Lou HoffmanLou Hoffman

Every tech company wants to be perceived as innovative.

These same tech companies also expect communications to do the heavy lifting in telling their innovation stories and ultimately generating earned media.

That’s a problem.

Hundreds of pitches touting the most amazing advances since the baguette—better than sliced bread—rain down on journalists every week. As you might suspect, journalists have become desensitized to these pleas for coverage of “the next revolution.” The Wall Street Journal even devoted an article to the misuse of the word “innovation” and derivatives, calling out companies for including the “i” word 33,528 times in earnings calls over a 12-month period. Now comes the sobering part. That article ran in 2012. The situation is worse today.

Channeling the Total Quality Control brigade, let’s take a systematic approach to breaking down the issue and identifying solutions.

First things first: Spilling forth a bunch of adjectives and adverbs to make the case that your new product or technology is a game changer won’t work. In fact, it has the opposite effect. Inserting words like “breakthrough” or “revolutionary” or, yes, “game changer” into the subject header of the email guarantees journalists will hit the delete button before checking out the actual pitch. Instead, you need to show—don’t tell—journalists so they come to the conclusion on their own, “Hey, this looks like it could be a big deal in advancing the category.”

This article is featured in O'Dwyer's November '23 Technology PR Magazine
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Staying with a TQC mentality, the root cause for failure isn’t the pitch, though the vast majority of pitches related to innovation are dreadful. Instead, the root cause for failure lies in what happens before the pitch: the sourcing session(s) with the company’s engineers, scientists and other subject matter experts. This is when you dig into the overarching question: “What makes this innovative?” Most PR practitioners understand the makings of a good story, but they move forward with the flawed innovation pitch because that’s all the information they have.

Which brings me to the punchline.

The PR profession vastly undervalues interviewing expertise. It starts in college. Try to find a curriculum for mass communications or PR that offers a class on interviewing. And once you’re in the working world, whether your role sits in-house or at a consultancy, you’ll find the same absence of how-to-interview training for PR professionals. They expect you to learn on the job. Yet, it’s interviewing expertise more than any other quality that will determine whether that pitch about a company’s innovation lands with journalists.

Toward this end, the following techniques ground our sourcing sessions with clients:

Do your homework. This means not only understanding the topic but also the person or people you’re interviewing. Before meeting an engineer slated for a sourcing session, we found out he had emigrated from Cuba. How did we learn this useful tidbit? Just took a look at his LinkedIn profile. It’s a great icebreaker.

The interview starts before the interview. Email a few questions to the interviewee ahead of time to get the wheels turning. Don’t overwhelm the source. We typically include one question that establishes we’re after a smidgen of drama, not a tutorial in molecular physics. Sometimes, we’ll also include a feature story from a publication, pointing out a passage or two as an example of the type of content we’re after.

The warm-up act. Start with a few easy questions designed to simply get the person talking. This way, you build momentum leading into the tougher questions.

Too many cooks won’t spill the beans. Often, multiple people are involved with a particular innovation. Don’t interview them together. It’s better to talk with each in a one-on-one setting with the content taken from the initial interview building into the second chat and beyond. Such an approach takes more time, but you’ll end up with richer content. Notice the gang on CSI never interrogates multiple people together. Same concept.

Don’t be afraid to push (shove?) the source. For most people from technical orientations—and pursuing content related to innovation often means the sources come from engineering or R&D—opening up and sharing information doesn’t come naturally. If you make sources a little uncomfortable in going places they didn’t expect, that’s okay. Remember, if your pitch falls flat, blaming the source won’t court empathy.

Improv produces ‘gold.’ Listen to what’s being said. While it’s good to have questions prepared, don’t be married to your questions, determined to go through them one by one. Be willing to explore unexpected areas that come out of the discussion. During a talk with a client CEO, he casually mentioned he was originally hired to figure out if the technology could be salvaged. That got our attention (i.e., drama in whether the venture would live or die). What was it like asking for employees’ cooperation when their cooperation might mean the end of the line? Was there a single moment when you thought, “This has a chance?” Digging out the humanity always makes for a compelling way to tell the innovation story.

Connect the dots even if you don’t know where they’re headed. Related to the improv, we’ve found that asking a source about point A can move the conversation to point B, which takes us to point C, a springboard to point D where the storytelling gold is buried. You can’t simply jump to exploring point D. The process needs to take you there.

It’s been our experience that these techniques produce the type of fodder that will give you a fighting chance to land that innovation pitch with journalists.

We’ve also taken those pre-interview questions to the next level, creating a workshop called “Helping Sources Become Better Sources.” This has been incredibly—and I’m stingy with the adverbs—effective in helping us tell our clients’ innovation stories. By helping sources understand the “sausage making” of journalism, like the power of an anecdote that can seem inconsequential on the surface, we increase the probability that they cough up the good stuff during the sourcing sessions.

No question, the media sets a high bar these days when it comes to writing about innovation. Yet, they recognize that invention defines tech more than any other industry. PR just needs to construct pitches so journalists can see the path to a story on a major advancement, not incremental improvement.


Lou Hoffman is CEO of the Hoffman Agency, a global communications consultancy that specializes in the tech sector.