Rob Key sharpened his PR teeth as the head of the Innovations Group at Cohn & Wolfe.
He left in 2001 to helm Converseon, an online-focused communications agency that sometimes partners up with the agencies of the traditional world he left. He talked to PRWeek.com about why specialty firms focused on the online environment will succeed, where the market is going, and why PR will win the search engine marketing wars.
Q: The market is littered with firms tackling online communications. How do you differentiate yourself?
A: We came out of the traditional agencies. In 2001, we sat down and asked, 'Given how people are changing in the way they share information, if you were to start an agency from scratch and take away all preconceived notions about what an agency should look like, how would it look?' It wouldn't look like a lot of the agencies that currently exist. We brought in deep technology expertise on topics like search engine optimization, web development, and RSS feeds. We fuse all of those components with solid, traditional communications approaches like creativity and strategy. We're a bit of a different animal than anyone out there.
Q: Are you focusing on communications outside of the online world? If you're serving a large client, are you part of a multiple-agency team?
A: We work with some of the large agencies, which use us on the back-end [of client relations]. We're going to focus on the digital world because the market is coming to us (wireless, podcasting, et. al.). We coexist with very large clients. They provide the off-line PR firm [expertise], and we do digital communications that the agency can't provide.
Q: Is the environment going towards a separation between digital and off-line communication firms?
A: To me, the critical element is, 'Who has the strategy?' On-line and off-line mediums are just channels. We're driving the communications strategy for a number of our clients right now, and an off-line PR firm will take that and push it out in the off-line world. Because of the technologies we have, in some ways, we're in a better position to be able to recommend communications strategies than [the traditional firms] are. We do a lot of online brand reputation where we monitor what people are saying about brands in the online media and use that to inform [overall] communications strategy.
Q: How do you end up with clients? Do you get contacted directly by companies or does an agency involve you in a pitch?
A: It's 50/50. One of our largest clients, a global Fortune 50 company, came to us and said, 'We've been looking for an agency like you, but didn't know where to look.' They needed us to help with SERMA [search engine reputation management]. They have very negative information come up in search-engine results, which is the digital equivalent of a front-page [story]. How do you optimize the content so you're displacing the negative, [sometimes false] results with positive elements? Companies need to look at their brand online and protect what's being said about it. With consumer-generated media, it's very easy for anyone to become a publisher. We tell our clients they need to think of the top search engine listings as shelf space. You have to know what people are saying about you and make sure your information is visible, either through establishing blogs, optimizing content, and monitoring what's being said.
Q: How would you characterize your interaction with traditional agencies? Have they been willing to cede responsibility and expertise in this arena? And do you think the traditional agencies that have rolled out similar practices will be good competition?
A: There's a lot of hype out there because everyone is trying to jump on the bandwagon. And there are certainly traditional agencies that get 'it.' The problem is that there's a huge gap between the necessary technological expertise and the core competencies for most PR firms. The SERMA [function] took us three years to create [by] using the best search engine minds. We talked to Google to make sure that it's within its terms of service. To be able to mimic that methodology and be able to execute on that methodology is [too] huge a gap for many agencies. If you look at the advertising world, many firms have decided to acquire these types of services rather than build them organically.
Q: All marketing disciplines have been honing in on the search engine marketing and optimization markets. Why is a firm with a PR background best equipped to handle it?
A: I speak at all the search engine strategy conferences and am very familiar with the search engine world. The great growth in search has come through advertising, such as selling things online through search engine results. But search engine reputation is the next new frontier; it's just going to keep growing. I'm very familiar with all the SEO firms, and they're technologists. They're looking at metatags, code, and other technological modifications. They're not communications professionals. They don't understand how to handle reputation management in a PR setting. It's the fusion between the two that is going to be huge.
Q: So while the nuts and bolts of tackling reputation management are technological, you still need the human expertise to determine where priorities are?
A: Absolutely. We tell our clients that the absence of a negative isn't necessarily a positive. What information do you need to present? How should you say it? All of that is a wide-open area for communications creativity and strategy. All of that belongs in the PR world and should not be ceded to the web marketing team.