The journo who replied to every PR email missed the most important point

I love the idea. Obviously. But I think there’s a missed opportunity in the execution.

Let me start at the beginning.

The problem

In a world where PRs outnumber journalists so hugely, the biggest obstacle to improving our industry today is the broken feedback loop.

If every journo could reply to every single PR email, good PRs would gradually refine what they send and who they send to, reducing volumes. Meanwhile, careless PRs would receive large quantities of replies and be unable to escape that there are real humans on the other end, whose time they are wasting.

If every journalist took a week out to do what’s described in this article, even just once, it could help close this loop. Spending a little time could reduce future unwanted email, help PRs understand interests and refine one of the most important but frustrating systems in a modern journalist’s life.

Sadly though, the execution in the article rather limits this potential, even from day 1:

It’s Saturday, so my inbox is mercifully quiet. I do receive an email titled “Lion who attacked teacher in Peru in care of animal organization helping to enforce circus ban”; attached is a press release that says about the same thing, but in more than 950 words. I reply “Hi, thanks for sending this, will look into Operation Spirit of Freedom rescue mission” and resume my weekend.

Instead of clarifying the kind of thing that might be of interest, Zach is providing positive feedback for topics outside his remit – especially in a world where they are used to deafening silence.

Two days later, more inaccurate positive feedback:

I do get a note about Tori Spelling and Dean McDermott throwing a “Lavish, Snackeez-Themed Birthday Party” for their son’s second birthday party, so I reply “Thanks! Sounds like a fun party,” which is a weird thing to write about a birthday party for a stranger’s 2-year-old, but whatever.

In fact, twice in the same day:

I listen to it in bed anyway and muster up a bland “Thanks—I’ll give it a listen” in reply and wonder what sort of toll the five days that lay ahead will take.

Monday hits and he issues another self-defeating barrage:

I respond to a release about a French company specializing in the production of mechanical components with a chirpy “I don’t know much about drilling and optronic assembly, but thank you for sharing!”

By Wednesday, he may have realised the damage he was doing — things turn around a bit:

My favorite ones are invites to events happening in other cities, like a brewery party in Chicago and an exhibit of photos of Chartres Cathedral in Paris sent to me by a publicist with an AOL.com email address, because then I can respond by politely and usefully announcing that I live in New York

Useful feedback. A good PR will use this detail to save further irrelevant pitches in the future. After all, they don’t want to waste their own time either.

Then, an even better move:

Things slow by midafternoon, but there’s a weird surge in sports-related PR (a study on NFL coaches, a “Swing for Education Golf Classic”) so I take the opportunity to inform publicists of Newsweek’s sports guy (it’s not me!).

This is incredibly useful feedback. If it’s not relevant, making that clear is great — but if it’s a half decent story then pointing toward your colleagues will, again, help in future.

This turn around reveals something I think is interesting — journalists inherently know that there’s a possibility to save themselves future aggro. But the fact is, most journalists have stopped trying.

The aftermath – what can journalists do?

From Zach’s followup:

 Now I’m the most revered journalist in PR agencies nationwide, an earthly god among flacks.

I was forced to a startling conclusion: My week-long immersion in the gaping uselessness of PR emails had produced something…sort of…useful to PR people? Essential, even?

Nearly. So nearly. And so nearly to journalists too — but I think it just fell short of being actually quite revolutionary.

With that in mind, I thought I’d supply some options to help journalists manage the incoming PR flow, based on my perspective halfway between the two worlds.

1. Tell us what interests you and how to pitch you

Every writer is different. Zach mentioned in his follow up how to catch his eye: “Consider me the last writer on Earth who still loves receiving physical media in the mail.” But for a million other journalists, they can’t stand the idea.

Yes, PRs should read your writing and ideally tweets before making unsolicited contact. But if you can supplement that with a short note about how best to contact you, what your current agenda, commissions or core interests are, you’re only going to help them do it better.

2. Use auto-responses

Plenty of tools will allow you to either juggle multiple items on a clipboard, expand text from little shortcuts or even just keep multiple responses that you use often. Write some up — perhaps a simple “I don’t cover this patch, I write about XYZ, see my statement here” or “I will never write about this, please take me off your list”.

How about including links to your colleagues on various topics in the response too? If you’re worried it’ll increase emails you receive, include a clear statement: “no need to respond to this message”.

3. Use email properly

Know your weapon. Email isn’t going anywhere. You’re not about to be pitched any less. Developing rules as the first line of processing makes sense but try to focus on highlighting the unmissable messages instead of filtering out all the noise.

Take it seriously. Read Getting Things Done. Consider how you might link Mailbox into the workflow so you can get through it quicker. This isn’t just true of journalists, it’s true of everyone in an email-heavy environment.

September 22nd, 2014


Likes labours lost: You get the Facebook you deserve

Recently, Wired reporter Mat Honan conducted an experiment to see what happens if you Like every Page that appears in your Facebook feed. The result was his Friends’ stories being crowded out by updates from noisy brands. No great surprises there.

But here’s a question. If we’re saying that brand stories blocking updates from your friends is a bad thing, what exactly is the logic of Liking any Facebook brand page?

Even if an interest in something suggests you may appreciate news about it, the idea that you would choose for those to be injected in and around stories of your friends’ lives is pretty insane.

It’s also one of the reasons that Facebook can start to feel so repetitive and numbing. The newsfeed puts the commercial, the mundane, and the largest life events all side by side. And they’re further trivialised by the act of idly thumbing through on a tiny smartphone screen at Thursday lunchtime.

Partly to blame is Facebook’s smart use of language. Equating like with Like isn’t like for like. And the problem continues with another core feature: there are friends.. and then there are Friends.

Many users have long passed the magic ‘Dunbar number’, which states that humans can only maintain around 150 stable relationships at any time. As a result, it’s inevitable that people you care about are going to get lost.

The most honestly named feature in all of Facebook is the Newsfeed. But the rest of the language around it stops us from asking the simple question: How do I tell it only to give me the stories that matter.

So here’s a new approach. Every time you see a story that doesn’t interest you, click the little menu button in the top right corner of that card and Unfollow (not unfriend) that person. Go to your likes page (Facebook.com/(your username)/likes/) and consider who you might want to ditch.

Nobody is making you live with your current Facebook experience and it doesn’t take long to fix. What’s stopping you?

September 8th, 2014


Google Authorship is the Obi-Wan Kenobi of search

Let’s play Devil’s Advocate a minute.

Google has said it will “stop showing authorship in search results.”. It has not said that it will stop using what it has learned about authorship to impact rankings.

Over the past few years, it has registered a huge range of major publishers in one form or another and you can imagine it has gathered a lot of useful data. Its map of where writing comes from and how authors behave is more complete than ever.

Like moths to a flame, every SEO and their content-marketing best friend has splurged out rel=author in the hope it would positively affect their rankings. The issue with something so visible is that it immediately tempts manipulation.

Google must realise it doesn’t need to know about the long tail of EVERY author, just important authors. It has them. In the announcement it also reaffirmed its commitment to structured markup, the long time future of a more organised web and the area authorship fit into.

This isn’t a Google+ story, as many have tried to make it. It’s an interesting example of user experience vs ranking factors. Making authorship a visible element in search results was not an improvement – so Google has removed it. But I don’t believe that it has turned its back on better understanding sources and producers of content vs the simple pages they generate.

Like Obi-Wan, the corporeal form of authorship may have been struck down — but if the data so far has made it more valuable to Google as a ranking factor, it may have become even more powerful than you can possibly imagine.

September 5th, 2014


I’m generally quite relaxed about privacy but this whole presentation is great

I’m generally quite relaxed about privacy but this whole presentation is great:

It should be illegal to collect and permanently store most kinds of behavioral data.

In the United States, they warn us the world will end if someone tries to regulate the Internet. But the net itself was born of a fairly good regulatory framework that made sure de facto net neutrality existed for decades, paid for basic research into protocols and software, cleared the way for business use of the internet, and encouraged the growth of the commercial web.

It’s good regulation, not lack of regulation, that kept the web healthy.

Here’s one idea for where to begin:

  1. Limit what kind of behavioral data websites can store. When I say behavioral data, I mean the kinds of things computers notice about you in passing—your search history, what you click on, what cell tower you’re using.

It’s very important that we regulate this at the database, not at the point of collection. People will always find creative ways to collect the data, and we shouldn’t limit people’s ability to do neat things with our data on the fly. But there should be strict limits on what you can save.

  1. Limit how long they can keep it. Maybe three months, six months, three years. I don’t really care, as long as it’s not fifty years, or forever. Make the time scale for deleting behavioral data similar to the half-life of a typical Internet business.

  2. Limit what they can share with third parties. This limit should also apply in the event of bankruptcy, or acquisition. Make people’s data non-transferable without their consent.

  3. Enforce the right to download. If a website collects information about me, I should be allowed to see it. The EU already mandates this to some extent, but it’s not evenly enforced.

This rule is a little sneaky, because it will require backend changes on many sites. Personal data can pile up in all kinds of dark corners in your system if you’re not concerned about protecting it. But it’s a good rule, and easy to explain. You collect data about me? I get to see it.

  1. Enforce the right to delete. I should be able to delete my account and leave no trace in your system, modulo some reasonable allowance for backups.

  2. Give privacy policies teeth. Right now, privacy policies and terms of service can change at any time. They have no legal standing. For example, I would like to promise my users that I’ll never run ads on my site and give that promise legal weight. That would be good marketing for me. Let’s create a mechanism that allow this.

  3. Let users opt-in if a site wants to make exceptions to these rules. If today’s targeted advertising is so great, you should be able to persuade me to sign up for it. Persuade me! Convince me! Seduce me! You’re supposed to be a master advertiser, for Christ’s sake!

  4. Make the protections apply to everyone, not just people in the same jurisdiction as the regulated site. It shouldn’t matter what country someone is visiting your site from. Keep it a world-wide web.

June 11th, 2014


A good read on the uncomfortable benefits of buying followers

A good read on the uncomfortable benefits of buying followers:

Even more interesting, at least to me, was what my fake followers did for me. My Klout score almost instantly shot up. I was not impressed by that until I realized that Microsoft’s search engine, Bing, collaborates with Klout, so that a higher Klout score put me higher on Bing’s search results.

The followers thing is always a strange consideration — I have something like 4k+ now but that doesn’t mean these people are all still active, wildly engaged with what I do or anything else of value. And yet, because they appeared organically over the years, there’s a sense they mean something more than if they were bought and fake.

I think this chap got the right idea — find an excuse for an “experiment” that let’s you have your (integrity) cake and eat it.

June 11th, 2014


Downstream: Living with Pebble

A few thoughts, in no particular order.

  • Forget ‘smartwatch’, Pebble is better described as a HUD on your wrist. You can ignore your phone, not worry about missing anything, not have to keep flicking the screen on in case you’ve got notifications. You can just get on with things — and that brings the ‘smartphone’ age into a more positive balance for me.
  • Smartphones have created a swarm of new common habits, while simultaneously becoming overkill to perform them. Apps can surface their most important actions or information in a far more convenient way. And because there are often so many, the time saved adds up fast.
  • I want more of this “spoke and hub” design to my gadgets. Why not have my iPad act as a central brain, with its solid processor and battery, powering all these little devices? Then my iPhone could just be a connected screen, my Pebble could be a dumb little eInk screen, Nest is a dumb sensor on the wall etc. I imagine the challenges are not insurmountable.
  • The App Store is at once very exciting and very disappointing. Currently it’s really hard to discover new apps and know which ones are worth trying. But the best ones are real gems.
  • Should you get one? As much as you should buy yourself any toy you don’t need. It’s not in the realm of whether you could live without it, it’s more about whether you’re the kind of person who will get a kick out of what it lets you do.

Some of my favourite everyday uses:

  • Checking items off my Evernote shopping list
  • Bus/ train times in a click or two
  • Multiple countdowns and timers for cooking
  • Google Maps turn-by-turn directions on my wrist
  • Controlling Chromecast, Netflix, Spotify remotely

May 22nd, 2014


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May 8th, 2014


The diversity of life experience fuelling development of games today is great

The diversity of life experience fuelling development of games today is great: From Who is DayZ creator Dean Hall?:

Survival had been drummed into him for months as part of Singaporean army training. He’d survived for two weeks on 48 hours’ worth of rations before; he’d been in the top 10 per cent of recruits. He wanted to go on to do paratrooper training, commando training. But when he was deployed to Brunei he misjudged how hungry he’d already be when the survival phase begun, and he “wolfed” his rations sooner than he should. The only reason he didn’t steal food from a starving friend was because he didn’t have the energy to.

April 2nd, 2014


Twitter Cards are becoming the smallest unit of ‘web’

My thoughts on Econsultancy:

Furthermore, because Twitter Cards can be based on existing metadata of websites, they can be simply generated at scale. For example, Amazon can immediately translate any product listing into an accompanying Card.

At that stage, what’s to stop you making a page of the cards, searching by its metadata and cutting out the middle man? Or creating a simple shopfront by creating a search filter of friends’ “Buy” cards?

Read the rest: Twitter Cards are becoming the smallest unit of ‘web’

April 2nd, 2014