Two Robot Geeks Discuss Robotics PR, Automation Fears, and Terminators

A casual Q&A with a robotics PR expert and a robotics journalist

6 min read

Evan Ackerman is IEEE Spectrum’s robotics editor.

A casual Q&A with a robotics PR expert and a robotics journalist
Image: iStockphoto

Evan Ackerman is a journalist who has been covering robotics (and some other stuff) for the last 11 years. Last time he counted, he’d written well over 6,000 articles, which seems like a lot.

Tim Smith is the CEO of Element Public Relations, a boutique PR firm in San Francisco specializing in emerging technologies. Element has particular expertise in robotics, given their work with Willow Garage, Open Robotics, Fetch Robotics, Simbe Robotics, and others.

For this article, Evan and Tim sent each other some questions about what it’s like for a journalist to work with PR firms, and what it’s like for PR firms to work with journalists.

Tim Smith: What is that you do, exactly?

Evan Ackerman: I read a lot of news, send a lot of emails, talk to a lot of people, and occasionally do a little bit of writing. The majority of my time is spent looking for stories, doing background research, setting up interviews, and slogging through all the useless spam I get from PR people every day. Not from you, Tim, of course. Being able to publish articles about cool robots makes it all worthwhile, though, as does being able to meet roboticists and see what they’re working on firsthand. The most satisfying parts of the job involve breaking exclusive stories, and helping people doing robotics research communicate what they’re spending their lives on.

Tim: What do you wish PR people would do that we never do? What do we always do that you hate?

Evan: I hate the mass marketing emails. Look, we journalists have figured out that whatever clever email program you’re using can insert our name at the top to make it look pseudo-personal. We know when you’re sending out emails to every single journalist on your topic list in the hope that a few of them might get back to you. Personally, it just makes me hate you, because you’re wasting my time by sending me stuff that you’d know I wasn’t interested in if you’d bothered to check who you were emailing.

What I wish PR people would do more of is take the time to make a personal connection with journalists in their space. If you proactively invest some time and energy into a journalist, I promise it will pay off, because we’ll listen to you and take you seriously. If we don’t like a pitch you make, we’ll probably tell you why rather than just ignoring you, and maybe even let you try to convince us that we’d be missing out on a story that’s worth telling.

Tim: What’s the hardest thing about your job?

Evan: Writing about software, and particularly algorithms, is very difficult and can be incredibly frustrating. This comes up frequently at academic conferences, where folks present some amazing new work that I just can’t write about very well. Occasionally, I can make a reasonable article by using as many practical examples as possible, but the articles never gain traction without a compelling visual component and robots actually doing stuff.

“I tend to stay away from sci-fi references because robots already have enough of an expectation problem to overcome”

Tim: Do you like to use sci-fi references when writing about robots?

Evan: I tend to stay away from sci-fi references because robots already have enough of an expectation problem to overcome. Every time someone talks about a household robot in the context of Rosie from the Jetsons, it’s just a reminder of how much robots suck compared to Rosie from the Jetsons. And don’t even get me started on Terminator robots.

Tim:What is a robot, exactly? The term seems to be applied to lots of things that arguably aren’t robots.

Evan: My own very general definition is a piece of hardware that can sense its environment, and then based on what it senses, perform some action autonomously. The problem with this definition is that by it, most of your kitchen appliances are robots, and most toy robots (including most drones) are not robots. I’m not sure what to do about this besides put more of an emphasis on the autonomous component of the definition—I’m also tempted to include something about how a significant amount of the system must be moving in some way to qualify.

Tim: When did “automation” become a bad word? It used to imply progress, right? Do robots now personify automation?

Evan: I reject your premise that “automation” is a bad word—I think of automation as having the potential to minimize the tedious and boring tasks that make up a far too significant amount of many jobs. To me, that’s progress, even if it means that jobs will change as a result. And if robots now personify automation, it’s only because it’s much easier to personify a robot than it is a piece of software, even though most automation (in the short term) will come from software and not robots.

Tim: Apart from the technology details, what factors do you look for in a good interview?

Evan: A good interviewee needs to be able to talk honestly about not just what they’re doing, but also what they’re thinking and feeling. I don’t need a rehash of your paper or press release. I don’t want to be pitched like I’m an investor. Tell me about all the stuff that went wrong or didn’t work, and how you handled it, or tried to. Tell me about what frustrates you and what gives you joy. Are you optimistic about the future of robotics, and where does your company or research fit into a larger vision?

Evan: What is that you do, exactly? Or, why do robotics companies suck at doing their own PR and need you to do it instead?

Tim: I’m like a Babel fish, but instead of translating Magrathean to Vogon, I translate Engineering to English. It’s not only that robotics companies are particularly bad at doing their own PR, it’s that almost all engineers are particularly bad at (figuratively) speaking English. Generally speaking, engineers care more about how something works, whereas media cares about what the technology does. We work with emerging technology companies, so our clients are extremely technical. To get through to the media—and ultimately your customersyou need to speak English. When Google Translate offers this feature, I’ll be screwed. 

Evan: Is doing PR for a robotics company different than doing PR for other tech companies?

Tim: Yes, it’s very different in one very important way. Our robotics clients are always being compared to a sci-fi character. I’ve been in high-tech PR for over 20 years, but never had a client product compared to a Jetsons character until we started working with Willow Garage. And the comparisons are unrealistic because sci-fi characters are, well, fictional. Often, the best thing to do is to deliberately compare your robot to one that’s at least friendly or harmless. If you don’t provide a helpful comparison, some reporter might compare your client’s robot to a T-1000. That’s hardly ever a good thing.

Once you get past that hurdle, it comes down to the same PR challenges as most B2B companies: What problem does it solve, for whom, how big is the market, who is actually using it, etc. Oh, and because robotics is kind of a small world, it’s vital to be a resource to the media in any way possible. Other than you and a few others, no one is covering robotics full-time. They need help with resources, research, experts, and anything else.

“I'd like to see less binary thinking in the media. It's almost always robots or humans doing the work, when the reality is robots and humans. The place on that continuum is where the truth lies”

Evan: How can journalists and editors do a better job of covering robotics?

Tim: There’s a lot of angst in my world around the “robots taking jobs” question. I’d like to see less binary thinking in the media. It’s almost always robots or humans doing the work, when the reality is robots and humans. The place on that continuum is where the truth lies; not a simplistic either/or. I also see a ton of articles about robots taking jobs when in fact the article is about automation software. A robot should be comprised of at least a wee bit of hardware, don’t you think? I’ve read articles about robots taking jobs that was referring to Oracle Financials software. I mean, c’mon! I get that robots personify automation, but there’s a knee jerkiness involved. Call it the Overlord Effect!

Evan: How do you effectively pitch journalists on a story when your client isn’t doing anything visually compelling, or when it’s something that takes a lot of tedious technical explanation?

Tim: You have to get creative because you absolutely must have a visual component to a story. In fact, have lots of image and video options for media. Enough so they can choose from a long list of options. And of course, like everyone else in PR, I try to come up with the perfect, non-technical analogy. 

It’s also vital that my clients know what kind of reporter they are speaking with. Talking to a business reporter about the technical details of your robots’ latest accelerometer isn’t exactly a recipe for success. Sometimes it’s perfectly appropriate to geek out on that tedious technical explanation. Not often, but sometimes. 

Evan: What are the best and worst things about your job?

Tim: The best thing is always learning something new. Clients entering new markets or brand-new clients mean we have to get up to speed on something that might be completely new to us. In the past year, we’ve worked with clients doing artificial intelligence for the construction industry, with a company doing propulsion systems for satellites, and more. That stuff is super interesting and that’s the kind of variety I signed up for when I started in PR, and it’s still the best part of the gig. 

There are no bad things about my job. None whatsoever.

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