Digital Media Roundtable: Down to business

Digital media continues to expand into areas ranging from customer engagement to sales efforts. Industry leaders joined Steve Barrett and Jason Shuffler in New York for this Kaplow PR-sponsored roundtable.

Digital media continues to expand into areas ranging from customer engagement to sales efforts. Industry leaders joined Steve Barrett and Jason Shuffler in New York for this Kaplow PR-sponsored roundtable.

The participants

Tom Biro, VP, Allison & Partners


Fiona Dias, EVP, strategy & marketing, GSI Commerce

Bert DuMars, VP, e-business & interactive marketing, Newell Rubbermaid

Annemarie Frank, director, e-commerce, digital media, and strategic alliances, Avon's Mark

Chaim Haas, SVP, technology, emerging media & digital strategy, Kaplow PR

Greg James, managing partner, Cake

Sree Sreenivasan, dean of student affairs, professor of professional practice, Columbia University, The Journalism School

Don Steele, VP, digital marketing, MTVN Entertainment Group

Mutually beneficial relationship
Steve Barrett (PRWeek): How has digital media evolved in the communications mix and how can it start to bring real business benefits?

Chaim Haas (Kaplow): It really depends, first and foremost, on the client and the audience they are looking to reach. For some clients, it's about brand engagement. It's folks who want to get their brand out there and get involved in the conversation. There are others who want to use the social platforms as a selling vehicle to their consumers.

A number of our clients have launched stores on Facebook. It's very interesting how we've moved beyond just strict engagement with the brands to now court the consumers to purchase and share those purchases with their friends. It's a dynamic where PR can move into this facilitation role, get to look at the conversations taking place, and direct people to more information about the things that interest them, whether it is content or commerce. That is also very exciting for PR pros in today's day and age. It really starts to let us compete more for the digital dollars brands have to spend.

Barrett (PRWeek): From the brand point of view, how has that commerce-social media partnership evolved?

Annemarie Frank (Avon's Mark brand)
: We launched at the end of 2009. We saw it as a great opportunity for branding, as well as for our business model. We are distributed in nature anyway; we don't have brick and mortar and our target market is hanging out on Facebook and social networking sites.
     We saw Facebook as a great platform. We knew we had to get into the newsfeed because people don't hang out on fan pages in general. So we took what we had done on the fan page and learned a lot about that. We then took that same technology, tweaked the experience, and put it into an app so our representatives could push out little customized boutiques to their friends.

Barrett (PRWeek): What are the challenges for a CPG company using social media. How have strategies taken shape over the years?

Bert DuMars (Newell Rubbermaid): When you think about integrating digital, you have to integrate all of your multiple touchpoints to reach a consumer and impact how they make a buying decision. You can do social and digital all day long, but if the experience in the store isn't right, it all falls apart. So we also have to make the in-store experience good and we can integrate the messaging in there.
    Our Sharpie brand has more than 1.5 million fans and growing on Facebook. So when you have that, what do you do with it? We've found that consumers on social media don't always want companies to be selling to them. So we've turned the camera around and focused it on them. Almost all the content that goes into Facebook is about what our customers are doing with Sharpie, not what we are doing with Sharpie. We will pop in a new product once in a while, but it's very rare.
     What cool thing did this high school couple do with their prom dress? What cool thing did this guy do with his car? We took that information and synthesized it down to TV commercials. We combined traditional TV and the social media experience and pumped that into the retail experience. If you do them all together, we know they work across the board.

New take on media outreach
Barrett (PRWeek)
: Are you almost becoming a media owner or media facilitator?

DuMars (Newell Rubbermaid): It's more a curator or aggregator. It's funny because when we started the blog, it was really the first social media effort by the brand. At that time, the blog was all about an artist who originally had been homeless and his whole life was changed because of what Sharpie allowed him to do with his creative skills.
     Now we have ambassadors from education, as well as those representing moms and artists, and they all get together and we showcase them on the blog, Facebook, or YouTube. We have a branded community now. We have given a home to the brand experience, but it's really showcasing all of them.

Don Steele (MTVN Entertainment Group): Facebook communities are very active in articulating what we are doing. In terms of PR, when we put out a press release, it gets picked up by all the traditional Hollywood reporters, but the fans also want to be the first to know when a new season or a guest star is coming on. That fuels their own conversations.
     We also look at it as a way to surprise and delight our audiences. Because the idea that people from Spike TV are watching an Ultimate Fighting Championship event at the same time as fans are and recognizing what they have to say is a really powerful message. It gets people involved in our brand in a whole new way. It really turns them from people sitting on a couch watching a TV show to people participating with us. People are thrilled when we tweet because we are participating with them. It is a new experience for us and it empowers them.

Barrett (PRWeek): The way messages are being delivered is changing rapidly, as are the people delivering those messages. How can media prepare itself to remain a key player in this model?

Sree Sreenivasan (Columbia University): Journalists need to be different kinds of people than they were 10 or even five years ago. One of my colleagues coined the term the “tra-digital” journalist – a traditional journalist with a digital overlay. I believe that works great for PR. I speak with a lot of PR people and I say the same thing. You should be a “tra-digital” PR person. You deliver all the things you have and do better than anybody else and incorporate digital where it makes sense.
     Another way to look at it is what we call the digital mindset versus the digital skillset. Everybody can get a digital skillset very easily, but how you apply it in this new world is very important.
     We all also need to look more globally. One of my friends went to India and started the sixth English business daily in New Delhi. A lot of the time we look at what is happening in America, but what's happening internationally and the rise of mobile is going to change everything.

Barrett (PRWeek): How has the digital space influenced your outreach efforts to media and clients?

Tom Biro (Allison & Partners): At the end of the day, I am still doing core PR. I am still developing a relationship with people, whether it's on Facebook or Twitter, or it's somebody who might have been a journalist who wrote for a newspaper five years ago who is now very influential on his or her blog or Twitter. It's not just about hitting them up when you have something to say. Some of the same core rules apply, except now, instead of three weeks, you have two days or 15 minutes. The tools are different, but many of the rules still apply.
     There was rarely a point before 2004 or 2005 where you saw something hit a blog and the PR person was shouted out in a good or bad way. It changed the way a lot of PR people did business because they either got super paranoid or they thought, “Wow, we can get out there and really jump on top of things.” It was very much a game changer for the space.

Greg James (Cake): One of the most interesting things is the “so what” factor. There is a world of social media where brands are using campaigns and building followings. And the big question in commercial terms is so what, why does that matter? What does it mean to the business?
     On the other end is this issue about our work and what we do. For me, it's shifted from starting off my career in a PR industry in which digital brands were emerging and required brand building for themselves. Suddenly you are an expert in the digital space because you knew what dot-coms meant and what they were doing. And that very rapidly translated to if you know what they are doing, you must know how we should use the Internet to build those other brands, as well. So you go from doing traditional PR for traditional brands to the guy doing digital PR.
     It's all very well to be familiar with every new platform, but it's only valuable in terms of communications if you can really apply that information in an appropriate way. That's what we struggle with sometimes.

Frank (Mark): There's not a week that goes by in which I don't get an article ripped out of the paper that lands on my desk and it will say, “We should do this.” The first question I always ask is, “Why?” Not that I am against it, but I am curious what the value is.

Genuine business impact
Barrett (PRWeek): How do you take that step from doing cool stuff to doing things that actually benefit the business and have a real result?

Fiona Dias (GSI Commerce):
This stuff can really enhance great brands and it can absolutely destroy mediocre ones. A problem can arise if you developed a brand that frankly wasn't designed to be that great. For instance, if you are going to sell mediocre products at reasonable prices. In this world, I am not sure consumers really say, “We agree. We are not paying that much and therefore we accept mediocrity.”
     What I see, actually, is a lot of fear in senior management teams and boardrooms where our business model is going to get disrupted. If tens of thousands of customers are saying our stuff isn't very good in the digital world, there's no way to really pull that back short of fundamentally changing the way you do business.
     It's kind of a bi-fabricated marketplace. The folks who started off building brands people love also love this social space because it amplifies the brand. But for the folks who created brands that weren't expected to be loved, this is a real problem for us. This will be extraordinarily disruptive for a lot of business models. We don't know how to change; we don't know how to make our stuff good enough so people say nice things about our business.

DuMars (Newell Rubbermaid): When you launch out information on Twitter or Facebook, all of a sudden everyone is coming back at you, not just the people you were actually targeting. And they are coming back not to tell you, “That's a really cool product,” but rather, “I bought this product and I am really having a hard time using it. I need some help.” All of a sudden your PR and marketing people are not just doing communications, they are doing customer service.
     If I had to do it all over again and roll back everything, I would have started it from a customer-service perspective. I would have customer service reps be the front line, with PR, communications, and marketing folks sitting behind them looking for opportunities to engage in a meaningful marketing or sales way.

James (Cake): There's a whole new sort of value change of how a business operates and how this world impacts every piece of it. The issue about solving the business as a whole is about asking what does it mean for R&D, what does it mean for the architecture of our stores, and what does it mean holistically about our business?
     This can't just be about what the PR guy thinks of what somebody said. It has to be about an ongoing focus group, an ongoing open channel where you listen to people consistently. Moreover, the whole business has to engage with it. There's an education job, too.

Haas (Kaplow): Dell is a really strong example of an organization that embraced this wholeheartedly. The initial team at the company was very driven from a PR perspective. They created this social media team and empowered them. When somebody is complaining about a component in a product, they could do things such as stop the manufacturing line, take that component out of the process, and replace it. There are not a lot of organizations that have done that.
     However, from a PR perspective, the real learning when you are engaging with consumers directly is how do you implement that back into the program you've designed? If you see that a number of consumers are confused by the process of using this product, then create a video that shows how to use the product in exactly that use case. All of a sudden, you now have content to point out to them that explains the situation. PR can help balance customer support in a very meaningful and useful way.

Feeding the consumer

Barrett (PRWeek): How are people consuming new media?

Sreenivasan (Columbia): There's this misunderstanding that somehow young people are all on Twitter. That's not true. They are all on Facebook; every single person is on Facebook, but Twitter is not a tool yet for the 18-year-olds. Facebook and mobile are the two things that are seeing the most uptick among people.
     When I talk about Facebook, I say it's both underappreciated and undercriticized for brands. There are about 560 million users now and it will not end until it gets to 700 million to 800 million. That's how powerful it is. However, it's also deeply undercriticized because of all the privacy and other problems it has, including the fact that it will change things without telling you. You finally figure what all the buttons mean, where all the terminology is, and then they will change it.
     And you saw the new sponsored ads, sponsored stories. You guys should be so excited about that. I don't know if consumers are saying this is the greatest thing that ever happened, but I presume you are all in meetings asking how we make use of sponsored stories.

Barrett (PRWeek): It also means Facebook is a paid media environment, as well as an earned media environment, right?

Haas (Kaplow): The power of Facebook as an advertising medium is actually falling over into the digital realm in traditional PR agencies. Traditional PR firms didn't think about media buys, but they are now. How do we use the Facebook ad platform to drive to retail and other campaigns we are doing online? This is opening up new pockets of money for PR agencies that they never would have had access to before.

Dias (GSI): Even the language we are using, such as “We can target them. We know precisely what they are doing.” We are going to make this whole area very
un-cool and kids are all going to bail because we are all sitting here plotting ways to get to them. The balance of it has to be fun and engaging. If we get too Big Brother-ish, they will go somewhere else.

Frank (Mark): It depends on whom we are talking about. People who are less than half our age don't mind as much as we do when something is targeted and personalized. It's quite normal for them.
     The other medium in which this is having a huge impact is video. So when you talk about YouTube, that's highly targeted, too – even more than Facebook – because we know exactly what content you are consuming.

James (Cake): Five years ago, I don't think any sort of PRWeek roundtable would've been talking about media buying. For me, that is really interesting. One of the challenges is the link between media buying, media ownership, and PR. In that particular forum, PR pros must have an understanding of how they interact.

Biro (Allison & Partners): The goals have changed a bit. Now, instead of saying you need a billion impressions for this campaign, you might say you need 250 people to sign up for something on Facebook. It's almost like the numbers have flipped. That still isn't the case for everyone. Our role is to educate our clients because they know media impressions are dropping in year-over-year numbers and they have completely changed. But they are still saying, “I want to be on the front page of The New York Times.” It's a little more results oriented when it comes to digital.

Haas (Kaplow): It's also the call to action that digital enables us to do much more readily than traditional tactics. I can use one link on Twitter, one link somewhere else, and I can see exactly what's driving the traffic to this campaign and making it successful. You know I am going to double down over there.
     The analysis is another skill that is starting to come into play in the PR realm where traditionally we didn't have to know statistics. Now, all of a sudden, I need to know what these numbers actually mean and how to translate them.

Looking ahead
Barrett (PRWeek): Looking forward to the next 12 months, what are your priorities?

DuMars (Newell Rubbermaid):
We've integrated social media into several of our branded websites. We've also done branded communities, which have worked well. As well as those things do, however, gets 100 or 1,000 times the number of consumers.,, you name it.
     Over the next 12 months, our biggest thing is syndicating content that we've created or curated and getting it out to these big retailers, online, offline, or both. In addition, we need to think of our products on their sites like we think of the shelf space in their physical stores.

Steele (MTVN Entertainment Group): We need to maintain and recognize where the actual audiences are and how they want to participate on those platforms.

Dias (GSI): Encourage the innovation. Take a small percent of your budget and time and do it. But then keep it real. Recognize that even though Facebook is in the news every day, it doesn't necessarily mean it's creating business value yet. Don't get caught up in the hype. Ask the why.

Sreenivasan (Columbia): Offering opportunities for journalists to learn this stuff and to keep up with it, and then deciding which to bet on. The other thing we all have to look at is where we go from here, what is coming down the pipe, and being open to those ideas.

Frank (Mark): For Mark, it's definitely continuing to make the shift from our standard traditional digital hubs, which are our website and Facebook, and thinking about not being on a desktop and moving all those processes to the handheld device.

Biro (Allison & Partners): The metrics are going to become really important. Not that they haven't been, but they are changing so fast as we dip into more and more tools. It's going to change how we are measuring ourselves and securing new business with clients.


Prior to the roundtable, PRWeek and Kaplow PR hosted a breakfast event featuring Naveen Selvadurai (pictured), cofounder of Foursquare. In the Q&A session conducted by PRWeek editor-in-chief Steve Barrett, Selvadurai explained that the location-based social networking service was launched two years ago to help people “live better within their cities.” The site, which has more than 6 million users, allows people to “check in” to different venues such as restaurants, bars, or retail stores and keep track of where their friends are hanging out. Selvadurai later emphasized that for all of the efforts to create a robust site with rewards and layers of gaming, it's “not about sitting at home, but going out and having an experience.” He added that Foursquare hopes to build better self-service tools into the platform in the future so brands can manage their “check-in” locations.

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