Skype: The next best thing to being there

It wasn’t too long ago that the notion of seeing and talking to someone thousands of miles away via a portable device was the stuff of science fiction. Today it’s as real as Team USA setting the record for the most medals won by any country ever in a Winter Olympics. 

Most of us would have preferred to be in Vancouver rather than watching the Olympics on television, but if you can’t be there, video is the next best thing. Which is just what the founders of Skype were thinking.

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While technically not a VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) system, Skype is a Web-based software that allows users to make free video and voice calls, send instant messages and text messages and share files with other Skype users all over the world. And for a nominal fee, Skype users can call non-Skype users via land lines and mobile phones.

To get started, all you need is a computer with either a built-in or accessory webcam and an Internet connection. Then, visit Skype.com, follow the super-easy download instructions and you are ready to go. (One warning: if you don’t want to be called by total strangers — “creepers,” as my teenage girls would call them — be sure to adjust your settings to block people not in your network, using the same common sense you would for all social-networking sites.)

Skype is an incredible way to keep families and friends connected. We have an intern who said Skype was her antidote for homesickness while she studied for a semester in Ireland. Regular video calls with her family in New Jersey and friends at college kept her anchored and informed. Another friend talks to his mom back home in Australia on a regular basis. And Skype has been a godsend to military personnel torn from their families to serve our nation in faraway lands.

While Skype is great for keeping families and friends in touch, it’s the business applications that are probably underutilized, especially here in Washington. Skype can be extremely useful to members of Congress, trade associations, fundraisers, journalists and others.

If you are a member of Congress, there is no substitute for meeting with constituents in person, pressing the flesh, looking voters in the eye and letting them know you are with them. But when votes on Capitol Hill keep elected officials from returning to their home states and districts, Skype can be a life-saver. While there aren’t enough hours in the day to talk to everyone, a video call on Skype allows the senator or representative to deliver the contact some constituents (major donors, community leaders, political allies, etc.) have come to expect. 

Years ago I worked for a senator. On those occasions when he had to bow out of a speaking engagement back home, we often resorted to sending a telegram (yes, a telegram … and, no I’m not 150 years old) to pacify the disappointed constituents. Skype would have made our lives on Capitol Hill so much more bearable.

Skype can also be valuable for trade associations or membership groups. Rather than put leaders on a plane to raise money or try to sign up new members, they can just make a Skype video call and make the pitch. It may not be as personal, but it’s a pretty savvy alternative that saves time and money.

We have a trade association client who will be using Skype this summer for media relations surrounding the group’s annual meeting. Since many of the featured guests at this convention are world-renowned scientists and physicians, we will be offering one-on-one interviews to journalists around the globe — all via Skype. For journalists who can’t come to us, we’ll make their lives easier by going to them.

Just last week, a Denver-based TV station wanted to interview a high-profile client of ours. Unfortunately, the reporter couldn’t get access to a Washington affiliate’s studio or satellite uplink fast enough. The solution: Skype. We put a black drape behind the client, a laptop in front of her, some lights on her and made the Skype call. The reporter was able to record the interview using a separate Skype-compatible software, so the content was available for her broadcast. The reporter was thrilled that Skype saved the day, which is music to a PR consultant’s ears.

There isn’t enough space to talk about the other ways Skype can be used in the professional world, but here are a few: lawyers could conduct depositions, lobbyists could debrief clients, think tank scholars could provide peer reviews of white papers and government employees could be more accessible to taxpayers (don’t laugh … I can dream, can’t I?). 

All I can say is that video-calling with Skype might just make your job easier, and the possibilities are endless. Dare I say, the Skype is the limit.

Schick is a partner at Adfero Group, an avant-garde public-relations firm that uses the latest technologies to help clients achieve their public-affairs objectives. He was deputy press secretary to Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) from 1981-85. Skype is not a client of Adfero or Schick.