First-Hand:Milestones in Consumer Electronics - Memories of a High-Tech PR Pioneer
By Joel Strasser, LSM (firstname.lastname@example.org)
While many have not paid much attention to when and where technology and public relations came together as a specialized communications discipline, I like to think that I was somewhere in the pioneering phase of this popular and enjoyable profession and pastime. In fact, when I entered the field, I was told by others of my professional colleagues that I was alone in what I did. So, conceivably, I invented a whole new discipline in marketing communications – hi-tech PR.
High-tech public relations had its birth alongside the consumer electronics revolution of the 20th century that boasted an unprecedented array of technology advances along with eventual price erosion as each advancement matured, some into obsolescence.
It’s been almost 50 years since graduating CCNY with a degree in English journalism along with an equally heavy concentration in electronics engineering, and spending my early years writing for three technical trade magazines plus a syndicated science column for a national newswire service. Then, switching to agency and corporate public relations, my earliest assignments were to translate technical specs and descriptive information into comprehensible language for both lay and technical readers. I recall, on joining Hill and Knowlton, then the world’s largest PR firm, their expressions of surprise at my seemingly dissimilar degree concentrations, with their realization that I might offer practical solutions to some of their more “difficult and complex” client communications needs. When I was twice asked to launch a new specialized client unit concentrating on activities for technical and industrial businesses, I realized we were tackling previously uncharted communications challenges.
What was happening in the world of technology during those early days of technology public relations inspired and excited many. The endless parade of developments and products that seemingly emerged in explosive fashion seemed like a treasure lode to those of us tasked with the job of explaining them and translating technical language for both consumers and technical folks alike.
By the mid-1980s, the technology industry seemed at a crossroads demanding increasing communication to the general public and the need for specialized expertise and interest. IBM, with help from Microsoft, in 1981 had just introduced its new computer format and standard, which ultimately became the globally accepted operating system, adopted by every computer maker except Apple Computer. Just as today is enjoying the explosive emergence of social media, that period in the 80s saw the universal acceptance of basic e-mail communications on the Internet or the World Wide Web.
In 1984, I was elected president of PRSA’s New York Chapter, and we made some noise about picking a scientist to lead the public relations society in New York, well-recognized as the media capital of the world.
It was actually in 1984, also the name of a prophetic technocentric novel of the same name (“1984”), that interest began building in creating a special-interest group, or Professional Interest Section, within the PRSA and the national PR community. After a year of soliciting signatures for petitions of support, the Section was finally founded in 1985. At one point, shortly thereafter, I was recognized for this along with my other PRSA activities, and elected to the PRSA College of Fellows by the PRSA national organization. Today, it hardly seems like 25 years have passed since I founded PRSA’s Technology Section, and served as its founding chairman for the first two years of its existence.
The decade of the 80s was also a time of explosive innovation in consumer electronics and other technologies, household words and generic tools in today’s world, but expensive toys and comparative curiosities back then. Personally, because my training included both engineering and journalism, when asked why I helped create the Section, I jokingly responded, “So I’d have other people I could talk to.” Perhaps the other signatories to that initial petition to form the new Technology Section could also foresee the impending explosion of PR-specific technology and technology-specific PR.
Today’s household words were in fact early technology wizardry. When we introduced the world’s first video tape recorder in 1970, a system called Avco Cartrivision rolled out by the same entrepreneur who brought the Volkswagen automobile to the United States after World War II, they did better with cars than with TV recorders. The systems used square tape cartridges about the size of a hardcover novel but the player-recorders were inextricably married to specific brands of TV receivers, and this combo arrangement didn’t catch on. Even though the VHS format ultimately prevailed over the long term, I recall buying my first VCR for about $1200, which notably had the same capabilities as a VCR which in 2009 sold for about $50.
I also recall introducing the world’s first hand-held pocket calculator, built and introduced in 1971 by Bowmar Instrument Corporation. Bowmar also became Texas Instruments' largest customer for LSI calculator integrated circuits. The first calculator was larger than a pack of cigarettes and the selling price was $480.00. I recall visiting the Acton, Mass. factory and asking a Bowmar engineer how low the selling price might actually get: his guess was $25.00 – and how much can you get them for now?
On one occasion, we demonstrated the first pocket calculator to a writer from Newsweek Magazine over lunch at the former Le Chanteclair Restaurant on 49th Street just off Madison Avenue, across the street from the old Newsweek building in New York. The restaurant was owned by René Dreyfus, an international racing car driver of such distinction that he had been awarded the Legion of Honor by French President Charles DeGaulle. Suddenly, I looked up and our lunch table was completely surrounded by the restaurant’s staff, including Mr. Dreyfus, the old-time French sports luminary turned restaurant entrepreneur. After I explained that we were using the new device to accurately compute the amount of our tip, we were invited into his back room office to see how it measured up against his electric hand-crank adding machine. Needless to say, we had the total dollar amount displayed before he could even reach for the crank handle.
To support the very first effort to commercialize solar energy, we planned and implemented a new program called “Operation Sunpower,” and went on to win one of the earliest technology-oriented Silver Anvil Awards, PRSA’s most coveted honor. Our program was a nine-state effort that succeeded in doubling the total number of solar-power installations in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and all six New England states. The effort informed and explained the technologies behind solar energy and its concrete savings advantages to encourage homeowner acceptance. To advance widespread adoption, we worked with the Northeast Solar Energy Center, created as a functional arm of the US Department of Energy, along with the availability of financial “HUD grants” from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. We measured our results by tracking and directly correlating the levels of PR exposure and the staging of high-profile public PR events with the dollar value of HUD grant applications filed in each specific geographic area. Among supportive personalities we enlisted to participate at these events included former House Speaker Tip O’Neill, the late Sen. H. J. Heinz II, and former NYC Mayor Ed Koch.
It’s ironic to look at the Anvil trophy with its 1980 date, more than 30 years ago. Some technologies move quickly while others get bogged down by politics and other factors, recognizing that the solar panels were removed from the White House roof shortly after being occupied by the next succeeding administration.
During the last century, music, video and movies exhausted a long series of audio and video recording formats. Music was stored on several different formats of vinyl disks, 78s, 45s. 33s, and then magnetic tape ranging through dual-track, four-track and eight-track, and subsequently burned into optical disks today referred to as CDs. Soon video images joined sound on the reflective optical discs, with full-length movies stored on optical discs, the first ones as large as 14 inches in diameter.
At one point, a videodisk format emerged that was initially adopted by such companies as Pioneer, Philips and Sony that could be played on specialized videodisk players that played optical disks just as earlier phonographs had played LPs. At different times, I worked with both Pioneer and Philips to assist with their product rollouts. In behalf of North American Philips, I recall engaging the entire Hill and Knowlton national network of offices throughout the United States to stage and carry out introductory press conference events in 50 major cities around the country to roll out that early technology of videodisks and compatible players. One interesting ploy I recall was to stop and freeze frame the playing of the 1974 movie, “Earthquake,” in mid-track to be able to see a Los Angeles skyscraper building physically disintegrating into seemingly thousands of pieces of falling debris. As we all know, the large videodiscs eventually shrank in size and with the advent of further miniaturization, today’s movies are optically stored on DVDs.
Another product of note that I enjoyed introducing was the Archos Jukebox Multimedia 20 and 40, among the earliest MP3 player-recorders. At the outset in 2002, Archos S.A. was a small company headquartered in Igny, France, not too far from Orly Airport, which served Paris. Their early products were hand-held devices that were the first pieces of consumer electronics hardware that used hard disks capable of storing audio, video and still photographs.with memories of 20 and 40GB, respectively. Once, while visiting the factory outside Paris, I was asked to quickly write a news announcement needed on short order. It wasn’t until I sat down at the keyboard that I realized the French do not use the traditional QWERTY keyboard, and so had to employ hunt and peck to finish the writing assignment. In any event, our publicity program got laudable results, and we did succeed in winning an industry award for “Launching a New Consumer Electronics Category,” with a line of products that were notable forerunners of Apple’s iPod.
One highly effective way of helping news writers maximize their editorial coverage was for them to tour corporate and manufacturing facilities, wherever they were located. In 1974, we flew a contingent of science and technology writers and editors to the Owens-Illinois manufacturing plant near Toledo, Ohio to witness first-hand the pouring of the glass for the astronomical telescope then being built for the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile. Later, as part of our solar energy familiarization program, we assembled a group of science and technology writers and editors and took them by plane to the site of the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y. to see first-hand the solar-powered communications system that was set up along the ski trails of Whiteface Mountain to support the downhill skiing events that took place later that year.
Another time, the British company, Racal Ltd., which at the time produced and sold tactical electronic systems to the military forces of 37 different countries, decided to stage and hold a single-company trade show to showcase their latest military electronics in the convention facilities of the Royal Lancaster Hotel in central London. We invited numerous American scientific and military trade magazine editors and writers to attend, at Racal’s expense, and many came to enjoy seeing the new equipment, dine in royal splendor and meet such dignitaries as Britain’s Minister of Defence.
On another occasion, Maxell Corporation of America, of Fair Lawn, N.J., organized a week’s visit to their various Hitachi Maxell facilities in different parts of Japan. We led a contingent of about 20 U.S. reporters who were able to see a host of newly-emerging Hitachi Maxell products and technologies, ride the Bullet Train to get to various locations between Tokyo, Tsokuba and Osaka, attend a Japanese technology trade show (where many industry advances were shown long before their eventual appearance in the US) , and enjoy Japanese entertainment, dining and hospitality.
One time, I was initially invited to speak and also organize a topical session at a large international energy technology conference scheduled to be held in then-West Berlin, Germany. But recognizing my public relations credentials, the conference organizers subsequently asked me to invite news media representatives to attend and editorially cover the conference, all expenses paid. At first I balked at the suggestion, based on journalistic ethics considerations, but then re-thought the scenario and offered a counter-suggestion that they give me one additional session to organize that we could assemble by inviting a number of influential news media personalities to be speakers for that session. The organizers agreed, and among those who participated were the late Earl Ubell, then of WCBS-TV News, and Ed Edelson, formerly of the New York Daily News, and several other editors and writers from leading national media outlets. Highlights of the visit included several side trips into East Berlin, where Earl was able to visit a Trabant automotive showroom to look under the hood at what he later described as a lawn mower-size engine. We also attended a formal reception at the US Ambassador’s private residence, which Earl had to enjoy dressed in his traveling lounge pants because the airline had temporarily misplaced his flight luggage, which was finally located and delivered the next morning.