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Every year San Jose State University sponsors a contest that “challenges entrants to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.”  Click here to see this year’s winners. (It’s so worth it.)

Showcasing bad writing – especially in such a light-hearted fashion – is one way of exposing it, educating practitioners and, hopefully, elevating quality. I think it’s time the PR industry inaugurated something similar. So here goes. Readers: I challenge you to come up with opening sentences to the worst press releases you can think of. Post them in the comments section. If we get enough submissions I’ll crown a victor in a week or two.  (And let’s keep real brands out of it.)

Here’s a worrying thought: I don’t think much invention or creativity will be required.

An iconoclast is someone who destroys religious symbols. The classical example of iconoclasm is a guy named Konon, who you may or may not know as Leo III the Isaurian - further proof that names were more interesting 1200 years ago.

Today we use the term a little more loosely. It’s common to associate the term with business figures who up-end markets; Steve Jobs comes to mind. (Steve I the Appleonian?)

To Gregory Berns, Distinguished Chair of Neuroeconomics at Emory University (a fine institution that made the mistake of granting me a wholly undeserved degree) and author of Iconoclast: a Neuroscientist Reveals how to Think Differently, an iconoclast is “a person who does something that others say can’t be done.”

Setting aside the needless redefinition of the word iconoclast (what’s wrong with innovator?), Berns’ book provides excellent, and well-researched, information on how, and why, people generate iconoclastic (innovative!) ideas. 

In the process, the book also provides some insight, from the perspective of neuroscience, on how to market those ideas.

Summarizing the results of several research studies, Berns shows that dopamine – sometimes thought of as the ‘pleasure chemical’ of the brain – is highly associated with the desire to seek out new experiences.  Individuals with highly active dopamine systems are more likely pursue novel experiences and – here’s the kicker – young people have more active dopamine systems. The bottom line: market new ideas to the under-thirty crowd, they’re more receptive.

But what does this mean if you have to market to people who, like me, wouldn’t survive very long in the world of Logan’s Run? (This is tech blog, if you don’t get that reference you’re in the wrong place. Turn off your com-put-er, call a friend and start making fun of geeks).

Still with us? Good.

If you’re target demographic are grey-hairs, Berns points out that wrapping new ideas in the ‘cloak of familiarity’ can drive a “new idea to be adopted by a large percentage of an older population.” In other words, don’t position a new idea as ‘revolutionary’ to a 50-year old C-suite executive; demonstrate how it fits neatly into the world he or she already understand.

There’s much more to the book and, despite the misuse of the word iconoclast, it’s worth reading. There’s also a fabulous section that details which illegal narcotics to take in order to stimulate iconoclastic thinking. Buy the book for neuroscience, read it for the psychotropics.

Nicholas Ludlum

by Nicholas Ludlum
Category: Trends

Via SAI I came across the latest version of Mary Meeker’s presentation on the state of the Internet. It’s a must read. There’s really too much good stuff to summarize, and you should really click through and spend time with the whole presentation itself, but pay close attention to slide 4 which compares the growth of the mobile Internet to AOL and Netscape’s growth in the 90′s. 

Another thing worth noting is slide 7 which, rightly, defines the mobile Internet as more than just phones (includes eReaders, car electronics, etc). The PC & browser -centric model of computing is fading away and that’s bound to have significant implications. One of those implications, I think, is that the way we experience the Internet is being, essentially, subdivided.  We’re self-selecting the kind of Internet experience we want to have (the iPhone app experience is different than the in-car experience, which is different than the Kindle experience, etc). Social media disintermediated many of the traditional influencers that shape consumer/customer perceptions.  Now that the relatively simple & static PC/browser model is being, effectively, disintermediated, there’s going to be increasing pressure on brands and marketers to ‘play’ in a multitude of different digital playgrounds, or – as I’ve written about before – digital subdivisions, each with their own formats, ettiquette, style, etc.

 

This past Monday, as I feverishly refreshed Engadget’s live Blog of Steve Jobs presentation at the WWDC conference, I was reminded of this excerpt from the book about the development of the Segway, Code Name Ginger, and this quote from author and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery:

“Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”

Apple has access to the same sort of raw material (in the form of people, technologies, strategies and tactics, etc) as their competitors, and yet is a very, very different company than all of them.  I’m not going to speculate as to why that is, this TedX video makes one argument, but I do think part of the answer – as suggested by the book excerpt linked to above which heavily features some of Steve Jobs thinking on promotions – is that the company is just more sophisticated and disciplined when it comes to marketing than most other technology companies.

Jobs presentation at the recent WWDC – and really, all his presentations – is a great showcase for some simple, straightforward marketing principles that more companies should employ:

  • Intensity: Apple treats its news like a precious commodity, hordes it, and announces it all at the same time. On Monday Jobs had 8 pieces of news. Most companies would string those out over 8 press releases and each would achieve the attention it deserves. By packaging them together their inherent news value becomes more, not less, significant.
  • Simplicity: Remember this article in the New York Times about the problem the US military has with PowerPoint? Apple doesn’t have that issue. Ever. Presentations are simple. A concept a slide. A word or two a slide. A picture in place of words whenever possible. Our minds seem to be wired to want to communicate in complex forms but to only understand things when cleanly and simply presented.
  • Credibility: Want people to understand how wonderful you are? Establish your credibility by showing them real, functional solutions (um, WiFi issues notwithstanding), and get partners and customers to help tell the story. If you’re giving them a big stage, they’d be crazy not to want to share it.
  • Beauty: Maybe it’s just me, but when Apple communicates something, it takes the time to make sure it’s presentation is, well, aesthetically pleasing. Look at the Engadget pictures. Sure the slides are text, or photos of hardware, but they look good. There’s nothing bad about being easy on the eyes.
  • Narrative: The presentation recognizes the importance of narrative, something I’ve written about before. This isn’t just a series of product introductions, it’s a story about what ‘we’ (Apple) are doing to innovate and create an even more compelling next generation of products. Narrative is important, it’s how people think, process and store information. There’s a story, an innovation story, behind everything Apple does, and it works.

I came across the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s history of Facebook privacy statements yesterday while investigating reactions to Facebook’s new information-sharing features, and the response they elicited from legislators. It got me thinking about the profound communications problem many companies are just beginning to confront.

Privacy is being forced to evolve – yes, by companies like Facebook and Google – but also by consumers who are sharing more and more about their lives without regards to their own privacy, and now, by their growing interest in legislating the issue, by our governments.

Brands that play in this space – and these days, which brands don’t – have to find a way to maintain the trust they have with consumers while experimenting with different privacy regimes (in the case of platforms like Facebook), or with the wealth of data that social platforms can make available to them.  With so much changing, so fast, it seems unlikely that companies or consumers will willingly walk away from the potential benefits of tapping into the data, or, in the case of consumers, happily handing it over to derive some other benefit.

So while the world waits for the forced evolution of privacy to come to some sort of generally accepted conclusion, what to do? It seems to me that the only way to navigate these shifting sands is to follow some very simple communications rules:

There’s certainly more a company can and should do, but it seems to me that companies often lose sight of simple communications precepts that help them demonstrate to their audience that they care, as they invariably do, and take their audience’s concerns seriously.  At the end of the day it amounts to following the golden rule, but don’t the pressures of business life often make it seem much more complicated?


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Nicholas Ludlum

by Nicholas Ludlum
Category: Media

Like a lot of people yesterday I sat slack-jawed as the impact of Bloomberg’s acquisition of BusinessWeek filtered through Twitter.  I’m still having trouble understanding how BusinessWeek is in better shape without many of the incredible talents who are now left to chart new courses.

As the departures settled in – compounded by the week’s AP layoffs – I realized that my own response is really based on the vague sense that this period of destruction will be creative and beneficial.

I have no objective reason for believing that journalism will be better off for these changes, and deep down I know that the arguments of pessimists have as much going for them as those of optimists.

Nevertheless I can’t shake the belief that we’re headed in a good direction, even if it the road is painful. I’m not one to proselytize, but here are my articles of faith:

  • I believe that media layoffs, impending bankruptcy’s, declining ad rates and subscription revenue, and the implosion of the publishing business model are good things;
  • That this destruction is creative and is already paying off for both journalists (albeit the more entrepreneurial-minded) and readers;
  • I believe that every laid off journalist is a new media brand and a dangerous competitor to their previous employer;
  • That fidelity to long-standing media brands is a waste of time;
  • I believe that every day the internet evolves to find new ways to make me better educated, more knowledgeable of current events;
  • I believe that this is fueled as much by ‘citizen media’ as it is by professional journalists, media companies and others using new approaches to practice journalism;
  • I believe that some people will pay for the content they care about, and that some won’t;
  • That enough will pay to fund a few global traditional media brands, even while most go out of business or become shadows of their former selves;
  • That the elimination of much traditional media will create a vacuum that will be filled by journalists innovating the practice journalism in ways we are only just beginning to imagine, and that will enrich us all.

Is this blind faith? Perhaps. But I see new reasons to believe in it every day.


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According to PR Newser Ken Auletta reports in his book, Googled that Larry Page told his PR department that he would give them “a total of eight hours of his time that year for press conferences, speeches, or interviews.”

Supposedly the Google founders aren’t fond of PR. Although Google apparently has 130 people working in the PR department so maybe they don’t find PR so distasteful after all . . .

The interesting thing, to me anyway, is that if I were Larry Page – and I’m a long way from being Larry Page – I’d probably do the same thing.  In fact it strikes me as a pretty sensible approach for Google right now.

Let me explain.

A lot of times public relations professionals focus on two things – the message and the pitch – at the expense of all else. But there’s a third quality – connected to messaging and pitching – that we don’t spend enough time thinking about and that is at the heart of strategic public relations: the narrative.

The narrative, as the name implies, is the story of the company or organization over a set period of time.  It has protagonists, antagonists, plots, plot devices, climaxes and denouements. There’s never just one of course and large brands such as Google always have several narratives they want to be associated with, several they wish people would forget, and several they hope never get told.

There was a time when the ‘silicon valley whiz kids behind that oddly-named new search engine’ made sense as Google’s dominant narrative.  That narrative got old a long time ago.  The story Google is telling now, the narrative they deserve to be known for, needs to be spun around the various ways they are unlocking access to various types of data and the incredible array of talent – beyond Brin and Page – who are making that happen.

The Page/Brin celebrity gets in the way of that narrative and obscures it. It may be harder to secure a journalist’s attention without them – I wouldn’t know – but if staying consistent with the right narrative takes more work then isn’t that what you have to do?


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Nicholas Ludlum

by Nicholas Ludlum
Category: Media

I was quick to post my criticisms yesterday to Rupert Murdoch’s apparent decision to delist his media sites from Google. Too quick it seems, as in my rush I neglected to consider a possible counter argument, blogged here by Mark Cuban.

The core of Cuban’s post appears to be that Murdoch is right because Twitter and Facebook are on their way to eclipsing Google as the primary content gateways and that these sites pose no threat to publishers. I think he’s sort of right and sort of wrong.

Departing once again from my rule to never disagree with billionaires, here is what I think is right and wrong with this argument:

-       Cuban: “This is not 1999, nor is it 2004, nor is it 2006, nor is it 2008.  The calendar is about to turn to 2010.  What worked and made sense 3,5 and 10 years ago, no longer does.”

o    Me: Yes it is 2009, not 1999, 2004 2006 or 2008 – but in 2009 the Wall Street Journal get’s about 25% of its traffic from Google and 10-15% of its revenue as a result.

-       Cuban: “TWITTER IS SURPASSING GOOGLE as a destination for finding information on breaking and recent news of all types.”

o    Me: Surpassing? Maybe. Actually, let’s just say that’s definitely true. Surpassing isn’t the same as surpassed.  Look at the numbers I point out above. That’s all still true. The numbers aren’t likely to change dramatically in the short term. They may change eventually and perhaps sooner then I think, but not tomorrow and probably not within the next 12 months.

-       Cuban: “Whats more,   TWITTER POSSES NO THREAT to any destination news site.”

o    Me: No, you can’t fit a whole news story in 140 characters. You know what you can fit? News. Some people will want the whole story, some won’t. On the other hand it’s worth bearing in mind that newspapers aren’t just about breaking and recent news. Journalism, especially the kind that you can get at the Wall Street Journal and only a few other destinations, is bigger than that.

-       Cuban: “if I trust a newspaper, tv or any  brand, I can follow it on twitter and expect the news to come to me.”

o    Me: Totally agree, good point . . . as long as you know who you want to follow.  If you don’t you know what would be really helpful in finding out? Google.

-       Cuban: “Having to search for and find news in search engines is so 2008.”

o    Me: And for 25% of the Wall Street Journal’s visitors, so 2009.

-       Cuban: “Nor am I saying that Google is toast and has no role. Non real time feed users will continue to source news through Google.  I just see that as a declining number in an era where much of our first crack at news is via our phone.  But, perfect or not, the bottom line is that in this new era of twitter, things have changed.”

o    Me: I’ve been pretty critical but actually, I think this is right – or will be right. I do think more and more content discovery will happen outside of Google and Google News. I also think it’s quite possible that the competition could eclipse Google in this area. Here’s where I get off the bus, however: why delist? It’s just . . .  unnecessary. You want to charge for your content? Charge. Why make it impossible to find through Internet users’ most popular form of discovery: search?

Nicholas Ludlum

by Nicholas Ludlum
Category: Media

I make it a rule not to disagree with billionaires but Rupert Murdoch’s apparent plan to make News Corp sites invisible to search engines is mystifying.

The media industry isn’t dying; it’s changing, and while it undergoes this metamorphosis there will continue to be a lot of hand wringing, a lot of failed experiments and a lot of creative destruction.  This is a bad thing, obviously, for those employees and companies that are left out in the cold, but journalism will survive and professional news gatherers will continue to be paid – even if we don’t precisely know how (though I suspect some pay walls will work).

So things are changing and we don’t know who’s going to end up on top. It’s only natural that publishers would experiment and it’s absolutely natural that they would turn their ire on search engines (Google, principally) that seem to be responsible for putting their business in jeopardy.

But making your content invisible to search engines? Murdoch rationalizes this by saying: “What’s the point of having someone coming occasionally?” and “If they’re just search people… They don’t suddenly become loyal readers.”

Why indeed? And while we’re at it, why sell first year subscriptions at deep discounts? Why sell single issues at newsstands or in bookstores?

Perhaps the misunderstanding stems from the use of the phrase “search people” as if we were a class or a generation. Search people aren’t a slice of the population or a demographic, they’re people, as in: people-people, as in: the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, and the investment banker, the lawyer, and the day trader.

Today, and for the foreseeable future, search engines are everyone’s gateway to the Internet making them, by default, the gateway to the content, all the content, found therein. To be sure, today’s dedicated readers will probably continue to be dedicated readers – those that currently pay, anyway – but what about the (hoped-for) readers of tomorrow? They’re to become dedicated readers how?

That’s only part of the problem, however. The larger issue is one of relevance. Its one thing to institute a pay wall, readers can decide based on headlines, first paragraphs or third party commentary whether an article is worth a micropayment.  But removing something from search engines is, almost by definition, synonymous with removing it from the Internet itself.  How can you be part of a discussion, part of a community of interest if no one can find you or if the barriers to interacting with you are so cumbersome (Murdoch also seems to indicate a coming wave of fair use lawsuits targeting, presumably, blogs)?

Murdoch wants his readers on his terms but the Internet doesn’t work that way. News – but not journalism – is basically free and plentiful.  Journalism has a low, and lowering, barrier to entry. Asking people to pay for your content, find your content without the benefit of search engines, and continue to read your content as it stands roped off from the rest of community is asking too much.

Or so I believe. I could be wrong. I’m no billionaire. Maybe rendering the Wall Street Journal obsolete is part of some master plan to reinvent the media business through Seppuku.

Last week I had the pleasure of representing Ogilvy PR at the Washington Business Journal’s event honoring the fifty fastest growing companies in the Washington, DC area.

While horrified to discover a concoction named the ‘Ogiltini‘ that the organizers had thoughtfully dreamed up, I was truly amazed – and pleased – to discover that the ‘fast 50′ generated $14.15 billion in 2008 revenue and some of them had average annual growth rates in excess of 100%. (Data center company DuPont Fabros Technology, the fastest of the fast, grew a ridiculous 328.44%)

As a long-time tech PR person my attention, naturally, was drawn to how technology companies fared.  I expected to see a large number of government contractors on the list and, while I was right, I was surprised at the scale; the federal government was the primary customer of almost half the companies on the list (20 out of 50).

In fact, the dominance of companies selling some sort of technology product or service to the government was so overwhelming that no other industry had more than 3 companies represented on the entire list.

So what does this mean?  Well, for starters the government is clearly open for business and companies with an IT services offering should be in a position to do particularly well.

But the government isn’t the only game in town. Companies like DuPont Fabros Technology, Apptix, Vocus, Blackboard and iCore may not address the same market but are all part of the broad technology community and proof that – along with the government-focused IT companies – while we may not be Silicon Valley, tech has home in DC as well.


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