PR That Doesn’t Bark, Or Barks Too Much

This is my weekly Loose Wire Service column, an edited version of which was recorded for my BBC World Service slot. Audio to follow.

There’s a moment in All The President’s Men that nails it.

Bob Woodward is telling his editors about when he’d called up the White House to confirm that Howard Hunt, one of the Watergate burglars, worked there as a consultant for Charles Colson, special counsel to President Nixon. “Then,” Woodward tells his editors, “the P.R. guy said the weirdest thing to me. (reading) ‘I am convinced that neither Mr. Colson nor anyone else at the White House had any knowledge of, or participation in, this deplorable incident at the Democratic National Committee.'”

Isn’t that what you’d expect him to say, one of the editors says. Absolutely, Woodward replies. So?

Woodward, the script says, has got something and he knows it. “I never asked them about Watergate,” he says. “I simply asked what were Hunt’s duties at the White House. [A beat.] They volunteered that he was innocent when nobody asked if he was guilty.”

This, to me, is not only great cinema but classic journalism. It’s a classic PR error, and you can see it all the time. Not always as dramatically, but it’s there if you notice it. To say or do something that reveals what your client really cares about—and how much they care about it.

I see it in breathless press releases that I never asked for. Read: We really, really need to get this information out. We’re desperate.  So you think I’m just a press release churning machine, is that it?

I see it in interviews when the media-trained exec grinds each answer back to the message bullet-points he’s got tattooed into his brain:

When did you start to think there was a problem with the building? When the people start falling out one side? We have always focused our synergistic approach to inbuilding personnel customer management by being people-centred, and while we regret the involuntary vertical defenestrations, we’re sure that until they exited the building extramurally they felt as empowered as we did about the efficiencies we implemented by removing what turned out to be vital structural features.

I see it in unsolicited pitches that offer interviews with CEOs who really should be busier than this—particularly ones that end with “when is your availability?” as if to say, if we give the impression you already said yes, maybe you might. So you think I’m stupid and gullible, is that it?

I see it in PR companies which are a little too eager to lend us technology columnists a gadget. Read: this is a product that isn’t good enough to sell on its own, so we’ve got a warehouse full of them to try to get fellas like you interested.

I see it in a cupboard full of gadgets that PR companies promised to come pick up after I finished reviewing them but never did. Read: even the client doesn’t really care any about this. And it certainly belies the talk about the review units being in hot demand.

This sounds like heaven, I agree, but the reality is that there is such a thing as too many gadgets. Especially ones which weren’t that good to start with.

Just this morning I saw it in a emailed response from a major software company in response to a very specific question I’d asked. The question was sort of addressed, but tagged onto it was pure PR-speak, addressing a bunch of imaginary questions I hadn’t asked, or even implied I was interested in. Lord knows how long they took to put this together. Actually I know—10 days, because that’s how long I had to wait.

As a journalist, when you get one of these responses your instinct is to remove clumps of hair from your own head, or, if already clump-free, those of family members or passers-by. But actually, buried in the robot speak are the nuggets.

The email in question talked of “a community effort…to understand and unravel this extremely complex issue.”  I’m not going to tell you what the complex issue is, but the words are a giveaway: “We couldn’t figure this one out ourselves so we had to turn to companies we’d have much preferred to have humiliated by getting there first.”

Subtext: We’re not actually as good at this as we thought, or our customers assume. We were out of our depth so we’re falling back on the old “we’re all in this together” trick. Works great if you’re at the bottom of the bucket and the crab above you looks like he’s about to make a break for it.

Buried in all that unrequested bilge are quite a few good story ideas. Nothing tells you a company’s weak spot than PR guff dreamed up in hope of putting journalists off the scent. Thanks, big software company, for pointing out your sensitive spots!

Of course, coupled with the “But I never asked them that” is the Sherlock Holmes’ dog that didn’t bark clue. In Conan Doyle’s short story Silver Blaze Holmes is summoned to investigate the disappearance of the eponymous racehorse. The less-than-impressed Scotland Yard detective asks Holmes: “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Detective: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”

In this case, of course, the dog didn’t bark because it recognised its owner, who turned out to be the guilty party. Whereas the Woodward Clue is about what PR folk put in that wasn’t asked for, the Holmes Clue is about what they leave out. In PRdom this can be requests that go unanswered, questions that are get very short answers while others get long ones, answers that skirt the question, or requested review units that somehow never arrive.

In the case of my big software company response, it’s the fact that they omitted to really answer the question I asked—and got very vague when I sought a timeline. It’s not rocket science to know when smoke is wafting in your direction.

So how should PR avoid these pitfalls? Well, the first rule is to answer the question, or tell the journalist you’re not answering it—and preferably why. Not answering it by pretending she didn’t ask it is going to infuriate a journalist and flag that there’s something there worth chasing.

But worse, don’t answer questions you weren’t asked. At least not directly. You can let it be known there’s more if they want it, but don’t forcefeed them. Journalists aren’t all Robert Redfords, but neither are they foie gras geese.

You can always tell if a journalist knows you’re not answering the question: they’ll nod a lot. Nodding a lot doesn’t mean “I’m agreeing with you, and I’m just desperate to hear more”, it’s “Why is this guy telling me stuff in the press release totally unrelated to what I asked? I wonder if he’d mind if I tore his hair out?” Nod, nod, nod. The nodding, of course, is a desperate attempt to speed up time so he can ask one more question and get to the pub before it shuts. Never works, but it’s a sort of reflex action in the face of too much barking, or not enough.

The Missed Call: The Decade’s Zeitgeist?

By Jeremy Wagstaff

(this is a longer version of an upcoming syndicated column.)

When people look back at the last decade for a technology zeitgeist they may choose SMS, or the iPod, or maybe even Facebook. Me? I’d choose the cellphone call that rings, briefly, and then is silent.

It’s one of those social phenomena that has so embedded itself in the culture that we don’t even notice it. It developed its own syntax, its own meaning, and even shifted the boundaries of cultural mores and social intercourse. Even I didn’t realise it was so widespread until I started researching this article. And yet, at least in the middle of the decade, it spanned all continents and was accounting for more than half of cellphone traffic in many developing countries.

So what is the miscall and why is it—was it–so big? The miscall is simple: I call your cellphone but hang up before you pick up. Instead of you thinking there’s a mistake, you know exactly why I called, and either call me back, or don’t, depending on how we’ve agreed on what the miscall means. It’s a form of communication that requires no words, no speech, and, most importantly, no expense. At least for you and me. Not, sadly, for the cellphone operator.

But initially cellphone operators weren’t too bothered.

There’s a temptation, after all, to regard the miscall as a poverty thing, done by poor people. I don’t have any money; you have money, so you call me. Indeed, in Ethiopia it’s called miskin—Amharic, deriving from the Arabic for “poorest of the poor”, with a distinct connotation of being worthy of pity. And among youth the lure of the cellphone is matched only by the limits on a budget. So, someone somewhere is going to call back, so money will be spent on a call, somehow.

But two researchers for Norway-based Telenor Hanne Geirbo and Per Helmersen found that was only part of the picture, even in a place like Bangladesh. Combing the data from a single day of Grameenphone’s traffic, they concluded that “the charged traffic generated from an initial missed call is minimal compared o the missed call activity.” In short, a missed call didn’t result in a real call.

This was communication in itself, not just a plea for communication.

Not only that: making the missed call was so easy—hit the green button, wait for a ring and then hit red—that it was stopping other services, like SMS, from getting any traction. And we’re not talking small potatoes here: Missed calls constituted upwards of 70% of Grameenphone’s total network traffic in any hour. Some people were sending miss call after miss call, one after the other—100, or even several hundred, miscalls in a short period. This, in the words of the researchers, was “a major cause of congestion at peak periods,” leading to calls disconnected, or not being connected in the first place. In 2005 one Kenyan cellular network estimated that four million miscalls were being made daily on its network.

A miscall, then, is a lot more than a call me back thing. It’s a fast way to communicate a key piece of information to someone who is already expecting it around that time, and only needs to be activated:  “I’m home, throw the gate keys down.” The timing is the context that gives the unspoken, unwritten message meaning: A miscall at 6 pm may mean I just left work.

And, if there isn’t any specific time context it may just mean: “I’m missing you.”

Then there’s the another parameter: how many missed calls are made can vary the message. Two missed calls means “I’m running late” or “I’m at home, where are you?” depending, it would seem, on what part of Bangladesh you’re in. In Syria five missed calls in rapid succession means “I’m online, let’s chat.” There are business uses too: Farmers in Bhutan, according to UNCTAD’s annual Information Economy Report published in October, know how much milk their customers want by the number of miscalls. They then miscall the customer back within 15 minutes; no miscall means no stock. Researchers in India, where miscalls accounted for about 40% of all calls, found that the miscall was used by print and ticketing shops to let their customers know their orders were ready.

Missed calls can be fun if you don’t have much else going on in your life. Try to irritate your friends by miscalling them; if someone is doing it to you, try to pick up before they hang up, losing them credit and the game. This may sound inane, but these calls are likely to be serious network congesters. If the power goes off, the researchers found, Bangladeshis would entertain themselves by miscalling friends, relatives, and even complete strangers. The researchers found one young woman met her boyfriend that way. If you call communicating only by cellphone a relationship. Who said blackouts couldn’t be fun?

Talking of flirting, missed calls can create a private space between two people who couldn’t otherwise connect without fear of exposure or ridicule. One 44-year old Bangladeshi admitted to expressing his love by sending the object of his affections hundreds of miscalls. In Damascus it’s no different: One young man proudly explained to a journalist from Syria’s Forward Magazine last year that he sometimes gets 250 miscalls from his girlfriend.  Young couples in a relationship miscall each other to check the line is free or to keep the line busy—either way ensuring their paramour is not otherwise engaged, so to speak. Starting to feel sorry for the network operator yet?

Husbands expect calls from spouses at fixed times as signals that the house is running smoothly. Children check in with their parents. Newly married women get their mothers to call without incurring the wrath of their mothers-in-law. Friends miscall a member of their circle who couldn’t make their evening out, as if to say: we’re missing you.

There are rules, of course, about who one can and cannot miscall. No one below you in the hierarchy, either in the family, the office, or the community (one man is quoted as specifying “driver and electricians…it’s a matter of prestige.” And don’t miscall your teacher or your boss. At least in Bangladesh. in Africa, where it’s called variously “flashing” and “biper”,  there are complex rules about who can be flashed. Among friends, one commenter on a Nigerian blog said, it’s about exclusion: with miscalls “there is complete communication beyond the scope of outsiders.”

In other words, the missed call is not some reflection of not having enough credit. It’s a medium of exchange of complex messages that has become surprisingly refined in a short period. Much of it is not communication at all, at least in terms of actual information. It’s what the researchers identify as phatic communication: where the interaction is the motivation not the content of the message itself. Or, as a Filipino professor, Adrian Remodo put it to a language conference in Manila in 2007 at which they votedfto make miscall, or miskol in Tagalog, the word of the year: A miskol is often used as “an alternative way to make someone’s presence felt.”

Indeed, the fact that the message itself has no content is part of its beauty. Just as the SMS is confined to 160 characters—meaning it can either be pithy or ambiguous, depending on the effect you’re looking for—so can the missed call be open to all kinds of interpretation. A lover receiving a missed call can fill her evening contemplating what was meant by those few unanswered rings.

The Telenor researchers speak of how this “practice contains valuable information about the communication needs and preferences of our customers.” Very true. But one gets the feeling that their call for more research to “provide the telecom industry with a much-needed window into the socio-cultural life space of our customers , and suggest new service offerings that better match their needs and circumstances” may have fallen on deaf ears.

I’ve not found much evidence of this, and that was written back in 2008. Some African cell providers gave away five free “Please call me” text messages to each subscriber. A Swiss company called Sicap has had some success in Africa with a service called Pay4Me, which is a sort of reverse charge call for mobile phones. The only difference I can see between this and the miscall is that the callee doesn’t have to make the call, so to speak. That, and the fact that most prepaid services nowadays don’t let you make a call if you have a zero balance—which accounts for 30% of African users, and 20% of Indian cellphone users, according to Telenity, one company hoping to offer the callback service.

Telcos in Afghanistan offer polling services where respondents, instead of texting back their answers, miscall a number depending on their choice of answer. More creatively, some socially minded organisations have used the miscall as a cheap way to communicate: Happypill, for example reminds you to take medication if you fail to miscall them at an appointed time each day.

The point is that while usage may vary it’s common in many countries—and has been for much of the past decade. As soon as mobile phones came with prepaid vouchers, and operators included the name and number of the caller on the handset display, so did the opportunity arise for someone to pay for your call.  In France and in French-speaking Africa it’s called “un bip”, I’m told, and one commenter said that it’s included in some prepaid packages. In Iran it’s called “tak”; in Australia “prank” and in the U.S. “drop call”. In Italy, apparently, it’s called “squillo” and in Oman a “ranah” (where there’s even a pop song based on the practice).

And it goes further back than that: “Call me and hang up when you arrive,” my mum used to say to her impoverished student son.

Of course, there are reasons to be concerned about this. One Indian columnist wrote:

What, then, will happen to the human voice? If two rings on the mobile are sufficient to say “I miss you”, what will become of the impassioned verses that poets have so far written to appease their beloved? I wonder how a dialogue will sound in a world where voices have become ringtones.

It may be that the miss call culture is in decline. Jonathan Donner, a Microsoft researcher who has looked into this phenomenon more than most, noted back in 2007 a “beep fatigue”, leading some to turn off their caller ID function and ditch phone numbers that clearly indicate they are on a postpaid package. And in some places where the costs of a call and an SMS have fallen to pretty much nothing, the appeal of the miscall has waned in some places.

An SMS would work, but requires typing, and in a place like Bangladesh, where more than half the population is illiterate that’s not a popular option. And text messages sometimes take a couple of minutes to arrive: a call is immediate—something that’s apparently important to my Filipino friends.

Then there’s the fact that the missed call can be discreet in a way that a phone call, or an SMS, can’t be. You could make a miscall from inside one’s bag or pocket (and I frequently do, though that’s by accident.)  Which may explain why, a student  in Pakistan wrote earlier this year:

what amazes me the most is unlike other fads such as texting obsessively etc have gone away pretty quick ,this ‘miss call’ culture still reigns supreme in most of our society.

My tupennies’ worth? As the SMS, which created its own culture out of the limitations of what was not supposed to be a commercial service, so has the miscall created its own norms. Whether these survive the next decade is unlikely. But we should watch these things carefully, not because they represent commercial opportunities—we’re bound to mess that up—but because they speak volumes about the inventiveness of the human spirit, and its ability to squeeze rich new forms of communication out of something that, on the surface, seems to be nothing—a briefly ringing, and unanswered phone.

The Aviators of Social Media

What’s more astonishing: Twitter’s extraordinary capabilities for distributing information, or news managers’ reluctance to recognize its power?

When describing a digital media phenomenon to old media staff it’s useful to look for an old media analogy. I describe Twitter, as being like an old AP news printer, sitting in the corner of the newsroom, spitting out news all day long. Except it’s written by the people you choose to follow.

And there’s more. Unlike the news printer which only delivered you information, if you want to you can follow stories back to your sources and see who they were talking to about whatever it is that interests you.

But even after my analogies, my bubbling enthusiasm for Twitter, and my “see, I can see what people who do my job are saying all over the country,” I’m still often met with those “whatever makes you happy” smiles.

Which leads me to another analogy. Perhaps the Twitterati, and other news people experimenting with digital media tools are a little like the early aviators.

In the years before the First World War there were very few of them. They were flying planes, building new planes, talking about planes and constantly trying new ideas. I’ve no doubt they were totally obsessed with flight. Are two engines better than one? Will monoplanes fly faster than biplanes? How about using metal for the wings?

But for everyone else, planes probably seemed fun, but dangerous and of no real interest to them. How would planes ever impact their lives? Besides everyone else had better things to do on carts and trains. And those crazy aviators; well, good luck to them.

Times have changed. No one thinks twice about flying today. No one thinks about whether the plane will have enough fuel or what makes it stay up. Flying is just a part of life, in spite of the fact that the general idea of a flying machine has really changed very little in a hundred years. It still has two wings, a body and a tail. It’s just more refined and developed.

One day soon we’ll be in Twitter’s age of commercial flight. Everyone will take micro-blogging for granted, and wonder what life must have been like buying newspapers for news, or looking at one of those old televisions. “Remember those,” we’ll say, with a smile.

Getting Dating Advice Online

If you’re willing to fork out $20 a month for dating advice, you’re in luck. A newly launched website,  econfidant (“smarter advice for dating & relationships”) does just that:  

econfidant can answer all of your dating or relationship questions. No question is too basic or too involved. We can help you strategize how to get dates, work on ways to make your relationship work, help you figure out what you are really looking for in a relationship, or provide suggestions on fun things to do on dates. econfidant addresses questions, concerns and issues related to all stages of the dating process- there are no bad questions.

It’ll be interesting to see if they still think that after a few hundred questions along the lines of “my date hasn’t called me back after I burped the national anthem on the car-ride home. It was a long ride, the conversation had thinned out and I didn’t know the words. What should I do next?” 

Anyway, econfidant is the brainchild, if that’s the right word, of Rachel Begelman and Sarna Lee, “two longtime friends whose own experiences convinced them no one should experience dating alone”. (Both are currently in long-term relationships.) I certainly agree with part of their premise: “We live in an age where we meet more people online than in real life and where a text message can be interpreted a thousand ways,” Begelman said. “The one-size-fits-all model of relationship books and advice columns is no longer enough.” (It’s interesting how SMS gets blamed for all sorts of things, probably correctly. There’s a whole thesis in there, if someone is not already doing it.)  

The idea, then, is that people are going to feel happy about coughing up $20 a month to tell their problems to strangers because “you can get the advice you’re seeking without having to worry about what a friend might think or repeat, and without having to listen to their problems first, ” according to Ms. Lee. In other words, friendships can be a real pain when they’re two-way. Whatever happened to friends who never told you their problems, but loved listening to yours?

Anyway, I wish I could say I thought this was a good thing. But I don’t. I’m not against online dating. Finding a partner is a bit like finding a job: You rarely find one through close friends, so networking makes sense. But going online for romantic advice? Perhaps it might work in some cases — some people clearly need a slap or clip around the ear, a need that can be spotted by long time friend or complete stranger alike. But I worry that this is getting mighty close to outsourcing one’s friends. How can the quality of a response to question of a few sentences take into account the peculiarities of every situation, of every person? Isn’t the backlog of knowledge one builds up about one’s friends through long tedious conversations about their problems preparing us for exactly to dispense the kind of advice a friend having dating issues might need?

Who knows. I’d test it myself (you get a first question free) but I’m happily married. There’s no website for that, although I’m sure there will be one day.

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How to Make More Use of the Vicar

In last week’s WSJ column (subscription only, I’m afraid) I wrote about how Bayesian Filters — derived from the theories of an 18th century vicar called Thomas Bayes and used to filter out spam — could also be used to sift through other kinds of data. Here’s a preliminary list of some of the uses I came across:

  • Deconstructing Sundance: how a bunch of guys at UnSpam Technologies successfully predicted the winners (or at least who would be among the winners) at this year’s festival using POPFile, the Bayesian filter of choice;
  • ShopZilla a “leading shopping search engine” uses POPFile “in collaboration with Kana to filter customer emails into different buckets so we can apply the appropriate quality of service and have the right people to answer to the emails. Fortunately, some of the buckets can receive satisfactory canned responses. The bottom line is that PopFile provides us with a way to send better customer responses while saving time and money.”
  • Indeed, even on-spam email can benefit from Bayes, filtering boring from non-boring email, say, or personal from work. Jon Udell experimented with this kind of thing a few years ago.
  • So can virus and malware. Here’s a post on the work by Martin Overton in keeping out the bad stuff simply using a Bayesian Filter. Here’s Martin’s actual paper (PDF only). (Martin has commented that he actually has two blogs addressing his work in this field, here and here.)
  • John Graham-Cumming, author of POPFile, says he’s been approached by people who would like to use it in regulatory fields, in computational biology, dating websites (“training a filter for learning your preferences for your ideal wife,”, as he puts it), and says he’s been considering feeding in articles from WSJ and The Economist in an attempt to find a way predict weekly stock market prices. “If we do find it out,” he says, “we won’t tell you for a few years.” So he’s probably already doing it.

If you’re new to Bayes, I hope this doesn’t put you off. All you have to do is show it what to do and then leave it alone.  If you haven’t tried POPFile and you’re having spam issues, give it a try. It’s free, easy to install and will probably be the smartest bit of software on your computer.

I suppose the way I see it is that Bayesian filters don’t care about how words look, what language they’re in, or what they mean, or even if they are words. They look at how the words behave. So while the Unspam guys found out that a word “riveting” was much more likely to be used by a reviewer to describe a dud movie than a good one, the Bayesian Filter isn’t going to care that that seems somewhat contradictory. In real life we would have been fooled, because we know “riveting” is a good thing (unless it’s some weird wedgie-style torture involving jeans that I haven’t come across). Bayes doesn’t know that. It just knows that it has an unhealthy habit of cropping up in movies that bomb.

 In a word, Bayesian Filters watches what words do, or what the email is using the words to do, rather than look at the meaning of the words. We should be applying this to speeches of politicians, CEOs, PR types and see what comes out. Is there any way of measuring how successful a politician is going to be based on their early speeches? What about press releases? Any way of predicting the success of the products they tout?

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