How to Get Your Pitch Read Part XIV

One way to try to get the journalist to read beyond the headline/subject is the EMBARGOED tag:

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Although it does sound somewhat pompous, and can backfire if it’s not a story worth breaking an embargo for.

Likewise a subject line prefaced by BREAKING NEWS:

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As you can see, MySpace’s PR seems to think anything to do with their client is BREAKING NEWS, and deserves CAPS all the way.

Both of these are in danger of Cry Wolf Syndrome. Use them too many times and they wear out.

Another, better way to get your press release read than to send it and then recall it:

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I have no idea whether these were all intentional but they certainly had me trawling through my trash for the originals. The fact that no explanation is given for the recall just makes it more intriguing.

This reminds me of an ex-colleague who used to put tiny mistakes in his Reuters features so they’d have to be corrected and run again. Doubled his chances of getting them in print.

Of course, overused, both endanger the credibility of the author: the journalist looking like an error-prone hack, the PR flak looking like someone who says something and then promptly takes it back.

The Freshness. and T-Shirt Worthiness, of News

(cross-posted from a Loose Wire sister site, ConvergedMedia.net)

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CNN.com has a good way of informing readers of the ‘freshness’ of news by adding notes in red to indicate when the story was added or updated. (In the example above it also adds a ‘developing story’ label.)

This kind of thing is helpful in that the site can still order stories by their importance, but also flag those that are being updated:

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(It also adds a rather cute touch to its whacky stories, allowing readers to order a T-shirt with the headline on it:)

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Click on the T-shirt logo and you’re taken to a page where you can order the shirt:

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The Alarm Clock is Dead, Long Live the Cellphone

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Gadgets, like software and services, often end up being used in ways the creator didn’t intend. But how many companies make the most of this opportunity?

Take the cellphone. More than a third of Brits use their mobile phone as an alarm clock, according to a survey by British hotel chain Travelodge (thanks textually.org):

Budget hotel chain Travelodge quizzed 3,000 respondents on waking up habits and 71% of UK adults claimed that alarm clocks are now obsolete. The faithful bedside companion has been cast off in favour of the modern must-have, a mobile phone. Sixteen million Brits (36%) now prefer using the latest ring tone to rouse them from sleep rather than the shrill bleeping of an alarm clock.

Why? The article doesn’t say, but the answers are pretty obvious:

  • Who wants to take an extra device with you when you travel?
  • Ever come across an alarm clock with a dozen different ring tones?
  • Ever tried to program an alarm clock you’re not familiar with?
  • Ever tried to rely on wake up services?
  • Most alarm clocks are badly designed.

This might even reveal itself in the Alarm Clock Law: if another device can handle the task of a dumber gadget, it will replace it. So does that mean that the alarm clock is dead?

Not exactly. The alarm clock performs a single function: wake the person up. But that has turned out not to be as easy as it looks. While the design of most alarm clocks have been outsourced to the brain-dead, other designers have recognised the potential of alarm clocks that don’t merely wake up the owner, but keep them awake long enough to get up.

This list, for example, illustrates the thriving world of alarm clock design (think Clocky, that has wheels and has wheels and . And in this post about Seth Godin last September there was a bunch of responses suggesting that in fact alarm clock designers have tried to add features to make the alarm clock relevant. As one of the commenters pointed out, the problem is that we’re just not ready to pay more for those features because alarm clocks have become a commodity.

I suspect it’s a bit more complicated than this. There may be other factors:

  • the decline of radio, and therefore the decline of alarm-clock-radios (34% of respondents wake up to the radio in the Travelodge survey);
  • We travel more and carry more gadgets with us, so something had to stay behind;
  • As home alarm clocks became more sophisticated (music, radio, mains-powered) so we were less likely to take them on the road with us;
  • Then there’s security: I know I stopped bringing an old-style ticking alarm clock with me because it made airport security professionals nervous.

Perhaps most important, we have developed a comfort level with our cellphone’s inner workings, and few of us would like to entrust a morning alarm to something or someone we don’t know.

Cellphone manufacturers, to their credit, seem to have acknowledged this new role: I tried to find the alarm function on a Nokia 6120 and did so in five seconds. I bet it would take me longer on any digital alarm clock. The process is quick and painless, and a little bell logo on the home screen reassuringly indicates it’s set. The alarm itself is cute and starts out unobtrusively but then gets louder until you’re up and about.

Or, more ominously, have thrown the phone across the room where it now sits in pieces. Maybe there is something to be said for keeping the alarm clock separate.

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When Technology Lets Us Down

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(from tcbuzz’s flickr collection)

Two recent events from the UK underlined how dangerous our dependence on technology can be.

The soccer UEFA Cup final in Manchester was overshadowed by riots when one of the massive screens installed in the city for fans who didn’t have tickets broke down.

And more recently, the inquest into the death of a former BBC editor found that she committed suicide after failing to find support among her colleagues. Her line manager, the inquest heard, tried to find her counselling:

However, her manager sent an email to the wrong address and his request was never acted on.

Technology is passive, and doesn’t take into account the implications of failure. In the first case the technology either didn’t work, or those setting it up didn’t know how to work (or fix) it. In the second case, the error was more obviously human: the sender of an email did not enter the correct address, or did not enter the address correctly.

This is more about our failure to anticipate failure in technology, and our blind dependence on it working.

Obviously, it would have been smart of the organizers in Manchester to have had a back-up plan in place for an eventuality like a screen breaking down. And the line manager’s apparent failure to see whether the email arrived at its destination or even to have picked up a phone and tried to reach the counsellor directly.

But perhaps there are ways for technology to further help us by providing a layer of redundancy? In the case of the screen, could there be some sort of diagnostics test which would alert the technicians that something was amiss, or about to be amiss?

And, in the case of email, the answer is perhaps simpler. There are tools out there to determine whether an email has arrived safely and been opened. The one I use is MessageTag, which will inform me whether an email I have tagged with the service has been opened. (The advanced service will give me a list of emails I have tagged and show me which ones have been opened, and which havent–a very useful checklist to show me which emails I need to follow up on.)

(There are privacy implications with services like MessageTag/MSGTAG, which I’ve gone into before. But sparing use of the service, I believe, is acceptable, so long as you give recipients the option of opting out of future tagging. Other people use the receipt acknowledgement option in Microsoft Outlook and some other email programs.)

We perhaps need to be reminded that technology, as it stands, won’t save us from ourselves.

The Size of the Future

(This is a guest post from a friend and long-time colleague, Robin Lubbock of WBUR, who will be contributing to Loose Wire Blog. You can read his blog, the Future of New(s), here.)

Why don’t you buy hard-back books? Either they are too expensive, or too big. They are too big to comfortably hold in one hand. So if you’re sitting in bed trying to read you’ve got to find a way to prop the thing up. Not a hurdle you can’t overcome. But an inconvenience.

Now think about the reader of the future. It’s the same issues. Size, readability, and cost. Any lessons you’ve learned from book reading, apply them to the electronic book and you’ll be imagining the electronic reader of the future.

So why hasn’t anyone made a good electronic book yet?

I was in Staples the other day and an assistant asked me what I wanted. I said “I want something about three or four times the size of an iPhone which I can use for browsing the Web when I’m in bed.” He said they had nothing like that, but he wanted one too.

So when I saw photos of a group of proposed readers in an article by John Markoff in the New York Times this weekend I thought my dream had come true.

But Markoff has a different view. He says he also used to think he was looking for a mid-sized reader for the Web. He went over some of the issues. But he reached the conclusion that although chip power means that you can’t get book performance out of a phone sized reader yet, people could be comfortable reading newspapers on a three-and-a-half-inch screen.

I took his implication to be that if people are happy with a small screen for reading newspapers and blogs, there will be no call for a mid-sized reader.

But I still want one. And I still believe the company that successfully develops a tool that has the same benefits as a novel, in usability, portability and ruggedness, will make a fortune.

Facebook’s Trapdoor

I’m puzzled.

I can’t understand this quirk in Facebook that means I can’t politely brush off someone requesting my friendship without giving them access to all my friends and a lot of my info. 

Receive a friend request and you get this message:

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I have a rule that I don’t make buddies with people I’ve not actually met, or know online. Instead I divert them to LinkedIn, a sort of frat house for networking. Facebook is for friends. So I usually try to brush them off with a message.

Only you can’t do that anymore.

Click on the Send message button, and you get this text at the bottom of the message window:

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It says:

If you send xxxx a message, you will give them permission to view your list of friends, as well as your Basic, Work and Education info for one month.

In other words, you can confirm someone, you can ignore someone, but you can’t send them a message that says “do I know you?” or “not sure we’ve met, how about you email me on LinkedIn?” Well you can, but you’ve got to give them some of the biggest keys to your little Facebook kingdom first.

Why? What is the point of that? What possible benefit is it to me to allow that to happen? Why would I let someone I haven’t met, and who I have no friends in common with, have access to that kind of information? And, more importantly, shouldn’t I be a little bit worried that my Facebook friends are allowing this to happen? How many of us actually read those little notes?

I am trying to think of a logical reason for this. Why would Facebook make it impossible for someone to reply to a request with a message that does not commit them to giving access to their information?

The only reason I can assume, perhaps because of my conspiracy-addled mind and limited brain power, is this: If the person requesting the connection has access to that information, so do most of the applications he is using. Facebook doesn’t care how long the connections last between users; all it cares is that it has access to the data. Who cares if it’s only for one month? That information only needs to be grabbed once. In other words, my theory goes, that data is valuable enough for Facebook to create a sort of trapdoor through which unsuspecting folk might allow their data to be compromised.

Or am I missing something? I must be.

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Google Killer? A Clip Around the Ears, Maybe

There’s a new search engine out there, according to the Guardian, and it sort of tries to figure out what you’re looking for. Which is good. Google searches are great so long as they’re simple. But is Powerset up to snuff?

Here are some searches I did (betraying my interests):

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Pretty good stuff. And how about me?

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Even less obvious matches seem to work:

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Also right on the money. Nixon got second place when I asked who was the first u.s. president to resign? which is good enough:

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Other searches tho — how many copies of Office 2007 has Microsoft sold? and how far is it from London to Sydney — weren’t any good at all.

Of course, Powerset is so far only parsing Wikipedia articles (only — there are 2.3 million of those in the English language). And ask Google the same questions and you’re also likely to get the answers high up (1st in the case of Nixon, Taser inventer, Suharto resignation, though nowhere on my own alleged career (fittingly). Sydney/London throws up a WikiAnswers page, and I’ve given up hope trying to find out how many copies of Office 2007 have been sold.)

Still, it’s early days for something like this. There’s no question that a better search engine will one day come along, perhaps belonging to Google, perhaps not. Will it need to parse every sentence for meaning? Who knows?

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Generating Meaning or Fluff?

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I love this: a mashup that generates great-looking ads from Flickr pictures and a computer. The conclusion: We realise how easily affected we are by words and pictures together, but how the mix often doesn’t mean very much, especially when they’re ads.

By remixing corporate slogans, I intend to show how the language of advertising is both deeply meaningful, in that it represents real cultural values and desires, and yet utterly meaningless in that these ideas have no relationship to the products being sold. In using the Flickr images, the piece explores the relationship between language and image, and how meaning is constructed by the juxtaposition of the two.

Of course, it also raises the question: At what point would it be cheaper and more effective to generate ad copy by computer?

THE AD GENERATOR

Burma’s Firewall Fighters

Another good report on Burma’s failed efforts to stop information getting out, from the Commitee to Protect Journalists:

Those fears are driving Burma’s undercover reporters to become more innovative. DVB’s Moe Aye said his in-country reporters now check in with editors by pay phone at predetermined times to mitigate the risk of communicating on lines that may be tapped by authorities.

In-country journalists have their own clandestine procedures. One undercover DVB reporter secretly reported on the trial of a popular political prisoner by using his mobile telephone to record the detainee entering the courthouse. Later that day, he used the Internet to transmit the footage in time to meet DVB’s production deadline.

“They say, ‘Don’t ask me how, just wait and it will be there.’” Moe Aye said. “I don’t ask, so I can’t tell you how they do it. They have their own ways.”  

Although I still believe it’s important not to overstate the influence of the Internet in opening up a country and placing a brake on the brutality of regimes (Burma has shown no lack of appetite for repression, and can pull the plug on the Internet at will, firstly, and secondly information and images still found their way out even in the pre-Web uprising of 1988), it’s great to read of how young Burmese are finding ways to report on what’s going on there.

Burma’s Firewall Fighters

Sleazy Practices Cont.

Fired up by Google’s move into the crapware domain by foisting an “updater” on customers who want to install (otherwise great) programs like Google Earth, I took another look at what was happening in the updater sphere.

Apple drew some heat for its own bit of underhandedness recently, when its own Apple Software Updater automatically included downloading the company’s Safari browser. After a backlash, it dropped the Safari from the “Updates” section to a “New Software” section, but still prechecked it:

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In other words, run the updater and not concentrate, and you’ll find yourself downloading 22 MB of browser you didn’t ask for, and didn’t have before.

So no, I don’t think Apple did the right thing here. Apple fans can protest as much as they like, but there’s a clear move here to get new software to users to install software they didn’t ask for and, if they don’t actively intervene, will have it installed by default. Browsers, like media players, are particularly significant because they will try to make themselves the default browser, and users once again need to act against the default process to avoid this.

Needless to say, Apple’s bid has been modestly successful, apparently at least doubling its modest market share for Safari. Still miniscule, but a start.

Of course, software is one thing, but it has to be used. For that it has to be visible to the user. No point in hiding the program launch icons somewhere they can’t be found. On Windows, there are three places you want to be: the desktop, the system tray, or the start menu. Apple is particularly smart about this, ensuring that all its products sit, not in some side-alley subfolder, but in the ‘root’ menu:

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and

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as well as on the desktop:

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(though not, interestingly, the Updater.)

Of course, Apple isn’t alone. Microsoft has long been doing this, as has Adobe.

Folk argue this is all besides the point, that users retain control over their computer and can remove all this stuff if they want. But to me it’s worrying that Apple, Microsoft, Google, Sun, Adobe et al think that this is OK, and, like their defenders, fail to understand that for the vast majority of users, installing software is not an everyday experience, and that these sleights of hand merely cause extra stress, confusion and uncertainty. That can’t be good.