A personal dictionary

I’m trying, this year, to be a little more precise in my writing and speech.

Here are some items in my emerging personal dictionary:

  • “Greatly dislike” or “detest” – My substitutes for “hate.” I dislike hate becase of the way it is used in contexts like “hate crimes.” It seems to me there are few occasions on which I experience emotions with a similar strength and/or negativity (not to mention irrationality) to those expressed by perpetrators of hate crimes, so am trying to use milder, more precise language.
  • “Exceptional” – my substitute for “great,” which is horribly overused. Alexander the Great conquered half the known world before his 30th birthday. An exceptional cricket shot cannot therefore be great.
  • “Brawl” –  I find the use of war as metaphor for commercial conflict to be inappropriate for several reasons. If there are only two combatants, I feel language that reflects the conflict more precisely does readers a better service. So you won’t see me writing about companies going to war or battling.
  • “Demise”, “decline” or “descent to irrelevance” – I feel that we in the media often oversimplify things by declaring that markets only produce winners and losers and that the losers are “dead”. This belittles numerous niche vendors who make perfectly good livings without being dominant or prominent. Think of dot matrix printers, for example. So rather than writing that a technology such as tape is “going to die” I would rather write about it becoming less relevant to mainstream users or something along those lines.

I’ll update this post as more entries come to mind.

Post 20: Will SEO homogenise English?

I had a conversation yesterday with a colleague and, as often happens these days, the topic turned to getting more traffic for web sites.

One of my colleague’s foremost requests was for me to stop using British English in my writing, and to stop applying it to stories we source from our content partners.

The reason? “Virtualization” is a mighty search keyword, requested by hordes of folks around the globe every day.

But “Virtualisation,” our genteel Australian alternative, is searched for several orders of magnitude less often. So it makes no commercial sense for us to make the small adjustment to our copy to spell the word with an “s” rather than a “z”.

Some would argue that changing the single letter was a futile act of pedantry in the first place. I argued against because I think that small elements like this can be an important marker of identity that is appreciated by readers, even if only because it shows you care enough to make some small adjustments.

Right now, however, the fact that commercial online publishing is driven by the need for good search engine optimization* outcomes seems to me to be a likely source of homogenisation of the English language.

I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I find bland opposition to change stupidly antediluvian. But I think it is worth noting that the combination of commerce and technology are creating forces that work upon language in interesting ways.

* Yes, that is a deliberate and ironic reversion to “z” there, folks

Post 19: Giving up on surveys

I’m very glad that Media Watch had a go at coverage driven by vendor-created research this week, because I have reached the decision not to use them any more.

For ages I have been uncomfortable with the way surveys are used to generate coverage, largely because the methodologies used are far from transparent and the intent – generating media coverage – is blatantly obvious.

Recently, however, I encountered the worst, most dishonest piece of research I have ever seen. I label it as such because it simply asked the wrong questions and the researcher was ignorant of the right questions. For example, the survey contained assertions that business data stored on computers is not well protected. But it had not asked those surveyed about the use of the most common data storage and protection technologies, so was simply not reporting on the real world. The research also asserted that businesses cannot recover lost or damaged data at acceptable speed, citing 40 hours as disastrous. Yet when I pressed the researcher on the fact that many organisations deliberately set recovery time objectives of more than 40 hours, the researcher was ignorant of the term “recovery time objectives” and admitted it was something it should look at in the next version of the research.

That’s not good enough.

Yet the research concerned has been cobbled together into a glossy brochure and will be pressed into the hands of prospects and suspects for a year, until the next edition of the research is produced.

I sincerely hope that no-one falls for this flawed study which has (to mix cliches) pissed in the well and broken the camel’s back, because it is such an obvious example of research being abused to prove a point that I simply cannot contemplate trying to find out what is wrong with other research I encounter.

Independent research created by dedicated researchers without commission remains something I will consider. But I simply feel I can no longer trust anything initiated by a vendor. And if I cannot trust it, why would I present it to my readers?

Post 17: When customer service meets PR

I’ve been thinking lately about the interface between PR and customer service, in the context of an event in which I was forced to play the “I’m a journalist” card.

Let me explain.

I try to run my micro-business like any other, despite the fact that journalists tend to be offered free support for the products they use even if they are using them in their private lives.

For example, when I tweet about feeling frustration with some software products, PR agencies representing the vendors concerned often contact me and offer free support. I decline, as I feel the way to understand what my readers are going through is to live through some tech support engagements. It is also useful to fix the problem myself, as I can learn stuff!

Occasionally, however, a vendor’s service is so dreadful and an acceptable outcome seems so remote, that I play the “I’m a journalist” card by contacting PR representatives of the vendor concerned to let them know about the trouble I am having.

In nearly every case, they escalate the issue and solve the problem very quickly, a response I suspect is honed by years of interaction with consumer advocacy columns in various publications that name and shame vendors who provide poor service.

I played the card recently when a vendor simply refused to put me in touch with the support team responsible for providing me with a replacement for a faulty product. I had already followed a support process that asked us to post the faulty product to a certain facility, but had experienced no response for several weeks. The incident number provided was recognised by the vendor’s call centre, but there was no information whatsoever about the status of the incident. The vendor concerned refused to provide a phone number for the facility to which we had posted the faulty item, leaving no way at all to understand the status of the faulty product.

At this point, having been denied any chance to understand how the vendor proposed to resolve the issue it had created, and feeling mightily and frustrated us mightily, we did what some members of the public would do and let the vendor’s PR team know about the incident.

They resolved it quickly and very satisfactorily.

Had I been a consumer, this incident could have resulted in some ugly press for the vendor concerned.

What I now wonder is whether vendors ever contemplate the fact that PR can be called in – by the general public or media – to explain failures in support and service processes.

In fact, I’d like to have a discussion on these matters on my customer service podcast, if anyone is interested.

Post 13, 2009: Events need to get over the artefact, too

I’ve written several times before that I try not to attend real-world press events. They are nearly always overly-long and contain too much marketing-speak, so are not often particularly good uses of my time.

I’ve been thinking about why, and I think there are some hints in the decline of newspapers.

The thing about newspapers is that while they are nice artefacts, the journalism they contain is what is really important. The artefact of the newspaper has massive cultural inertia for many people, but the sheaf of cellulose that arrives on my doorstep each morning is now just one of several ways to distribute and monetise journalism.

I’m beginning to think that press events (and many conferences) are in a similar position to many media outlets, i.e; wedded to the artefact of the get-together in a big room with adjacent catering facilities, when the real issue is not how to run good events but how to preserve the information transfer they allow while thinking about how to use technology other than that embedded in today’s most popular artefact.

There’s one barrier I perceive: no-one’s very good at using the technology yet. I’ve attended webinars that were just the usual drone-and-slides affairs. If I had any real wisdom in this area, I’d be starting a consultancy around it right now, to help businesses take advantage of web conferencing and similar technologies to improve the effectiveness of their communications. Because I don’t have that wisdom, I’m hoping someone else does so they can lead a charge towards new ways of sharing information that take the good bits from the meeting/event artefact of today and take steer it in useful new directions.

Post 12, 2009: Twitter means journos always have react quotes

Maybe I am dense, but while writing a story this morning it hit me – I can now get instant reactions on almost any topic or issue via. Twitter. A quick search, a few cut and pastes and …. bang! … the voice of the people, fresh from the Net can adorn any story.

I slipped a couple into this yarn.

It’s kind of nice to know that there is now such a fine resource out there. It’s also nice to know that the material is written in a human voice, unlike the quote the story contains. It was sent to me via. a PR company.

There are questions about how to use Twitter in this way, of course. It can be hard to know if a Twitterer is really just an ordinary member of the public or truly representative of the community. I think permission is cool – you can block updates if you don’t want your Tweets re-used.

I’ve decided to always link to Tweets and quote them whole. And I won’t be using them for every story.

But to add the “person in the street” reaction that is a journalistic convention, I think Twitter is very valuable.

(More so than blogs, on the topics I cover, a blogs are dominated by vendors or their employees. And they tend to spend their time calling one another names or spruiking their latest wares, rather than offering useful reactions).

Post 7, 2009. Twitter Do’s and Don’ts for PRs


I’m getting so many PR followers these days, and so few of them seem to do much more than open an account, that I figured it could be useful to offer some advice on how to get the most from Twitter.

So here goes!

Dont’s

Don’t lurk. Twitter has become very conversational. If you are listening, but not talking, you are not adding value to the social network and people will not value your input. In fact they’ll think you are a pathetic bandwagoning n00b, which will NOT be good for your reputation.
If you must lurk to get a feel for Twitter or to watch journos in the hope of learning something, do so by reading your intended friends’ tweets as RSS feeds before joining yourself. Consuming Twitter through feeds means you can do so anonymously, a good idea while you learn.

Don’t expect every Tweet you send to be read. Twitter is not like email: members don’t generally feel a compulsion to read every message they receive. Even @messages. This factoid will probably influence the way you use Twitter for pitching.

Don’t block your tweets. Twitter is a conversation. So if you block your tweets, but expect to read others, you are sending out some very mixed messages. My rule is that I block blockers, because I don’t want people to watch me who plainly have no interest in conversation.

Don’t expect that being a Twitter friend makes your relationship with a journalist any deeper. A dud pitch is a dud pitch, no matter how many times we have tweeted at each other.

Do’s

Converse. It doesn’t have to be about work and Twitter is not a place to display your refined thoughts. Let yourself go and people will respond. Lurk and nothing will happen.

Download a Twitter client or three. Twitter clients make Twitter a more prominent part of your day, thereby enhancing its usefulness. Or at least the likelihood that you’ll get the hang of Twitter. Give one or more a try. I like Twitbin.

Share. Let your followers know what you are reading, watching or listening to. This information offers important clues about your identity that lets journos understand you.

Be honest. When I am plugging a story, I write [plug] before the tweet. If you are tweeting for professional purposes, let the reader know or …

… Create two accounts – one for yourself, one for your professional tweets. Delineating your work and personal lives will be useful because it means both streams will have a clearer, more genuine, voice.

Learn about hashtags and how to use and follow them. Then you’ll be on your way to understanding Twitter as a way to measure public opinion.

Prepare to monitor and analyse Twitter streams during and after events (and phone interviews), as these will tell you a lot about how much attention is being paid to your clients and immediate response to their words. Perhaps you even need a plan B if the Twitter stream is hostile, mid-speech?

Consider using Twitter as a press release distribution mechanism. It’s less intrusive than email.

Do you have any other tips? Go wild in the comments.

Update

Another Do just occurred to me.

Post a few tweets before you start following media.  When you follow someone, they receive an email. To follow you, they must visit your Twitter address.

This takes a little time, so make it worth their while by making sure you have something to see.

Indeed, if you are trying to show media you are hip with the groovers on Twitter, nothing negates this more than a Twitter timeline with no Tweets on it. The only thing worse, IMHO, is a Twitter stream that contains just one tweet that says “I’m trying Twitter” or something similar. If that’s all that’s in your Twitter stream the first time a journo sees it, there’s every chance you’ll be perceived as a late-to-the-party try-hard.

Post 5, 2009. A missed opportunity

Miranda Devine today tries to build on the argument she advanced last week that environmentalists’ opposition to controlled fires made the Victorian bushfires worse than might otherwise have been the case.

If you really must, check out her piece here.

What I find most interesting is not her argument, but the SMH’s opacity in terms of helping a reader understand how it was constructed. I say this because the story quotes numerous documents and a website or two along the way.

So why not link to all the sources, so the reader can see if the quotes are in context or representative of the whole document?

It seems to me that when one is advancing a contentious argument, failure to provide those links is a missed opportunity.

Post 3, 2009. Mnemonics

I was writing a document yesterday and found myself thinking about which phrases it contained that I would one day use to find it using Google desktop search.

In the past, I imagine I would have thought about the name or been more careful with the folders I saved the file into.

Now my whole thought process assumes I have rapid and easy access to a search engine and an index of my work.

Anyone else thinking this way?

Post 69:08 Globalism schmobalism

A few months ago, a large software company invited me to the USA for one of its events. I would have flown at the nice end of the plane and been entertained grandly for the duration at a cost of $15,000-$20,000.

A couple of weeks ago, I asked the local outpost of the vendor for a briefing on the product with the local experts. Response to the product has been varied and I wanted to learn more.

It seems I cannot have that briefing form local spokespeople. And the folks in the USA won’t talk to me about it either.

I recount this story not to get grumpy with the PR, but to bemoan the lack of globalism I see every day. The fact I cannot get this interview is just one example of political boundaries creating pointless policies in an age when ideas and information can cross borders in a heartbeat, yet some insist on controlling them by country.

It’s not just PR departments. TV shows I want to watch are being shown in free-to-air in the USA and may take a year to get the same treatment here. iTunes rents TV shows in the USA that I cannot purchase here.

Now I know that there are licensing and distribution agreements behind these restrictions. But from a consumer’s point of view, all I perceive is an industry uninterested in giving me choice. When that attitude crosses over into my work life, it’s even dumber given the various online media – both legitimate and back channel – that are already global.