Technology public relations specialist
Chris Lewis grew up a part of what he calls “the corrosive newspaper culture” of the U.K. It’s a gritty, urban culture, as opposed to the suburban TV culture that dominates the U.S. mediascape; a culture that breeds reporters who couldn’t be more different from (or cynical about) the executives they cover; a culture in which the story is more important than the company telling it; a culture that appreciates and rewards newsmakers rather than press release writers; a culture that ultimately forces PR people to think smarter and work harder to overcome the scepticism of the press corps.
Lewis created a technology PR firm that reflects the journalistic culture it serves, although it has evolved since its early days, when—like most of its peers—it was focused primarily on helping high-tech companies reach IT people. Increasingly, however, buying decisions are being made in the C-suite, and Lewis now finds itself working more closely with CEOs, who see public relations as both a shield and a sword in an increasingly competitive world, and seeking to reach executive level decision makers. About half of the firm’s media hits are in mainstream national media, with another 35 percent in vertical media and just 15 percent in the trades—a big change from a few years ago. (A typical story idea: a look at the most embarrassing ways people lose their data, designed to promote a client in the data recovery sector.)
The firm holds editorial meetings every morning. It is taken for granted that attendees will have read the morning’s papers already, and ferreted out trends or emerging issues that might provide media opportunities to clients with no new product news. (“If you don’t have an engine, you use the wind,” says Lewis. “We check which way the wind is blowing every morning.”)
“The combination of the team’s press expertise and knowledge of which press tactics to use at which time has catapulted us to be a leading voice in the security space,” says Marty Tacktill, senior director of worldwide public relations at Postini. Adds Mark Todd, director and co-founder, firsthelpline.com: “The media attention received has had a measurable impact on the number of customer switches—both business and consumer—as well as impacting our business’ bottom line.” While Maureen Kolb, PR manager at SafeNet, says: “The international teams understand and relish media culture and are able to effectively plug our spokespeople and messages into hot topics and issues in the press.”
The newsroom culture also explains some of the misperceptions that abound in the U.K. marketplace, where Lewis’s candour is often interpreted as arrogance and his insistence that his people work as hard as the reporters they are trying to reach has earned his firm a reputation as something of a sweatshop—a perception that resulted in much consternation when the firm made the FT’s list of best workplaces. Not surprisingly, the reality is a good deal more complex. Lewis ploughs 75 percent of profits back into the business, which means a significant investment in professional development. And the fact that a large number of employees have equity participation means that they work more like owners. Perhaps most important, Lewis held on to its staff throughout the recession, continuing to pay bonuses at a time when some competitors were struggling to make payroll. There are people who are willing to give up their “duvet days” and other perks in exchange for that kind of job security.
It’s a culture Lewis has been exporting globally. The firm has offices in seven continental markets (24 people in Germany, 17 in the Benelux region, 14 in France, and smaller offices in Italy, Spain, and the Nordics) in addition to its 80-person U.K. headquarters, and Lewis has hired European executives like Rafael Rahn in Germany and Marieke van Zuien in the Netherlands who echo his philosophy and spread his gospel in their markets. The firm also has 17 people in offices in China, Singapore and Australia, and has made expansion in the U.S. (where it has 35 people in San Diego, San Francisco, Boston, and Washington) a major priority, since U.S. companies are by far the biggest spenders on tech PR services. New additions in recent months include Mark Street as associate director from his role as news editor at IT Week and Lucy George as senior consultant from Parity IT Services Group.
The firm’s client roster has changed as it has expanded. Cross-border work accounts for almost half the firm’s fee income, as clients like Salesforce.com have come to use Lewis more broadly: first hiring the firm in the U.K., then asking it to pitch for the business in Germany, and now representing it in several key markets. At the same time, the client list is beginning to fill up with bigger, more corporate names like Computer Associates and Oracle. New client additions over the past 12 months included 192.com, EDS, Xansa, Experian, BT Conferencing, Steljes, BuildOnline, Pride London, F-Secure, Bloor Research, Thomson NETg, Sanyo, and RAF. But perhaps the highest-profile assignment of the year was the firm’s work with the Conservative Party, including media training several candidates, during the British election.
The firm is also expanding its capabilities well beyond its traditional strength in media relations. The firm is developing an analyst relations capability in its Boston office, and plans to create an investor relations capability in London. Lewis has its own video production facility, which it uses to produce three-minute video clip reports designed to dazzle clients in a way that a three-inch thick folder never will, and a media training facility (and press conference venue) that works with Lewis clients but also attracts clients of its own. The firm also has in-house design capabilities, allowing it to create virtual press rooms as well as producing the content for them.