5 Things I Learned at the PRSA International Conference

The LOVE sculpture courtesy daniel_in_pr on Instagram.

Putting a few hundred PR people into a room together is a scenario ripe for self-parody, but that’s the premise of the PRSA International conference.

PRSA’s work to advance the efforts of communicators is no joking matter, however. I came back from the Philadelphia conclave with a fist full of notes, a pocket full of business cards and a belly full of cheesesteak. Hey, it was in Philly! And I even found time to make a pre-dawn run up the “Rocky Steps.” And no, that wasn’t enough to burn off the overstuffed meat hoagie I downed in Reading Terminal Market.

But we digress.

The keynotes were all quite good. Brian Solis opened the event by talking about the changing world of PR and how PR must now help businesses communicate emotion, not just value. Later in the week Vernice “Flygirl” Armour gave a great, energetic speech that equated her experiences as a pioneering attack helicopter pilot to life and business lessons.

But for me, the most inspiring keynote of the event came from John Wood, founder of Room to Read. His passion for his work as well as his examples of how Room to Read takes many of the same concepts that drive communications programs and applies them to helping kids around the world to read made me tear up a bit. If you haven’t heard him speak, you should.

Still, this was a business conference and it would mean nothing if I didn’t come back with a series of lessons. After sitting through a number of panels and having a quite a few sidebar discussions, I’ve boiled my lessons down to five key takeaways.

Swag, swag and more swag! Courtesy Hiloprgal on Instagram.

  1. Media relations remains  alive and well — It’s very sexy to focus on content and social programs, and those all work very well. We do a lot of them here at HB Agency. Yet, traditional PR goals of getting “hits” from reporters remains alive and well.  MWW EVP of Digital Content Ephraim Cohen pointed out that news media, and the influencers-formerly-known-as-reporters who write and publish articles, drive a lot of social interaction. Nearly every story of social media success that people told at the event at some point included the line “this also received attention from the media.” In some cases the media acted as a validator, but in most it acted as a driver.
  2. The faces are the same, only the names have changedNewsjacking? A new(ish) word for a concept that is as old as PR itself. Outreach? Same as it ever was, but instead of relying on just phones (or faxes, or snail mail, or email) to build relationships, we use Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and anything else that opens a channel. Content Marketing? We used to call that custom publishing. Native Advertising? Hello advertorial, my old friend. I don’t want to dismiss this as “everything old is new again,” as there are subtle differences with each one of these now. For example, native advertising often includes a lot more editorial control on the part of the publisher than did advertorial. Still, conceptually, these things are very close.
  3. Measure PR against Business and Brand; Forget ROIJim Pierpoint, senior vice president at Bank of America gave perhaps the best presentation of the week. In it he demonstrated, quite specifically, how public relations and media relations can map directly to brand and business goals. He changed how we perceive some basic questions like rather than just looking at the placement, reach and tonality of a given piece of coverage, develop measurement to understand how the messages are perceived by the audience. Today’s tools make this much easier and cheaper than in the past. Not only did he talk extensively about K.D. Paine’s Outputs, Outtakes and Outcomes, he mapped those to  Functional, Tactical and Strategic measurement platforms. He painted such a beautiful canvas of what’s possible that every other measurement talk felt like I was watching them color with crayons.
  4. Real-time Reaction is important, Context is more so — To a consumer brand, an entire news cycle can last a matter of a few hours. The Oreo Super Bowl ad kept coming up as a great reaction in real time. But as one person pointed out: it’s still just an ad for a cookie. Inserting a company into any conversation matters only if that conversation helps build your brand and reaches the right audience. A lot of brands put out content surrounding the Royal Baby announcement just to be part of the buzz, but for many that branding didn’t matter. The same goes for content programs that focus on the wrong type of content. Brand relevance matters as much as anything else to ensure that the interest you generate, whether that’s site traffic, general awareness or product interest, is from the right audience.
  5. Content is Great, but How Will You Get People to Read It? — Hubspot has done a great job of promoting the idea of inbound marketing. They’re right, of course. If you create great, relevant content over time then people will find you. The challenge is that as more companies get into the content creation game noise levels rise, making it more difficult to find and reach the right audience. This isn’t anything new. A lot of us remember an age when the major networks dominated TV; today our personal video choices are seemingly endless. So today’s content challenge is one of distribution. How do you get content into the hands of the right people? Tactics like those listed above help, but the high level answers come back to a combination of paid, earned, shared and owned channels. What those channels are, how much they cost and measuring the effectiveness of each remains a key stumbling block, one I hope we will continue to explore at future PRSA events.

Overall, a very good event with plenty of meat, if you hit the right presentations. I heard great things about Jerry Berger’s presentation on managing a crisis based on one of the biggest events of the year: the Boston Marathon Bombings. Berger manages communications for Beth Israel Hospital, the place where many of the victims received treatment but also the place where the alleged bombers were taken with their wounds.

Though, as we were leaving the conference, one person pointed out what was lacking: writing advice. While people talked about what to do with content and gave general advice on how to create it, the main conference contained no writing workshops, video tutorials or photography sessions. Hands-on training during the event (as opposed to leading into it) would have been very helpful, especially to young professionals.

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  1. Thanks for being with us in Philly and for the fantastic overview of Conference. Point well taken about writing advice – there’s an ongoing need for this, not just for PR pros, but across society. Our general sense is that there are a lot of resources to help writers, so we tend to focus specifically on PR-related skills – but you’ve made me rethink this view which we’ll talk about during our upcoming internal “Conference debrief” that we do every year once we’ve all recovered from Conference, and have collected all the feedback from SM and surveys.

    Bill Murray, PRSA President and COO

    • Chuck Tanowitz says:

      Thanks Bill! A great conference and I’m sure next year’s will be even better. Given the breadth of presentations, I’m sure that everyone came away with something different.

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