Mobile office on test

Peter Crush asks whether PROs really need wireless technology, while three guinea pigs put some new gadgets through their paces

Toast PR director Julia Mitchell knew it was time to embrace wireless technology when her lack of connectivity started costing the firm money. Last summer she was away on business and lost a pitch because she was unable to respond to an email query quickly enough.

Today Mitchell, who spends 60 per cent of her time out of the office, wouldn't be without her personal digital assistant (PDA), and wonders how she ever did her job without it. 'Only last week I was out and received an email from the producer of This Morning. He wanted to know immediately if my client – – had a specific list of garments that were needed for a proposed slot on the programme. Without being able to reply then and there, a golden opportunity to place the client in front of millions of people would have been lost.'

Technology does not always guarantee the smooth running of business (BlackBerry-owning Alastair Campbell once famously fired off an angry email to Newsnight instead of a Labour colleague), but the arguments for going 'wireless' are increasingly convincing.

From paper to screen
Technology providers are making it even easier for PROs with the right gadgets to stay one step ahead. A service from tech firm j2 enables paper documents to be faxed to a special 'eFax' number that digitises them. The digital file can then be picked up by any PDA anywhere in the world.

Even the Internet Engineering Task Force – a group that strives to achieve smooth operation of the web by agreeing standards for
internet technology – is lending a hand. It is currently finalising software that enables global PDA users preview emails with attachments without having to download any large, cumbersome files. Users can identify the sender and forward messages without opening them if they wish.

Many early adopters already have wireless systems in place. Mitchell has armed the rest of her team with BlackBerrys and claims 'countless examples' of why 24/7 availability is a business necessity. 'Journalists are far more likely to email requests rather than phone for them,' she argues. 'They presume these requests are being worked on, so if I'm unable to pick up emails, the journalist (and ultimately my client) could be disappointed.'

Working on the move does not just ease journalist-PRO interaction, it can also save face. 'I once rescued a client from a potentially embarrassing situation because a journalist had misquoted him,' recalls Sarah-Jane Sherwood, account manager at Lehmann Communications. 'I spotted the piece in an online search on my PDA. I contacted the website and a correction was  made before too many people – and the client – saw it.'

Tech PR shop Inferno is also equipped to ensure that 'out of the office' does not mean 'out of control'. 'I regularly sit in on conference calls while on the move,' says Inferno account manager Matt Stewart. 'And if a client talks about a report, I can access it, pull out  certain facts and email them to the spokesperson – all while the interview is live.'

Adrian Lithgow, founder of George Berkeley PR, has become so dependent on his O2 'XDA' that his laptop is now his 'back-up device': 'I can sit on a train, review documents that clients and journalists send me, and access everything I could from my PC.'
But wireless working is by no means the norm. Scepticism still exists as to just how accessible PROs should be and whether technology is so easily integrated into people's working lives. So PRWeek decided to road-test three of the latest wireless gadgets. Each of our testers used their shiny, new communications tool for two weeks. Read on above to find out how they got on.

Case study 1: The Technophile

Simon Thompson, head of media relations, Institute of Chartered Accountants

Age 39

Are you a fan of technology?
Very much so. I have a laptop for remote working during my commute, and my home is set up with wireless connectivity. I'm regularly sent reports to read overnight, so I was looking forward to seeing what this phone could do.

You tested The Samsung SGH-i300 mobile phone.

What the manufacturer says
It is the first mobile phone with a 3Gb hard drive that allows users to transfer files from their desktop computer to their phone.

Did it help you to work more efficiently?
I have a three-hour commute each day and I like the idea of being productive while sitting on a train. It was good  to access work emails without having to open up a computer and get out my normal mobile to dial in. Replying to emails is more like texting, so you can't really go into too much depth. But it encourages brevity, which is no bad thing, and you can get through your inbox quicker and deal with problems sooner. Since having the phone I have been able to proof press releases (it accepts Word attachments), and be kept informed of events and news more regularly because the phone is always on. It is particularly good at surfing the web for news feeds that I would normally have on my desktop PC.

Best bit
The Outlook and diary synchronisation. Not only can I access all my work emails, it gives me all my contacts on the phone too – these have taken ten years to build up and are invaluable. I can also book meetings on the move by dialling into my work computer, checking my diary, and choosing the slot there and then on the phone with a client. The phone then automatically updates my desktop PC. It allows me to be far more efficient with my time.

Worst bit
The short battery life. Using the device all the time to read and reply to emails on the train means the phone needs recharging by the time I get to work or home.

Would you like to keep it?
As a souped-up phone it's great, but for work I would stick to the laptop.

To sum up...
This would be great for a head of PR in London who is always out and about. However, you can find yourself a slave to the technology as it is 'on' all the time and there is pressure to respond immediately. You have to choose technology that helps the way you work, rather than change your methods to suit the platform.

Case study 2: The Technophobe

Donna Pilcher, account director, Good Relations

Age 39

Are you a fan of technology?
Let's just say I know less about new technology than
my kids do.

You tested The Compaq H-P iPAQ hw6515 Mobile Messenger.

What the manufacturer says
It is a Windows and Outlook-enabled personal communications device that allows users real-time wireless access to the internet to help professionals perform at higher levels of productivity.

Did it help you to work more efficiently?
I was genuinely eager to find out if my three-hour commute could be made more productive. I normally have to think ahead to print stuff out to read and annotate on the way, which doesn't really save time as you then have to retype this back at the office. With the iPAQ I was able to get through 20-30 emails an hour, either by reading and responding to them myself (the screen is easily large enough for this) or forwarding them on to other people. I could sort out my inbox before arriving at work, while finishing other requests on the train, too. Without realising it though, I began to use the device for much more than this – as a tool for receiving documents to approve while I'm out during the day, and for preparing for meetings by looking up data on the web. People have started to notice that I'm far more accessible and respond more quickly to queries.

Best bit
Access to email. My 'out of office' auto-signature has not been used at all during the test period, because I'm not out of contact. This product has dramatically improved my productivity at work. As soon as you turn it on it tells you how many unanswered items you have.

Worst bit
To begin with, it was awkward to set up to my work server. You soon realise that you would have to consult your IT support if you wanted to buy one of these. I had to access my work emails via the internet rather than connecting directly with our work server. 

Would you like to keep it?
Please don't make me give it back. I want one!

To sum up...
It hasn't yet saved my life, but I can absolutely see a circumstance where you're out of the office and need to be sent information to comment, or respond to, straight away.

Case study 3: The travelling man

Guy Attenborough, head of communications, The Meat and Livestock Commission


Are you a fan of technology?
As long as it is useful. I have an MP3 player and digital camera but work-wise I've been restricted to my laptop.

You tested The Palm Treo 650 Smartphone.

What the manufacturer says
Mobile phone, combining email, organiser, messaging, and web access with in-built Bluetooth technology to allow wireless connection to other Bluetooth devices.

Did it help you to work more efficiently?
Around 50 per cent of my time is spent out of the office, and being based in Milton Keynes means I spend a lot of time travelling to London. I have developed a dislike for people who use PDAs in meetings, so I entered into the test with scepticism. But I must say I'm a convert. It's much easier to use than I feared, and once my own mobile's SIM card was upgraded to be web-enabled, I was able to access the web and emails during 'dead time' spent travelling. A lot of my work involves looking at images, so I wouldn't want it to replace my laptop, but it was more useful than I expected. There have been many times when I have had to stop at hotels, find out their fax number and have information sent to me this way, whereas now it is far more straightforward. There is a great email 'chat' function where you see people's replies on the same screen rather than go into separate messages to compose replies.

Best bit
If there is something you need to see, such as an article about a food scare, you can deal with it wherever you are.

Worst bit
The buttons are a bit small, and the stylus wasn't that easy to use, but these are minor quibbles.

Would you like to keep it?
Yes, but I'd still want my laptop.

To sum up...
Technology can be as much of a help or hindrance as you want it to be. I am still a believer in the fact that if someone wants to talk to you, they will call you, but there is a real convenience in not having to find a base to plug in your laptop.

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