Carefully Crafted on July 15

What PR Folks Need to Know about Working with “Nerds”

In our office, we know just enough about coding to be dangerous. We may not have coders/designers on staff, but we work with them often enough that we’ve learned how to speak their language (we even have decor in our office to prove it!). Today, “communicator-turned-geek” Crystal Olig is sharing why all PR pros should embrace their “inherent nerdiness” and learn how to work with a technology team: 


Post by: @sparklegem

Call us nerds, geeks or simply the tech team, we don’t mind – geek is chic, haven’t you heard? I’m happy to wear the badge, but sad to relinquish my PR proud title at the same time.

You see, I started my career as a communicator, with a degree in journalism focusing on advertising and public relations. With this background, I have a unique perspective when I’m working with clients at my digital agency, Oxiem, part of the Upward Brand Interactions agency family.

And I have some gripes for my communicator friends. Let me tell you what every communicator can do better when working with the nerd set, why it’s important and how it will help you succeed in your career.

First, let me tell you something that marketers and communicators need to hear: You can learn it. How many times have you heard someone joke, “I’m in communications because I can’t do math?” Now we all know you really can do math. It might not come as naturally, but isn’t everything worth doing worth working for? I know FTP, DNS, IP and HTML are all scary letters, but I promise it’s not that hard.

I’m a prime example of a communicator–turned-geek. I have never taken a computer science class and I can’t code myself out of a cardboard box, but I believe I am smart enough to learn. Pair that with probably some inherent nerdiness and I’m ten years into a tech career, leading a department of coders, designers and project managers.

But why should you take the time and energy to learn? Don’t you have a tech/IT/website team for that reason? Well sure. Just like you have designers, production managers and technical writers, expertise is valuable. The problem is when communicators don’t feel they can contribute to a technical conversation, let alone lead one.

As a nerd, let me tell you – we need you. We need your marketing acumen, your depth of knowledge in your industry, your history with your company and knowledge of internal operations. We need your ability to wrangle your own internal cats. We need your strategic mind to lift us out of the fray of bits and bytes to focus on the end goal. Today’s best technology practices are moving out of the hands of the IT folks and into the hands of the marketers and business experts. Your career and your company need you to be one of those people.

Here’s what I think every communicator should learn or do when working with a technology team:

Find a trusted partner or teacher who you can ask even the dumb questions.
I would not be able to do anything I do today if it weren’t for a great team that invested in my time and knowledge.  Great partners are also great teachers, and if your technology folks have a passion for what they do, they’ll also have a passion for teaching it. It hurts us nerds when what we do is brushed off as the world of “that techy stuff,” and if you want to learn it, we want to teach. A client who knows more is always preferable to a client who does not, because the end result will be the best of both sides.

Understand the basics of your chosen CMS and maybe one or two others.
This means playing with things in an environment you can learn in. Work usually isn’t that place. Create a blog on WordPress, play on Tumblr, volunteer to update your favorite non-profit’s website. Understand the core of how content editing works, from type formatting to inserting links, documents and images.

This will help you translate one important thing that is invaluable as a communicator: What is possible to control via your site’s Content Management System and what is more intrinsic to the way your site’s core was built.

Know some basic terminology.
Web terminology can feel like a foreign language, but it’s just like your first few days in high school Spanish. After the initial unfamiliarity ceases to confuse you and you can pronounce everything, you realize “rojo” is just “red” and red’s not so scary.

Plus, it makes you sound smart in meetings. Make sure you really do understand it though, or you’ll sound like you do and then get yourself in trouble later. It’s better to admit what you don’t know if it really comes down to it.

Learn what is a “big thing” or a “little thing.”
This is one of the hardest concepts initially for communicators, but once you get it, it helps more than almost anything else.

Too often on the web, everything is interconnected. Where on a brochure, you might easily be able to move a sidebar from the right side to the left side, on the web it gets much harder. Coding is like a waterfall, and to move core layout features is more like moving your garage from the north side of the house to the south side.

Asking your developer or technology partner to help explain to you what would need to be done to reach your goal can help. Oftentimes they can also give you estimates in terms of hours so you have a basis to judge big or little.

Talk in terms of what you want to do or solve, not how to do it.
This is another common misstep by non-technologists. We believe it’s more accurate or even helpful to give exact directions for what we want to do… “Move this up, this over, and put a box here,” or “Install this WordPress plugin that I Googled and think will do what I want.”

The problem is, as communicators we really don’t know the impact the change will make at a deeper level. A better instruction might be “I’m afraid this element is being lost too far down the page. How could we move it higher up?” or “I’m concerned about these spam form submissions we’re getting, what can you recommend to help with that?”

It’s not just development, either. Even web design practices are not immune to this, and in fact I see more bad web design decisions being mandated than almost anything else. Maybe it’s because design is more comfortable for many of us, and hey we’re all on the Internet all the time and have preferences and tastes. However, a UI/UX specialist will want to really understand what you are trying to communicate or motivate someone to do, before just making something look cool or like a sample you loved from that one site.

Don’t treat us like pet nerds.
My boss coined this phrase, and I love it. A pet nerd is someone you bring to a meeting not to be part of the larger strategy or planning, but just to jump in if you are afraid the tech talk will get over your head. Like anyone else, we are driven by the big ideas and the problems that technology helps us solve. If you are also following the rule above, we will be able to contribute ideas on how we get to the end result desired.

If your pet nerd can’t talk like a real person, that’s a different but real problem. When you choose that great partner/teacher, make sure you look for someone who can make technology accessible and approachable.

DSC_0428Crystal Olig is the interactive director for Oxiem, part of the Upward Brand Interactions agency family in Ohio, leading a team of developers, designers, project managers and support specialists. Her expertise is in marketing-focused web development including online content and architecture, user experience and information design. She’s a busy mommy and mommy-to-be of two little boys (number two due in August) and a diehard Nebraska Husker fan, leading the Central Ohio alumni chapter.

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