Spain, France, a sprinkling in Scandinavia. Italy is still trying to catch up. (You can’t be a tech nation if only 4 percent of your population speaks English. On the other hand, they look so good while they’re speaking Italian.) South Africa is solid, and the rest of Africa is slowly catching up. China? What started with a handful of tech PR agencies is now a growth industry. India went from two high tech PR agencies to dozens in less than two years. Japan makes cars but their tech scene and high tech PR are locked inside a language bubble and they’re still trying to figure out what tech marketing and PR is all about.

The heyday, when anyone anywhere with an idea and maybe, just maybe a patent, with a lawyer right behind him (the hers are still catching up), contributed to the high tech PR crescendo. The last two notes were “ta-da” before the bubble burst.

From a green pea farm field grew Google, and venture capitalists and their pricey one-week yacht vacations, from a shingle came enough shingles to cover the San Francisco Bay Bridge, and now the new terminology as tech PR agencies hire “engagement officers” to scoop up Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

Tech PR is still a growth industry. Employees leave their brand name agencies, open their own high tech PR operations and wait for the next tech swing forward. The only thing that’s changed is PR took the cigarettes out of debutantes’ fingers, replaced the debutantes with super models and actresses, and shoved a bottle of designer water or vodka into their hands. The coffee became Starbucks and the journalist and the MIT engineer? They retired and their children graduated with phones firmly implanted in their fingertips.

Joan Weinberg is an expert on High Tech PR and she has run her own Agency Search firm since 1999.

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