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.

Three tips for handling email overload

There may be some debate over whether or not email is dead, but take one look at your email inbox each morning, and I bet you’ll beg to differ.

As Peter Bregman reported in his recent Harvard Business Review blog, this affair with email is starting to really affect us in negative ways. According to an article he cited from USA Today, the number of lawsuits filed by employees claiming unfair overtime is up 32 percent since 2008. What’s to blame, in large part, for this increase? Email. And when you factor in devices such as smartphones, which we have with us – and neurotically check – at all times, there’s no denying that it’s quietly infiltrated our personal lives.

His advice for coping? Assign designated times to “bulk-process” emails and set designated non-email times, resisting the urge to constantly check email during these off-email hours.

Now, before we all balk and say that this is completely unrealistic, especially in a service industry such as PR where we’re expected to be on top of breaking news and at the beck and call of clients ‘round the clock – I believe that his is an argument worth hearing. We have to remember that the ability to be available and respond swiftly to inquiries is only one facet of the value that we’re able to provide as PR professionals. Public relations is more than managing the flow of information between an organization and its publics; our focus on building important relationships and relaying vital information back to an organization for analysis and action can have real, measurable impact on the achievement of strategic organizational goals. And this often takes time, focus and uninterrupted thinking.

Consider this, for example: Research in the UK revealed that employees working on a computer typically switched applications to view their emails as many as 30 or 40 times an hour, for anything from a few seconds to a minute. Dr. Karen Renaud, who carried out the study, said quite simply that email has gotten out of hand:

“Email harries you,” she said in an article in the UK’s Daily Mail. “You want to know what’s in there, especially if it’s from a family member or friends, or your boss, so you break off what you are doing to read the email. The problem is that when you go back to what you were doing, you’ve lost your chain of thought and, of course, you are less productive. People’s brains get tired from breaking off from something every few minutes to check emails. The more distracted you are by distractions, including email, then you are going to be more tired and less productive.”

This brings us back to Bregman’s point. He’s not suggesting that we throw the baby out with the bath water and abandon all established email etiquette when it comes to keeping up with the daily workflow. Rather, he’s proposing that we merely try to be more mindful about it. For example, when you set up designated intervals to handle emails, you’ll be working for that express purpose, effectively making you more focused and efficient on the task at hand. We have our heads down during these email-only times, and waste less time transitioning from one activity to another in a blur of information.

The hardest part is resisting the urge to check…and check…and check…which has likely become more of a reflex than a deliberate action. So until you can resist temptation and set up some real boundaries between you, your inbox and your daily to-do list, here are a few ideas to help make the detachment process a little less painful:

1. Stop it at the source. Whenever possible, try to reduce the amount of junk email that enters your inbox on a daily basis. Set up a spam filter, unsubscribe from unnecessary email newsletters and turn off automatic notifications.

2. Realize that hoarding won’t help you. Many of us like to let emails linger in our inbox, keeping them in digital limbo until we decide exactly what do to with them. It’s a matter of personal preference, but if you find that this system just isn’t working for you, try a more aggressive approach with filing and deleting.

3. Think before you hit send. And unless it requires a direct response, don’t do it. Tim Ferris spoke with blogger Robert Scoble about how he stays on top of tens of thousands of emails, revealing that “replying to more people more often — the goal of most people — actually creates more work instead of cutting it down.”

What are your favorite tips for cutting down on email chaos? Please share with us in the comments below!

SXSWi 2011: Save the Sessions

Over the last couple of years, we’ve sent one or two PerkettPR representatives to the infamous SXSWi conference, but I had never personally attended for various reasons. This year I decided to take the plunge, after a lot of my industry colleagues in Boston assured me that although they, too, were skeptical in the past, they thought 2010′s show was well worth it. (Ironically, most of those people didn’t go this year ….). Accompanying me was Lisa Dilg, one of our Directors who just celebrated ten years at the agency, and who had also never attended. Below are our rookie assessments of the experience.

The sessions

Christine: Attending conferences is a lot like attending church for me – I walk in hopeful, looking forward to inspiration, and often times walk away feeling empty. I was hoping SXSW would be different – but I have to admit I was disappointed in most of the sessions that I attended. Granted, I’m a newbie to SXSW and I didn’t arrive early enough to some of my first choice sessions, so I couldn’t get in and instead attended second or third choice sessions. But regardless, this is the social media conference – so any of these sessions, in my opinion, should have blown us away – especially with all the work that goes into choosing the speakers. Instead, a lot of them were flat, humorless and down right 101 – this is not the crowd for 101, right? I was really hoping for better. That being said, there were some great ones. For example, I very much enjoyed listening to Tim Ferriss talk and especially answer some very interesting health questions during his session, “The 4-hour Body: Hacking the Human Body.”

I also appreciated the many author book readings that were slated as sessions – but would find them more intriguing if they were more the style of Inside The Actor’s Studio. I’d love to hear more Q&A with the authors – how they created their ideas, what they learned during the writing process, etc. There are so many social media and marketing books out now that are all starting to sound the same – it would add flavor to these sessions to hear more of the thought process and analysis behind the authors and their work.

Lisa: Whether you have gone or not, you’ve heard it said of SxSW -  “everything really happens in the hallways…,” but from my first trip there, I think what is not being said is, “…because I’m getting nothing out of the sessions.”  I think it’s a case of no one wanting to be the one to tell the Emperor that he has no clothes – to say, there needs to be a way to better vet these sessions so that people want to get out of the halls and into the rooms. There were stories of entire sessions clearing out before they were done and people skipping out on sessions altogether.  If I were a SXSW organizer, I would want people to say, “WOW the sessions were fantastic,” not, “I stayed in the hallway and chatted all day.”

As people are more and more willing to state their disappointment publicly and not just whisper it in the halls, maybe it’s time to re-think the “popularity contest” voting for sessions. There has to be a way to ensure that the people giving a session about “humor on Twitter” aren’t speaking in monotone, or that the sessions about social media to an advanced social media crowd get past the basics. Sure, you can rate sessions at the end or tell organizers your thoughts, but people seem to not want to admit that they, too, aren’t seeing the emperor’s clothes – out of fear that they might be looked upon badly by the “in-crowd.”

If the popular voting for sessions remains, which I understand is only a part of the final decision, maybe next year there could be a video element incorporated – let us see a little bit of your presentation skills or a sneak peak of your actual session before deciding to vote on your talk or panel. A short paragraph on what you think you might say eight months from now isn’t enough to go on.

However, later this week, I will be blogging about the one session that almost single-handedly made the conference worth the cost: The 90-Minute Solution: Live Like a Sprinter! by Tony Schwartz, bestselling author of “Be Excellent at Anything: The Four Keys to Transforming the Way We Work and Live.”  It made me want to change the way I work immediately.

The networking

Christine: Before I left for Austin, I read a lot of assessments about the show and one of my favorites came from Geoff Livingston. In essence, he encouraged conference goers to be present – that is, to consider going “off the grid” and actually paying attention to your surroundings and not just your mobile device. Not to obsess about name-dropping about every single social media “celebrity” you meet or know or Tweet, but rather to engage with the person in front of you and just be normal. I found his take refreshing and I took it to heart at the conference. I checked in on various LBS apps but I didn’t spend a ton of timing updating my social media streams until after the show (gasp!). I met a lot of great new people as well as folks that I’d only met on Twitter, and had fun catching up with the Boston social media regulars.

Lisa: I had an absolutely fantastic time at SXSW spending time with my clients and excellent housemates who made it a time to remember, for sure. I also enjoyed meeting people that I have talked to for years on Twitter but had never met in person. That’s what makes social media and the real world such a great match.

The selling

Christine: On the tradeshow floor I walked up to one company and said that their “social media marketing” sign was so compelling I just had to know what it meant. Okay, I was only half kidding but the sales guy in the booth didn’t really catch on. Instead, he went on to tell me almost nothing about what his software really did vs competitive offerings – throwing around vague and overused words that we’ve all heard: engage, connect, monitor, listen, value, channel, etc. These words were compelling 3-4 years ago but what’s next? What’s new? What are the innovators saying now and where are they going tomorrow? So much of the selling I heard seemed like corporate entities just catching up to this “whole social media thang” – and quite frankly, it was kind of awkward. At a ground-breaking show like SXSWi, I wanted to be struck by the next big thing. I did see a few intriguing products but nothing to write home about.

Someone asked me if I learned a lot by attending and the honest answer is yes and no. I learned a lot about people, online/offline interactions, and the collision of such. I learned that Geoff was right about a lot of things he said – the “seen and be seen” scene, the rumor mill and the power of 1-1 relationships cemented by quality face-to-face interactions. I was reminded that I much prefer networking when not at a crazy loud party with too many drinks flowing. I was reminded how small our industry is – it’s amazing how many times you run into people you know – and that you have to push yourself to get out and meet new folks. I learned that not only do we need to save SXSW – and the tech industry from “marketing douchbaggery” (not my words but an actual session), but also from “social media douchebaggery” itself. (Although I think I already knew this.) I’m hoping as the show continues to evolve, the popular voting for sessions can too – so that they cover a wider range of topics and unveil the next great, innovative minds and tech – not just the speakers who claim all the “Klout,” if you know what I mean.

Lisa: I was a disappointed that the tradeshow floor didn’t open until Monday, which is the day we left. I didn’t get to spend enough time there to give much of an assessment, but I did hear that it was much bigger than years past. There was a lot of chatter about how all the startups would get attention over the new presence of corporate giants – but I didn’t notice a default of attention going either way. Here’s an assessment of some of the “companies to watch from the tradeshow floor” that caught my attention – in particular, Evri, a “a sort of build-it-yourself iPad magazine,” on Tuaw.

What do you think? Did you attend and enjoy? What did you learn? What great sessions or products did we miss?

Here are a few other assessments of the show that we enjoyed:

USA Today

The Guardian

Digitaria

Our photos, here.

Persuasive Picks for the week of 12/13/10

Top 10 PR blunders of 2010
Is there anything more satisfying than reading about the PR trials and tribulations of others to reassure you that you’re doing everything correctly? Read on to find out – unless you’re on the list… in which case, move on to the next pick. :)

Finding the Sweet Spot for Journalism and Social Media
There’s no doubt that mainstream print media entities are still trying to figure out who should be running social media within their respective organizations. This AdvertisingAge post from Thomas Pardee explores how the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today are handling the task.

One-third of Brands Converting via Social Media
Stats abound in this MarketingProfs recap of a recent R2integrated survey that found over one-third of participating companies have been able to make cold hard cash through their social media efforts. That number is projected to increase throughout 2011, as over 60% of marketers surveyed will be increasing their budgets for social.

Leaked Slide Shows Yahoo Is Killing Delicious & Other Web Apps
As an avid user of Delicious, I was saddened to hear that Yahoo will be pulling the plug on the well known bookmarking service in addition to several other acquired services. Luckily, there’s an export feature in the Delicious settings section to download and save your links. Mashable’s Jolie O’Dell gives the rundown on the story, via this post.

6 Social Media Success Metrics You Need to Track
Social Stratagist Jay Baer shares several “undervalued” sources of social metrics that you should consider adding to your measurement routine.

Persuasive Picks for the week of 05/03/10

Social-media games: Badges or badgering?
CNET staff writer Caroline McCarthy expands on the growing popularity of “badge-based” achievements popping up on websites like The Huffington Post and applications like Foursquare as forms of incentive to interact.

Are your social media metrics diagnostic or objective?
Christopher S. Penn provides an entertaining and informative explanation of the difference between diagnostic and objective social media metrics. His post clearly shows the importance of knowing the difference.

How social media has changed executive roles
SFGate staff writer Benny Evangelista shares this brief interview with Charlene Li about the new wave of Open Leadership that is changing the way executives manage their leadership roles.

Sorry Guys: When It Comes to Your Audience, Size DOES Matter
Justin Kownacki hits the nail on the head with this fantastic post about the long winded debate between quantity versus quality when it comes to follower numbers on social networks. Read on for the secret to success.

Social media used to market Mother’s Day
USA Today’s Bruce Horovitz provides numerous examples of how brands are leveraging social media with targeted campaigns to attract your dollars when it comes to paying homage to Mom this Mother’s Day.

Photo Credit: Nerd Merit Badges