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 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