Influencers Who Inspire: Interview with Jon Swartz of USA TODAY

Photo courtesy of USA Today

Photo courtesy of USA Today

In a special edition of our “Influencers Who Inspire” series, we’re chatting with award-winning technology journalist, author and avid San Francisco Giants fan, Jon Swartz. Jon shares his thoughts on smart phones and peer pressure, guerrilla marketing tactics that actually work and how reporting compares to baseball.

We read your article on BlackBerry’s Z10 launch and their plans for a comeback; so tell us, what is your ‘go to’ mobile device?

I used a BlackBerry up until two years ago when the trackball wasn’t working as well as it should. At the time, I faced some peer pressure from my colleagues in the Valley to get an iPhone. There used to be a lot of iPhone bias in Silicon Valley, but it has gone away now for the most part. More people are using Androids, and I would certainly consider a move to a BlackBerry or Android from the iPhone. I can live without the iPhone. I find the battery life is awful, and I have to have a charger with me at all times. As a result, more restaurants and bars have charging stations (at SXSW we saw this all over the place).

You know, BlackBerry CEO (Thorsten Heins) is right; he calls the iPhone passé and says they (BlackBerry) have the same problem that Apple did. “We need to earn our laurels back.” It’s true because in tech things become old fast; the shelf life of these things aren’t very long now. Apple has traditionally done a great job of that, making the old version obsolete as they quickly move on to the next thing. So it’s no surprise others are following suit here.

We know you are huge San Francisco Giants fan. How did your obsession with baseball begin?

When I was six I went to my first game. I also got to see Willie Mays play when I was a kid, so that got me hooked for life. I also loved playing the sport. You become infatuated with it, and it never loses you. Baseball also has a long season, and it takes a lot of patience. It’s a lot like reading a novel. It’s not like other sports where the season is more like a quick sprint. The upside is that you can go to a game and actually explain what’s happening. You can also count on always seeing something different. I have probably been to more than 1000 games, and there is always something new to explain or something you haven’t seen happen before.

Baseball is a half-year long, and it changes with the seasons. In spring there is so much optimism, and then comes the summer when things really heat up. In the fall when things wither away, it gets dark and cold and with it comes a sense of desperation when the season ends. That is the beauty of the game. It’s very logical to me and different to other sports in that you can’t run out the clock. You HAVE to finish the game. No matter how well you played and how many runs you are up by, you have to FINISH.

Are there any lessons from baseball that can be applied to business?

Yes, I would never assume anything about anything. Baseball teaches you that you can’t assume something is over until it’s over. Like in 2002 (World Series game) when the Giants had a five-run lead over the Angels with only eight outs left. They had to keep playing until the end and ended up losing the game.

It sounds a little corny but in baseball it’s a different sport. It’s hard to excel if you have to prove it every day. That’s the same as being a reporter; you have to prove yourself daily, but when it’s over it’s over. With so much content and so many articles, today the shelf life for stories is too short. You finish a great story and you are proud of it for about 20 minutes before you have to do something else. You have to move on.

We are all constantly inundated and bombarded with news from all different sources. So every day you have to reinvent yourself to always do more. It’s like Freddy Lynn (MVP and Rookie of the Year) – he came out of nowhere like a comet. But then pitchers found his weaknesses. Unless you can adapt and reinvent yourself every day, you will hit a rut. BlackBerry went through it, and Apple went through it, too. In tech it happens all the time.

Speaking of re-inventing, with the most powerful images getting clicks in social media today, do you find yourself framing your stories differently with visuals or video in mind now?

I do think more about storytelling and how to interest the reader, but rather than visuals, it’s more about the people and the stories. It is necessary to think that way, though, and I am trying to do more of it.

How has your job changed in the last six months?

It’s crazy. In addition to reporting, I oversee all tech coverage in the paper. So I edit and manage people, too. While I’m talking to you I’m editing a story. It’s actually a story on baseball, and it’s coming out next week. There is no shortage of data in baseball, but trying to figure out which data to use and how to use it is the challenge. Just like in reporting, in baseball they too are struggling with deciding how much time to give to data. I have ton of notes but the bigger problem is what parts to use in the story. People ask all the time, “Why you didn’t include us or mention us?” There is only so much you can do given bandwidth and the amount of content to sift through. I write for people who are on the go and always busy, and you have to find a way to keep your story succinct.

Would you tell a student today to go into journalism?

I would say if you are a good writer you can work anywhere, as everyone wants content today. It is so important to have good writers. Smart companies like Salesforce and Mark Benioff understand you need to tell stories to get your customers to want to buy your products.

Has working with PR people changed?

Not really; I have been working with the same people for the last 10 years or so, and pretty much the same good ones. I always work with a core group of 50 of them that I seem to always interact with. It is like cultivating any relationship you built it over time.

What kind of (PR) people do you like to work with?

They should know their company well. Most people I work with have been there a long time. I like working with internal people who can get you what you need faster. They are usually more responsive. I work with a lot of good people. People at Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple; they are all on top of things and respond. Apple is much more responsive, and Yahoo is getting that way, too. They don’t have a choice anymore. Everyone used to have to wait to go to Apple, but now they have to cooperate with us and be responsive.

What was the nicest/most memorable thing someone has done for you?

I have so many stories of people doing something for me in my personal life. But in work life, I would say the most memorable “nice” things people do for me and/or others are services like the airport limos at SXSW and the SXSW survival bag. There was a company called Tagged that provided airport limos to drive us from the airport to town at SXSW. That was nice, convenient and smart.

If you had to cook one meal what would it be?

Pasta. Everyone likes and agrees on it in our family. Jackie is Italian, and pasta is the one thing that I would get no argument on.

What do you do when you’re not working, or at a baseball game?

We have four kids ages 12-25, so it’s a full house, and we are always going from one event to another with them so that means not a lot of free time. We do like to travel a lot to different places and really enjoy our time away.

What’s your favorite part of your job?

Writing cover stories and features I can spend time on. It’s rewarding to do something that no one else is doing. Feature writing is a little different than what everyone else is doing. You always remember your great feature stories. They include more original thinking and have a long-term impact on things to come. They give you something to be proud of.

The Article I Want to Read on PR

Yesterday morning I woke up to the same New York Times article that the rest of the PR industry did – although I had known that it was coming. Whenever there’s an article on our industry, it seems to cause a huge hoopla – I guess we’re not used to being the ones in the spotlight – so I suppose I would be remiss to not mention it. I sat on it for a day to decide what I wanted to say and I’ve concluded that I’m not going to give my assessment of the article or the PR strategy because a) that’s been done and b) we have a connection to one of the subjects in the article, Brooke Hammerling, in that we share a client and I wouldn’t want any of my comments to be misconstrued.

Instead, I’ll say here’s the article I would have rather read – or would like to see someone take the time to write – about PR. Let’s follow the next PR subject and his or her clients around for a good six months to a year. Let’s get past the launch phase and the initial hoopla (if done well), and watch how the PR team tackles strategy during the tougher times. Let’s follow a PR executive or firm that has to promote completely new concepts and companies, vs one that works for say, Facebook or Microsoft. And let’s see what else PR executives do besides “spin.”

Hell, let’s see if PR executives even know strategy, right? Michael Arrington says in his post on the subject that we (PR executives) just “Smile, Dial, Name Drop and Pray,” that we’re “frustrated by always being in the back seat” and that we’re just “there to spin whatever happened in the most favorable light possible.” Jason Calacanis has said in the past that anyone can do it and you should fire your PR firm. Robert Scoble says in his post that “PR companies haven’t figured out yet that the traffic has moved onto social networks and that journalists and influencers are watching those like a hawk.”

First of all, some of us have, Robert, and have likewise been involved in these social networks for years. Secondly, these are all yet again sweeping statements – sparked by the moves of one PR person and then applied to the whole of our industry. They are also very focused on one thing: coverage. Even if Ms. Hammerling’s strategy was to leave the tech blogs out and instead garner online mentions from the “Who’s Who” of tech, the story still began with “Ms. Hammerling, while popping green apple Jolly Ranchers into her mouth, suggests a press tour…” And anytime bloggers and reporters seem to assess the PR industry, the viewpoints usually only take into account only that one element of what our job is – and that one thing that happens to be what they do for a living: writing on and assessing products, services and companies (and I include blogs in that).

But let’s remember – I’ve said it before – PR is so much more than media coverage – it’s more than promoting a product or service. It’s more than pitching and praying, smiling and dialing or spinning and dancing. And it’s much, much more than name dropping. (Just for the record, I’ve never been much of a name dropper – I know the right people to reach when it’s important and if I don’t, I’ll quickly find out – and I seem to be doing “ok.” As I have written in the past, my approach is not only about how many existing relationships you have, but rather about the ability to connect with others in a valuable and meaningful way – journalists or otherwise. The “meaningful” way is what traditional PR agencies are struggling with – it doesn’t exactly fit the “process, repeat” model of yesteryear that likely sparks comments such as Arrington’s “smile and dial” assessment.)

Arrington is right when he says PR executives aren’t who a CEO calls “when wondering what she should do next to drive her business forward.” However, to imply that we as an industry do not influence our clients’ “strategic actions”at all is inaccurate. In fact, we do help to shape the directions of some business decisions based on what we believe the communications outcome or impact will be. We have helped to name companies, products, events and even product categories. We very carefully think about timing – and influence business actions based on it and a host of other elements. We help tongue-tied entrepreneurs to better communicate not only with customers or partners, but with  media, analysts, employees and even VCs. To focus on media coverage or “influencer” tours – or just this one PR strategy from Ms. Hammerling – as “the new world of promoting start-ups” is telling only part of the story.

So again, I’d love to someday see a real analysis of the PR industry – more than a press tour, more than a product launch, more than a stereotypical pretty blonde executive working the room at a trade show. How about the daily life of a PR executive handling both small start ups and major corporations – and how the PR strategy for each not only exists, but entails much more than reaching out to media and bloggers, and how such strategies for each type of client varies greatly. And I’d prefer that the story show different types of PR executives so we don’t end up with another Lizzie Grubman MTV-style show representing our entire industry.

Journalists Are People Too: Chris O’Brien, Business Columnist at San Jose Mercury News

What do Wilco, bowling, parenthood and Scottish fiddling have in common? They are all part of what makes Chris O’Brien more than just a great storyteller.

PPR: You are a business columnist at the San Jose Mercury News; what do you look for in a good story
CO: My ideal column finds a view point or a theme that connects to events in the news, but says something broader about Silicon Valley.

As such, I strive to find topics that are broad and of the widest possible interest. If I’m writing about a somewhat narrow technical topic, there’s a big burden on me to convince the average reader that this is really relevant to their lives.

PPR:  What is the most challenging story you have written and why?
CO: About 10 years ago, I wrote a long narrative about a woman in Raleigh, N.C. who was graduating from Duke University. Her journey to that point was amazing. She had once been committed to a mental institution where she tried to kill herself. And then spent many years living on the streets homeless. She managed to turn her life around, in part through the help of some friends, and reach the point where she was graduating from a prestigious university and had been accepted to medical school. Researching her story took over a year, and it was a deeply personal and painful tale that required a lot of sensitivity and patience to do right.

PPR:  If you had to spend the next 24 hours on a bus with someone, who would you want it to be and why?
CO: Jeff Tweedy, the lead singer of Wilco. I’m hopelessly obsessed with Wilco.

PPR: What is the best pitch you have ever received? What percentage of pitches from PR executives do you think are on target?
CO: It’s hard to single out one pitch and say it was the best. I most appreciate folks who have taken the time to understand who I am and what I do before pitching. To the second part of the question, I’m continually surprised at how many phone calls and e-mails come from folks who truly understand my role here. I’m not saying someone should spend hours of researching me personally. But it’s not hard to peak at our Web site, read a column or two, and get the general sense of my job here. When I get an e-mail from someone mentioning a recent column, I’m more likely to read the e-mail out of respect for the fact that they took the time to get some background before they approached me.

PPR: What do you most like about Twitter?
CO: Twitter remains one of the most useful, innovative means of communications I’ve experienced. At the same time, it remains one of the hardest to explain to other people. For me, Twitter feels like a conversation that I dip in and out of all day. It lets me sit at my desk and feel like I’m in a roomful of (mostly) interesting people. It is so adaptable, that I think it has been able to become many different things to different people.

PPR:  If you were not a journalist, what else would you do? Do you have a dream job?
CO: I actually have wanted to be a journalist since I was five years old. So I am one of those people who is actually working in their dream job. That said, the state of our industry has led me to spend more time thinking about the first part of the question lately. I don’t yet have a “plan B” career in mind. I’ve been trying to distill the essence of what I like about being a journalist. I think that’s telling stories, the sense of discovery from identifying a trend that no one else has seen yet, and the thrill of piecing together a complex story. Most important, though, is that feeling that what I do still has an impact on my community in a very direct way, even in this era when newspapers have been somewhat diminished. Now the trick would be to figure out something that still fills all, or most, of those components in a way that leaves me feeling fulfilled.

PPR: What are some of your personal hobbies?
CO: Scottish fiddling, hiking, biking, traveling. Also, I am an outstanding bowler.

PPR:  What is your favorite part about being a dad?
CO: It is hard to talk about parenting without being cliché. But I’d say that having children is the most profound experience of my life. Every moment with the kids (ages 6 and 3) requires me to make my priorities in life clear, and puts other successes and failures in context. They have taught me more about myself, I think, than anyone else. I hope I’m a better person because of those lessons.

PPR:  What changes are you hoping to see in business in 2009?
CO: I’d like to see businesses become more focused on the long term, and building value for their employees and communities rather than solely focusing on shareholders.