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Engineers Can Do Public Relations, Too

There are better ways to generate publicity than sending out another news release. The media sees far too many of them. After all, PR doesn’t stand for press release. Let’s use our imagination; there are other great marketing resources just waiting to be tapped.

With all the talk about integrated marketing communications, how about getting the people who create the technology products in on the act? Integrating engineering into the high-tech marketing communications mix can be a valuable way to demonstrate a company’s core competencies. Giving management a share-of-voice has always been an essential PR strategy. Managers must be involved in high-tech marketing, and that includes engineering managers.

In the technology marketing realm, it's only natural to show the world your stuff through engineers' active participation in technical article publishing and speaking at key industry forums. Some enlightened companies have even set up a reward and recognition system for engineering team members who write or speak on the company’s behalf. These are valuable auxiliary activities that deserve extra compensation and recognition.

In some companies, engineers may already be writing and speaking, but they're not aware that it's part of the company’s PR program. Worse yet, the marketing and public relations department may not have a clue that any of these good things are happening among the engineers. Getting communications integrated, so both the left and right hands know what they’re doing, is a great first step. Just because people work in different departments, for different supervisors, doesn’t mean they can’t integrate their efforts. After all, it's supposed to be one company.

Getting engineering involved in a publicity program demonstrating expertise should be easy. Everyone wins. Engineers get to show their stuff to their peers. Marketing gets to apply engineering’s talent to help build market awareness and credibility for the company. People who might not have ever met get to team up, and this helps build greater interdepartmental understanding and unity. Individuals get an opportunity to contribute in a new way.

Engineers get to learn a little about how public relations helps their business. Public relations folks learn more about what sets their company or client apart from the rest. Online marketing scores another way to create SEO results with linkbacks to the company Website. Sales gets a reprinted article it can use as a customer visit leave-behind or to wow customer prospects in presentations. Trade editors gain a piece of solid contributed editorial that interests their readers.

With so many benefits, why don’t engineers do PR more often? Departmental rivalries, some strange idea that public relations is beneath engineering’s higher calling, and any number of other out-of-date notions may get in the way. Top managers can break these barriers and get people working together. Creating an atmosphere of cooperation and mutual benefit starts at the top. In larger companies, human resources managers can help by building rewards into compensation packages.

More simply, engineers who elect to work on public relations projects can be rewarded with company-paid cash prizes or gifts. One of my clients has a sliding scale of rewards, including weekends at Pebble Beach, ski-lift tickets, dinners at great restaurants, and reservations at bed and breakfasts. The company's preference is to reward its people with great memories, rather than money that would probably just be used to pay bills.

If you think this is excessive, consider that a technical article typically runs multiple pages in a trade publication and has far more credibility than a full page of advertising. The full-page ad would probably cost marketing thousands to produce and another $10,000 to $30,000 to run, in print and/or online. In addition, reprint rights for a PDF, used for up to a year as a promotional tool on the company's Website, may cost another $1,500.

It's clear that the payback for rewarding interested engineering team members for their extra efforts is a cost-effective investment, to say the least. Even if the engineer only acts as a resource for an external technical feature writer charging perhaps $4,000 for writing services, it’s still a bargain.

Often the best basis for a technical trade feature article is an engineering paper delivered at an obscure conference. Why? The technical paper isn’t pushing a product — it's demonstrating the company’s know-how or discovery. Education, with the goal of persuading a particular audience, is the essence of effective public relations. The key to uncovering topics for engineers and other technical team members for editorial contribution is approaching technology from the conceptual standpoint.

Another way to generate topics is to discuss industry trends, issues, and standards. Your company doesn’t need to be IBM or Intel to have an opinion on what's driving the computer and electronics business. In fact, editors like hearing new points of view on important topics from players other than the “usual suspects.” So, get your engineering team members involved in the public relations program. They’ve got a lot to offer. You may just find a whole new way of telling your company’s story. Engineers can do public relations, too.

18 comments on “Engineers Can Do Public Relations, Too

  1. Taimoor Zubar
    February 9, 2011

    Great post, Ford! Being a software engineer, I can totally relate to it. I feel that a lot of organizations undermine the skills of engineers and do not give them the chance to express their ideas in other areas. If engineers are engaged in areas such as marketing and external communication, they would come up with more creative ideas as compared to the stereotyped ideas most business folks have.

  2. Eldredge
    February 9, 2011

    I totally agree. As an added benefit, engineers involved in a product are often very enthusiastic in their presentation, and can answer techical questions on the spot.

  3. Ford Kanzler
    February 9, 2011

    Thanks for your comments. The point is exposing brand expertise to the market. In tech sectors as well as others, this ought reside heavily on those who create the products as well as the marketing team who helps discover and respond to customer needs. An engineer's public credibility is also somewhat higher, even though they work for the company, because the natural perception of technical expertise…beyond only a product. Its really a matter of enlisting people who can enhance the company's overall communications effectiveness.

  4. mfbertozzi
    February 9, 2011

    Posted topic highlight to me a simple question: could people coming from techs achieve this capability or is it a natural attitude?
    @Ford: based on your experience, did you arrange specific and focused trainings for engineers to improve their PR capability?

  5. Ford Kanzler
    February 9, 2011

    In my experience the engineering team members' potential PR or spokesperson abilities run a wide gammut. Some are naturals, some are very trainable and some quite frankly are not and don't want to learn and feel its not their responsibility. I've even encountered E-team members who objected to participation in company promotions of any kind. They felt it was up to marketing…a rather “them and us” turf war breakdown that occurs in some companies. since I come from a professional journalism background, I look at telling the company's story as something every department can potentially participate in, including finance, HR, purchasing, IT, customer service and sales as well as marketing. Unfortunately, often the only time some of these other areas do get involved is when a crisis occurs.

    The ways I've most often worked successfully with engineers is by helping provide an outlet for demonstrating their expertise, as mentioned in an earlier response. This means involving them as sources for various kinds of outbound content, including, but not limited to: contributed articles, white papers, speaking opportunities, blog posts, editorial and analyst technology briefings and even, yes, news releases. If a staff engineer or engineering  manager  will be participating  as a spokesperson, then they certainly deserve some training and preparation in both public speaking and/or media relations. Quite often, improving their  PR effectiveness comes via participation in various kinds of tactics. Repeated expereince creates understanding and most often enjoyment since, for many, its fun, speaking for your company, demonstrating your expertise and depth of knowledge and creating brand credibility in a complex but important area. I've found during my career, that training, coaching and advising clients, regardless of their professional background, is a natural, continuing role for a PR pro and one I very much enjoy. When people “get” how participation in public relations can help the organization, as well as their professional careers, things start moving much faster and effectively. 'Hope this answers.

  6. Barbara Jorgensen
    February 9, 2011

    Ford–I was skeptical of this topic before I read your article. You are absolutely correct, and I realize I've been using engineers to help me with my work. Avnet provides OnDemand video using their engineers or supplier engineers to do a short “how to” demo. I was having a hard time visualizing what exactly an embedded system was, and there it was on the Website. I didn't even have to know what was going on–it was enough that it includes hardware.

    Additionally, engineers are so imporatn to the media–everyone wants to reach them–so it only makes sense that they want to reach us as well.

  7. Ford Kanzler
    February 9, 2011

    Barbara — It makes even more sense that tech companies enlist and employ their engineers in telling the brand's technical story where appropriate. Fortunately (or in some cases, unfortunately) lots of tech marketing managers, directors and vp's are engineers as well and, if well informed, can respond effectively to media inquiries. What's valuable is doing it without too much marketing spin in their replies. However, tech journalists are rightfully wary of marketing's responses. That's why having an engineer involved in media and resarch analyst relations can often be very helpful in presenting a credible commentary. Its the same when engaging business media. They want to talk with the CFO or CEO, not someone in marketing, in spite of the fact that's where the company's outbound information should be originating from.

  8. jbond
    February 9, 2011

    This is a great article. I believe engineers should get more involved with PR. There is a misconception out there that many engineers are more focused on their tasks at hand then trying to involve the public. I think many articles or interviews would be better served having the info coming from an engineer than from the public relations department. If questions arise, the engineer can easily give a detailed response other than “I will have to check with the engineering department.”

  9. Ford Kanzler
    February 9, 2011

    Thanks Ms. Bond – Some engineers are sharply focused on their work and unwilling to branch out. Some are likely a bit introverted. Many certainly are not. While its the PR pro's job to field questions from media and analysts, a close relationship with “the brains of the outfit” whoever they may be, whether in engineering, tech support, marketing or sales is essential. Differing talents need to cooperate for the desired results. If PR is isolated from the technical expertise, there will be problems. I've found having lots of contacts around the company to be extremely valuable in getting the best answers fast.

  10. t.alex
    February 10, 2011

    In fact, most of the cases engineers are involved directly with customers. So it is quite obvious they can do some PR for the company as well.

  11. eemom
    February 10, 2011

    In my marketing days, I cherished engineers that were comfortable in front of the customer and were willing to assist in product sales.  Not all engineers are comfortable in this role and the ones that are get concerned that they will be too involved in marketing and have less time for product design and development.  With resources being stressed, it is hard to pull a talented engineer from the task at hand, often with critical deadlines, to assist in marketing the product.

    Companies need to provide not only the necessary training but the needed bandwidth for engineers to spread their wings into marketing which will in turn provide them more ownership of their products.

  12. Ford Kanzler
    February 10, 2011

    Hi eemom – What's important in involving engineering team members or managers is using them sparingly only where they can add the greatest value. Their periodic participation in PR activities is certainly valuable. However, if a company has an overall dis-connect between engineering and marketing there far larger problems than just with public relations. Engineering should have crystal clear direction from marketing management about customers needs and what will be created. Otherwise products get designed that miss. I'm sure we've all seen many of those. Engineering and marketing as a team should share a deep understanding of market demand and competitive requirements and not be isolated from each other due to an imposed management reporting structure.

  13. itguyphil
    February 10, 2011

    In those cases with the non-sales/technical engineers, hopefully the majority of those interactions are positive. if not, it can have a major downside for the company's image.

  14. Hardcore
    February 11, 2011

     

    I would say that is the greatest source of friction(marketeers+engineers), especially when marketing somehow thinks itself capable of instructing engineering.

    Generally it(marketing) is the source of most feature creep, impracticable engineering requests which in many cases are sourced from a single customer, or let's do  what  company X is doing but cheaper.

    Possibly this is why Apple has been so successful, they generate a market , where in many cases there is not initially a customer base in place to drive the requests.

    If we look at most critisism in the press about apple products is seems to come from:

    1. Marketing departments.

    2. Angry non-customers (read people who are annoyed that Apple thought of it first)

    Great innovations are not driven by marketers or market research, but rather in many cases by  individual engineers/ a group of engineers working on something 'cool' to show off to other engineers.

    List of non-marketing engineering feats:

    1. Fire

    2. Wheels

    3. The pyramids

    4. Antibiotics

    5. linux

    6. The Iphone/Ipad

    Consider Google, many of their products have a 'source' in allowing engineers  free 'non-marketing & unproductive time usage', possibly because they understand that when engineers are allowed free reign the results can be impressive.

     

    HC

  15. Hawk
    February 11, 2011

    Hardcore, In other words, you believe marketing has no role in product sale and engineers are too smart to understand they need to sell whatever they design? That's a rather myopic view. Apple makes great products but its biggest asset are the best engineering minds that have also found a way to make their products very appealing to consumers. I believe what Ford Kanzler was advocating was a way to infuse engineering energy into marketing and public relations. He wasn't asking engineers to let PR folks do design work but rather saying engineers can help marketing — and their employers — hit their goals.

    I believe engineering and marketing are not mutually exclusive. You cite the example of Apple and Google but their great products have also been supported by excellent marketing, some of it word-of-mouth and others by great advertising and marketing outreach. By the way, I don't completely disagree with you. I just think you missed the point. In today's competitive market, any asset a company can deploy to increase market share and clinch a sale is worth using, even engineering.

  16. Mr. Roques
    February 13, 2011

    How can the marketing department control Twitter activity and other social media tools? I'm an engineer and sometimes I tweet about my work, and what I'm doing. Since most of my friends are related to the industry (somehow), they show some interest and I *think* I handle it well but I could see how an engineer could not transmit what the company wants. 

    The easiest thing to do is shut it down and don't allow anyone to tweet about work but there should be other ways, right?

  17. stochastic excursion
    February 14, 2011

    Any engineer who's had to do a dog and pony show to demo their idea knows the importance of salesmanship.  Even the inventor of the wheel probably had to convince people to cut down trees to make them.  In the modern enterprise though, with its specialized roles. marketing and engineering resources can be far too mutually isolated.

    Companies like Apple are a result of innovation.  The innovative drive seems to be deeply ingrained in the management in these companies, driving a continuous reinvention of the organization.  I can imagine the organization is pretty complex, not your father's Oldsmobile as the ad goes.  There's definitely a lot of marketing going on, it's just so well integrated into the product that it's hard to distinguish.  Engineers there probably embrace a relationship with marketing, not only because they know they have to eat, but because it's clear to them that their design would be incomplete without it.

  18. Tim Votapka
    February 16, 2011

    Great points raised on this. It's absolutely true that PR is an often mis-applied communication line. The purpose of PR is to make the company, its actions or products known, accepted and understood by the different publics (or target audiences), and to assist the company to exist in a favorable operating climate so that it can expand, prosper and be viable. It is the technology of handling and controlling human emotion and reaction. It is best used when an organization is demonstrating the effect it has had on a situation which makes application articles and success stories so poweful.

    I used to be on the receiving end of press releases. In fact I kept very good track of what ran and you'd be amazed to find out how many repeat releases I'd get from the same organization, months after the original announcement had been issued. This is not PR at all. In fact, it had the counter effect of being identified as “flak” thrown up into the air to see what it could hit. No, PR as Ford puts it, is a communication line that needs to be well thought out and administered so everyone wins.

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