Kathryn Walker
Kathryn Walker

Technology startups of the late 90s and early 2000s were the Horatio Alger tales of their time: any company with a little bit of luck and pluck could find their way to greatness. If they didn’t find greatness, they certainly found notoriety. PR professionals couldn’t join the ranks fast enough to meet growing demand. There were just so many companies with stories to tell and a tremendous public appetite to hear those stories.

The key word is story.

I’m now approaching my 20-year anniversary of work in tech PR. And truthfully, I’m wondering where the stories have gone.

O'Dwyer's Nov. '19 Technology PR MagazineThis article is featured in O'Dwyer's Nov. '18 Technology PR Magazine

No, I don’t mean coverage. After two decades in the industry, I fully understand the current media climate. I’m also a firm believer in the fact that while the volume of available publications may be shrinking, there are still ample opportunities to showcase your technology brand — if you tell the right story.

The tech industry, however, seems to have decided that “storytelling” is the latest buzzword to be cast aside. In many new business presentations, I can almost hear the eye roll when I start to explain my firm’s storytelling philosophy. We’re in an era where many in tech are reverting to product-based language and announcements are becoming catalogues of new offerings. That’s certainly not true of the brand behemoths, but for those who don’t have hospitals or sports arenas named after them we’re flipping the playbook back to the days of “talk tech to me.”

There’s a problem with that approach.

Consolidation — of media, of industry analysts and even of technology companies themselves — means that technology on its own simply isn’t enough. Sure, it’s a core pillar of the story. A tech company story can’t stand up without strong technology, but technology itself doesn’t provide human connection.

Simply put: software can’t smile at you even if it incorporates the latest and greatest coding feats.

People will look at your technology because they have a specific need, but they ultimately don’t buy on specs. People buy from people. If you’re looking to use PR as a means of increasing technology sales, you simply can’t ignore the need to share more about you and your organization with target customers. Simply parroting details on speeds and feeds doesn’t allow for trust to be placed in your organization. It doesn’t answer the critical question of why someone should do business with you, or, more specifically, why they should trust you to meet their needs.

Trust is the key factor here. Much has been said about the currency of trust. Before money as we know it was introduced, if you wanted to make a trade you relied on your relationships in the community. Recommendations mattered because they came from your personal connections. Relationships were created over a period of time, solidified by information that you shared about yourself with those around you. They were based on trust.

This is where the “talk tech to me” approach falls down. It doesn’t highlight relationships or create new ones. It doesn’t establish trust.

Jargon assures the audience that you know your technology, but it doesn’t allow your audience to get to know you or to feel like you want to get to know them. Jargon also contributes to a significant missed opportunity in your communications program. Jargon-based announcements, pitches based on specs, social channels and blogs that read like user manuals simply can’t cut through the noise in our ever-evolving media climate.

This product-based approach also doesn’t allow for trust to be placed in us as PR practitioners working on your behalf.

Product announcements and technology updates provide a hook, but our contacts want to be assured that we’re giving them information on the trends and concepts that are going to be most impactful to their readers. When we eliminate storytelling from the equation, we’re simply not giving them anything to work with. We as practitioners become less reliable sources of information. This not only creates a little issue with “results” — or lack thereof — it ultimately damages our credibility.

When I talk to new technology companies about the importance of storytelling, I frequently hear “so tell me how another company my size has used this the right way.” Twenty years ago, I would have had no problem answering that question. Today, I have to ask myself: where have all of the technology storytellers gone?

Don’t get me wrong, the dot.com era cratered spectacularly for a reason and trust was a big part of that. Many of the stories told during that time weren’t firmly based on truth. Trust was fractured and the tech industry as a whole paid the price.

Now I’m asking that we stop paying for it. Bring back the stories. Establish human connections. And, most importantly, put reputation and trust behind products again.

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Kathryn Walker is SVP and partner at McGrath/Power Public Relations.