Stuff and ThingsTop 50 UK PR Blogs 2013Top 50 UK PR Blogs 2013

Why the pursuit of progress isn’t always innovative

bulb-40701_640Over the last few decades, progress in the IT sector has been driven primarily by Moore’s Law: which states that overall computing power would double roughly every one and a half years and the cost drop. Indeed, 50 years later this has held true – to the point that modern computing chips now have so much power that it would have been almost unimaginable when Moore first made his prediction. However, it recently emerged that things are going to be changing and that Moore’s law will cease to be. Chip manufacturer Intel recently announced that their chip roadmap was changing to increased performance every 2.5 years – and there are questions marks about what things will look like in the 2020s / 2030s when it might not be possible to further increase performance at all.

On the one hand, this could look like a real risk to the industry, what *will* we do when computing power ceases to increase on a regular basis? But in reality, it might inject something much needed in the computing sector – innovation. That’s not to say there hasn’t been any, but there hasn’t been much variation. Short of the theoretical implementation of quantum computing (which only has limited uses at this stage), the focus has been on making computers more powerful rather than anything else. There is a possibility for this to be one of the pivotal moments in IT history – but only time will tell if it’s the case.

There are definitely lessons to learn here, sometimes when the going is good we don’t necessarily consider different paths that could lead to different – but not necessarily worse – results. Chip manufacturers have invariably been enjoying their ‘good thing’ though we will have to wait and see if the big industry names have been spending enough time on alternative strategies to survive when the industry changes. As a PR agency, this is also something we are aware of. It’s vital to continually assess how a different strategy could lead to different – or indeed better results for our clients.

It can become all too easy to rely on a combination of good journalist relationships, press releases and press briefings, after-all, that’s probably what most people outside of the industry expect us to be doing. The trick, however, is not to fall into this hypothetical rut, as PR can really be far more than this. As well as press releases, briefings, features and issues response there is the potential to come up with innovative campaign ideas that capture people’s attention in a different way. Whether it’s coming up with a research idea that gets everyone in the target industry thinking or inviting journalists to tailored events, there are many ways to get coverage that don’t require the use of the same old tactics. That’s not to say that there isn’t a place for ‘standard’ tactics but as the media industry changes PR must equally keep up to ensure it doesn’t end up like Moore’s Law.

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PR Bots: Is AI After Our Jobs?

As we edge closer to a science fiction future of robots and artificial intelligence, the question on everyone’s lips has been: what will this mean for us mere mortals? Google’s developed AI recently beat the world champion at GO – a feat many thought would be far beyond the technology as it requires human instincts. Now, an AI bot has learned how to sounds and Tweet like Donald Trump: without accounting for taste, this does raise questions about the future of corporate communications and AIs role in the PR and marketing mix.

While much talk to date around AI has been focused on how it can take over low-skilled repetitive tasks, we can already see that these limitations are of human making – the technology is potentially capable of doing a lot more. While we may believe that humans have the instinct to do something bold and original which is what sets us apart from machines – but maybe this is socialised into us, and, therefore, learnable. If so, then even the creative industries that may have previously seen themselves as immune from the effects of AI could be in for some dramatic changes.

In many ways, the world of PR has been transformed by digitalisation, just like every other industry. In other ways, it is an industry built on relationships and trust, and an understanding of human reactions. Could a machine really deliver that subtle balance between being persuasive and incorporating a client message, alongside offering content that engages a wider audience? While many might scoff and say that creative writing and communications could never be a task for a robot, I’d temper your scorn. We can already see that robotics is being tested in journalism; in 2014 AP partnered with Automated Insights to begin automating quarterly earnings reports using their Wordsmith platform. Evidence suggests that most people can’t tell the difference between a human or AI article – if anything, the AI is not hampered by the curse of human error.

So perhaps the ‘people’ we PR’s will need to persuade and engage with will not be human at all? Instead of writing formulaic press release standardised template, we will just feed information into a machine to churn out the content. We may even see the robots making or taking calls for a sell in? Machine learning could allow the PR bots to understand the client message and hunt for features, analysing thousands of potential sources at once, automatically detecting when new requests, even searching through relevant content to provide a suggested response.

However, my human instinct says that there will always be a role for real people in the world of PR and journalism. Recent research has shown that in Western societies there is a preference for robots that look like robots, rather than realistic clones that could be mistaken for humans; we want to know if we are speaking to a human or a machine, we want to build relationships with humans, not machines. For now, anyway. As with any industry though, AI will find its place, but that doesn’t necessarily have to be feared; it is likely to free up PR professionals to focus on higher value activities. So I live in hope that this won’t be the end, just the beginning of a new era.

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The Internet of Things: What do journalists want to hear?

the-Internet-of-Business-logo-trans4Every single member of our team at Spark interacts with the press on a regular basis, so forming long-term relationships with journalists plays a crucial role in the results we achieve for clients. I particularly enjoy taking the opportunity to catch up face-to-face, and last week was lucky enough to meet up with Doug Drinkwater; following his move from SC Magazine, to hear about his new role as founding editor of Internet of Business.

While security is an area many of our clients are keen to discuss with the media, the Internet of Things is proving increasingly popular as we are seeing connected devices beginning to have a positive impact in business environments. The manufacturing sector is already heavily influenced by the IoT, having spent $29 billion on it in 2015, rising to a predicted $70 billion in 2020, while Doug told me that he witnessed huge excitement about the likes of Intel and Ericsson working on healthcare IoT projects on his recent visit to trade show Mobile World Congress.

Some of the clients we work with are even beginning to appoint internal heads of IoT and key spokespeople around the topic, so I was particularly keen to speak with Doug to get an understanding of what he perceives the state of the IoT to be.

My discussion with Doug revealed that there are three big trees blocking the path to adoption for businesses in many other sectors. They are:

  • Deciding who leads the project within a business. Doug has been interacting with a range of people, from those with the term in their job title to CIOs, CTOs, Innovation Heads and even Heads of Digital Transformation. Without formalising who is in charge, businesses will struggle to drive things forward internally and new business conversations will prove challenging.
  • ROI and building a business case. At this early stage, it can be difficult to find other industry examples to point to when attempting to present a case for IoT adoption. Many will struggle to secure buy-in from sceptics if they are unable to provide hard and fast figures around what kind of bang enterprises will get for their buck.
  • Industry standardisation. Doug pointed out that playing a part in a format’s invention or development can be very important when technologies are still in their infancies. As enterprises come to lay the foundations, there are choices to be made which will have a big impact on the development of IoT inside enterprises, and its development in the wider world.

These three topics are of critical importance: the questions must be answered before the Internet of Things can go on to fulfil its massive potential in the business arena. Now is the time for proactive thought-leaders to provide the answers, and I cannot wait to begin working with some of our clients to figure out and communicate exactly what they are.

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Making Sense of PR Speak – Part II

confusionLast year, Alex wrote about the abundance of jargon that seems to find its way into considerable amounts of PR copy – with B2B PR being particularly afflicted by the jargon curse. With 2016 now firmly established, this is a good time to revisit the topic and have a look at some of the current phrases being ‘leveraged’ in the world of PR.

One of the biggest problems with using jargon and buzzwords is that it can completely ruin the tone of whatever you are writing. Surveys have found that jargon is an immediate irritant to a reader, and is something that people can even find intimidating. So even if the actual ‘thing’ your press release is announcing is interesting if it’s littered with jargon and buzzwords, readers (and that includes journalists) will instantly switch off. Here are a few more words to avoid:

  • Amplify: This is predicted by one language consultancy to be the biggest buzzword of 2016, instead of using much more sensible synonyms, such as increase, improve or grow.
  • Disrupt/Disruptive: In a similar way to the over use of ‘unique’, seemingly these days, everyone wants to be seen as doing something ‘disruptive’. If you genuinely think your technology or service is disruptive, then stand by it, but if it’s merely a product update or a new version of your software – how disruptive is it really?
  • Buy-in: This means agreeing with each other or gaining someone’s interest, but instead ‘buy-in’ sounds vaguely sinister and as if you’ve had to bribe someone to show their interest.
  • Robust (see also, resilient): I hold my hand up, I’ve been guilty of this one. ‘Robust’, often used to describe something like a software program, is one of those words that’s becoming so ubiquitous that’s it’s beginning to lose all meaning.
  • Granular: Used instead of simply saying, in detail. Granular actually means consisting of small grains or particles, i.e. sand. It does not mean doing something thoroughly or comprehensively.

A lot of modern technology is already complex enough; the role of tech PR is to make this complexity simple so that it can be communicated simply to a range of audiences. Ultimately, journalists are writing for readers whose understanding of a particular technology will vary from those who know it in-depth, to those who have never heard of it. So if today’s short-on-time journalists have to read a bylined article, press release or comment multiple times to try and decipher it, they simply won’t use it. So whatever you find yourself writing – from a sentence-long comment to a 900-word byline, ditch the jargon and keep it simple.

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PR across borders: Are we all on the same page?

news-426893_640Over the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity to work alongside PR agencies from around the world for my clients. As you’d expect, this always involves plenty of the day-to-day humdrum of co-ordinating a PR account across international borders – the conference calls, meetings, reports and the like. Yet looking beyond the everyday conversations, these processes actually give us a great view of how our trade is practiced around the world.

As PR professionals, we’re all working towards the same goal, yet the approach different agencies take across borders varies. With respect to the economic and cultural differences that exist, the biggest reason for this is the different ways that the media perceives business across different regions.

To start with, the UK likely has one of, if not the toughest media landscapes in the world. British journalists tend to possess an underlying cynicism when it comes to the achievements of businesses – perhaps reflecting the national psyche. This may be seen as a point of pride for many British PRs who can thrive in the face of this challenge, but it’s not without reason. We must be able to demonstrate why our clients’ new software updates, partnerships or perspectives on an issue matters more than that of their rivals, to a journalist who likely has hundreds of other companies vying for his or her attention.

Of course, PRs in the USA, France, Germany or indeed anywhere else must do the same. Yet in these regions, success usually seems to be celebrated, rather than questioned. Yet closer to home, PRs are often seen as ‘spin doctors’ or worse.

It’s important to remember that this is just a general rule with a number of exceptions. Every region will have its share of cynical journalists, and PRs will find that what works for one publication in their region won’t necessarily work with another.

Embracing a challenge

As PRs, we should be celebrating that much of our media is sceptical of every message we communicate. We face a real challenge in convincing the press to air our clients’ views every day, making the results achieved all the more rewarding. A media landscape in which journalists accepted news or analysis without question would be far poorer, not to mention untrustworthy.

In an industry often full of hot air, the only way we as PRs can make our clients heard is to make their message stronger and more relevant than the rest. Just a quick look through the social media profiles of some of our regular media contacts reveals the mistrust PRs are faced with, and judging by the standard of some of the content these journalists receive, that’s hardly a surprise. We as PRs must take the time to understand our counterparts in the press and what their audiences are interested in, and create messages that will matter to them, no matter what region we’re working in. Ultimately, no matter how tough the media might be, the quality of the message will always make all the difference.

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