Trade shows, the press and context communication

Trade shows began as a means to provide a means of providing financial support of technical conferences and get direct access to decision making customers. These conferences and shows also attracted a large number of press and analysts making them a cost-effective means for building press relationships getting one-on-one meetings with influential members of the press, replacing the more costly press tour. This press relations practice, howeverm has become highly inefficient for three primary reasons:

•Lack of finances: The press corps has been decimated by the cutback in advertising in the technology industries (advertising has rebounded in consumer but not in high technology, especially semiconductor and design automation). The fact is that there are fewer editors and reporters to cover the events. Financially, the publishers of trade magazines are finding it increasingly difficult to justify the expense of sending journalists to cover these events, especially since…

•Lack of news: Trade shows rarely produce significant news. Timing an announcement to a specific date of a show means delaying getting solid information out to the customer base while a company hopes to get the attention of the press. Plus, major corporations generally dominate the press attention at the conferences meaning a smaller company must have truly paradigm shifting news to draw attention. The real news lies in the technical programs that give an inkling of the direction technology is going. Many editors are outright refusing to take meetings with companies that, number one, will not be advertising now or in the near future, and number two, announce only incremental improvements to their own technology or minor advances in methodologies.

•The lack of time: In the age of the internet, product and technology news can be covered in a matter of hours. Many smaller companies doen't even bother with public relations opting for posting sometimes amateurish news releases on wire services that get picked up by a few significant online sites. The press cannot compete with that kind of instantaneous coverage and, to provide content readers find valuable, must dedicate themselves to providing analysis and insight; making sense of the flood of news releases and marketing papers masquerading as technical documents.

This means that for PR to make the most of trade show efforts, much of the news to be distributed must be given to the press and discussed weeks in advance of the show. That is the current practice, but even that is starting to overwhelm journalists. One recently put out a call for tradeshow material and flatly stated, "I won't be doing interviews on this news so make sure your releases are clear an to the point." In other words, "don't bury me in hyperbole."

Since the press are looking to the technical conferences for the lion's share of information to be gathered at the shows, the simplest method for getting in front of the press is to be in the technical program. That is much easier said than done. Competition is stiff for slots in the technical papers and panels, and even stiffer for keynote positions. Most of the conference agenda, again, is set by major corporations using their clout to get their representatives on the decision-making committees. This does not eliminate the possibility of a small company being represented in the program, but inclusion relies on many factors, technical leadership being one of many.
With all this in mind, successful press relations that maximizes attention at trade shows is a strategy and timing-driven practice that requires out-of-the-box thinking and an altruistic image. This is what we mean:

The primary attraction for attending a trade show/technical conference is for members of an industry to meet with their peers and discuss commonly held issues. The attraction is the same for the press and analyst community. They want to talk to the actual users of technology, not the providers. Industry events offer that opportunity. The technology provider that offers an avenue to speak with customers about the issues has an opportunity to present themselves as an industry "statesman" and one that should be listened to, regardless of the financial standing the company has in the industry.
VitalCom introduced this concept in multiple forms over the years under the concept of "context communications." Informal events that bring together multiple, and sometimes competing participants in an industry niche, both vendors and customers, provide a "round table" discussion of larger issues. These discussions allow the press and their readers to understand the larger context of the issue and it's resolutions that are not necessarily driven by a single technology or company.

The companies that participate in these discussions, therefore, are viewed on the same footing, be they leaders or start-ups. The articles the editors develop from these "events" raise the perceived value of the participating companies.

Second, timing announcements for release prior to the conference allows the press and analysts time to review material and make more in depth considerations of the messages and content of the announcements. This often results in coverage that attracts attention to the company and drives customers to visit the company at the show; a win-win situation.

Following these two strategies restores the PR value of trade shows and establishes a valuable planning component to your communications program.