Quoth the Raven
Some ramblings on my experiences with public relations

A cute computer, a great idea..but one that still needs PR

When reading the Toronto Star this weekend, I came across an article on what is quite possibly the most adorable piece of technology ever: the XO laptop.

XO Laptop

While I was immediately enthralled with the little guy (and astonished by the fact that he’s only $188), I discovered that the computer is manufactured by One Laptop Per Child, or OLPC, an organization founded by social entrepreneur Nicholas Negroponte. OLPC’s mission is to put an XO computer into the hands of as many children in developing countries as possible, giving them the same chance to develop their knowledge and creativity that other children get. In keeping with this goal, OLPC recently ran a “Give One, Get One” program in which people in the industrialized world could purchase the laptop, paying $400 to buy one for themselves and one for a child.

To me, this seems like the greatest idea of all time – the company is making a great product, and the sole reason for their existence is to bring technology to kids in need. It seems a concept like this would have no trouble getting media coverage, and what negative publicity could they possibly get?

Contrary to expectations, OLPC’s PR agency, Racepoint Group, has had to do a lot of legwork to get people to focus on the educational aspect of the project as well as the technological side of the equation. A recent Globe and Mail article mentions OLPC fears lots of people don’t seem to be getting the point:

“The group does worry that people might compare the XO with $1,000 Windows or Mac laptops. They might blog about their disappointment, thereby imperilling OLPCs continuing talks with Third World governments.

It’s easy to see how that might happen. There’s no CD/DVD drive at all, no hard drive and only a 7.5-inch screen. The Linux operating system doesn’t run Microsoft Office, Photoshop or any other standard Mac or Windows programs. The membrane-sealed, spillproof keyboard is too small for touch-typing by an adult.

And then there’s the look of this thing. It’s made of shiny green and white plastic, like a Fisher-Price toy, complete with a handle. With its two earlike antennas raised, it could be Shrek’s little robot friend.

And sure enough, the bloggers and the ignorant have already begun to spit on the XO laptop. “Dude, for $400, I can buy a real Windows laptop,” they say.

Clearly, the XO’s mission has sailed over these people’s heads like a 747.”

To combat this perception, Racepoint Group has put a lot of their time and effort into highlighting the moral purpose and educational aims of the program, and has concentrated on digital media in doing so; their OLPC case study boasts that their campaign has generated 5,000 stories in traditional print media, but 20,000 blog postings (although they don’t indicate what proportion of these were positive). They have also made the main source of new information about the XO OLPC’s wiki, making it easily accessible to heavy web users.

While the case of the XO highlights the rapidly growing influence of the blogosphere, it also demonstrated to me that no idea is so good that it doesn’t need PR. Even with an organization like One Laptop Per Child, people can always get the wrong impression. But hopefully, with Racepoint’s continued efforts, dissenters will realize what Nicholas Negroponte has been saying all along:

“This is an education project, not just a laptop project. If you take any world problem – peace, the environment, poverty – the solution to that problem certainly includes education. And if you have a solution that doesn’t include education, then it’s not a real solution at all.”


One Response to “A cute computer, a great idea..but one that still needs PR”

  1. Nice post.

    This is a great example of the role good PR can play in advancing good causes. All too often, people tend to think PR is really about having us think good things about inherently bad things. The role of ‘spin’ in the political world has tended to cement that negative image in the public’s minds.

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