Eleven Hundred Agency

24 years in PR: From spray mount fumes to gen AI

By Claire Ayles

May 2024 marks 24 years since I embarked on my career in tech PR. For those of you old enough to remember, major tech stories of the day centred on the aftermath (or lack thereof) of the Millennium Bug and the ILOVEYOU email worm, which infected 45 million PCs worldwide. Yes, it really was that long ago. Those of you under the age of 35 may need to Google what any of that means. As you do, bear in mind that Google was a mere 1.5 years old at the time. Most of us were still asking Jeeves.

Plenty has changed since I was lucky enough to walk through the doors of the brilliant Johnson King for the very first time, but some things remain resolutely the same.

Indulge an old-timer as I describe what I miss, what I’m glad has changed, and what I’ve loved in 24 years at three different PR agencies:

Press releases by post

It’s hard to imagine now, but back in the early noughties, there was a still a sizeable cohort of journalists writing for print magazines who still elected to receive press releases by post rather than newfangled email. As well as being a pfaff to format, print, copy, and post, there was also the difficulty of providing photos. Some other long-in-the-tooth PRs will doubtless remember the overpowering smell of spray mount.

There were advantages to this approach, though. With releases needing to be printed and timed to hit the desks of reporters on the day of the news, copy was usually approved days in advance by clients. Last minute changes simply couldn’t happen. Deadlines were deadlines, final versions really were final, and attention to detail was everything.

ResponseSource still rocks our world

If I could name one tool that has consistently made my life easier over the years it has to be ResponseSource, the service used by journalists to notify PRs and brands when they need help to complete their stories. On every day for last 24 years (minus holidays and two spells on maternity leave), I have skim-read tens of these requests. While this volume of requests was overwhelming on day one, you soon realise it’s the most effective way to keep ahead of the news agenda.

What journalists ask for in these requests has changed though. Back in the day, most were seeking interviews with experts, who they would go on to quote in their stories. Now, the majority want written commentary that they can slot into their copy. It’s a sign of the times. With fewer journalists tasked with writing more stories than ever before, efficiency has become king.

Print vs. online

I vividly remember a client expressing their disappointment when a hard-won interview with a prominent national journalist ‘only’ resulted in online coverage and didn’t make it into the paper. In these days of Google Analytics, where every visitor to a website is measured and tracked, and where attribution is key, it seems ludicrous that tomorrow’s fish and chip paper was once valued more highly that an online story that could, in theory, live forever. Print media coverage still has prestige but, these days, clients tend to care much more about online exposure.

Charting the age of innovation

Someone once wisecracked that they were surprised I had a job in tech PR back in 2000, as there wasn’t any tech to talk about. As well as Google only being in its infancy, bear in mind that LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook didn’t even exist at that point. We were all playing Snake on our Nokia 3210s.

My first two clients at Johnson King were in fact at the bleeding edge of innovation. The first enabled video and voice traffic to travel over IP networks. Our pitches talked of a future where you could visit a website and add live video or call someone with a click of a button. Imagine!

The other enabled cable operators to use their infrastructures to offer broadband alongside TV channels. This was the era of dial-up so home broadband was the dream. Mind you, for some rural communities, it still is.

The innovations have kept coming, some (like the above) have become mainstream technologies, others fell at the first hurdle or were eventually displaced by the next generation of challenger brands. Whether it’s been explaining the need for anti-virus software, the birth of cloud-based services, how encryption works, the explosion in mobile gaming, or even how AI is revolutionising the way vaccines are developed, it’s been an absolute privilege to tell stories about the most dynamic and exciting industry in the world.

Wearing more and more hats

Back in the day, B2B tech PR pretty much meant media relations, with analyst relations and keynote pitching thrown in from time to time. This is no longer the case; today’s activity is much more varied. Indeed, we now have clients that don’t even want earned media in their scope of work – instead, they want a wide range of digital content to share on social or to fuel their inbound marketing campaigns. Paid media is also on the rise, as are podcasts while the number of awards has gone through the roof. This ability to flex has kept the job exciting and fresh. After all, if you can identify and articulate a good story (prerequisites for the job) you can certainly adapt it to suit different channels of communication.

The tools they are a changing

While ResponseSource has remained a stalwart in my career, other tools have come and gone. With everything searchable online, media cuttings services have certainly become less important and the days of printing and binding coverage into a physical book, so your client can plonk it on their reception coffee table, are long gone. Now, we’re witnessing the rise of generative AI, with many in the industry (myself included) still trying to work out if it’s a friend of foe. Some gen AI use cases have the potential to be game changing – researching a topic is now so much quicker (though you need to check the accuracy) – but its written content is, overall, boring, flabby, repetitive, and formulaic. I’m sure these tools will improve, but us humans have got this for a while longer yet.

The last 24 years have been a blast. I’ve worked with the smartest and most fun people imaginable, and represented some of the world’s most exciting and ambitious companies, which have trusted me to explain how their big ideas have the potential to enrich our lives. Sure, there’s been lots of late nights, early mornings, stress, drama, and working-parent guilt, not mention a lengthy list of unreasonable and downright bizarre requests, but they’ve all added to the ride!

While I certainly won’t be working in another 24 years, I’m pumped to see what the future of the industry holds. Let’s keep the ResponseSource requests rolling!