Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Making Education Social

School in Andhra Pradesh
Flickr Creative Commons/ILRI

I take a great amount of interest in people who devote themselves to the cause of educating others -- especially the underprivileged who lack the resources and opportunity to educate themselves or their children. And that may be because I’ve been lucky enough to receive a fantastic education despite many odds myself. It’s almost amazing that I have two Master’s degrees, one of them from NYU -- something I had never dreamed possible.

I’m a fan of people like Greg Mortenson, who’s devoted himself to educating children in Afghanistan and Pakistan and also Dr. Abraham George who started Shanti Bhavan that educates children from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds. And of course, there are countless others who are working for this cause and whom I may have never heard of.

This week, I checked out Salman Khan’s TED talk on the use of video to reinvent education. I had heard of the Khan Academy a few months ago when I saw a tweet by Bill Gates, who is a big champion of the organization and who has called it “a glimpse into the future of education.” It’s a simple but powerful idea -- Salman Khan has produced nearly 2,100 videos and other test prep exercises that cover a range of subjects including math, science, finance and history -- all accessible over YouTube or the Khan Academy website for free.

All created by ‘Sal’ Khan himself, the videos are not only being used by home-schoolers but also as a supplemental teaching aid in classrooms. Of course, you would still need access to a computer and an Internet connection but I’m sure this has great potential to make a good education available to people who can’t afford it or even to those who need help with what they are learning inside the classroom. The videos offer a great library of resources for kids and allow them to learn at their own pace, replay something they didn’t understand or revisit concepts they had learned earlier.

Learning about the Khan Academy got me thinking about the potential social media holds for the cause of education – in making it accessible to many more people. On some level, we are, of course, already tapping into this potential. As a communications professional, I use Twitter to follow many peers and experts in my field and I continuously learn from them – from the blog posts and other information they share. It’s a way for me to keep myself on my toes and stay updated on latest trends in the field. I also ‘like’ Facebook pages of other media companies or communication-related news and that’s another way for me to continue my professional education.

But I’m sure that we are just getting started and by combining the power of social media tools along with a passion and commitment for helping to educate others will help us give many kids the opportunities they deserve. In the past, I briefly worked as a volunteer and teacher for a few non-profit organizations that worked to educate street children and other economically disadvantaged kids though I haven't been able to pursue that as much lately. I’m writing this post as a reminder to others, but mostly to myself, to work more for this cause.

I’m no expert but I wholeheartedly agree with Greg Mortenson that education is really the solution to many of the world’s problems (including terrorism) – it’s the only way we can help others break the cycle of poverty and give them the hope of a better life.

Building their School
Flickr Creative Commons/Gurpal Kaher

Friday, March 4, 2011

How To Attract Media Coverage For Your Small Business

It’s easy to get media attention if you’re a celebrity or a big organization with a sexy product or service that people love and that directly touches the lives of millions of people.

But what if you’re a small business that is not making or providing anything that is traditionally considered interesting or is simply ...boring?

A Florida-based printing services company is called Boring Business Systems (no kidding!)
An interesting choice of name?

As a PR and communications professional, the most common question I hear from small businesses is how can they attract media coverage given the lack the resources available to bigger organizations.

The challenge for small businesses is not so much about getting their news out. Even if you have a small budget, there are many tools and channels – free press release distribution sites, blogs, social media – that can help you share your story. The bigger challenge, these days, is to make yourself interesting, especially in the age of information overload where everyone is competing for attention – from the media and various target audiences.

But then if Blendtec can sexify a blender, there is hope.

Based on my experiences, here are a few tips on how small businesses can attract media attention:

1) Tell a story
Journalists are much more than storytellers but they are primarily storytellers (ever wonder why newspaper articles are called stories?) As storytellers, their job is to present information in the most interesting way possible (remember, they are vying for attention too!) And if your business or PR person can achieve this for them, you have a better shot at successfully pitching a story. Unearth the stories behind your work and weave a narrative. Follow the 'show don't tell' principle and focus on the solutions you provide and how they are helping people, rather than just talking about your business and products.

Bottomline: Think like a journalist

2) Piggyback on the hottest news/trends
When I worked for the Sunday edition of a popular weekly newspaper in Mumbai, a news story that caught fire during one particular week was of a news channel that had conducted a sting operation on the casting couch phenomenon that existed in the Bollywood movie industry. Very soon, this story captured the interest of all print and news media channels and was all most people were talking about.

Red Couch Project Set 8 (14 of 19)
Flickr Creative Commons - The Red Couch Project by

Being a Sunday paper,  my editor came up with a fresh approach – a story on the most stylish couches in the city that would be featured in our lifestyle section. We generated interest in our story by carrying teaser announcements of our own exclusive 'sting' on casting couches, creating a great amount of curiosity on what we were about to reveal in our weekend issue. This was a perfect opportunity for anyone who owned a furniture store to pitch a story on the hottest or most stylish couches while the casting couch story was in the news but no one actually did.

Bottomline: If you’re not big or interesting enough to generate news on your own, look out for what’s already in the news or an emerging trend and how you can tie your own product or service to it.

Word of caution: Be sensitive when dealing with events or tragedies in the news that have affected human lives. Trying to get press coverage at an inopportune moment can come across as being callous, even predatory.

3) Offer your expertise
Services such as Help a Reporter Out (HARO) are quite useful because they help connect reporters who are looking for sources for a particular story with organizations or individuals who can provide expert opinion on the same. It can be a perfect opportunity for a small business to get quoted and receive coverage without having to send press releases to dozens of news organizations, hoping that at least someone will be interested in their story. News organizations such as NPR also have Facebook pages where they ask questions and invite sources and monitoring these pages for a suitable opportunity may also help you attract coverage. Apart from newspapers, trade publications offer the best opportunity to reach a targeted audience through media coverage.

Bottomline: Be proactive in looking out for opportunities and responding to them.

4) Organize community programs and events
What does a pizzeria have to do with scholarships for kids? Absolutely nothing. But that’s how a restaurant in Chicago is driving its public relations efforts. Instead of spending on advertising, the restaurant invests in social responsibility programs that actually help the community and this brings in new customers and generates a lot of buzz. (Read the case study here.) If you’re a local business, it makes even more sense to focus on direct community outreach through such programs and generate local press coverage in the process.

Bottomline: Do good, keep it genuine and the rest will follow.

Do you have any tips to share on how small businesses can generate media interest and attract coverage? Please share them in the comments section below. Thanks!
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