A means to an end

Communications for technology and technology for communications: a chicken-or-egg scenario.

Above: Philips LED lighting used at home, work and play, can increase energy efficiency by up to 80 per cent and reduce carbon emissions while ensuring light quality or power output / Photo: Philips

A very long time ago, I recall my communications head saying that she started out her career by faxing press releases to journalists and hand-delivering them wherever possible as a follow-up.

At that point in time, I thought “Ouch! How archaic”. Fast forward years later, and it might be worth asking: while technology has enabled and improved efficiency in communications:

  • Has the way we communicate improved?
  • Does technology make us more effective communicators?
  • How best to communicate with technology?

The internet has enabled many aspects of what we do and, most importantly, has blurred geography distinctions; causing a fear-uncertainty-doubt scenario spotted on social media to impart real-time, deep-seated and company-wide implications.

Similarly, technology has enabled many business operations and the rise of the consumer on the move. Increasingly even in the enterprise space, we find examples of companies reaching out to new target segments. For instance, major network equipment providers that are known to vie for sales across the mobile operators are targeting “non-telco” enterprise segments like shipping, logistics, banks and so on.

All these have happened due to technology becoming more portable (e.g. modular, cloud-based) and being built on more open standards/platforms (versus proprietary); and in some cases technology can be offered as a set of services with deliverables and innovative payment forms preset within service-level agreements (SLA).

Other than the fact we no longer send out press releases by fax, how else should the role of communications evolve with technology? In fact, information communication technology (ICT) should no longer be viewed as a separate industry segment, but an enabling function, much like what we communicators do to enable and equip effective company spokespersons.

Have we become better communicators?

If like me, you have often worked for ICT companies, does walking the talk count in what you do? If you work for a device company, sporting the company’s latest phone or smart wearable is probably a pre-requisite, but that’s not going to differentiate your role as a communicator. It is unlikely to beat the star power emanated by celebrities paid to endorse your company’s products.

Doing what other consumers do with the product gives you no edge as a brand guardian. Knowing what goes on behind the product, however, does. By this I am referring to the often unsung heroes that give the company and its products character and heritage, and these can include research and development, the engineering right through go-to-market, and even the talents behind all these roles and activities.

Most communicators do not have a technology or engineering background, and this means being more diligent and inquisitive to reach out to departments that house the gems behind every great product. As long as we can recognise this, communicators can turn their lack of technical background into an asset – to uncover those knowledge gems, sift out the proof points to substantiate the unique selling propositions, organise and simplify them into a storyboard for your intended audience and equip the storyteller to communicate those messages.

What I have just outlined is pretty generic and forms the basis of passionate storytelling. Interestingly, some have asked me if there is a difference between B2B and B2C technology storytelling, I would say no, the basis is the same.

Similarly, there is a misnomer that B2C technology communications can provide more colour than that for cut-and-dry B2B technology. The distinction between B2B and B2C is fast disappearing. For instance, the network equipment provider sells equipment and services to the mobile operator which in turn uses this investment to serve consumers who are subscribers of mobile services that run on devices. What goes into B2B has to ensure a superior experience on the B2C end.

“Communicators can turn their lack of technical background into an asset.” 

To illustrate: some years back, our team ran an amazing race with a bunch of journalists. The goal was to have them derive that, for consumers and subscribers to get the best network coverage, their operators must invest in superior network technology and even services to ensure service uptimes. The journalists were each given a phone pre-loaded with SIM cards from major operators in the country.

Keeping all things equal, we had the journalists make use of their cell phones to locate clues and send back evidence of milestones completed, as well as reach their ‘life-line’ advisor for harder-to-reach clues. At the end of the game, the journalists asked more thoughtful questions and were able to derive the takeaways which would have been harder to instill had we started the press briefing by telling them how great our company and hardware were.

More importantly, we instilled fun in the process and the journalists were able to test drive B2B technology concepts for themselves.

Does technology make us better communicators?

Technology is at best an enabler, for any job and not just for us as communicators. Regardless of whether you are in B2B or B2C, technology or non-tech business, the internet and its associated technologies are redefining connectivity.

Connectivity is rewriting business models even in non-tech sectors. Pervasive broadband and fast evolving access technologies including Wi-Fi, Li-Fi, Bluetooth low-energy (BLE), narrowband cellular technologies are powering machine-to-machine communications and the internet of things – thus giving rise to billions of connections between businesses, among humans, and even across things like your television set, the parking meter, the street lamps you drive past, the shopping lanes you cart through, and soon you could even eat vegetables grown in space.

Little wonder that Eric Rondolat, chief executive officer of Philips Lighting, has ambitions for his company to be the “lighting company for the internet of things” – with a connected lighting proposition where light serves more than just the need for illumination.

How can communicators make use of technology?

There are two fronts: communicating with parties external to as well as internal within the company. It’s not uncommon to find that our communications to the outside world sometimes leave our colleagues in the cold. Our colleagues receive company updates and announcements from outside sources. We often forget our internal stakeholders are the most powerful ambassadors and influencers in the communications process.

Regardless of the medium, the primary communication objectives and messages should be defined per audience. For instance, if the company is holding a product launch:

External audience: what is the current pain point experienced by a target segment, how can this be addressed, what is the solution that can be deployed (what is the launch about) and when will it become available;

Internal audience (stakeholders, employees): what is the launch about, desired outcomes of the launch, and who are involved (especially senior-level executive champions). Beyond informing, the intent here is to energise teams and encourage those who have contributed toward the launch, directly or indirectly.

While the use of technology for outreach cannot be undermined, critical considerations should be made to ensure synchronised and complementary message delivery:

External audience: Social media and other online channels for pre-, during and post- launch, with the appropriate call-to-action at each phase;

Internal audience: Intranet and/or other in-house broadcast channels to highlight the call to action, as well as noteworthy responses and reactions to the launch. Importantly, any customer or channel feedback should be shared to serve as the basis for improvements in customer service or future marketing/product innovation.

Technology is only a means to an end

All said, while technology has greatly improved efficiency, it is easy to be enslaved to technology in anything we do, including communications. Effective communications is like getting a foot in the doorway, and keeping the door open for follow-on communication. Technology is the enabler of effective communications. Yet nothing beats traditional face-to-face interaction, giving and receiving a gift by hand and trading banter over coffee in the office fitted with Power-Over-Ethernet lighting. By the way, the coffee machine never runs out because your facilities manager would have been alerted before that happens – through sensor data he receives from the coffee machine!

Charlotte Sam

Charlotte Sam oversees executive, external and internal communications, as well as corporate social responsibility, for ASEAN and Pacific at Philips Lighting. Trained as a systems analyst/engineer, Charlotte has more than 20 years of experience in B2B technology communications. She has held senior corporate and regional roles in communications – most recently with Huawei Technologies in China, as well as with Motorola Solutions, Oracle and Nokia Networks.