Monday, April 14, 2008

Spielberg, Lonelygirl15 and the Entertaining of PR

If I could hire any two people in the world to join my public relations consultancy who would it be?

The answer today sure is different than a mere 18 months ago. I would have most likely rattled off the name of a well respected technology trade journalist, industry analyst or agency executive. The state of public relations is now dramatically different. My top choices: award-winning movie producer/director Steven Spielberg and YouTube sensation turned actress Lonelygirl15. (

Public relations has traditionally been defined by education and engagement. Communications executives excel at forming meaningful, mutually beneficial relationships with an organization’s key stakeholders. Often mischaracterized as spin or influence peddling, public relations practiced ethically presents a perspective, opinion or corporate story, and then encourages dialogue and debate. That's how relationships are formed.

The requirements of PR professionals have changed more rapidly in the past year and a half than at any time during my nearly 20-year career. In addition to education and engagement, we need to add a third "e" to the public relations skill set -- entertainment. The ability to capture and hold an audience's attention in unique and innovative ways is a must for any communications program to achieve its benchmarks. It's comparable to the creative spirit that permeates Hollywood, Broadway or the Web 2.0 start-ups in Silicon Valley.

Drivers of the PR Sea-Change

To understand this dramatic shift in communications it is important to first explore why. It's no secret the business model employed by traditional media has suffered. From broadcast and cable to newspapers, consumer magazines and trade journals, media is under all-consuming stress. Advertising budgets have rapidly shifted online where there is a greater level of measurability and accountability. Moreover, consumers have come to expect editorial content delivered via the Web be offered at no charge, further eroding the revenue base.

In turn, broadcasters and publishers have slashed payrolls while taking stabs at a sustainable, Web-based business model. Journalists are asked to carry a heavier load by producing more content, more quickly while continuing to adhere to the standards and principles that have long shaped their profession. The media and publishing industries have grown so desperate that the idea of a government-backed financial scenario has gained a following in the blogosphere.

The meteoric rise of social media is the second (yet related) catalyst of this dramatic change in the public relations world. Consumers and corporate audiences alike now bypass traditional PR channels to communicate, educate, collaborate, network and cultivate relationships. Social networks, Web-based video, and blogging and micro-blogging platforms have enthralled and empowered individuals. Today, a person can exist online as both a consumer and publisher of media.

The trend of social media innovation will continue to accelerate as the barriers to entry for technology start-ups remain low. Historically, it's taken an army of software engineers, a pile of venture capital and years of development time to bring a product to market. That's no longer the case. Exciting new applications such as Twitter and FriendFeed are rapidly introduced and vetted by a passionate online community.

How One PR Shop has Evolved

Strategic Communications Group (Strategic) was by no means an early adopter of social media. Our initial efforts included forays into blogging, as well as the occasional comment in an online industry forum.

The vast majority of our activities on a client's behalf continued to be traditional media relations and industry analyst communications in support of corporate and product initiatives. The lack of a peer review process and the inherent unpredictable nature of social media tempered our enthusiasm for this new channel to the market.

Personally, I was turned off by the cavalier and cliquish attitude of social media champions. Those who didn't sprint full-speed to embrace these new offerings simply didn't "get it" or worse, would be relegated to the sidelines.

I experienced this bravado once before in my career. It was at the height of the dot com bubble when anyone who failed to rush their business to the Web was considered a dinosaur. The market correction in March 2001 and the resulting pain colored my view of the value of being a trailblazer.

About a year ago the senior team at Strategic openly embraced social media tactics as on-par and, in many instances, preferred over traditional media and analyst outreach. What changed for us? For starters, we became more comfortable with the business ROI delivered via social media and more capable of articulating it to a client.

In addition to thought leadership and executive visibility, our social media efforts are designed to enhance a client's organic search engine optimization. We consistently monitor Web traffic and online advertising buys for a client and its competitors, and then shape content and messaging accordingly.

Second, among our clients we now see a willingness to fund social media campaigns. We have moved past the education phase of market adoption and, while many efforts remain pilot programs, social media tactics are no longer viewed as a nice to have if there is a bit of money left in the budget.

For instance, this past quarter Strategic was selected by one of the world's largest telecommunications providers to spearhead a social media initiative that promotes a suite of technical services, as well as their stance on corporate social responsibility. We also introduced the first-ever executive blog in the government services space ( to help a provider of program management and administrative services differentiate itself.

The Entertainment Conundrum

What now keeps me awake at night is the challenge public relations professionals face to adopt an element of entertainment to social media campaigns. The Web is a prickly medium. Consumers, business buyers, investors, partners and employees will turn away from content that fails to educate, engage and entertain.

Recently, a client lamented that the 20 minute corporate presentation uploaded to YouTube and Insight 24 failed to garner much interest. Our idea: turn that presentation into a series of shorter video vignettes that tell a story by focusing on the personalities of the executive team.

High-value content has always been the calling of PR. We're now presented with the opportunity to help our clients experiment, explore and derive value from participating in social media. Will we get hip to the need to entertain? Quick...someone get me Steven Spielberg on the line. I want to talk to him about a career in public relations.


Anonymous said...


I especially liked this article. It completely articulated what we discussed in my meeting with you. Hope this finds you well.

Julie Pixler

Gregory Prior said...

This post exactly articulates what I want to do with my life....