Every tech company wants to be seen as innovative.
These same tech companies also expect communications to do the heavy lifting in telling their innovation stories and ultimately generating earned media.
It is a problem.
Hundreds of arguments praising the most astonishing advances since the baguette, better than sliced bread, rain down on journalists every week. As you might expect, journalists have become desensitized to these calls to cover the “next revolution.” The Wall Street Journal even devoted an article to the misuse of the word “innovation” and derivative products, accusing companies of including the word “i” 33,528 times in their earnings calls over a 12-month period. . Now comes the sobering part. This article appeared in 2012. The situation is worse today.
By channeling the Total Quality Control brigade, let’s adopt a systematic approach to analyze the problem and identify solutions.
First things first: throwing around 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. Putting words like “breakthrough” or “revolutionary” or, yes, “game changer” in the email header ensures that journalists will click the delete button before viewing the speech itself. even. Instead, you need to show – not tell – journalists so they come to the conclusion for themselves: “Hey, looks like this could be a big deal for moving the category forward.”
|This article is featured in O’Dwyer’s November 23 Technology PR Magazine.
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To stay with the TQC mentality, the root cause of failure is not the pitch, even if the vast majority of innovation-related pitches are terrible. Instead, the root cause of 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 we ask ourselves the essential question: “What makes this innovative?” » Most public relations practitioners understand the foundations of a good story, but they move forward with flawed innovation talk because that’s the only information they have.
Which brings me to the punchline.
The public relations profession vastly underestimates interview expertise. It starts in middle school. Try to find a mass communications or public relations program that offers a course on interviewing. And once you get into the working world, whether your role is in-house or at a consulting firm, you’ll see the same lack of interview training for PR professionals. They expect you to learn on the job. Yet it is interview expertise, more than any other quality, that will determine whether a company’s innovation pitch resonates with journalists.
To this end, the following techniques underpin our sourcing sessions with clients:
Do your homework. This means not only understanding the topic, but also the person(s) you are interviewing. Before meeting with an engineer scheduled for a sourcing session, we discovered that he had emigrated from Cuba. How did we learn this useful information? I just took a look at his LinkedIn profile. It’s a great icebreaker.
The interview begins before the interview. Send a few questions to the interviewee in advance to get the wheels turning. Don’t overwhelm the source. We usually include a question that establishes that we’re looking for a bit of drama, not a molecular physics tutorial. Sometimes we’ll also include a feature article from a publication, highlighting a passage or two as an example of the type of content we’re looking for.
The act of warming up. Start with a few simple questions designed to just get the person talking. This way you create momentum leading to the more difficult questions.
Too many cooks won’t come clean. Often, several people are involved in a particular innovation. Don’t interview them together. It’s best to speak with everyone one-on-one, with content carried over from the initial interview through the second chat and beyond. Such an approach takes more time, but you will get richer content. Note that the CSI gang never interviews multiple people together. Same concept.
Don’t be afraid to push (shake?) the source. For most people from technical backgrounds (and looking for innovation-related content often means sources come from engineering or R&D) openness and sharing of information doesn’t come naturally. If you make sources a little uncomfortable going places they weren’t expecting, that’s okay. Remember, if your speech falls flat, blaming the source won’t elicit empathy.
Improvisation produces gold. Listen to what is being said. Although it is good to prepare questions, do not be attached to your questions and determined to go through them one by one. Be prepared to explore unexpected areas that emerge from the discussion. In a conversation with a client’s CEO, he casually mentioned that he was initially hired to determine if the technology could be salvaged. This got our attention (i.e. the drama of whether the company would live or die). What was it like to ask for employee cooperation when their cooperation could mean the end of the process? Was there a single moment when you thought, “This has a chance?” Digging into humanity is always a compelling way to tell the story of innovation.
Connect the dots even if you don’t know where they go. When it comes to improvisation, we’ve found that asking a source for point A can move the conversation to point B, which brings us to point C, a stepping stone to point D where the storytelling gold is buried. You can’t just move on to exploring point D. The process has to get you there.
In our experience, these techniques produce the kind of fodder that will give you a fighting chance of making that innovation pitch to journalists.
We also took these pre-interview questions to the next level, creating a workshop called “Helping Sources Become Better Sources.” This has been incredibly effective – and I’m stingy with adverbs – in helping us tell our customers’ innovation stories. By helping sources understand the “sausage making” of journalism, such as the power of an anecdote that may seem unimportant on the surface, we increase the likelihood that they will cough up good stuff during sourcing sessions.
There’s no doubt that the media is setting the bar high these days when it comes to writing about innovation. Yet they recognize that invention defines technology more than any other industry. PR simply needs to build pitches so journalists can see the path to a story about a major breakthrough, not an incremental improvement.
Lou Hoffman is CEO of Hoffman Agencya global communications consultancy specializing in the technology sector.