By Gerard Smith, Intern, The Hoffman Agency
Fast-paced business, sky-high valuations, innovation-driven individuals and unlimited opportunity; a few of the ideas that came to mind when I pictured Silicon Valley nearly three months ago before moving here sight unseen. Although I may have relied too heavily on the fantastical experiences of Richard Hendricks and crew to shape my initial beliefs, I was nevertheless attracted to these enterprising qualities as a 22-year-old millennial Michigander who has spent his entire life in a mitten. However, surrounded by a sudden sphere of unfamiliarity, my eyes were quickly opened to a personal yearning for one thing — relationships.
Fitting then that I find myself immersed in a professional field where building relationships is the essence of the job — public relations. Critical to every aspect of our profession, especially at The Hoffman Agency, relationships flow throughout the pipeline — starting with the client and ending with the target audience. But press releases don’t typically serve as a means to the end, so there is a key relationship to be cultivated in between.
I’m referring to PR’s ever-evolving bond/battle with the media, of course. A storied juncture fostered by mutual understanding and effective collaboration, but at times held back by poor communication and a lack of invigorating material. In an ideal world, PR and journalism enable each other to do their best work, and upholding our end of the bargain requires much more than a daydream. To develop a better understanding of the types of client stories that will resonate, we need to consistently interact with editors, journalists and influencers to discover the trends and ideas shaping specific beats and industries.
Recently, several Hoffmanites and I attended an Inside the Newsroom: Media Talk Tech PRSA event focused on hosting this very type of conversation as it relates to technology. After a series of wrong turns, mostly due to my poor directional intuition, we arrived at Highwire PR’s office in San Francisco to listen to James Wilson, managing editor at GamesBeat; Sean Captain, tech editor at Fast Company; and David Pierce, senior staff writer at WIRED, share their thoughts on society and its shifting relationship with media and tech, the foremost tech topics and what elements embody an awesome story.
1. Tech & Society: Inextricably Linked
While I expected that the conversation would eventually shift to the election and President Trump, the panelists began venting their ideas on the subject within a matter of minutes. Whether involving little-hands-turned-big-Twitter-fingers, the Democratic Party email hacking or the facilitation of fake news across the Web, one thing is for certain — technology played a major in role in determining the outcome of one of the most important political competitions in the world. To add some perspective, David said, “WIRED is built off this idea that tech and society are inextricably linked,” an unavoidable truth that seems to grow every day, for better or worse.
Similarly, tech continues to revolutionize the overall media landscape by impacting the ways in which people consume information. David reiterated that the opportunity to connect with people is greater than ever before due to social platforms, video and the expansiveness of the internet in general, but this presents a complex situation.
In one sense, detailed journalism has gained a reinvigorated significance as more and more people feel overwhelmed by confusing news, i.e., anything having to do with the White House. And although statements such as, “Come for the list, stay for the investigative reporting,” contain some truth (Sean admitted he was guilty of this behavior), the panel was in consensus that the public is using widely accessible information to try and figure out what in the world is going on — literally.
Unfortunately, as the opportunity to communicate has grown, so has the amount of misinformation. Fake news and hate speech have emerged to become toxic factors in shaping public opinion, and the panel was adamant about the increasing pressure on Facebook and others to control this phenomenon. Sean summed up this issue by saying, “All platforms facilitate hate speech.” And while no one had a specific answer about what it’s going to take to stop, the point is that its effect is undeniable.
You may be wondering how all of this relates to PR and, to be honest, I think the answer is still unrefined. However, as people increasingly allow the media to shape their opinions, it’s important for PR professionals to recognize our potential impact. After all, our goal is to influence audiences, so we need to ensure that the standard of our storytelling remains high, while prioritizing honesty and credibility in everything we do.
But enough about what may be holding us back; let’s look at what’s pushing us forward.
2. Foremost Tech Topics — The Three A’s & IoT
Somewhat unsurprisingly, artificial intelligence, augmented reality, autonomy and the Internet of Things drove the conversation surrounding hot tech topics. Sean showed particular interest in AI, noting he is keen on the companies and people pushing this machine forward. He also went as far to say, “Every company is an AI company,” using the spell check tool as an example of how some forms of AI may be overlooked.
Meanwhile, David said he was looking forward to diving deeper into IoT and how people will live in a fully connected world. When asked how far away we are from a connected future, he offered an insightfully dim response, saying, “The sad answer is it’s going to be amazing someday, but it’s way further away than we want it to be, and it’s going to be super messy getting there.” Looking at the nearer future, he said that augmented reality will be “the story of the next six months,” singling out Facebook as a leader in the field.
In tech PR, it’s important to understand these overarching trends because they can be used to amplify the relevance of seemingly small advancements, therefore helping to define media relations strategies. David offered an example of something small effectively being connected to a larger trend in the form of Dropbox and its decision to leave AWS in 2016, recalling, “I actually cannot think of anything more boring than Dropbox leaving AWS.” But the author of the piece, Cade Metz, recognized that this supposedly insignificant news contained compelling context and represented the apex of a widespread shift in cloud computing — resulting in an incredible article.
At The Hoffman Agency, I’ve witnessed this approach be successfully deployed time and again, i.e., aligning an announcement with a broader trend, yet keeping the company at the center of the story and attracting coverage. I’ve also seen this type of creativity boost enthusiasm across account teams, helping us to more deeply comprehend how our clients are innovating within certain industries, creating a sort of win-win situation.
3. What Makes a Great Story? + PR’s Role
Finally, to kick off what was the most PR-focused portion of the overall conversation, Sean was quick to remark,
“In general, the best stories aren’t pitched.”
This comment, which elicited some polite laughs and simultaneously debilitated the aspirations of attendees scheming to secure a feature in Fast Company, made for a questionable start. Yet, hope was eventually restored as he began to outline some positive aspects of working alongside PR professionals. He focused on the idea that conversations with instrumental individuals can go a long way in developing a potential story, warm to the offering, “Come in, chat, and see where it goes.” Additionally, he knows PR contacts to be very useful in acting as a helping hand, assisting with requests and providing resources; a relatively dated opinion, to be sure.
David, on the other hand, let the audience dream a little by diving right into the elements which he thinks embody the best kinds of stories. He brought us back to the basic concept of a story, encouraging us to think about the question, “Who is the main character?” Along this line, he understands the worth of the fundamental storytelling arc, noting that conversations where the subject can provide some sort of narrative tension and venture outside of their comfort zone prove to be the most fruitful.
PR-shaming comments or not, the common theme bridging these ideas is that most intriguing, well-rounded stories require more than just hard news. Adding a human element is necessary to provide a genuine narrative. This reminded me of Lou Hoffman’s blog post in which he breaks down the vital importance of sourcing sessions, offering tips on how they can be utilized to unearth the best client-centric content before crafting a potential story pitch. So, if we are to disprove Sean’s opinion regarding the nature of outstanding stories being separate from pitches, re-examining the people involved with a business and gathering distinct background information is an essential first step.
Having never attended an Inside the Newsroom event before, I enjoyed learning from these influential media figures and conversing with them afterwards. An experience much more powerful than, let’s say, following them on Twitter or introducing myself via email. It may sound cliché, but journalists are people too; ones who thoroughly enjoy sharing their ideas and meeting interesting people. In turn, PR professionals need to continue to capitalize on these intimate networking opportunities as they allow us to gain knowledge, differentiate ourselves, and build a foundation for future working relationships.
I know The Hoffman Agency will.
Side Note: A lot can change in a couple of years. Compare current themes at the intersection of PR, tech and media to ideas stemming from a similar PRSA event which took place in 2015.