30 Apr Technically Correct: How to Ensure Non-Tech Reporters Get it Right
Public relations often involves explaining ideas and concepts to reporters that they may not be familiar with. When the public relations is being done on behalf of technology companies, playing the part of a technical guide can be even more crucial. Even when a reporter you interact with is well-versed in the subject at hand, it’s wise for any tech PR professional to keep a few key elements in mind.
Reporters have to understand what clients are talking about in order to write about it. The problem is that technical language can sound like gibberish to those who don’t share the same profession. That’s not unique to the technical world, of course. Every profession has its own special language, whether it’s Catholic priests using Latin or bureaucrats relying on three-letter initialisms to describe government agencies. When discussing technology or science in general, the vocabulary isn’t always the same as it is in everyday conversation. There are a lot of technical terms that mean wildly different things in another context. For instance, if you hear a sentence with the words ‘cloud’ and ‘agile’ in it from someone in tech, they probably aren’t urging you to move quickly and get out of the rain.
If you’re going to work in tech PR, you need to have a pretty solid handle on that language yourself. Luckily, a lot of it can be absorbed simply by osmosis. If you talk and write about a subject enough, you’ll start to understand at least the basics pretty well. But, don’t hesitate to do your own reading and research on the topic. At the very least, that will get you to the point of knowing what kind of questions to ask your client in order to clarify and deepen your own expertise on the terms they use. And, with that expertise, you’ll become better at pitching the client and its work to reporters, confident that you know exactly what idea you’re describing.
In tech PR, a lot of journalists you interact with may well have a technical vocabulary as good or better than your own, but it’s a mistake to assume so. Plus, tech companies will each have their own approach to talking about their technology and how it applies to the world at large. Even reporters who write about cutting-edge technology every day won’t necessarily grasp the nuances of what your client is trying to say. Right from the first time you pitch a reporter, you have to be as precise as your client with the language you use. You have to be vigilant about it during the interview as well. If the reporter uses a term or phrase incorrectly during the interview, don’t be afraid to correct them if the client doesn’t do so themselves.
It’s not just about specific words. The problem that a tech company is trying to solve, and how they are trying to solve it, can be hard for a layperson to understand. A reporter writing about a tech company has to understand the company’s technology and be able to explain it to their audience. When they misunderstand the context, you get ridiculous headlines about coffee curing cancer or Y2K spelling doom for civilization.
For the PR professional, it’s helpful to have one or two analogies or metaphors on hand to describe technical details in more accessible language. Even if the reporter doesn’t use those examples, they set the foundation for a more accurate translation of what may at first appear as opaque technobabble.
Sometimes, even your best efforts can’t stop errors from cropping up. A misunderstood turn of phrase or a backward analogy can arise no matter how diligent you or the reporter are. Good reporters will often come back with questions for clarification if they aren’t sure they’ve fully understood a technical detail, but that doesn’t always stop a story from including incorrect information. The good news is that most media are as keen to avoid factual errors as you are and will issue any such corrections as quickly as possible. Those prospects get dicier if it’s more of a problem with a metaphor, but at least there’s consolation that it can be avoided in the next interview.
Reporters, technical or otherwise, want to get the story right, and a good tech PR professional does whatever is needed to help them achieve that goal. Just remember, the non-tech reporter may need you to be a bit more active in getting your client’s point across.