By Falguni Bhuta
Innovation is a loosely used term today. Many words lose their meaning with overuse and “innovation” is no different. Many of us from the PR world are all too familiar with this phenomenon. When flacks use it, this word is taken even more lightly.
Innovation has come a long way, especially in the last decade and the half, as the internet and web technologies have lowered the barrier to entry for many entrepreneurs who successfully translated their inventions into useful products and services. Today, information is easy to get, skills can be acquired readily and capital is not hard to find.
As PR professionals, when we make claims about our clients or company’s products or services being innovative, we use it to very conveniently to get attention from the press. But do we really think if the term “innovative” applies to the subject? We use words that sometimes, even, cover the fact that certain things, such as innovation, are not actually taking place.
And what is innovative? Is it innovative for innovation’s sake or is it something that makes a difference to people’s lives, their work? Back in 1905, Frank Epperson mixed some soda water powder and water and accidentally left the mixture on the back porch overnight with a stirring stick still in it. Temperatures dropped to a record low that night in San Francisco and Frank showed off a stick of frozen soda water to his friends at school next morning – that wasn’t innovation. But several years later, when he packaged it as a “Popsicle” and sold it in seven different flavors – it suddenly was.
As a former reporter, I have been on the other side with PR pros aggressively pushing their client’s products using lofty buzzwords like the ones above. It took me some time to understand that there were a few professionals who always backed up their claims and were consistent in providing the real picture. And time and again, I went back to them.
As PR professionals, we owe it to the industry to back those claims up with reality. It happens all too rarely that a claim about a product being “innovative,” “disruptive,” or “revolutionary” does not disappoint.
What will help PR pros to be heard and taken seriously is consistency in backing your claim with reality.
In my current job as the US PR head for Opera Software, I stay busy launching several products in a year. Opera traditionally has had a history of innovations, which have become standard features in most browsers. Some examples: tabbed browsing, integrated search bar, Speed Dials or web page compression.
Last month, Opera launched Coast– a browser specially made for the iPad based on button-less, intuitive, swipe-gesture controls, which allows you to focus on the web and not how you navigate it.
Within 24 hours of launch, Coast was the #1 lifestyle app in the US and many other countries as well as the #5 overall free app in the App Store. How did that happen? We backed up our claim of having an innovative product, by, um, actually having an innovative product.
Today, startups are more nimble and can innovate at a faster pace, while larger companies slow down and become more focused on generating revenue. At Opera, we made some mistakes along the way and were scarily going in the “big company” direction. But we soon realized we wanted to keep our reputation as an innovator.
Case in point, when Huib Kleinhout, an engineer who worked in the Opera desktop team, approached his boss about developing a browser for the iPad, he wasn’t shot down. Instead, he was given a team of engineers to lock themselves up in a room and work on a product now called Coast. It took him 18 months from conception to launch.
After the PR team saw an internal demo of the product a few months before launch, we immediately realized its potential. We chased down Huib months ahead to plan the steps to launch day. He showed tremendous excitement for this process because he had never done it before — and the product was his “baby” that he had incubated.
Of course, we were fortunate, we had an innovative product. And as PR people, it is our job to dig out the “innovative” story in the organization by asking questions, sitting in on meetings with the product or sales teams, or just trying to find out “what are we doing that no one else is doing.” Sometimes these stories just pop up during a casual water cooler conversation, other times in more formal meetings.
Once a week, I try and get lunch with someone in the office who I wouldn’t have come in contact with otherwise and pick their brain about their job. Less frequently, I set up lunch with an industry peer to ask them how they do things in their organization. Stories are everywhere and it is our job to find them and promote them.
But ultimately, to protect ourselves from worsening an already tainted reputation, we owe it to our fellow pros to, as they thought us in school, always be truthful of our claims.
Falguni Bhuta is head of corporate PR and marketing at Opera Software US/Opera Mediaworks.