Interview: Curtis Hougland

The former new media lead at Middleberg + Associates and Ruder Finn, has started his own practice Attention PR, focusing on "social media relations."

The former new media lead at Middleberg + Associates and Ruder Finn, has started his own practice Attention PR, focusing on "social media relations."

He talked with about his relationship with traditional PR, how agencies can communicate "authentically", and what it means to seek out community leaders.

Q: What specifically led to the formation of Attention PR?
We were beginning to analyze how attention flows today amid so much competition. Attention is in a finite supply; we have 24 hours in a day, seven days a week; but we're getting exponential demands on our attention. A New Yorker sees 1,800 images a day. How you capture consumer's attention may be changing.

Q: How is Attention PR different from a traditional agency?
We're about social media relations. We're trying to expand upon the idea of traditional media relations by more directly engaging the people most responsible for word of mouth; the people who raise their hand, who say, ‘I want to express myself,' because they write a blog or have a podcast or are an active social networker. We want to engage those people directly in a very authentic way. Authenticity is something that is different in our approach. We think authenticity is the single most important filter in PR today. It allows you to communicate with a customer and not "to" them. In a world with the proliferation of niche media, we need to speak in their language. That's where this idea of authenticity is so important.

Q: Do you strike a difference between a person who has a blog as their creative outlet versus a blog that is, in essence, a media outlet.
We look at it a bit differently. If you were to step through a process, you would first figure out what communities have relevance to you, through simple keywords. We figure out who the community leaders are - they can be social networkers at MySpace or Stuart Elliot of the New York Times. I don't think you're going to get the same value of ‘just targeting a blog.'" One of the [arguments] we make is that social media relations requires the same skills and same approach that PR has. You're just making [different] choices about who the top targets are and what the message [should be] to reach them.

Q: So what will Attention's positioning be to clients?
We help companies communicate authentically. No one agency can meet all of your constituents. The Internet is filled with [small communities like] one-armed, yellow-haired [people] and you need people that can authentically represent those communities. We understand how the process works, and how to cultivate authenticity.

Q: At what point, when does microtargeting become inefficient?
I just worked on an automotive project. If you look at the number of blogs with a relevant automotive word in their title, it was 1.5 million active. Certainly a campaign can't work targeting those 1.5 million blogs on a one-to-one basis. That's where the process comes in of statistically and anecdotally figuring out who the people within those spaces are most responsible for word-of-mouth. Obviously, you're going to have other community members - employees or partners - participating in the debate. You will try to expand conversations online. You look at the different tools out there and how they help you listen, and then figure out the best assets and right story.

Q: How do you view your relationships with traditional agencies?
In the short term, a lot of our relationships are with large marketing organizations that see us as a way to create word-of-mouth organically for campaigns they're working on. We work with large PR firms that need that specific expertise. We tend to be complimentary

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