Technology Roundtable: Focused on change

Tech companies and their agencies continue to pursue better measurement and use of data. PRWeek recently hosted an Airfoil PR-sponsored roundtable discussion in the Bay Area on the topic.

Tech companies and their agencies continue to pursue better measurement and use of data. PRWeek's Keith O'Brien and Aarti Shah recently hosted an Airfoil PR-sponsored roundtable discussion in the Bay Area on the topic.

The economy

Keith O'Brien (PRWeek): In this economy, do your clients and executives know the benefit of being active or is it duck down and wait for everything to blow over?

 

*Correction: Eric Brown's title is VP of corporate relations

Frank Shaw (Waggener Edstrom): Our clients are out there talking. Today [Microsoft CEO] Steve Ballmer is in New York doing a BusinessWeek interview, meeting with Bloomberg, he's talking to the New York Times. He's talking about both technology and economic issues. [The media are] are looking for perspective from industry leaders. They are not just talking about the products they want to sell, but the overall environment they are selling into and what they expect from the future. For people who have something to say, the media is quite interested in hearing about these issues.

Susan Butenhoff (Access Communications): Nature abhors a vacuum. If you think the way you're going to survive the next 16 to 18 months is by keeping a low profile, it's counterintuitive. I think we all agree that a balanced approach to communications is most appropriate, now culturally, than it's ever been. The big days of the 90s spin is done. An intelligent way of approaching this is, the way we approach crises in any situation. Acknowledge the landscape, acknowledge where the missteps have taken place, speak to where we are going. In terms of pulling out, I think everyone is playing the gambling game to figure out who is going to be market makers and breakers 18 months from now. And if you haven't set up that perception now, it's going to be harder to do 18 months from now when the big players are making the big noise.

Kay Luo (LinkedIn): I would look at it as a here and now as well. This economy is really an opportunity for all of our companies to speak out in terms of how our products and services can help people in this economy. It's an opportunity to look to your core and see what kind of value proposition you have to offer people.

Eric Brown (NetApp): I also think there is an opportunity right now. If your company is well positioned, there is a receptive audience in the press. I think there are a lot of companies not communicating and a lot of executives that are waiting back in the wings. But for companies that are well positioned now is a good time to tell your story.

Jose Mallabo (eBay): I don't think we really ask ourselves that question. It's not a matter of ‘if' you do it, it's ‘how' you do it. We recently had an analysts' day and we had to decide whether we were going to blow this thing out and make it look like we were going to spend a lot of cash. But you still have to tell your story, you still have to tell your story on how you plan to get through the economy. But the media and bloggers will ask “how much did that sign cost?” Those are considerations that all of sudden I'm thinking about it.

Luo (LinkedIn): I think that's a great way to force some discipline on companies too. You should always be thinking about that, right? And so it's a great reminder.

Doug Free (Microsoft): But nothing's changed in the fundamentals, right? Consistent behavior, access in good times and bad times. The other thing is, you can look back and see companies that said “we're going to market and sell our way through this downturn.” It's not the first downturn. When they weren't able to do that, it took them a long time to rebuild that credibility. So it's just fundamentals.

Brown (NetApp): There are some things that have changed. The core program has stayed the same and we've added some elements to extend the core program. But I'm really looking at a different vertical mix. I've got government and healthcare continuing to grow, so we're spending more time on those stories, those customers, and those avenues. The other thing is, China and India continue to grow. So I'm taking resources that I might have used in the United States, Germany, or the United Kingdom and I am diverting those to mainland China and India to capitalize on growth there.

Mallabo (eBay): [If you're] sitting in San Jose, but dealing with a business that sits in China, reporters here will think it's big news. Somebody will cover that we were having meetings with some Chinese executives in town. [As a spokesperson], you have to put that into context of “who aren't we meeting with?” It's really not that big news; it's how we operate in a global environment. Is it big news that our executives are meeting with other executives? Probably not, but that's an off-on conversation that I don't think we had to have a few years ago.

Janet Tyler (Airfoil): I think it's transparency and access, internally as well. We've had situations where we've had to help clients navigate through a layoff and then the CEO is out of town for two weeks, two days after we announce it. The access is important and the transparency. [It raises questions like] was he packing his bags or was it really a pre-planned trip? Companies are so focused on externally how they are being positioned; they are really not necessarily minding the store with their employees internally.

New opportunities 

O'Brien (PRWeek): If a reporter got wind five years ago that a CEO is out, it's not like that's a news hook. But now with blogs, they can ask “where is the CEO?” [on that platform]. Are you more aware of every morsel of information, knowing that it could end up on, say, the New York Times Bits blog, whereas it might not fit into the overarching story?

Vince Sollitto (Cuil): The flip side to that is there are a lot more opportunities for coverage because you don't have the all-encompassing story. You don't have to carry the whole story anymore; you can place small interesting pieces of news and information that are not as serious or as business-oriented because there is such a tremendous appetite for content. Reporters have so much more [on their hands]. People talk about the shrinking news hole, but there is also a tremendous expansion news hole because of online, the blogs, and reporters are required to provide so much more content. One upside to all of this is that there are more opportunities for coverage. And frankly, the fluffy coverage -- instead of the in-depth coverage -- that really does promote the brand.

Krista Wierzbicki (Tivo): And it really goes straight to the consumer. You have so many different outlets and so many different audiences; there really is a place for that soft news or a story about a new service feature or update. [These stories] probably won't make it into the Wall Street Journal print, but you know what, there is a place that people are going to be Twittering about it. You could put it together for executives and say, “look this first blog post led to this led to this and this has increased traffic.”

Shaw (Waggener Edstrom): You have to look at that and decide, do you respond to every piece that shows up online? For some of our clients who are intensely aware of what's going on online, it's their knee-jerk reaction to correct – or to want to correct – or to participate in nearly every discussion going on, on the Web. It's cost prohibitive. You have to look at it and be fast enough to say, “We need to deal with this very rapidly or it will leap up to the next level.” Or to have the information to say, “We are going to let that go, it's a below the line activity, we're not going to worry about it.”

 

O'Brien (PRWeek): No one really knows what makes something viral, so what sort of things do you look for in those situations that give you the sense that it'll spread like wildfire?

 

Shaw (Waggener Edstrom): It's not rocket science. It's the elements of a good story, like it being visual or humorous. This is still pretty clear to a PR professional. The problem is, when someone makes a viral video is they don't bring a level of sophistication to the process. That's when a video can accidentally go viral. You'll have somebody do a cheesy internal sales video – hypothetically (laughter). It's for an internal sales video and they don't think about what happens if this shows up on YouTube. Then you have a news cycle that is unanticipated by the people who did it because they weren't thinking about it in a broader communications context.

Wierzbicki (Tivo): It won't go viral if it's brand heavy. If it's an advertisement it's just not going to go. It's balancing what's viral and what you're going to market to the consumer directly.

Sollitto (Cuil): It's also the danger of trying to segment your message too narrowly to too much of a narrow fragmented slice of audience. By trying to be too cute by having something that fun, quirky and neat – the Twitter audience is going to see. But then you look back and realize it doesn't really fit for the New York Times. It's a constant struggle.

O'Brien (PRWeek): For the traditional companies, are you structured so that you can do things that are a bit more outside of the box than you used to?

Free (Microsoft): Microsoft is encouraged to and does viral, interesting things that live on the Web. That's just part of our audience and market strategy. I don't think we are confined.

O'Brien (PRWeek): Was there any reluctance with the Channel 9?       

Shaw (Waggener Edstrom): Channel 9 was interesting because it was created as a direct-to-audience effort to reach a developer audience. Channel 9 for the past few years has done a good job of that, which means it will often not do things at the request of communications. If a product developer says, “Hey, we'd really like to get on Channel 9.” [Channel 9] will look at it and maybe say, “That's not true to what we're doing. We can't because we can't violate the trust we've established with the people who come here.” Once you violate that, you start losing the ability to go direct to that audience. So the core is, are you trusted and what are you doing to maintain that trust?

Brown (NetApp): We're not looking to target the average consumer. We targeting people who have the purchase authority to sign off on a multi-hundred thousand deal. CEOs and people with signature authority are going to be on planes more than they're going to be at their computer terminal. And when they're at the computer terminal they are doing e-mail, not on YouTube, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Their admins are doing that and those who are lower down in the organization. And yet the technical people who know us and love us and are incredibly geeky. They are on MySpace, YouTube, Facebook So we really segment the approach based on where somebody sits in the organization. And we're finding that is yielding dividends.

O'Brien (PRWeek): I'm sure the brand position is that MySpace is for everyone. So when you pitch do you use a broad strategy or are you doing a lot of [niche outreach]?

Dudeck (MySpace): We have quite a few verticals that we are reaching out to. We have quite an infrastructure that focuses on the technology side, the business side, the music side, and the video side. We structure our teams to move on all those parallel tracks. It has to map back to what the larger global business strategy is and where the emphasis needs to go. We meet cohesively as a team so everybody knows what each other are working on and a lot of our pitches cross a lot of those verticals.

O'Brien (PRWeek): MySpace is obviously competing with Facebook and LinkedIn in some ways, TiVo is competing with [DVR]. Do you find that journalists are hung up on this competitive aspect in their reporting? 

Dudeck (MySpace): If you ask the individual businesses, we would say we are very different. But no matter what we say – if we do mention the competitor or if we don't mention the competitor – [journalists think] it is a fantastic way to box a conversation of an executive. I think that is a challenge, but that's the way of our business. The way that I'm sure [Kay Luo's] business is. There are still major differentiators that people will gravitate towards. [The competition] story is pretty saturated and people are pretty exhausted by it. It's kind of seen its cycle.   

Shaw (Waggener Edstrom): As the news hole shrinks, you see reporters looking for shorthand ways of quickly getting at what they consider to be the core of the story. A lot of times they boil it down to Company A versus Company B in a battle. That is the easiest, fastest way to tell a story. And it's a black and white. It takes a lot longer to write a gray story. So when you talk to reporters and you say to them, “This isn't quite right” – it's not really a battle of Titans or whatever they are writing about now. They will say, “I know, but I don't have the space to really tell the nuanced story.”

Butenhoff (Access): I would also recognize that news is a product, right? So it tends to cycle against what the larger trends are. So when we're in an up economy it's about the fast great companies that are going to make everyone billions of dollars. Now we're in a villains and heroes environment. So part of the horse race gets exacerbated by this concept that there has to be these diametrically opposing forces fighting each other in the market. This will cycle through and the best thing we can do as communicators is recognize how these reports are shaping perception and shaping dynamics within the news organizations. Five months ago we were talking to journalists saying, “We can't cover anything having to do with enterprise technology, it's too boring.” Fast forward five months later and they are saying that “We cannot talk about anything unless it has a strong economic story behind it.” So it's always being shaped by what the larger trends are and we have to stay ahead of that and be perceptive of that.

Areas of growth

Butenhoff (Access): Another lightening rod is clean tech. There is a lot of good emotion associated with clean tech, but this is also an industry that grew 52% last year, right now the numbers were just released and it is going to grow anywhere from zero to 20%. But every clean tech company is out there spending money they didn't have at the last year on lobbyists to make sure they get a share of the pie. And what's going to happen six months from now, is we're going to have the same sort of analysis -- is taxpayers' money being used wisely? We do have clean tech clients, and the thing that I'm advising them about is, be extremely transparent. Be highly efficient about the usage of any money in the company from the government, be very communicative about the challenges and successes, and be very specific about the roadmap.

Tyler (Airfoil): I think companies need to be really careful, not just in clean tech, but also in green tech. A lot of clients are coming to us saying that they are green tech. I'm really getting tired of it because I don't even know what it is anymore. Maybe some of you do but I'm at a point now where you could make the argument that any technology is potentially green and it is a very a slippery slope. You have to be very careful about how those companies are coming to market.

Butenhoff (Access): I think Mother Nature has taken a backseat to unemployment.

Free (Microsoft): I would disagree. If you look at – GigaOm's Green Expo or Green Tech 09 -- it is packed. There is a huge emphasis on this. I agree that unemployment in the economy is important, but this has not taken a backseat from any perspective. Whether it is the questions we are getting from reporters, the interest, or the dollars that are getting pumped into it.

David Shane (Hewlett Packard): I am seeing that it is. I'm seeing sustainability and that topic continue to be a big topic for us, but it's definitely take a back seat to the larger economic environment, questions about fiscal responsibility, and what's out there. And for us transparency, as a large public company, is key. We try to be very transparent with what we do. [Federal Reserve Chairman Ben] Bernanke did the first interview ever and let 60 Minutes in. When [60 Minutes reporter] Scott Pelley said to Bernanke, “When I called your people about this a year ago and they laughed on phone and said the chairman of the Federal Reserve does not do interviews – it'll never going to happen.” Nevertheless I think there was a desire on his part and a desire on the part of the Obama Administration to recognize the importance of transparency in the today macroeconomic environment.

O'Brien (PRWeek): Many of you have your list of companies you've worked with for years and that really know your company inside and out. Is there some point in time, when you meet someone who has covered your beat and you're thinking they won't be there in 18 months because they will leave or the publication will downsize?

Free (Microsoft): Having a good relationship is a good idea, irrespective of what their new role is. Some of them will go away, some of them will become bloggers and go online. Some might be sitting across this table next year.

Tyler (Airfoil): Look at the Rocky Mountain News, they are closing the newspaper and about four of the lead reporters are starting an online hyper local blog.

Free (Microsoft): Again, it's fundamentals. Another aspect of this that's interesting is, there is this thought that you can join the virtual conversation – and you can. But if you go and look at – particularly the technology blogs – they tend to center around events, like SXSW, for example. So the blogging, Twittering, and so forth is an extension of a real relationship that is forged by meeting people and sitting down with them and getting to know them. So I don't think anything has changed there.

Sollitto (Cuil): My experience has been the opposite. Sadly it's the older, more experienced reporters who have covered your beat for a long time [that are leaving]. You look at them and realize they are the ones who aren't going to be there in 18 months. Look at the example of the Sacramento, half the government press corps is gone.

Shaw (Waggener Edstrom): The opportunity there is, if as communicators we think about our jobs not just as telling story but also about providing content. One of the things we can really help new reporters with is giving them a sense of history and perspective that can sometimes be difficult to get from other sources because they are under time pressure. So if we can sit down and say, if this is the industry that you're covering, these are the key event that have happened, here are the key players, and here are other key players who you will want to talk to. That gets to what [Free] was talking about, you start having a relationship with people that is beneficial. You are providing something that is helpful to the new reporters that come in and that's always appreciated.

Talent

O'Brien (PRWeek): On the talent situation, there is a dearth of VPs now because of the cuts that were made seven or eight years ago at the lower level. As the economy worsens or stays at this low level and budgets are tightening and people have to make cutbacks, is there a solution or are we doomed to repeat the talent shortage?

Shaw (Waggener Edstrom): We continue to see highly talented people come into the field. Our job is to make sure that we are smart about staff and structure our teams so we maintain a consistent level of talent at all levels. I think the mistake we as an industry made was not letting people go; it was we had people coming in who got promoted very, very rapidly.  And when the boom ended, they weren't willing to go from VP of communications at “Startup X” to being AAE at a PR agency, which was probably where the talent was at that time. And that's where we had that lost generation.

Butenhoff (Access): On one hand, no matter what your status is, independent or acquired, there is financial tension that you want to be very, very closely managed in terms of your financials because [we don't know how ] bad this will continue to get and for how long. So on one hand, we are very finely tuned into best practices and ensuring that we're very lean, mean, fighting machines. Simultaneously, the expectations from clients should be that we're under the same sort of pressures internally. They are not looking for people who are not transactional; they are looking for partners. I think the tension is making sure our staff at all levels need to know that, yes, they need to be efficient in making sure the output is achieved at the highest levels. But you need to find time to be more collaborative. When you go to a meeting at 2 o'clock, but it's over at 3 pm. Instead of heading up on 101 again, you think is there someone I can talk to – something I can learn. But the first response is, “It doesn't fit into my billable hours or there isn't budget for that.” But what I say to people now is, budget for good relationships, everything else falls out of that. My lesson for our staff; you've got rethink financials models right now.

Dudeck (MySpace): On the agency side, we work with agencies on a project-basis, which works best for what we're trying to achieve. In between those projects, the agencies that keep the cadence regardless of what the clock says or what hour they are billing for makes such an impact. They are the people who we keep going back to. There are a handful of people – I can count them on one hand – who I'd be willing to call in a tough situation or who I'd just want to bounce ideas off of. They are the people who are always there, they pick up the phone on the first ring, and they're willing to send things along whether we are working with them or not. They shine from the rest of the industry. It's interesting because those are the people who really stand out.

Free (Microsoft): And guess what? That's who the media wants to work with because they are not transactional. They develop a relationship and are available even if they get a phone call about a story that's not on message or about news.

Dudeck (MySpace): And the next time you have a huge project, they are the first person you call and talk it through and give that business to them.

Butenhoff (Access): Having said that, there are a lot of agencies that are cutting their staff. One of the lessons we learned out of the [dot]-boom nineties is, you cut early, you cut big because it prevents death by a thousand cuts situation.  And the onus is on us as senior people on how do you reconcile the mixed messages of “We've just cut your staff, you have to do more up and more down. You have to be more readily available and not worry about billing against the clock.”

PR's expanding role

O'Brien (PRWeek): What are some activities in the overall marketing sphere that PR should try and own? Should PR try and own product integration on TV shows? How diversified should the industry should be, on the client side and agency?

Brown (NetApp): I think product placement is an advertising function and can be best served by advertising. The thing that seems to be the Holy Grail is connecting executives with deep pockets with other executives with deep pockets. And really connecting them in very small groups – like the way we're doing today. It's very hard to get CEOs to do it, our CEO has informal networks in Silicon Valley, but that's Silicon Valley. I'd like to connect his network in Silicon Valley to a network of CEOs at the largest financials firms in New York and some of the biggest retailers in Chicago. That is the next round for PR, I think. We spend a lot of time talking about reaching the masses and for consumer companies. Yes, you have to reach the masses. But again, when your deal sizes are $50,000 to several hundred thousand dollars – the masses just don't mean as much.  

Tyler (Airfoil): If PR could do a better job at owning the message for the client, that's the first step. From there, where PR can play a role in managing that message makes complete sense. I think that's the ticket and what we really try to do with our clients.

Butenhoff (Access): We've been really good as an industry at getting the message out there. I think what advertising has been doing a really good job of doing and monetizing is saying, “Now I'm going to charge you to do an assessment on how successful the effort has been. I think that's something we've wrestled with for decades. I'd love to see in this next decade our Holy Grail as an industry to say, “Here's our methodology, scaled at different levels.” It's the completion of a chapter and I don't think we've completed that chapter yet. That's where I think the next big growth area is for our industry and how we're going to do this in terms of intercepts and other things that have been touched on but not really matured.

Mallabo (eBay): There is a huge area of academics that happen to be studying mass media information on cognition and behavior. We've done a crappy job at adopting that and the ones we have adopted – after being on the agency side for 16 years before coming to eBay -- have been proprietary solutions, rather than things we can all share. Social media is the hot new channel but it's interesting that SEO and all these other things we can digitize are now becoming de facto measures. I can see and track back to things – that's better. I can operationalize awareness because somebody is interacting with this digitally.  We just haven't found a way to do it across the board with things that I write and publicize. And I think that's issue number one.

 

Luo (LinkedIn): Our CEO wanted to talk about how the stimulus plan should really invest in entrepreneurship because that's going to drive the economy forward and out of this recession. Our initial approach was, let's go to TechCrunch because we know those guys and we know this is a message they want. But what our agency said, you have the TechCrunch audience. Let's back up and consider the Washington Post. Yes, it's old media but there are a lot of influencers in DC that will drive this message. So we placed an Op-Ed in the Washington Post about entrepreneurship role in the stimulus. We then tailored a message for TechCrunch that said “It's the startup, Stupid” because we knew that's what the TechCrunch audience would run with. Then we thought about the message for broadcast and we went to Charlie Rose. He had an interview with our CEO where we had a long dialogue and conversation, which you never get from a blog post. The last channel we addressed was Twitter. So you're thinking, “What's the online narrative, the Twitter narrative, the offline, and the broadcast narratives.”

O'Brien (PRWeek): Is search something PR should own through SEO? Does anyone feel that the search engine is today's destination where people are learning most or first about your brand?

Shaw (Waggener Edstrom): This is something we pay a fair amount of attention to because understanding how people use search is critical in telling a story. The number- one search you want is something that you have helped create. So if you are launching a product, the number-one return, you don't want it to be a newspaper article or a review because you don't know quite what that will be. Maybe you'll get lucky and the number one return will be a glowing review, but that's luck, generally speaking. You want it to be a Web site or something that you've created to pull that person in. And if you really think about it deeply, it could be incredibly cost-efficient.

If you want to reach general consumers with a narrow topic, you're going to spend a lot of money to reach them via traditional and non-traditional PR. But if you know they are all going to sit down in front of a search engine, you can take a lot of that money and can devote it to creating content that you can deliver directly to them when they are most interested and receptive. The way to do that is to really understand the search process and to be smart about how you work with it.

 

Luo (LinkedIn): I think one of the primary benefits of having corporate blogs is that you can create content that can be [searched] and linked to your other content.

Butenhoff (Access): But I think someone said it earlier, when we think of content we think of blogs, like this is our channel that we are going to optimize for search engines. But if we broadened our tool kit and said, “This is our station or broadcast channel,” I do think there is a great, creative area where we could expand what our blog's about and what our corporate communications is about and actually make it more interactive and centralized. When I look at others who say, “We already do that” they don't realize you have to dig three layers down to find [the content].

Tyler (Airfoil): And so many corporate blogs need to go through [so many reviews before publishing].  They're still on version one and many are so poorly done. They are not adding a new point of view or they are just a regurgitation of a press release. If I were a reporter looking to cover them, I would go to the newsroom and do a search. But if they want to find something different [the blog should be a place for that]. It could be such a powerful tool and it's a wasted opportunity for so many companies. And a huge opportunity for those of us on the agency side to help them get it.

Luo (LinkedIn): That's the way that I use the corporate blog. I think press releases are obsolete. You can put up a blog post and that communicates your message in a more authentic way and you can add video. No blogger these days really wants to link back to a press release.

Shaw (Waggener Edstrom): I'd disagree with you. They don't necessarily want to link back to a traditional press release but if you have created a press site that has fresh content that isn't available anywhere else – whether that's a video with the CEO, screen cap, or a demo – then people will link to that on a regular basis. But one interesting thing is, I keep hearing people say “all the ways we can communicate more” – more, more, more. More channels to get our message out there, more opportunities to get our CEO out there, but the question is, “What is the benefit of sometimes finding ways of doing less and creating some of the intrigue and pop that captures imagination in a very pointed, rather than a sustained way?”

O'Brien (PRWeek): For those of you who have these Web sites or products that gather information, how much of that informs your communications strategy or is it separated?

Wierzbicki (Tivo): I think it's part of the overall strategy, but you have to balance. You don't want to scare off consumers. But I don't know their bank account information; I just know what they're watching. And I don't know what you are watching, only in general that people like, say, Desperate Housewives. Tailoring that and using it to your advantage is important but not something I would do all the time. We do it once a year at the Super Bowl.  We stay up all night to figure out what commercials people watched, we report it the next day, and we're in the news cycle, we get on broadcast, and it makes sense. Other times it doesn't. It's part of the communication strategy because you have this great data, but you have to be careful with it. People like to share their information, they are doing it on social media sites but they don't want you to share it because you're the corporation.

Dudeck (MySpace): There is a tremendous opportunity in data because [with] MySpace – with our music product -- we can see what people are listening to, people tell us what they are listening to. And those actual charts and data will be products that we'll take to market with MySpace Music. So it becomes something that not only informs our pitches or how we know people are absorbing content, but it will then turn into its own product in a few months. [Along those lines] I love this idea of less is more [where you are focusing on promoting fewer initiatives but with more focus].

Mallabo (eBay): We went to less is more about two years ago when I got there. We got 30,000 pieces of top-tier coverage, seemingly on its own. The less is more is seemingly working when you make that decision. There is going to be all these articles that have nothing to do with what you're pushing through from a reputation or business strategy. So we had to make a decision, do we participate in all that noise or let it happen by having a conversation on the right message?

 

Luo (LinkedIn): But how do you put that into a dashboard that you can present to your executives when they want ROI?

Mallabo (eBay): We're just getting there. We're integrating a tracking system that correlates to all that we do. We don't do internal memos saying, “Look at all the coverage we got.” We focus on the ones we personally worked on. We track that against our SEO and our messaging. It's been quite a chore to do that because you went from a publicity model to an influencer and dialogue. We're not there yet but we're certainly trying to break ground.

Luo (LinkedIn): I think that's really where agencies could really invest and help me out. In providing the metrics that show the value of doing that versus I had 30,000 articles. It's hard to do.

Wierzbicki (Tivo): And measure the value of being quiet. At what inflection point does being quiet become absolutely necessary? It's interesting to watch.

Tyler (Airfoil): But at the end of the day, it has to be about the sales. I think there is a perception that PR wants to shy away, like we don't want to know whether you met your quota for the quarter but it's really quite the opposite. I think we do want to move the business. But if the business is moving forward and the sales are there – when you were quiet, then it's a fear.  What is PR needed for then? I think there is a tension point a bit, we might not want to know the answer.

Mallabo (eBay): We have nascent businesses where the publicity model works. I can get in the New York Times and it'll move the needle 15% of the user base. Does that work for eBay.com? Maybe not.

Shaw (Waggener Edstrom): We're talking about messaging but you have to start with, “What is the business problem? What is the business objective?” – that has to be the driving [force]. This is an opportunity for us to reset on that and say what our business objective is, whether it is related to sales, image, or crisis. From there, you develop messages and communications strategy to move the business forward.

Butenhoff (Access): I would agree with that but when we ask clients, what's the business objective and they say “we want to be the leader of X.” That's not helpful to us, it's like saying they want to be on Oprah. Actually saying we need to move [the needle] in this area – that's great. We can take that back and do some critical thinking on it and figure out what it means in terms of cadence of timing and messaging to the market. I think it would great if people can value that PR can be a business contributor and not just reputation enhancer.

Shane (HP): That's a broken model. What you first got to get is a seat at the table, which is critically important. You've got to get as close to the decision makers as you can who set and execute the company's strategy, then you can create a communications strategy around that. For us, it's just not about volume, it's just about executing on that strategy. We get hundreds of requests for our CEO but we're really measured and strategic about when we put Mark Hurd on the record.

Shaw (Waggener Edstrom): You can drive media coverage or you can get in front of a potential problem and head it off. And one thing that never shows up on a scorecard are the stories that never show up. How do I get judged on the stories that never show up? But in a lot of ways, access to the C-suite helps because you can sit in a meeting. Then you hear something and you can say, “Whoa, if you do it just like that there can be some negative PR perceptions but if you make a shift of 1% there won't be negative PR implications.” You could save a lot of PR dollars as opposed to having a crisis and you spend a lot of PR dollars trying to undo what's been done.

Luo (LinkedIn): You can also take case studies of what your competitors do wrong – we did that with Beacon.

Dudeck (MySpace): It's hard to know what's going on in the organization in terms of the layers of communication and how eager people are to collaborate, so it's so hard to judge that situation. But it is interesting.

Butenhoff (Access): It would useful if we could have ongoing optics and analytics. So you could take a narrative and shade and shape it so it was appropriate for the channel. We often put together a big program and the clever strategy around it. But then we get our results and we walk onto the next project. It would be nice to have some tighter integration to help us determine what that means going forward. There tends to be a broken communications link between rear-view analysis and now tell us how this affected in terms of sales, downloads. We often get “Oh, we can't get that” or “We'll get that to you at some point.” And so you're doomed to repeat history.

Luo (LinkedIn): We and a lot of other Internet companies have the ability to say precisely how a Good Morning America piece – how an appearance or media event – impacted user sign-ons. The bad news is, it's a temporarily spike that viral/[word of mouth] marketing invites. Our users drive more new users and then we can't capture the person who saw Good Morning America then told 10 people to sign on.

 

Shaw (Waggener): There are companies that do a good job of managing silence. They have different communications. Apple is a good example. They have a series of news drives but are otherwise silent. The risk is, if you always make noise then nothing is important so you have to find a way – even a temporary way – to create white space. You have to stop with the buzzwords to get the attention.

Mallabo (eBay): Less is more not just doing less content or sharper content. But now you can see who influences whom very clearly. If you do an article here, you know you see it will go to three or four other sites. And if you do one here, it will be able to rotate to its various audiences. It's so much easier and it sets the tone. You can have that article cascade down to second or third tier.

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