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PRSA-Chicago Hosts Chapter Luncheon

Lauren Eichmann

PRSA Panel DiscussionI recently had the opportunity to attend the PRSA-Chicago Chapter Luncheon and hear several individuals in the PR industry talk about relevant issues for today’s practitioners. Topics included the current PR environment; predictions for 2010 through the lens of communicators; insights and innovative strategies agencies should provide clients; and how to maintain a forward-thinking attitude.

Among the panelists speaking at the event included Janet Cabot of Edelman, Ron Culp of Ketchum, Joel Curran of MS&L, Susan Howe of Weber Shandwick Chicago and Rich Jernstedt of Fleishman-Hillard. The moderator was Gary Weitman, Senior Vice President of Corporate Relations at Tribune Company.

As quite obviously evidenced with the closures and mergers of several news and trade publications (as well as layoffs experienced at many media outlets), the panelists talked of shrinking newsrooms leading the transformation of traditional media.

This quickly turned the conversation to social media.

How does social media play a role in PR activities?

Howe noted that while journalism may be retracting now, it will soon grow again. The need for good storytelling will never disappear, she added.

Edelman’s Janet Cabot agreed, indicating that the interplay between traditional media and social media will continue to be top-of-mind. How businesses can successfully communicate their message across these mediums will become critical. Cabot conveyed the fact that it’s the job of PR professionals to educate clients that conversations are happening online whether they like it or not (not only about their business, but about their competitors). It’s up to a business to decide whether they’re going to actually participate in that conversation.

I couldn’t agree more, as bloggers and online sources are becoming increasingly relevant to consumer -- and business -- purchasing decisions. It’s one of the reasons why the FTC has implemented new regulations for bloggers starting in December (see my previous post). Online “content” is becoming a buzzword: how do businesses create content of value to establish a credible voice in the marketplace?

Cabot brought up one point that I found interesting: the idea of a “Social Media Belt,” comparable to the karate designation that indicates a practitioner’s skill level. “Everyone should have social media skills,” she said. “It’s becoming a core competency of business.”  In fact, Cabot is practicing what she preaches, recently being part of a Chicago Tribune article that discusses the rise of younger employees teaching their senior-level executives about the “mystery” of social media. She said she currently has what she deems her “white” belt.

The panelists seemed to concur that employees and executives must learn at a much faster rate than ever before.

So how do you get started with social media, and how do you monitor it?

Just as we recommend to our clients, the panelists recommended that having a blog is one of the first steps – beyond starting to listen to the conversations happening in the online channel. The barriers to entry are low if you want to start a blog.

Some people are at first hesitant because they are afraid of potentially negative comments on their blog. The general recommendations were to let the people drive the conversation (and let it be robust). While you should put rules in place to standardize blog posts and respond to comments, it’s critical to let the public comment freely. It’s also what we at Walker Sands recommend to clients. Howe perhaps said it best when she conveyed the fact that the blogosphere tends to police itself. In other words, people will oftentimes jump into the conversation to defend a brand they like, or to make counter-arguments if a certain comment is way off-base.

A second common reason some may be hesitant to start a blog involves the actual content. How do you distinguish between your personal and professional identity online? Jernstedt put it bluntly, indicating that you must look at three factors before you post content online:

• What would your boss think?

• What would your client think?

• What would your grandmother think?

If you have no problem with any of the above three, you’re in the clear.

How is the economy affecting PR and marketing activities?

The moderator from the Chicago Tribune had some good stats to offer up. He said that in their communications department, they previously had 19 staff members and a $5 million budget. Today, those numbers have declined to 4 and less than $2.5 million, respectively.

Jernstedt noted that a down economy is actually precisely the time you want to redouble your PR efforts. Much has been written on this topic, in fact. A PRWeek article notes that:

“The way consumers, stakeholders, and investors imagine companies will perform is a partial measure of how they will behave: positive publicity drives momentum, which, in turn, shapes perception. The job of every PR professional is ultimately dependent on this dynamic, particularly when a company's constituents are more concerned about their pocket books than new products.”

PR professionals are a resourceful group of people and can shave costs if needed. There are more ways PR agencies can serve a company beyond just PR as well. For example, this can mean coordinating efforts with HR or procurement departments where communication plays a key role.

In fact, Jernstedt noticed that with his clients, more and more PR spend is being pulled from marketing budgets within the past 12 months. The key here is making PR efforts more targeted, he said. It’s what he calls “the new math.” This means that instead of reaching out to five million people with the hope that 50,000 will respond, now you’re reaching out to 5,000 in a very targeted way.


Where is PR headed in the future?

All the panelists agreed that PR is poised for growth, and that the concentration will be on developing talent and keeping long-term employees. Investing in intellectual property and identifying a more holistic approach to serve clients will be essential in order to drive value.   

All in all, it was a good panel with some good thoughts. At points I felt the firms weren't as forthcoming as they could have been, but they also made some interesting points. Much of what they discussed we've seen with our own clients and I was pleased to see we were ahead of the curve on a lot of things.