As digital's role in the PR mix increases, so do questions about how best to use it. PRWeek's Keith O'Brien and Alexandra Bruell hosted a recent Fleishman-Hillard-sponsored roundtable discussion in New York on the topic
Keith O'Brien (PRWeek): In this economy, are people pushing towards digital or is there reluctance to try something new? There argument could be made that digital is cost-effective, but there could be a counter argument that no one really knows where it's going to go or how effective it will be. How is the economy really affecting digital communications?
Curtis Hougland (Attention PR): I think it's causing social media to boom. You have a type of communications that's more measureable, transparent, and consistent with the trend that we're all consuming more of our media digitally. So far we've seen nothing but exponential growth.
Jud Branam (MS&L): I see consolidation. It's a different feeling than a transition to digital in an up economy which is kind of fun and experimental. Now people expect digital to deliver. We need efficiency. Internally it's a different experience and feeling. The folks on our traditional account teams need to stay as involved as they can and execute as much as they can, more so than in the past, so it's more negotiation and work to determine budgets where digital tactics pick up and the traditional stop.
Adam Christensen (IBM): The days of experimenting are gone. I don't see a lot of appetite for experimenting for the sake of experimenting, but I do see a lot of opportunity for using social media in other areas for actual tangible benefit gain. I think there's an opening for a PR campaign or any kind of social media marketing campaign.
Marc Monseau (J&J): I'd agree. Now with the economy it does put an added pressure on getting some measureable results. You can demonstrate that there is going to be some value here. Certainly internally, in our case, experimenting is still continuing to some degree. But there is this interest in getting some kind of benefit out of it that you can point to.
Bonin Bough (PepsiCo): Like Curtis said, it fits in with consumer digital media. I also think Obama's situation put an exclamation mark on ‘hey this is actually is a viable medium'. But I would say we're more open now to experimentation in certain respects just because there has not been a lot of it, so we don't really have an organizational understanding as deep as we would like to have. There hasn't been enough spending.
David Bradfield (Fleishman-Hillard): I do think the economy though is having an impact on the appetite of clients to invest in digital and social media because the results are unproven. They aren't standardized. It makes it difficult for an agency to come forward with a full program without a general understanding across the industry. That forces organizations to just make it happen and then find the agencies that can deliver the best capabilities against those.
Paula Berg (Southwest Airlines): Your traditional beat reporters are now blogging. It completely changes their needs. They need information from you twice as fast and twice as much. They need detail. They don't want just one bit of news a day like they did before. They've got five bits of news a day. I think for the average PR person who's maybe not dealing with grand content and experimenting, they need to be doing these things. They're getting news from Twitter. All of our beat reporters are subscribed to our Twitter feed.
Monseau (Johnson & Johnson): To that point, I've had a number of beat reporters who've chided me for the fact that we don't use Twitter.
O'Brien (PRWeek): You bring up a great point. Are companies not thinking as smartly as they can about this environment in which there are opportunities? In the past you might have said this isn't enough for a news story.
Berg (Southwest Airlines): They're getting so much pressure from their editors to blog blog blog, and these are old-school traditional reporters. They don't want to be doing this. They've been forced into it. And the best you can do is feed them as much of that stuff as they can handle.
Christensen (IBM): A lot of stuff that used to end up on the newsroom floor, they either will take it and throw it onto their blog, or they'll throw it on mine, so you'll see actually a net increase in the amount of coverage they're generating.
Berg (Southwest Airlines): They're not defined by space. They can edit; they can update; they can be a little more risqué. It really changes how PR should be thinking about things as basic as their talking points. It's not a quote in a story anymore. You have to go a lot deeper than that.
Hougland (Attention): I agree. Doesn't it fundamentally change how we communicate with reporters? When I talk to a blogger, it's often much more colloquial. I'm pointing them to third-party information. I'm more authentic in representing the point of view. So if anywhere between 15 and 30% of all the reporters are blogging and twittering, they're starting to consume information differently, less obviously around the press release and big formalized pitches.
Christensen (IBM): That's sort of what good PR was always supposed to have been, right? Maybe it's just forcing us to do good PR then.
Marcy Cohen (Sony Electronics): I think sometimes we forget. Saul Hansel from The New York Times will come to an executive press roundtable that we have, and we'll talk to him like the reporter Saul Hansel for the New York Times, and two hours after the roundtable, he's got the Bits blog where he's covered everything in very specific detail... With traditional media, when they have blogs, I think sometimes we even forget to prep our executives enough to say, you know what, this person has a blog and we should think a little differently about how we talk to them.
Bough (PepsiCo): It also changes [things like] media briefings. We just did Super Bowl. It's like, how can we embargo? If you want to invite anyone there, it's “Oh my God, these people are live-blogging.” Are they scooping our traditional writers? If you consider it in the traditional sense scooping, then maybe. But in reality there are a lot of different audiences. People are consuming the information totally differently. It's giving access to a lot of the reporters who couldn't even be there who are now getting a live Tweet and being briefed at the same time.
Cohen (Sony Electronics): I think you're right. I think, though, we do have a longer way to go in realizing that our traditional embargoes, everything, is doing a 180 now. Everything is different.
Hougland (Attention): Whenever I'm talking to Saul Hansel, if I can be a little more transparent and I can be a little more conversational, that's only going to benefit, regardless of the story he writes for print or for the blog.
Cohen (Sony Electronics): I agree, and I think it's also about setting expectations, and letting people know within the organization that this could come out in an hour.
Berg (Southwest Airlines): At Southwest we treat our media and bloggers exactly the same, but I see what you're saying. A traditional executive who doesn't understand the difference might need some coaching.
Bough (PepsiCo): It even goes back to media training...
Cohen (Sony Electronics): We're actually changing the way we do media training so that they really get a sense of the scope of this medium.
Blogs effect on traditional media
O'Brien (PRWeek): Have you noticed conversational blog language making it into the print edition or are they still able to bifurcate - this is how I write on a blog; this is how I write my traditional lede, no emotional opinion, no snarky asides?
Berg (Southwest Airlines): I think a lot of them, especially the traditional reporters, don't want to be writing snarky. They want to be writing on their blog the way they've always written. It's a shift for them too, so I haven't seen it creep, in my beat as much, into traditional publications.
Monseau (Johnson & Johnson): I think we've seen it, in any case, in mainstream publications. We've seen a shift away from the way they've been reporting over the years. It's become a little more open than it had been traditionally a decade ago. In a way, mainstream was starting to change to react to the fact that news has become commoditized, that you could get that information online. You didn't have to go the print. So they needed to differentiate themselves in some way.
Berg (Southwest Airlines): I think… one thing a lot of people don't get about these channels [is that] they're so personal. At our company, our channels are all owned by one person. Our Twitter feed has acquired the personality of Christi Day who runs it. I think that's a big part of her success in that field. It's not just a company. It's a person with a sense of humor and personality.
Monseau (Johnson & Johnson): That's the hard thing for us, from a professional point of view, to get our heads around. I have my own Twitter account, but I've had a very difficult time trying to differentiate myself there from my corporate personality.
Cohen (Sony Electronics): I have my own Twitter account, and I have my Sony Electronics Twitter account, and I haven't really updated Marcy Cohen's Twitter account because I don't really know what to say. Should it be personal? Professional?
Monseau (Johnson & Johnson): When you're corporate blogging as well, you still need to have your personal identity in that blog, but it needs to be your professional identity. You keep that in that space, but nonetheless it's you and it's your voice. But sometimes that will make it difficult if you're dealing with things you don't personally believe in.
Bradfield (Fleishman-Hillard): Look at Robert Scoble. He was the approachable voice of Microsoft. When he left, look at the impact it had.
Berg (Southwest Airlines): Scoble has sort of been my model for this. I agree that you cannot separate. I was like he's out there everyday. He's saying it as himself. I remember the day I made the decision, like here I go; I'm out there right now. I use my stuff for personal, but I'm cognizant that people know me for Southwest and I have to be respectful of that.
Cohen (Sony Electronics): Every time you Tweet or do your Facebook status update, do you worry about any legal ramifications?
Branam (MS&L): It's definitely a dilemma, working in this space. We all understand the power of it personally. How fun it is and how cool it is but we can't really take part in it to 100% the extent with clients, prospects, colleagues, and media looking at what we're putting up.
Monseau (Johnson & Johnson): I can talk about the business of PR in a personal space. What I couldn't talk about would be healthcare reform in a personal space. It seems to me that once you start getting into that conversation, you're speaking on behalf of the company.
O'Brien (PRWeek): I'm curious about what the client side people think about this. I'm always taken aback when someone on the agency side is like, “ Let me tell you about this Delta flight I've had,” - and fair play they've had a bad personal experience - but I'm wondering, does that mean you're never going to work with Delta?
Christensen (IBM): I'm an IBM-er. We sell things to Southwest, so all of the potential consumer things I might complain about, Motrin or whatever, if I have self-identified as an IBM-er in any of these social spaces, I'm very cognizant of not complaining or saying something potentially negative for a client. It may be a slight challenge. The focus for us has been to try to get every IBM-er to participate as themselves, but just to be thoughtful that if you do, you should keep in mind a few things, like don't disparage clients.
Hougland (Attention): Did everyone read the New York Times policy they published? ...[The Times] published what was pretty draconian policy toward their blogosphere, I think probably more limiting than a Microsoft or IBM have in many ways, which was really interesting, so there are some challenges.
Bough (PepsiCo): We just wrote ours up when I came. It's really just protecting a legal situation. The other thing we try to do with our policy is say, “We're so happy you're interested in this, here are some things to do,” so it became a policy and learning experience versus a negative, and here are the guidelines.
Christensen (IBM): One of the thing's that's helped us with those is that the community wrote the guidelines. They were actually asking for them. So we put a few thoughts together and threw it out to blogs and wikis and said “What do you think?” So they wrote those and then it went around to legal and HR and communications for approval. That helped because it started on a very positive note, and that allowed it to be completely self-regulatory. It's proven to be very successful.
Hougland (Attention): That is how every company should do it.
Berg (Southwest Airlines): I would always joke that the Internet will own you if you don't own it. I think you have to get in and define your terms. How am I going to use these tools? For example, we can't solve customer relations issues in 140 characters. We have a very sophisticated system to really handle and resolve problems, and Twitter's not it. We decided what we're going to use these tools for, and it makes it manageable for us, for now.
Hougland (Attention): Understanding your objectives relative to the benefit of the channel becomes crucial too.
Christensen (IBM): Too often a company will implement something just because a competitor is doing it that way. It may not make sense because you have a different business, model, or focus.
Monseau (Johnson & Johnson): You're right. It depends on who it is you're trying to develop relationships with.
Cohen (Sony Electronics): I think we're all gatekeepers within our own company. Every other day I get someone calling me saying, “Hey I want to engage in social media. I hear you're the social media person.” I way more often than not say “What are your goals, who are you trying to reach, [and] what would your success measures be?” We have this pre-engagement dialogue, and often the result is this probably is not the right medium for you. We have to be much more critical and selective.
Hougland (Attention): We have channelitis. Two years ago, everyone wanted a viral video. Last year, it was a Facebook page. This year, you can't shake the stick without someone mentioning Twitter. We're all elevating the channel over the objective and that's where people get into trouble.
O'Brien (PRWeek): Three years ago, if we were having this conversation, it would be blah blah Second Life. It seems to have been overrun by pornography and gambling. Is that an anomaly or reflective of this channelitis?
Berg (Southwest Airlines): The barriers to entry for the average person for that are too great.
Monseau (Johnson & Johnson): You're right, Second Life was an exception in some ways, but I do think part of the issue goes back to what we were just talking about which goes back to the idea of developing a proper strategy.
Cohen (Sony Electronics): It's also, who's you're demographic. PlayStation Home is your other version of Second Life. It works for them because their demographic is into that.[For] J&J, I don't really think moms or whomever will be into that.
Monseau (Johnson & Johnson): Each community will have a different need and way of actually interacting. In some cases, it may not necessitate you creating something as a corporate property. It may just mean you need to figure out how to engage with them.
Hougland (Attention): It's also a speed of technology issue. This is changing so quickly. When you looked at the numbers of Second Life relative to the hype, which is word of mouth, which is people using the product and buzz... the buzz was always so much greater than word of mouth, and you had this “Snakes on a Plane” syndrome. When those two things become out of balance, your business is in trouble. They had that, but this business is moving so quickly that none of us feel confident that it's going to be Facebook where our customers are going to be aggregating.
Berg (Southwest Airlines): But it's a stepping stone, and for companies and PR people who aren't using these tools, when the next tool comes along, they're going to be that much less sophisticated and prepared to handle it.
Hougland (Attention): Think about the skill sets you need. You need, as a PR person, to be versed in data analytics; you need to be able to create sharable content, and you need to be increasingly familiar with emerging technologies.
Bradfield (Fleishman-Hillard): I think the important thing though, in all of this channelitis, is there is an aggregate, which is Google and Yahoo. And the need for consistency is important because you're still building your footprint, your position online whether it's on Facebook or Twitter or even Second Life... All of this...does add to that Google footprint which at the end of the day is one of the ultimate precursors to your reputation.
O'Brien (PRWeek): Every year seems to be the year that mobile is going to be big. Is this the year?
Bradfield (Fleishman-Hillard): It's the year, and we've been talking about widgets, and these devices enable nice packaging of data and information which is a great channel for a lot of corporate brand reps. Regardless of the device, the technology requires more media communication and collaboration because people are networking off of their devices; they're updating on Twitter. It's the most ubiquitous of channels.
Bough (PepsiCo): I was just at the UN. The only way you're going to move into a developing world right now is on mobile.
O'Brien (PRWeek): Is it dependent on phone companies communicating to their users about the abilities they have on the phone? I saw an article about how a low percentage of people with data-capable phones are actually using that capability.
Christensen (IBM): I think it has more to do with the experience. You can communicate to me 50 times over that I can get mobile Web on [my razor phone], but it's terrible. It's not until the experience changed [with a BlackBerry].
Bough (PepsiCo): That's what was interesting about what the iPhone did in the space. It said, “Who cares about the cost of plans? Here's functionality, and we're going to show in every ad the functionality you can actually execute with the phone.” I think it's an educational piece.
Bradfield (F-H): The mobile space is probably the most powerful tool we've got when it comes to managing issues. The ability to mobilize a message to the workforce, and if we have spokespeople the way IBM does, where you have your voice on the ground, you can get your message out and spread it so quickly. There's a lot of power in that channel.
Hougland (Attention): Twitter and Facebook have moved to your mobile phone. You can see the number of people engaging through those platforms on mobile phones skyrocket throughout the year.
Cohen (Sony Electronics): I think in terms of employees with crisis communications. We had the San Diego wildfires last year and we really had to scramble to get messages up to our employees. We use SharePoint. That [was] heavily used, but if we had some kind of mobile plan, which we didn't at the time…I think it could be very effective.
MySpace vs Facebook
Cohen (Sony Electronics): Something I haven't heard at all today is MySpace. It's interesting because we have a great relationship with the people at Facebook. They've come to our headquarters a number of times and have helped us figure out how to reach our consumers with Facebook. MySpace on the other hand, we've reached out to them, it was ridiculously expensive for us to engage with them. It was like $250,000, and they really discouraged corporate involvement in MySpace, and I don't even really know, from everything I've read and heard, that Facebook is doing better than MySpace. I don't know if anyone else is engaging in MySpace or if that's even on the radar.
Monseau (Johnson & Johnson): [For] some of our brands there were a couple of initiatives involving MySpace, but for the most part I think we've really been looking at Facebook.
Bough (PepsiCo): We do look at MySpace. It's media buy. It's a little younger audience, and when we do go in from a comms, social perspective, we do try to just create content that can be shared. But again, MySpace is stuck in an old media model that I think will be prohibitive moving forward.
Hougland (Attention): They did introduce CMS advertising, so you can integrate what you're doing in a more manageable way. We use MySpace solely for music and celebrity, but let's not say the Facebook people have been good either. If you have business pages for a client, they are bending over backward to make it difficult for the customer to find those pages. Their search index is completely messed up, and...their click-through rates are terrible.
Bough (PepsiCo): The other thing upsetting about that is they say we're not an advertising company. We just care about building the network, but you get a lot of folks who come from the ad side and they know this one model. They sell real estate, but they say we're not an ad company; we just care about building a model.
O'Brien (PRWeek): It's surprising that if they're still figuring out the business model, they're not looking at the WWE as customer recognition. Those x-million fans of WWE are not all on Facebook so why not do a partnership where we may not guarantee but can bring you 3,000 people to join Facebook for whatever ad we're doing.
Monseau (Johnson & Johnson): They don't know the answer. What's that note that just came around - 25 things you need to know about me? That became one of the most spread items ever on Facebook, and it emerged from a network. It resonated with people on Facebook, so it suddenly became something. It goes back to how do you define what's going to work there, and you have to understand your audience.
Christensen (IBM): Look at what brand involvement there was. None, because it was about you and presumably friends who cared about you. I still have yet to see really good business-to-business applications in some of these spaces.
Monseau (Johnson & Johnson): There's that whole shift in consumer attitudes and who do they trust. Look at the Edelman Trust Barometer. It goes back to this idea of speaking with an authentic voice and being real, but what does that really mean? It means providing people with stuff they actually are looking for... One of the more interesting examples of things we did was a page we put up on Facebook that looked at a community of moms trying to treat kids with ADHD. You're not looking for branded content, not even necessarily looking for medical info. What you're looking for are experiences of other people. It may not be your company or brand, but something you can provide to them based upon the relationships and knowledge you have as an organization.
Bough (PepsiCo): We are looking at that but I will say, with BlogHer, at the end of the day we sell a lot of products and we're looking at women's life stages and how do we work with a company like BlogHer. J&J did it with Baby Center, and that's kind of the model we're basing it on, but I think the other hard thing with that is the time it's going to take to see positive return on the business side. In reality, we've got three years just to build this thing. Look at how long it took Baby Center to figure out even how to monetize that.
Monseau (Johnson & Johnson): That goes back to the initial question that was posed about the economy. If this is going to be a long-term investment, a long-term development of relationships where you don't necessarily know what the return is going to look like, how do you sell that in and then how do you institute the change you need to make to your organization to be able to support that to make it successful?
Bough (PepsiCo): I just tell them Coca-Cola's going to do it (laughs).
O'Brien (PRWeek): Going back to the co-opting, I wonder if the opportunities available to corporations in the past are not as available because people are engaged and know how to build their own communities and the cost of building that community is nil. Is there that fear that, even if you're going in from a benevolent perspective, they're going to say we don't need you, we're already organized?
Hougland (Attention): Consumer Reports just acquired The Consumerist. They had a shared vision and mission. It was complementary. It's really hard for any brand to manufacture authenticity. There are people who do what you do and in an authentic way, usually with not a lot of resources. I don't think it's a great leap to say how do we pull our content together, how do we work with you? It's a very simple discussion.
O'Brien (PRWeek): Consumerist had a Nick Denton. You can go to Nick Denton and say we're going to buy your Web site. Maybe he had some say in it, but probably not. Pepsi or J&J or anyone going to this group, there's no CEO of this group of mothers. Basically you have to partner with the teaming mass which is more difficult.
Hougland (Attention): It's 10 partnerships with people that are trying to make a living doing this and are leading with their passion. Again, if you approach them, and your intentions have to be pretty pure, say we have a common interest in helping kids with ADHD; it won't be a branded site; we'll give you distribution; potentially we might pay you, if we pay you we'll fully disclose that; you'll still have your community here; we're not going to pose rules other than these three rules. To me, those are really easy partnerships to do.
Berg (Southwest Airlines): I find that the really passionate people that are the influentials want to be connected to us.
Monseau (Johnson & Johnson): It helps them build their brands as well.
Berg (Southwest Airlines): The people who are really passionate about airlines are really passionate about airlines. They want to know the tail number; they want to know the routing; they want to know all these little details, and where do they get that? They have to get it from me. I'm not forcing anything on them. It's a really mutually beneficial relationship we have.
O'Brien (PRWeek): What did you all think about Burger King's defriending campaign?
Branam (MS&L): I thought it was brilliant because it addressed a need in the community or an issue that would come up in a legitimate way for people who use the service. It was right on. The kind of thinking was, “How can we contribute and have an impact in this space?”, rather than “How can we extract something from this space?”
Christensen (IBM): As far as publicity stunts go it was brilliant, but I think it's important to recognize that's what it was designed to do. Maybe it's just where I'm at, but I want to see us move beyond publicity stunts in this space and get to real value where we're really engaging at a level where for us real problems are being solved, where real relationships are really deepening. By definition these things should be social and fun and have that entertainment, but at the same time, there's got to be ways we can use them more meaningfully. I think we're getting to that.
Monseau (Johnson & Johnson): You're absolutely right, Adam. We need to move beyond this and start using it for real purposes that can help build our businesses for the longer term.
Berg (Southwest Airlines): The situations we've had the most connection from didn't stem from a publicity stunt. They stem from crisis, from times when we've really messed something up. Those people came and maybe were mad at us and ripped us on our site, and then they stuck around. I saw people ripping me on one site, and defending me on another site six months later.
Hougland (Attention): Tina Fey brought this to real life. Everyone saw her at the Golden Globes where she gave a shout-out to a couple of bloggers who had gone online and ripped her and she called them out deliberately by their screen names. It was this wonderful moment when we realized everyone is listening.
O'Brien (PRWeek): What are the expectations of people coming into the field? Do you think schools are teaching [kids] enough?
Branam (MS&L): I think I'm something of an anomaly in the class I taught at Michigan State. I think it's transitioning toward a higher level of understanding, but my students told me they thought it was something very unique and appreciated it. In some ways, kids get on campus, get their heads down in their major, and they start to emerge when it comes time to think about getting a job and aren't really prepared for that.
Hougland (Attention): The talent pool is changing so quickly. I used to joke that we found all of our talent off Craigslist or through social media communities. At that time, it was hard for us to retrain people coming from the PR community. It was training from the ground-up. Nowadays, we're seeing candidates that have a year or two of experience having worked at Southwest or whatever, where they've been familiar or they've been the change-agents. We're seeing more candidates that are closer to being ready made than they've been before.
Cohen (Sony Electronics): That's very recent though because I was looking for someone to work on my team with social media experience about 18-20 months ago. I probably looked at 50 resumes and I couldn't find the word social media or social networking on any of them.
Bough (PepsiCo): I just went through the search process. What they told me is there were a ton of applicants for social media, but there weren't a ton who came from execution. I think the big issue with education right now is professional. There's not a lot of good professional education. We're looking at the whole PR industry that has an opportunity to shift over. What are we doing on a broader level? How do we change that?
Christensen (IBM): It's rare when you can find the person who can balance both. Sometimes you find someone from the old-school has excellent judgment, is an excellent writer. These used to be the prices of entry and still are or should be in communications regardless. Or sometimes, you find someone who has a lot of social media experience, and they're lacking that really important judgment. For me, it's almost easier to train the social media stuff, rather than the really good judgment.
Bradfield (Fleishman-Hillard): Social media for young folks is all about reacting. It's back and forth and instant text and updates on Facebook. With our junior talent, we force them a little bit to be really good listeners. We don't let them really engage until they've got that base of consuming and digesting and figuring out what they need in order to understand. The natural inclination, even someone with 25 years of experience, they want to shut something down. They just want to engage and get something over with. Patience is such a thing with young talent.
Paula Berg, manager of emerging media, Southwest Airlines
Bonin Bough, director of digital and social media, PepsiCo.
David Bradfield, SVP and partner, digital, Fleishman-Hillard
Jud Branam, MD of digital, MS&L
Adam Christensen, manager of social media communications, IBM
Marcy Cohen, senior PR manager, Sony Electronics
Curtis Hougland, founder, Attention PR
Marc Monseau, director of corporate communications and social media, Johnson & Johnson
The title of this story appears in print as "Talk about change."