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.

N2 = Innovation!

n2-corridor-map squareBuilding a honeypot for innovation isn’t as easy as slapping a fancy name on something and walking away. It takes leadership to bring people together and consistent, sustained effort to make the changes necessary to attract business.

That’s why last night HB sponsored the kickoff meeting for the N2 Innovation Corridor.

I’ve watched this effort start with just a few conversations, then move into a bunch of committee meetings and then truly “kickoff” with a meeting of 250 people, all interested in networking, meeting, brainstorming and focusing one goal: turning the Newton/ Needham area of Massachusetts into a buzzing hub of innovation.

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The crowds at the event

I thought it was a success when I walked in and saw all the sponsor tables, blue lights and excited participants. I thought it was a success when I heard the speakers. I thought it was a success when I met all sorts of interesting folks eager to advance the region. 

But I knew it was a success when the young owner of a Boston-based tech firm walked up to Debi Kleiman of MITX and said, quite specifically, “how can I get involved?” This is a guy who lives in Newton, has an office downtown in a trendy neighborhood and runs an up-and-coming web development firm, just the kind of company N2 is designed to attract.

Today when most people think of Boston-area places to create an innovative business, their minds go to Kendall Square in Cambridge or the Innovation District along the seaport in Boston. Certainly these are awesome places to work, but as Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Greg Bialecki pointed out last night, we need to think more regionally. Silicon Valley, he said, stretches for 50 miles. So why are Bostonians so focused on being within a quick walk of innovation?

That’s just one of the questions worth exploring as innovators, entrepreneurs, investors, journalists, communicators and government officials continue to come together to create a plan for the N2 Innovation Corridor. It’s going to be exciting to see how this develops.

Brainstorm ideas!

Brainstorm ideas!

A lot of the ideas that came out of the brainstorming session focused on making the area an exciting destination. People want incubators, restaurants, live/work communities and better transportation access. In short, they want to come to a place that seems exciting and has life. How do we get from here to there? Well, that’s the challenge and the fun!

For anyone who wants to take part, check out the N2 Corridor site and join the LinkedIn Group. We’re looking for suggestions, ideas and people to be involved.

A Good Newsletter, A GREAT Cause

I am very pleased to announce the Fresh Ground Newsletter — which will arrive in your inbox no more than twice monthly, but only if you sign up for it below or on our Newsletter page. Want to get highlights of our best content in your inbox? While all the content we produce is good, we’ll share only the great content with you in the newsletter. The newsletter will highlight our thinking on the trends and issues facing the converging worlds of marketing, public relations, media and technology. We’ll also highlight some of the really creative work we’re doing for our clients, which includes supporting a neat and very last-minute goal for one of our clients.

SocialWish has just launched in a semi-private beta (you can sign up for it by creating a wish at www.socialwish.com), and yesterday they entered a contest that ends at midnight tonight (crazy, ain’t it?). Here’s the deal, if we all chip in to get SocialWish across the finish line in first place, they’ll donate $5,000 of the prize money to the Make-A-Wish Foundation! In order to make this happen, you need to act before midnight tonight (Monday, June 14th, 2010).

Here’s what you need to do:

  1. Visit the SocialWish contest entry page.
  2. Click “VOTE for this entry”
  3. Register for the contest
  4. Check your email, click the confirmation link then, just to be sure, go back to the SocialWish contest entry page and click that VOTE button one last time.

You can read more about what SocialWish is trying to do on their blog.

Oh, and don’t forget to sign up for the Fresh Ground Newsletter:


Why I'm Growing My Mo'

Me Before The Mo

Me Before The Mo

Two years ago in December, I lost my cousin to cancer. Not even two years later, I want the world to know I haven’t forgotten my cousin. That’s why I grew my mustache and goatee last year, and that’s why I shaved them and started over again this year.

(You may not have noticed because it takes so darn long for me to grow any facial hair. Therefore, here are a few pics for your enjoyment.)

And that’s why I’m asking for your help. Please contribute to me and my “Movember” team that is trying to help raise awareness and fight cancer.

Not My Real Mo

NOT My Real Mo

Here’s more on Brad Van Hoosear’s story…

In Loving Memory of Brad Van Hoosear (1970-2007)
Photo Copyright (c) Kay Phelan, uploaded by tvanhoosear

Brad Van Hoosear died in December 2007 of pancreatic cancer at the young age of 37. Here are some facts about pancreatic cancer, many from Brad’s mother, who was at Brad’s side throughout his terrible ordeal.

In 2007, The National Cancer Institute estimates 37,170 new cases of pancreatic cancer and 33,370 deaths in USA. Most people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer will have passed away by the end of the first year. Americans are twice as likely to be affected by pancreatic cancer that Europeans, for reasons unknown.

What My Mo REALLY Looks Like

What My Mo REALLY Looks Like

The symptoms of pancreatic cancer, according to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pancreatic_cancer, but verified elsewhere) include pain in the upper abdomen that typically radiates to the back and is relieved by leaning forward, loss of appetite, significant weight loss and jaundice. By the time you feel the pain from pancreatic cancer, however, it’s likely already beyond most typical cancer treatments currently available.

Furthermore, there are currently no non-intrusive, conclusive tests for pancreatic cancer beyond magnetic and sonic imaging that can pick up cancer masses, but which typically are only authorized after symptoms appear, when it’s already too late.

There are some known risk factors for the disease (the Wikipedia article lists several), and a few preventative measures, including quitting smoking, taking vitamin D, and eating foods rich in vitamins B12, B6 and folate.

A Young Life Lost to Cancer

The incidence of pancreatic cancer increases with age; most people are between 60 and 80 when they receive the diagnosis. Brad was 37. He was so young that, even though his symptoms were exactly those of the cancer, he was misdiagnosed because of his age. The doctor even said “If you were 60, I’d say you had pancreatic cancer.” Well, he did. But even if he had been diagnosed, it would’ve been too late.

There are people actively looking into ways to new treatment options. One such person is Michelle Calabretta, Ph.D., who blogs about her research at http://drmiggy.wordpress.com/ (she’s also on Twitter at http://twitter.com/drmiggy), but there are many others—you can read her blog for lots of good information and links to all kinds of cancer research, not just pancreatic.

In the U.S., pancreatic cancer is 9th or 10th most commonly diagnosed cancer (depending on gender), but the fourth leading cause of cancer death in men and women. The median survival period from the time of diagnosis until demise is arguably the worst of any of the cancers. The median survival for untreated advanced cancer of the pancreas is about 3 1/2 months; with good treatment this increases to about six months. Brad fought the disease for a year and a half—his youth and strength of spirit carried him.

I knew very little about this disease when Brad was first diagnosed. Quickly, however, I learned that a coworker’s cousin had died of it. When I tweeted about it yesterday (http://twitter.com/vanhoosear), more cases came out of the woodwork. In my network of 300+ Twitter followers, six wrote back saying they had lost a friend, acquaintance or family member to this disease! (Dozens more shared sympathy and support, for which I am very thankful, as is Brad’s direct family, with whom I shared this groundswell of support.)

A diagnosis of pancreatic cancer is a death sentence. There is no cure, few treatment options, and the 5 year survival rate is less than 5%. Despite this high mortality rate, the federal government spends woefully little money on pancreatic cancer research. It’s a very painful way to die, few treatments exist, and no cures.

The National Cancer Institute’s cancer research budget was $4.824 billion in 2004, an estimated $52.7 million of which was devoted to pancreatic cancer (1% of the budget for the fourth leading cause of cancer death in men and women). Research spending per pancreatic cancer patient is $1,145, the lowest of any leading cancer.

There are things you can do to help change this!

First, learn more about the disease. Start here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pancreatic_cancer and http://tinyurl.com/24p83b.

Next, tell your friends and family about the disease, especially if they match a lot of the predisposing factors outlined in Wikipedia.

Remember that November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month. Buy a purple ribbon pin to show your support: http://tinyurl.com/2964gg.

If cancer has affected you personally, tell people about it. I’ve found the experience very fulfilling and comforting.

Finally, consider supporting awareness and research into treating this terrible disease. There are many causes out there. These are just a few:

My dear cousin left behind a very rich life, despite its shortness, wonderful memories for his friends and family (including myself), and one final, incredible gift. Brad’s final legacy was to donate his cancerous tissue to Dr. Iacobuzio-Donahue’s research department at Johns Hopkins University in the effort to help find a cure for this dreaded disease.

If you knew Brad, or have been moved by this particular case, please consider making a memorial donation directly to the work of Dr. Iacobuzio-Donahue in Brad’s honor:

“GI Medical Donation Program”
c/o Christine Iacobuzio-Donahue, MD, PhD
Dept of Pathology Johns Hopkins University
1550 Orleans Street, CRB II, Room 343
Baltimore, MD 21231
(410) 955-9132

Please include your name and address, and note that your donation is being made in memory of Bradley Van Hoosear.

Brad, thank you. You’ve inspired friends, family, and now hundreds of people online to think about pancreatic cancer, moving us one important step closer to treating, preventing and someday curing this terrible cancer.

You will be missed!

This post originally appeared on my old personal blog “Michigander in Mass,” and later on “More Than Marketing.”