Last night I attended a social media panel put on by the PRSA chapter in Boston. I went in part to hear the content; but also to meet John Cass and to say hello to a few folks I’ve met at various events over time. All in all it was a successful event on all fronts.
- John Cass – moderator, PR Communications
- Paul Gillin – 23 years of tech reporting, author of The New Influencers, PaulGillin.com
- Todd Defren – Shift Communications, PR Squared
- Todd Van Hoosear – Topaz partners, Tech PR Gems
John started by providing an overview of the major trends in social media and Web 2.0. He pointed out that this is really all about individuals having the ability to create and contribute content in a wide variety or forms and formats – blogs, podcasts, video, MySpace, etc. As more and more people participate and create content, the nature of communication is changing – it isn’t a one way street any more and that means that the audience is gaining power. John pointed to the example of Vince Ferrari, whose blog on attempting to cancel his AOL account was the online equivalent to the shot heard round the world. The bottom line is that the world of communication has changed and that PR people need to learn to apply their skills in new ways to be effective for their clients.
Each of the panelists was then asked to describe how they had become involved with social media.
Gillin got interested in social media while at TechTarget. His blog, which had been languishing with minimal readership, suddenly saw a huge spike – first hundreds then thousands of readers – because a couple of influential bloggers linked to a post he did following an open source event. This was more readers than many of the articles which appeared in some of the traditional online outlets he had worked with. This led him to realize that through social media (or personal publishing) one person – or a group of people – can made a difference.
He thinks that this new reality makes PR more difficult. In the past there was a limited pool of people that mattered. When the Web came along that pool grew, but only incrementally. With social media there are hundreds or even thousands of people that matter and the role of relationships – and the role of PR – is changing as a result.
Defren helped create the social media press release after Tom Foremski’s, Die! Press release! Die! Die! Die! post. He recognized that PR people need to rethink the way they consider, create and convey the news and that the traditional press release was not effective for social media.
Van Hoosear was a marketing guy going to his boss saying: blog, blog, blog – and was told to do it himself. At the time blogs were viewed as a new communication medium – not a destination in themselves. But the growth and readership is there and now Van Hoosear is expanding beyond blogs to podcasts and vidcasts. His blog has become a way to share what he has learned about social media PR.
One of the things he has learned is that social media has made PR more challenging in some respects; but more effective if done right. Much of the focus now is on identifying influencers and understanding how to reach them. The traditional ideas about static messages and target audiences don’t work in the world of social media. Now the focus needs to be on the conversation. People need to get over the idea of controlling the message; now they need to be thinking about how to start and sustain a conversation.
Each panelist was next asked to share their thoughts on how to make the Web more effective for social media.
Gillin started by pointing out the importance of search engine optimization and of making a site truly informational so that it is viewed as a destination for people.
Defren talked about the idea of the “microchunked” document. Something that people can take from a site or release and put it to work where and how they need it. Content chunks should be able to function as blog posts and as the starting point for conversation.
Van Hoosear felt that the social media press release provided a model for making Web sites more effective. Things like tagging, adding video, posting it to MySpace, etc. People will find and use the content if it is good enough and strong enough.
Cass next asked Defren to provide additional detail on the social media press release
He outline four elements that need to be considered and included to create a successful social media press release:
- Accuracy – the core news facts need to be included in an accessible format. It doesn’t need to be in the boxes and bullets of the template but that can make it easier for its content to be pulled apart and repurposed
- Context – provide links to relevant past coverage; people will search it out themselves so make it easier for them; use services like del.icio.us to provide a collection of relevant links (with appropriate context and explanation); tag it for Technorati
- Build community – create opportunities for people to provide commentary and share the content – add RSS, add DIGG links, use Del.icio.us, etc.
- Be findable – provide contact info and submit the news everywhere so that bloggers and other social media influencers can find it where they spend their time
A member of the audience said that she sees lots of clients that don’t understand the differences between key words and tags.
Defren explained tags are more relevant for social media and blogs and that key words tend to be more important for search engines.
Cass next asked the panelists to explain how one might find blogs and new influencers.
Gillin said that there are some 300 directories now that people can use and the they ought be be having alerts delivered via RSS. Doing this will help locate the key blogs. Finding the influencers though is more interesting. The top bloggers are influenced by other bloggers and most of them link to other influencers. Reading and following the links will help create a view of influence.
Defren suggested that “freshness” be used as a parameter for evaluating content, as well as authority (based on the number of links to and from a specific blog).
Van Hoosear finds the idea of authority to be very interesting; it can be abused to create flogs and slogs by raising authority artificially. Once a potential influencer has been found they still need to be evaluated in terms of their reach, their receptivity, how relevant they are and their reputation.
Gillin provided a bit of a social media reality check by explaining that he’d had trouble finding bloggers for a whole host of areas: architecture, construction, oil and gas, etc. The fact is that most industries are not yet represented in the world of social media.
After some conversation of the differences between different types of search and HTML vs. XML, Cass asked the panel to discuss other types of social media . . .
Gillin cited engadget as a very useful blog that many people might not recognize as a blog, tripadvisor as a tool for people to share their experiences and Will it blend? – a great site for those seeking a blender. All of these point to the writable Web where it is easy, cheap and simple to publish. What is important is that people are able to create and share things for others to consume and use. While you might not be able to control the message any more, you can be a part of the community.
Defren explained that one thing PR people need to focus on is selecting the right medium for communicating with a community.
Van Hoosear echoed this point and described people wanting to use things like Second Life whether it makes sense or not. He suggested a series of stages people ought to consider when they are thinking about social media. The first is simply to monitor what is happening in a relevant community. Once you understand that, you can join the conversation, start talking to others, comment on content, etc. Next begin to start conversations and create communities. Finally, one can begin to optimize visibility online (SEO, press room, etc.). Just saying “hello” is a good place to start.
The panel was then asked to describe what makes for a good blog.
Gillin said it was important to stay focused, post often, be interesting and transparent and to connect and cross links with others. Defren pointed out that many of the top bloggers aggregate other people’s content and wondered how that squared with Paul’s description. Paul explained that most of the top bloggers had established themselves by doing all of those things first; but that many of them then began aggregating and commenting on other content.
Another member of the audience raised the issue of authenticity and how to respond when clients ask for someone to ghost write blogs.
Defren is opposed to writing on behalf of clients while Van Hoosear has done it in the past. When doing so though transparency is critical. He suggests that it is OK to help with a general corporate blog but not a personal blog or as an individual at the company. He also said that you can never misrepresent the blog or yourself as a blogger. Gillin felt that there is a perception that a blog has to be written by an individual; but that that isn’t the case. Many blogs are written by multiple people – Channel 9 at Microsoft and Benetton are good examples of this.
The panel was asked to describe some things to avoid:
Defren warned against being a a drive by commentator; and also the importance of being honest about who you are and who you are working for. The key to social media starts with good listening and being part of the conversation. He also recommended against starting a relationship that you weren’t going to be able to maintain. Gillin’s advice was not to quit. Even if you stop blogging your content will remain. He also suggested that people think about what they say and post. Van Hoosear echoed the message of not quitting.
John’s final question to the panel was on corporate blog policies and whether they mattered.
According to Gillin Microsoft’s blogging policy is two words: “Be Smart.” At Harvard Business School, on the other hand, the policy is more than 2000 words. He recommended that people check out Charlene Li’s blog at Forrester for more examples of corporate blogging policies.
Defren thought it was important for there to be rules – especially for public companies. He liked Microsoft’s. Companies shouldn’t try to prohibit blogging because it will happen on way or another. If companies want the conversations to happen they should encourage people to be blogging.
While there was also a Q&A session I haven’t included it in this summary. The core of the event was excellent and it reinforced many things that I already believe to be true – that the nature of PR – especially for the tech industry has changed radically, that social media is fast replacing the traditional media as the primary vehicle for communication, that the ideas and approaches of traditional PR will soon reach the end of their useful lives and that all of us that practice PR need to do all we can to recognize, understand and embrace these changes. It is an exciting time.
For another perspective on the evening, check out Ponderings and Wanderings.
[tags]PRSA, Boston, social media, blogging, PR, communications, podcast, Paul Gillin, Todd Defren, Todd Van Hoosear, John Cass, social media press release, Charlene Li[/tags]