10th anniversary: digital roundtable

Alexandra Bruell held a virtual roundtable in September that discussed digital trends that are affecting the industry

Adam Keats, SVP, Screengrab, Weber Shandwick,
Ryan Lack, new media specialist, Voce Communications
Jeffrey Moran, VP, corporate and brand communications, Absolut
Paul Bergevin, GM, global communications, Intel
Krista Gleason, manager, corporate media relations, Kodak
Curtis Hougland, founder, Attention PR

Alexandra Bruell (PRWeek): What's the next big thing in digital and what does it mean for communications professionals?

Curtis Hougland (Attention): The next big thing is measurement. As more people communicate online, more data is created, which leads to greater measurability. PR professionals will require greater technological and analytical skills to succeed.

Paul Bergevin (Intel): I'd say it's dealing with video, user-generated in many cases. PR professionals are trained to communicate verbally, and the world increasingly will process impressions visually

Adam Keats (Weber Shandwick): Mobile. As more and more people seek to connect with others and the relevant content around them, it'll become a more sought-after channel. And like Curtis says, it'll be highly measured.

Krista Gleason (Kodak): Yes to all, and it's how to spread your message effectively across a growing number of channels.

Ryan Lack (Voce): I agree with Curtis, but would add that as more people communicate online, it will become increasingly important for us to learn how to harness the collective influence of communities, whether it be by focusing on developing a community in a central place around a product or company or developing more direct ways of engaging with customers where they live online. This is happening now, but we're just at the beginning.

Hougland (Attention): It will be difficult to retrain marketers and communicators, especially in mobile, to measure both influence and reach. What if Jefferson was wrong, and not all consumers were created equal?

Bruell (PRWeek): How will PR pros become accustomed to these changes? Will agencies/companies be able to truly embed digital thinking/capabilities in every employee?

Jeffrey Moran (Absolut): My view is yes; most of our agencies are on this track and digital pervades every program we undertake. In almost all cases, we require a digital component as our core target audience is so connected to the digital world.

Bergevin (Intel): Not a rhetorical question, Curtis. The hierarchy of influence in media (and consumption) did not disappear when the world went digital. People still seek the best information from authoritative sources

Keats (Weber Shandwick): They have to. To layer onto Curtis' and Ryan's points, you'll also start to see communicators move away from a "one approach fits all" method that has worked very well in the past and towards one that more carefully fits in with the needs of each community, whether it's a group of individual moms, a group of reporters or one-on-one with other key influentials.

Lack (Voce): At this stage, it's hard to say that they will be able to achieve that, especially evidenced by the existence of each of us - some of us specialists, some of us still focused on PR on the whole. Adjusting will take time and dedication to education.

Gleason (Kodak): Bottom line: You have to be where your customers are. Conversations about your brand/company are happening everywhere.

Bergevin (Intel): We will take on more in common with political operatives as PR pros become community organizers. That's where Barack got his start in politics.

Hougland (Attention): In this world, we have to not only promote information, but publish and produce more original, compelling content that is shared. This places us directly in competition in many cases with advertisers. So, we not only have to horizontally introduce our services within PR, but also compete with marketing. This is why data and production and measurement become more important.

Bruell (PRWeek): Can someone provide an example of how you're preparing for this kind of consumer interaction and internal education?

Bergevin (Intel): Sure. Things like our many blogs have created the need for comprehensive employee training and company guidelines.

Hougland (Attention): This gets kind of wonky, but you create a Social Map which aligns audience to community, community to influencer, and influencer to asset.

Lack (Voce): At Voce, education is achieved through experience. It's one thing to read about new media, the tool, the strategies and tactics, etc., but it's another to roll your sleeves up and get in the trenches. It's a simple learn by doing method, but there are times when group talks and hypotheticals can help with that.

Keats (Weber Shandwick): At Weber Shandwick, we conduct regular sessions with staff to keep them up to speed on this rapidly changing environment. Whether it's a "101" class on how to use technology like Radian6 to better identify advocates for our clients brands or bringing in someone like Chris Brogan with a stellar reputation in social media circles, it's something that's always on our radar.

Gleason (Kodak): Kodak has been blogging and podcasting for two years now, and this year has added new tools like Twitter and Facebook and we have a communications roadmap for employees for using these tools.

Moran (Absolut): Interestingly, on the corporate side, we've "lived with the consumer" and had our research, insights, communications, and brand folks literally go into the "field" and spend afternoons/evenings with our core target consumer...understanding how they make decisions on where to go out; where they get info; how they share; how they communicate, etc. – and digital is at the core of this. So you can say we had "hands-on life experience training."

Hougland (Attention): To echo what Adam is saying, we conduct probably 30 training sessions a year. As the Syms ad campaign always said, "An educated consumer is our best customer." Sixty-two percent of the population does not know the term social media. It is hard to understand Twitter if you do not know the macro issues of how consumer behavior is changing, and the data to support your beliefs.

Bruell (PRWeek): And what of these educational programs for the future, as the landscape changes and you need to reach people in different ways and with new technologies?

Moran (Absolut): Further, we have also embraced the role of digital and done the same as Kodak –

Facebook pages, blogs, etc.

In my view, we'll see this pervade all aspects of our business, and that of businesses around us. If you don't understand -- at least a working knowledge -- of digital, you'll be passed over.

Keats (Weber Shandwick): You also see clients taking it on. One of our global clients, for example, is committed to ensuring every PR staffer around the globe has the same set of knowledge when it comes to this space. They don't have to know how to build a web page, but they do have to understand the medium and its potential to tell stories on behalf of the company.

Moran (Absolut): The beauty of digital is that it's immediate; you can always "test" to see how it works, as well.

Hougland (Attention): Yes, any good social media campaign is built upon a feedback loop. Results allow you to optimize outreach quickly.

Bergevin (Intel): The net effect is that many, many more people speak for companies in the new world. We should get comfortable ceding some measure of absolute message control (province on advertising) in favor of the credibility that these new voices provide.

Lack (Voce): Echoing what Adam said, we're seeing this too, and I think it will increase. More and more, as new media programs get off the ground and solidified as mainstay components of our clients communications strategies, we're seeing the headcount of people dedicated to running these programs rise in time.

Keats (Weber Shandwick): And because it's immediate, you come right back to Curtis' point on measurement being such a critical component.

Hougland (Attention): If this communication is based on one-to-one communication, then the individual, as representative of the brand, also carries greater accountability. Not all communication can be as authentically carried out as the brand. Our role as communicators may not be as much as facilitators then publishers.

Bruell (PRWeek): Agencies have hired thought leaders, built practice groups, and built their entire service base on digital offerings. What will the infrastructure of a PR and/or social media agency look like in the next ten years?

Moran (Absolut): I agree with Adam, and it does underscore the need for measurement. In our minds, digital doesn't compete with advertising, it complements it and integrates with it...hence our need to see who and how we're reaching them.

Lack (Voce): Integrated. It almost has to be. At Voce, this is how we advise our clients daily. If you're doing new media in some fashion, how does it plug into the broader PR/ marketing/communications objective. They shouldn't be separate. In the future, I'd hope we'd see a coming together of the new and the traditional.

Bergevin (Intel): We provision our PR team with video cameras now, the better to capture and post actualities. Equipping the PR pro to be a direct content creator, not just a go-between, is one direction I see us heading

Gleason (Kodak): Agree with Ryan. Social media, new media at Kodak is just one part of our overall communications and marketing strategy. Integration is key. It's not just about press releases anymore.

Lack (Voce): We expect each person at Voce to be well versed in both traditional PR and new media marketing. Each is important in communications, despite the fluctuation in needs per client. A hybrid communications worker is what agencies should be striving for.

Bruell (PRWeek): Are you saying that independent social media agencies will be obsolete?

Hougland (Attention): Media is media. Social media will be incorporated into everything with varying degrees of skills, again, like every other service, with varying quality. However, as we focus more and more on word-of-mouth, the lines between marketing disciplines will blur. So, the skill sets and scope of focus will embrace technology, publishing, production, data analysis. To Alexandra's point, though, there will always be a forward edge, where knowledge of the medium allows you to differentiate.

Lack (Voce): I don't want to say they'll be obsolete, but in as much as 10 years time, I'd imagine many companies will become very well versed in new media. The challenge is for social media agencies and traditional shops to figure out how to evolve their practices.

Bergevin (Intel): I agree with Curtis. You do not see too many agencies that exist to work in just one channel of communication, such as broadcast. Social media gets embedded as part of the broader mix.

Keats (Weber Shandwick): And the lines are already blurring -- if teams (like Paul's) are already using video to capture content and tell stories, they're still going to need video producers and directors to tell bigger, more complex, more scripted stories. Independents won't become obsolete, but they'll need to integrate with others and prove value.

Bruell (PRWeek): What will the future of direct-to-consumer communications look like? Will companies take on a greater role in producing media?

Bergevin (Intel): Yes, they already are

Moran (Absolut): Absolutely. Agree, they are already there...we are for sure.

Lack (Voce): Yes, I believe they will take on a greater role in producing media. This is already happening to a degree, but it will grow.

Gleason (Kodak): Yes. It's happening at Kodak, too.

Keats (Weber Shandwick): Yes, they will … some will work (BMW films) and others (e.g. Bud TV) won't, but they'll keep trying regardless.

Hougland (Attention): Yes, we just need the lawyers to agree.

Bruell (PRWeek): How will/do you compete with mainstream and new media?

Keats (Weber Shandwick): I'd go back to what Paul said earlier about the lines blurring. We don't see social media competing with mainstream media or new media, per se. It's becoming (and will continue to become) a more integrated part of it. When CNN anchors are twittering live during a broadcast, when the Chicago Tribune is getting news tips through social media, social media intersects with mainstream media, it doesn't compete with it.

Lack (Voce): It's about creating content to provide value to your consumers. We as consumers, will always seek out the best, most accurate information from the “most” trusted source. In some cases, the company itself isn't them most trusted, but I like to think that opening the direct channel of communication between a company and its customers in time can increase trust.

Bergevin (Intel): Wrong question. Media consumers harvest from a broad mix of sources. Cross-media influence suggests that these different media are not competing for the consumer's attention, even if traditional media are threatened in their business models.

Hougland (Attention): Media is media. They just have different attributes and benefits. By combining top-down media with bottom-up social media, you bridge awareness and adoption. They are not in competition, they are complementary. The real game-changer is how you cultivate word-of-mouth by allowing the channels to work together.

Gleason (Kodak): It's not competing. Again, it's about integration, connecting with your customers, and building relationships and awareness.

Bruell (PRWeek): Last question - if you have a crystal ball - which new media platform or technology, if any, will be the most influential tool for PR pros in the next ten years?

Hougland (Attention): Mobile as a communications platform with all of the social tools available at your fingertips, where ever you go, and great analytics coming back through the other end to power the marketing and communications.

Moran (Absolut): Blogs. Everyone can say anything they want. It's a way to get media more involved; it's direct-to-consumer, and it's free speech.

Gleason (Kodak): Hard to predict with technology changing so quickly. But I think blogs and increasingly podcasts/video (with the popularity of YouTube) will continue to be influential tools.

Lack (Voce): I think you will always need both push and pull tactics to complete any new media program. Pull tactics, particularly publishing, will increasingly shape what we do. What form it takes is the thing that will vary.

Keats (Weber Shandwick): In 1998, nobody was blogging, there was no iPhone and you didn't text message. In a space that moves so fast, it's hard to think 10 years ahead with any degree of accuracy. But what will remain the same in 10 years is that people will still want and have a need to consume media -- and communications professionals need to stay on or ahead of the curve to keep their client's content relevant.

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