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So-ma, so good.

Perhaps more than most, the technology community believes in its ability to transform how things are done. But when you apply that to government, the chain breaks. Seemingly, we’re only just generating the connections that directly link our technically savvy with our politically powerful.

Soma Salon is an effort founded by TechCrunch honcho M.Butcher and supported by a group including Jonathan MacDonald, David Bailey, Daniel Appelquist to address this need. To assemble multi-disciplinary experts, identify key themes, stimulate discussion and ultimately draw attention to the problems that matter from the technology industry’s point of view.

Yes, the perspective requested is broad but it’s through the technology lens that our interests focus on social areas like government, privacy, education and more.

Most importantly, it’s an attempt to do so that doesn’t just generate hot air. Sister group Soma Labs is the first output of the Salon, assembling a small team to help turn the discussion into addressable and specific challenges.

So, can it be done?

Mind the mind gap

Attending on Tuesday night, it took an hour or so for the attendees of maybe 60-70 to identify key topics for groups to split up and discuss. Having spun out into the media group (for obvious reasons), the conversation included 30 minutes of anecdotes, observations, short discussion and ideas about how the media landscape and publishing have changed.

We touched on native advertising, the responsibility of the mainstream newsfeed algorithms as the new equivalent of the mainstream media, the idea of a sort of ‘free advertising’ where material that was reacted to positively on networks should build up currency for the publisher, which they can then use to favour their posts in the feed.

Here’s three big ideas I’ve been thinking about since the conversation.

1. Organic posts, sharing and interaction already acts as a more meritocratic curating algorithm.

Yes, if a Facebook brand page posts something, they probably have to sponsor it to get it into your feed. But if three of your friends all post a link to an article or piece of material then Facebook probably wants to assume that’s something you’re interested in.

We obsess with the questions of how we get material to reach potential targets. But nothing will ever trump being great and interesting. Start slowly and build a genuinely interested community and spend five years growing it. Sustainable will always beat immediate.

2. What’s the incentive to create important journalism?

Maybe I’ve been reading too much Ben Thomson recently but I’ve become more and more interested in the topic of misaligned incentives. In the case of the media industry, they pursue traffic. That’s fine, a company can do what it chooses to generate profit.

But what’s the incentive for creating useful meaningful news, the kind of stuff that makes democracy tick instead of lurch? What news organisation is motivated by the impact of traffic (you’ve got to reach people after all) multiplied by the effectiveness with which is informs the populace with clear unbiased information. It doesn’t exist — maybe it can’t. No, screw that, of course it can. But first we need to pay careful attention.

3. Where’s the BBC of the algorithm world.

Few things make me proudly British rather than a member of the World. But one of them has to be the BBC. In a time when publishers drove what people paid attention to, it was awarded a mandate to break free from the forces that can corrupt news production. For better or worse, it was designed with a social purpose.

These days, the Facebook algorithm is classically held up as one of the ‘editorial systems’ that determines the kind of news most people see. So, if you were to try and achieve something with similar goals to the foundation of the BBC — but with today’s media landscape — how would you go about it?

Do we need a public sector algorithm, kind of news.gov.uk that’s designed to identify and reward rising stories not about beach bodies or drunk celebs but the themes that matter in a democracy? Will it always be a flawed attempt? Probably yes. But is it worth doing and would you benefit by iterating based on how it ran over time? I think definitely.

What’s to come

It’s clearly early days for the Soma initiative and its various moving parts. Passion is clear but all too often it fades before potency can follow. The fact of the matter is, there’s no value in being cynical about the potential of this group. It’s unproven. It follows in the footsteps of countless other attempts that didn’t manage to turn the hot air into inflation.

But if it produces even a few sprouts of progress, how can it not be worthwhile.

Hopefully we’ll see you at the next one and find out what role the tech community will play in this brave, new world.

The Media Relations Paradox

Imagine if the most valuable thing you could offer was close relationships with journalists. Not to say there isn’t power and potential in those — but imagine if that was what your whole proposition hinged upon in 2014.

I can’t work out which way the chicken and egg of this value in the PR industry started — but it’s still one of those things people talk about when they talk about PR. Even some great companies approach Augur expecting us to talk about the strong links we have with major editors.

I think this perception is one layer too superficial vs PR’s real potential today. It’s one of the things  I talked about with Danny Whatmough on Digital Wake, our new semi-regular podcast about PR and technology (blame him prioritising his wedding over sitting with me in a soundproof room.) It also links up with Stephen Waddington’s recent #PRforPR campaign (more on that here.)

Why PR?

So what’s going on? And what about the voices out there in the PR industry who may be shouting “we’re good at the media relations thing, what’s so bad about that”?

Well, here’s the issue: we’re operating in a world where more or less all the marketing disciplines are converging on the same zone. Within that nexus, there’s one persistent priority. One point around which so much else revolves.

It’s the thing that comes before all the glitz and glamour of advertising, the chummy chatter of social or the obsessive optimisation of search.

PR can lead the charge in helping companies understand and articulate their Meaning.

PR fit for purpose

This is the opportunity. Because our industry has grown up sparring with the media, it has had a century’s head start in grappling with the scrutiny and cynicism of the journalistic mindset.

You couldn’t hope for a better training regime. Because PR has had to learn to harmonise with influential audiences for so long, it has become part of our way of operating. In the marketing multiplex, it defines the direction of our industry’s potential.

This is what I think we can focus on. Yes, journalists develop relationships with good PRs and yes there’s some value there. But they are the result of our real skill and specialisation: Identifying and amplifying a company’s meaning to tell its story, for whichever audience matters.

When it comes to propositions you can be proud of, I think that’s worth shouting about.

Photo Credit: Esparta via Compfight cc

Augur talks PR, stories and pitching

(For the record, if you want to understand why it’s so important to say as little as possible, this video is a pretty good demo in itself too. At such moments, I sympathise for every client that I’ve advised to control their passion for the subject in favour of clarity.)

Making Content Matter

I’ve written before about the difficulties of the word “content”. It’s too often bandied around in discussions that lose sight of its meaning to viewers versus its importance in their strategy. And that blindness is costly.

But you quickly find yourself drawing on it because it’s the common reference. Much of the time, that will remain true.

Sometimes, however, it’s worth thinking again to see if there’s another descriptor more suitable. Perhaps another descriptor that can focus on a different detail and a different priority and help you concentrate on what matters.

Made of more

I recently had the following conversation on Twitter. (Incidentally, it’s also one of those incredibly moments that hits home to me how social accounts and interactions can become such an enjoyable scratchpad for new ideas.)

Content’s not included

Material is like the fabric of something actually useful. It’s a bit more tangible. It’s something you iterate on and bang around in different directions — certainly when it’s commonly used in stand-up comedy.

It’s craft-like and something you develop and improve over time. You gather techniques to become competent then workmanlike then artisan. You invent or invest in technology to gain an advantage producing better material than your competition.

Material has customers rather than consumers. Your material must be top notch, it’s not just a snack between courses — it is a product in its own sense.

I’d love to hear suggestions of other words. Even if they aren’t used in conversation, I think clearer definition helps you think about things more strategically and accurately. The power of language is only beaten by the power of the meaning and association that underlies it.

What would you call content to make you appreciate it more?

Photo Credit: ch.weidinger via Compfight cc

Making Content Matter

I’ve written before about the difficulties of the word “content”. It’s too often bandied around in discussions that lose sight of its meaning to viewers versus its importance in their strategy. And that blindness is costly.

But you quickly find yourself drawing on it because it’s the common reference. Much of the time, that will remain true.

Sometimes, however, it’s worth thinking again to see if there’s another descriptor more suitable. Perhaps another descriptor that can focus on a different detail and a different priority and help you concentrate on what matters.

Made of more

I recently had the following conversation on Twitter. (Incidentally, it’s also one of those incredibly moments that hits home to me how social accounts and interactions can become such an enjoyable scratchpad for new ideas.)

Content’s not included

Material is like the fabric of something actually useful. It’s a bit more tangible. It’s something you iterate on and bang around in different directions — certainly when it’s commonly used in stand-up comedy.

It’s craft-like and something you develop and improve over time. You gather techniques to become competent then workmanlike then artisan. You invent or invest in technology to gain an advantage producing better material than your competition.

Material has customers rather than consumers. Your material must be top notch, it’s not just a snack between courses — it is a product in its own sense.

I’d love to hear suggestions of other words. Even if they aren’t used in conversation, I think clearer definition helps you think about things more strategically and accurately. The power of language is only beaten by the power of the meaning and association that underlies it.

What would you call content to make you appreciate it more?

Photo Credit: ch.weidinger via Compfight cc

Breaking the PR rules: 128 units

I was invited to a recent PRCA event, hosting 3x PR industry godfathers who founded and exited agencies.

Like so much with running Augur, I found it had to be analysed at two levels simultaneously. On one hand, there’s nothing like real experience. It’s a hard-won asset that money can’t buy.

But in dispensing the value of that experience, there’s a risk of being blinkered toward only what worked in the past. When it comes to agencies, that means a model that I don’t necessarily believe is the future or is the core of what Augur should be. 

It’s always risky to disagree with experience and the threat is you’re assuming you know better. I think the effective middle ground is based around this: Before you can intelligently break the rules, you have to understand what you’re breaking.

What’s the time?

I asked a question early on about timesheets. And it’s one I’ll caveat with the fact I once wrote an article entitled “Why I’ll always have time for timesheets”. 

My question was based on the idea that timesheets are really just an abstraction. They’re representative of time but ultimately, if we’re saying 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, roughly 4 weeks a month, that’s 128 units of abstract value that you sell to clients.

Why not simplify?

Why try to sell such granular batches? What’s the virtue of breaking it down into 8 units per day. I think there’s an illusion of efficiency and security that comes from the feeling you can now account for every hour of every employee’s time.

But does anyone who has worked in an agency really believe timesheets have that kind of precision? And is our greatest aspiration really to squeeze every last drop out of every team member?

If we say these systems are maybe 80% accurate, and that it’s probably only the last 20% of peoples’ time that you’re trying to increase the efficiency on, how can that realistically work?

I agree it’s unwise to try and manage an organisation without something in the model like this. But I wonder if you can get most of the value from a system that takes a fraction of the time to manage.

Why can’t we simply by reducing the number of those abstract units.

Time for attention

Instead of hundreds of made up hours, how about 4x units of attention per week.

Because more strategic work tends to require more focused, dedicated and, arguably, valuable attention, this currency has greater flexibility.

Lots of great writing may take up one unit of attention. Developing a strategic plan may take less physical time but in how it absorbs the team working on it with the focus of required concentration and experience, it’s equivalent. Maybe implementing it over a month is going to take another four units of attention.

So you spec a project by working back from objectives, establishing the strategy and calculating how much attention it will need. It’s not re-inventing the wheel, it’s just trying to find ways to produce them more efficiently and end up with a better vehicle. 

Obviously there’s no way to discuss this properly with a panel, without becoming that guy (or girl) whose question turns into a diatribe and a distraction. But for the value of thinking about this further, I have to congratulate the PRCA on creating a little haven for us to escape the day-to-day and really scrutinise what we’re doing and why.

Search, and the commercial clash of the information age

People are looking for things. You want them to find you.

But not just when looking for you, of course, that’s a given. Really, you want them to find you when they are looking for other things. Or, best of all, when they’re looking to buy other things.

And so the clash emerges. Because of how search works, if you want to be found, you have to essentially become that thing online.  You have to equate yourself with what your audience is looking for as they hope to buy.

Exceptions and expectations

But what happens if there’s a dissonance between what people are currently looking for and what you think they really should be looking for? It’s a classic issue in something like tech PR. Or communications. Or whatever you want to call the big converging soup of media and marketing.

How do you join the dots between the ‘wrong’ search and the right ideas?

If you can explain the difference, that should be a relevant, shareable, memorable way to tackle the challenge. That should be a good fight in the battle, not for some mysterious search blackhattery — but because you’re genuinely moving the subject forwards.

And even better, play your cards right and it should become a relevant source for the subject you think people should be searching for too. Because you’ve actually created value.

How do brands tell their story?

We recently took part in a discussion from MyNewsDesk about the ways brands tell their story.

Check out the recording below for our thoughts.

Interviewed by Gorkana

Gorkana recently interviewed us about our industry, including where tech PR is going and the worst thing a journalist has ever said to me.

Which social media platform has changed your life?

Can I argue BBEdit, which powers the SomethingAwful.com forums? It turns out that growing up out in the country and wasting hours trawling through that community of 70,000+ “goons” would equip me with the insights to understand online communities when they went mainstream. Trolling, lurking, attention-whoring, Godwin’s Law – none of this stuff is new, it’s just that a wider audience is now experiencing the natural rhythms and characteristics of online behaviour.

Read the full interview here.

Augur launch covered across industry

The Holmes Report:

“Having come from managing comms at Tradeshift, I’m most interested in the kinds of unsexy, B2B companies that really power things behind the scenes,” Tatton-Brown told the Holmes Report. “Unsung heroes.”

Augur launches with five technology clients, although Tatton-Brown declined to reveal their names, instead noting that some are backed by investors Passion and Notion. He also pointed out that the “much maligned” state of the PR industry requires a more thoughtful, credible approach to communication.

 

PR Week:

“He said Augur would not be about advising clients to “force themselves on the news” but would take a more considered approach. “It’s about looking at the context of what is around you,” he added.”

 

Gorkana:

“Max said: “Good PR is not about a social media strategy, growth hacking and content marketing. It’s about looking at how you can become a better company, more fit for purpose within the ecosystem around you. The latest channels and trends are part of this bigger picture.”

 

Features Exec:

“Augur, whose name comes from the role of a trusted advisor in classical times who interpreted the will of the Gods through the patterns of birds, is already working with five tech clients, in areas like retail, social/ marketing, collaboration and B2B.”