What PR pros can learn from tech-support reps

We’ve all become more familiar with the IT department during WFH, and these crucial team members can offer some sage advice to PR pros engaging their clients.


Bearded IT Specialist in Glasses is Working on Laptop in Data Center Next to Server Racks. Running Diagnostics or Doing Maintenance Work.

“My computer crashed.”

“My password doesn’t work.”

“I can’t connect to the internet.”

In our “Age of Gadgets,” such complaints are inescapable. Yet the language we use to describe them is exasperatingly vague. In the past, when we all were working together in an office, we could bring our laptop to the IT guy, or he could swing by our office in person. COVID-19 has rendered that convenience a distant memory.

So what’s the solution? I’m not here to recommend an app or website. I’ll leave those decisions to the tech experts.

What I can recommend is a fail-proof technique that will utterly transform your experience with tech support. The next time you run into an electronic problem—be it with your computer, phone, tablet, watch, or even car—don’t panic. In these scenarios, you’ll often detect a specific error message. After all, computers, designed by engineers, are meant to be logical.

So, before you pick up the phone to call the help desk—or your geek niece or nephew—write down that message verbatim. Precision is paramount; don’t paraphrase. If you can’t copy and paste, then take a screenshot or use your phone to snap a pic.

This effortless gesture will not only facilitate a fix; it also might help you solve the snafu on your own. After all, once you copy the message, you can paste it into Google. In my experience, most errors are explained by one quick search. (Odds are, you’re not the first person to bump into the issue at hand, and nerds love both to nitpick and to succor.)

What does any of this have to do with public relations?

All too often, we PR pros try to serve a client before we understand her audience, pain, or goal. We try to pigeonhole people:

  • “She needs more earned media.”
  • “He needs an op-ed.”

Yet, if we take a page from our counterparts in tech support, we’d approach the sales process differently. For example, when a Wikipedia prospect contacts me, I ask for half-a-dozen links that document his “notability.” Similarly, Jeff Lotman, who recently wrote a book on brand licensing (which, full disclosure, I edited), asks each potential client to develop a business plan. “If someone isn’t willing to invest the time to provide these details, that’s a big red flag,” he says.

To employ a cliché: Help me help you.

Sure, some clients may resent this proposition. “Isn’t that why I hired you?” they may wonder.

Sometimes, the answer is “yes” (as long as you charge for the extra work). But more often than not, PR pros should get in the habit of asking more from our clients. If we don’t understand the problem, we have no business trying to solve it.

Indeed, we’re communicators. So let’s communicate. Let’s show off our skills by posing a question that essentializes the issue.

Seek clarity now, when it’s expected. Wait till later, and you’ll look like that guy who can never remember his neighbor’s name.

Jonathan Rick is a communication consultant in Washington, D.C. He also serves as a technical-support consultant to his mother and girlfriend, both of whom will surely, strongly disagree with the advice above.


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