Tech Tools That Make PR Work, Work Better

Work demands are always changing, but thanks to technology, we can be better prepared, more organized and more confident of doing our job efficiently. Here are some great tech tools for PR pros and others to consider to make work…well…work better.

Task management can be daunting. 30/30 simplifies it and even makes it fun. This nifty little app allows users to input tasks and how much time they wish to spend on each. Spend the allotted minutes or hours on the task, and the app lets you know when it’s time to move on. It’s completely controlled by gestures, pleasing to the eye, and terrific at helping you “get stuff done.”

You never know when creativity may strike. But when it does, iBrainstorm helps you and your entire team manage the process. Just open the app, create a note and stick it to your own or your entire team’s “creative corkboard,” and the brainstorming process just got a little more fun.

No one can remember everything, which is why Evernote is such a pivotal piece of any individual’s tech arsenal. Evernote allows users to store everything from their notes to recent earnings reports in one easy-to-use platform. You can also note artistic concepts and other visuals within the app with its intuitive Skitch tool.

Expense reports can be maddening, but one tool that helps is Expensify. Expensify enables users to import basically any billable item from gas to credit card statements right into the app and organizes them neatly for easy access.

Genius Scan
Ever need a PDF at the busiest, most insane time? Genius Scan solves this dilemma by making PDFs available right from your device’s camera: just pick a document, scan it, and kiss your PDF worries goodbye. Furthermore, easy integration with Evernote and Dropbox make this little app one of the most valuable office tools you can fit into your pocket.

Surveys, Petitions And Polls—Oh My!

The results are in: When looking for a unique angle to promote a client, sometimes it helps to ask for the public’s opinion. Including an omnibus-style survey, social media poll, or even a petition with a slight political bent in your campaign can significantly change the story angle, as well as help the news spread like wildfire. However, each platform requires a little technique. Here are some tips for getting the public to work for you:

Try an online survey. Asking provocative questions via online survey is an easy and affordable way to get a quick sample of public opinion. By asking the right questions, you may be able to put a fresh spin on an over-exposed topic. You might only need one strong question to get the compelling results you need to move the media.

Read the fine print. Nothing’s worse than having great survey results that don’t meet an outlet’s criteria for publication. As easy as online surveys are to conduct, often times, the methodology employed by omnibus polling companies isn’t strict enough for consideration by major outlets. Do your due diligence and make sure you’re not limiting your client’s news by using a survey that isn’t up to par.

Set your budget. Petitions and polls are another creative option for your client to engage with the public. Depending on how large you want your soapbox to be, it may pay to spring for a third-party app to use on social media sites. There are apps for all price points and varying degrees of visibility. Care2, a popular petition website, allows for free and paid petitions to help promote your cause. If you have access to a large budget, Wildfire by Google is another company that provides high-quality content for use on Facebook, creating campaigns from start to finish.

Have a preparedness plan. When you open a public forum, especially one like a petition, be sure to have a plan in place if public opinion takes an unexpected turn or if your petition is lacking respondents. These developments can impact the media’s interest in your campaign and having a contingency plan in place can help move attention from negative to positive.

Overall, adding a survey, poll or petition to a campaign is an interesting way to add depth to a PR plan. Not only does it allow the company to hear valuable public opinion about their industry and company specifically, but it allows them to speak to different media audiences. When looking to break from the routine press release, consider adding one of these tools! Have you used something similar recently? Tell us about it in the comments.

More Productive PR Meetings

There has been some buzz lately about the “walking meeting”. While not a new phenomenon, (Aristotle was said to have walked with his students as he taught) the most recent iteration is said to enable groups to be more productive and creative. While enjoying physical activity that energizes, group members are more alert and experiencing different environments which can inspire new ideas and stimulate new thinking.

But, let’s be realistic! In our busy back-to-back meeting packed day, the only walking you may do is down the hall for another cup of coffee. So for those meetings that must take place around a conference table, here are some tips to keep meetings crisp, on-pace and fruitful.

Determine the objective: Meeting agendas function as a roadmap for a meeting. They’re essential. Is this a regular weekly meeting? Are new plans and ideas being introduced, or just updates on ongoing projects? Make sure the agenda is designed with outcomes in mind. This will keep the team focused, on time and result in the most tangible next steps and agreed-upon plans.

You cannot be over-prepared: There’s no such thing when it comes to planning a meeting. Are there ample meeting agendas printed? Will visual aids be required? If multimedia is necessary, test out computer, video and audio beforehand or you may end up presenting with shadow puppets! Always have presentations backed up on a laptop or thumb drive in case you need access.

Ponder the participants: Does every team member need to be present? Unless they have a role, perhaps not. Make sure team members know their role whether they’re leading the meeting, explaining a section or coordinating refreshments and décor. Everyone should know their part.

Best Type of Skype: There are some specific rules for a Skype meeting including: think about your dress and surroundings before initiating or accepting a video call. Extremely casual dress, strange settings, colleagues walking by in the background, and close-up views of eating are just a few examples of Skype “don’ts”.

Make some noise: It may be instinctual for some to stick with the status quo during a meeting: Wrong! Of course there’s a time and place for comments, but feel free to express valuable thoughts and ideas that will help move the meeting forward.

Own your mistakes and learn from them: Every meeting offers an opportunity to improve. Are staff meetings losing steam over time? Are agenda items languishing from week to week? Is everyone on their iPhone?

Maybe you should try a walking meeting! We’d love to hear any meeting do’s and don’ts you may have.

Will Crowdsourcing Make Agencies Obsolete?

It sounds so easy. Instead of hiring a pricey ad agency or PR firm, just tap into the wisdom of the crowd to market your product. After all, they’re the ones buying it.

Crowdsourcing is being touted as the latest trend in creative services, from logo design to advertising.

Yet, most so-called crowdsourcing initiatives don’t truly harness the collective wisdom in the Web 2.0 sense. Not like the Netflix Prize or Starbucks’ virtual suggestion box. Most often, they’re contests. They dangle ten minutes of fame and a prize package for a public relations payoff and (one hopes) enhanced customer engagement. And, they’re usually the brainchild of the agency, and run by them, too. VitaminWater’s “flavor creatorFacebook app is yesterday’s M&M New Color Contest. Nice idea, but not exactly Wikipedia.

Recently, though, Unilever London shook up the agency world by adopting a crowdsourcing strategy not as a PR gimmick, but as a long-term move to spice up the marketing for its Peperami snack, which seems to be a Slim-Jim-style stick of salami. Peparami fired its agency and set up an open call for fresh ad concepts on the website Ideabounty. The winner will receive a $10,000 fee, and, the fame (or infamy) that results.

Even before the sausage incident, Crispin Porter Bogusky’s Colin Drummond wrote that crowdsourcing would commoditize creativity, warning his agency peers in a blog post, “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”

Others are sounding the death knell for creative services. You see, the decision wasn’t about quality of work. The ousted firm had done a bang-up job for over 16 years. The client admits that the extraordinary brand equity built for the product – embodied in a quirky animal mascot – makes this kind of user-generated initiative possible. That’s gratitude – and the agency business – for you.

Yet, I’m not sure the budget bite will be that big. No matter how you slice it, the Peperami campaign isn’t true, replicable crowdsourcing. It’s more like outsourcing to an engaged few –  in this case, probably out-of-work or aspiring copywriters. The unique circumstances and social media element give it some PR flavor, but to me, it seems like a creative way to downsize the budget, seasoned with a little dash of something new.

The other thing is this. The contest-as-crowdsource idea isn’t for every brand, or every situation. In fact, it can work for Peperami only because the brand foundation was already laid in the form of intrusive commercials and supported by millions in paid media over 16 years. It’s one thing to liven up a long-running campaign with a fresh execution, but another to come up with strategy, creative direction, and execution for a lesser-known brand, or in a vacuum.

Sustainable crowdsourcing to achieve innovation is self-limiting, precisely because it’s hard work. It also requires real collaboration and continuity – the wisdom of the true crowd in a spirit of continuous improvement — not a series of one-off competitions for a clever phrase. (And, at the end of the day, someone’s got to go through the thousands of suggestions and ideas, find the gems, and turn them into a dazzling, finished product…no small task.)

The idea that crowdsourcing will kill agencies based on a salami snack campaign is…well, baloney. In fact, it could be a win-win for all involved. If it does turn out to be a revolution in creative services, expect a new “Idea Economy” to follow. Despite changes in delivery channels, any kind of creative meritocracy is ultimately good for our business. The best rise to the top – and to a new pricing level and all that it implies. And then we start all over again.

It’s No Contest, The Netflix Prize Is A Winner

Partly because I gave four stars to Woody Allen’s Manhattan, Netflix is recommending the dark and brooding East German indie The Lives of Others. Hmmm.

I don’t know about you, but for me, recommendation engines that try to predict our likes and dislikes in books and movies usually miss the mark. I’m talking about the collaborative filtering tools you find on sites like Netflix and  I’ve always chalked it up to the quirks of personal taste, however. Normally I hate violent movies, yet Kill Bill 2 is on my Top 5 favorites list. Who knows why…I defy an algorithm to figure out that one.

Which is why I was interested in the attention around the Netflix Prize. That’s the global competition that promises to award $1 million to the person or team who can improve on Netflix’s current algorithm for predicting member preferences by at least 10 percent.

Although some have dismissed it as a PR stunt, it’s designed as a real research project, which seems to have generated lots of positive PR for the brand. And there are a couple of counterintuitive aspects to the Prize that make it worth watching.

First, it’s an admission by Netflix that its internal efforts to improve the preference engine simply haven’t worked. It needs help. Normally that might reflect badly on the brand, the service, and its technology capabilities, but it hasn’t. Netflix seems to have tapped into the crowdsourcing thing at just the right moment.

I also like the packaging of the event, down to its grandiose label.  No cheesy “contest” here. It’s a “prize,” as in “Nobel.” This isn’t just another Ben and Jerry ice cream flavor, folks!  We’re talking innovation.

Finally, it has real drama. The competition culminated in an exciting, horserace-style photo finish at Sunday’s deadline. Though the actual winner won’t be announced until September, you’re able to follow the rankings on a leaderboard, which showed a last-minute surge by an upstart team, complete with cheers, jeers, and impressive participation by over 44,000 valid entrants. The blogosphere has covered it heavily as well.

In its longevity and substance, the Prize conveys a true commitment by Netflix to both technology innovation, or at least enhancement, and customer service.  And there are real learnings here. Today’s New York Times story about the value of teamwork to an undertaking like this actually positions the Prize as precedent-setting for predictive modeling.

It’s an impressive case history on how to run a contest…oops, global competition. I’m curious to see how the winning entry will be conveyed to everyday, non-techie Netflix members like me. But, the real proof, of course, will be in how it performs in picking winners for movie night.

By the way, I did see The Lives of Others.  Rent it now. Amazing movie.


Is Innovation A Victim of Its Own PR?

I was startled to read  Michael Mandel’s provocative BusinessWeek article describing the failed promise of American innovation over the past ten years.  It makes a pretty persuasive case, documenting our innovation shortfall in key industries and linking it to the US trade deficit, our debt load (taken on under false expectations of compensation increases) and even the current financial crisis. 

It seems counter-intuitive that, in the age of the iPhone, Google Wave, and green technology, there could be a dearth of innovative products and technologies. But, while there are stunning examples of iterative improvements to existing products or models, massive, disruptive breakthroughs are relatively rare. More importantly, the key word here is “expectations.”  The commercialization of so many products – in biotech, fuel cell development, satellite technology, and more — simply haven’t lived up to the hype of ten years ago.

Is the hype around some products to blame?

So, could the hype be partly to blame? Could the innovation gap be, in part, a result of poor PR strategy? We’ve all worked for companies under pressure to announce new products and technologies far in advance of their commercial viability.  And, we have every incentive to work to position any positive news as a game-changing advance when the real picture may be less certain.

More broadly, PR and public education create long-term expectations about things far outside our own sphere, for better or worse. I feel a (possibly) misplaced confidence about any number of things, based partly on published reports and predictions. I believe my daughter won’t ever have to worry about cancer, since it’ll be cured or prevented during her lifetime. I’m confident we’ll solve our climate problems through solar and other alternative fuel technologies.  And I assume voice recognition technology will one day actually work (yes, just like those climate-controlled, domed cities I read about as a sixth-grader.)

When you consider the breadth of U.S. innovation, and its promotion as a cure-all, it’s practically in the air we breathe.  It’s as American as optimism, and the two generally work together to set expectations for groundbreaking advances, as well as steady, continuous improvements to existing products and services. So, I’m going to let the public relations profession off the hook on this one, in the hope that our work can strike a balance between responsible positioning and the buzz and excitement of a true breakthrough.