Creative minds thrive on the digital scene

With new and social media playing such an integral role in the industry's future, PR agencies are stockpiling talent in this area to keep ahead of the curve. Tanya Lewis profiles four individuals that are leading the way to a greater understanding of this growing medium.

With new and social media playing such an integral role in the industry's future, PR agencies are stockpiling talent in this area to keep ahead of the curve. Tanya Lewis profiles four individuals that are leading the way to a greater understanding of this growing medium.

Jud Branam
MD at MS&L Digital
While working as a reporter in Michigan in late 1995, Jud Branam began moonlighting on a consumer reference book for the Internet. Reviewing hundreds of Web sites piqued his interest, and he went to work for a motor sports community network. He later became a digital PR consultant for the auto industry before going to work for Hass Associates, which was acquired by MS&L in 2001.

MS&L has created a number of successful blogs for General Motors, and Saturn recently asked for its own blog. Branam and his team suggested a broader approach - a self-contained social network called ImSaturn.com that includes blog posts from Saturn team members and enthusiasts, videos, photos, and information about brand-sponsored programs.

The site, which launched in April, currently has 2,300 members.

"It extends the conversation by allowing consumers to help set the agenda," Branam says. "As well as tapping enthusiasm, it also leverages other marketing-related activities of the brand. It's driving deeper, richer interaction."

Branam believes new media will continue to become more mainstream, that new platforms will emerge, and that PR must continue integrating with other disciplines. "It's important that PR maintain relationships, storytelling, and the earned media role that we've always had," he says. "Brand stories and relationships with influencers are an ace in the hole. PR is strong in navigating functions, surveying the landscape, seeing trends emerge, and building programs."

Curtis Hougland
Founder of Attention PR
As a student at Duke University, Curtis Hougland understood that the Internet would change the way people communicate. After graduating in 1993, he started Attention PR as a social media practice. "The big difference [today] is consumer adoption," he says.

For client WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment), Hougland launched WWE Universe, which engages fans across MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, and WWE's online social network. In just three months, the effort has garnered more than 150,000 friends, and the YouTube channel is the site's second most subscribed to channel.

"Social media success is often based on frequency, consistency, and authenticity of message," Hougland says. "The WWE produces truly authentic content and invites frequent participation. Everyone's trying to produce content. Most isn't that authentic; therefore it's not viral. If you're going to start a conversation, you have to sustain it. That's what social media is all about. Sustain[ed] engagement results in word of mouth and more sustainable advocacy."

Hougland notes that new media increases PR's measurability, and that PR pros need ability to extract and interpret data.

"Data is created each time someone acts online," he says. "This access to data makes communication more transparent. As a result, PR is far more easily measurable. We [can] measure campaigns across volume, sentiment, engagement, and advocacy. This data paints a picture and dictates how we engage in social media. PR people are natural conversationalists. We just need greater ability to interpret conversations, both statistically and anecdotally."

Brad McCormick
SVP, director of client services at Ruder Finn*
Brad McCormick got into new media by way of the circus. While working as an ad manager for Big Apple Circus, a nonprofit performing arts institution, he taught himself html and then networked around New York City before the dot-com bust. Ruder Finn hired him in 2000, shortly after starting its interactive practice.

McCormick and his team recently developed a Webby-award-winning initiative for client Love is Respect, a nonprofit dedicated to stopping teen-dating violence. In addition to a Web site redesign, blog, newsletter, and an offline event, the team also launched a "Teen Dating Bill of Rights" on a MySpace page, which directed visitors to link to loveisrespect.org to sign the bill and submit their own video in a PSA contest. Visits to the site are currently up more than 300% from last year.

"Teens love to create and express themselves," he says. "To raise awareness of the institution and electronic counseling tools, we positioned [it so] that people could participate and [take] advantage of MySpace. Web site redesign, traditional PR tactics, and new media worked together seamlessly."

McCormick thinks more change is certain for both technology and PR. "Computers will get more ubiquitous," he says. "We'll see boundaries breaking down between traditional agency-client relationships. Agencies act as a conduit between the public and companies. Product lifecycles are smaller. Companies look to customers to figure out the next big thing, and they're dependent on PR to interpret what customers are saying."

*McCormick recently accepted a position as EVP of US digital communications at Porter Novelli and will start on August 18.

Virginia Miracle
SVP, head of digital strategy at Ogilvy PR 360 digital influence
In 2005, Virginia Miracle was on Dell's consumer marketing team when she was told to investigate "viral marketing" after the success of Burger King's "subservient chicken" effort. At first, she wondered if she was being punished. "I got involved with the Word of Mouth Marketing Association [WOMMA] and realized the breadth that opens when you dialogue with customers," she says.

While on WOMMA's board of directors, Miracle got to know John Bell, global head of 360ยก at Ogilvy. She's currently working with Lenovo, a sponsor of the Olympic Games, to recruit 100 athletes to blog on summergames.lenovo.com. Many of the athletes also use other social networking tools, thus audiences and conversations cross-pollinate and grow.

"Lenovo gives [athletes] computers, cameras, and education on how to blog," she says. "We're bringing them together [to] connect directly with fans. That wasn't possible in any previous Olympics."

Miracle believes new media is the future of PR. "We're not just speaking to media, we're speaking to the public, and we want them to have a great experience with brands... wherever they are," she says. "Future PR pros must be well-versed in all tools and technology. We don't see a wall between traditional PR and what we're doing. It's all about convergence as we're trying to reach the public."

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