18 December 2013

blah blah blah

So much for "it's not a lecture."

Last Wednesday I was privileged to speak at the Institute for Public Relations Leadership Forum in New York.  It's the second time I've had the chance to speak there.  As I mentioned before, speaking at IPR is more than a bit intimidating because the "students" are all very accomplished and exceptionally smart people, and the other speakers resemble the roster of a PR Hall of Fame induction ceremony.   At these events you're speaking with a relatively small group (about 20, I think) and it has the feel of a classroom by design. IPR promotes the substantive research behind what we do. I appreciate that because I spend so much time talking with "real" scientists who think my job is more "art," to put it generously.

I was asked to discuss emerging trends in Digital PR, so I think everyone was prepared to hear yet another talk about "Big Data," the buzziest buzzword in PR today.  Frankly, I think "big data" in the absence of strong analytical tools is really just a big mess.  As an industry we're getting better, as smart people like Katie Paine know, but I still think we have a long, long way to go.

To me, the most important "trend" continues to be homophily and the continued isolation of online communities. As more people use curation tools to screen out everything but the information that most closely fits their interests and worldview, we speak only with like-minded people.  These smaller groups collectively move toward more extreme viewpoints.  We begin to find an "otherness" in people.

This is much larger than a PR problem.  It's the reason for our disjointed politics and our most strident and misguided activism.  At IPR I called it the greatest single threat to the fate of humanity.  I discussed the segregated conversations that took place immediately after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  And I presented a small case study that shows what happens when someone outside a community happens upon messaging not intended for that person - Dr. Hope Jahren's audacious hijacking of #ManicureMonday.

Despite it all, I'm hopeful and I think that PR people - yes, PR people - can help us out of this spiral.  We are the people that move across communities and have a knack at finding who the influential people are in those communities.  We can not only identify the "bridge figures" that Ethan Zuckerman so brilliantly discusses - we can be those bridge figures.  It doesn't just have to be connecting a Malagasi musician with an audience in Manhattan.  For example, we can introduce the dairy farmer to the science educator and let them discover what they have in common.  If we build the right relationships, we can help build bridges of understanding to help re-humanize those people we see ranting on social networks.

The next day I presented and sat on a panel at the PR News 2013 Media Relations Conference.  That's a different kind of intimidating.  That's "you're speaking in the Ballroom of the National Press Club in front of a couple hundred people" intimidating. That's "these people paid a lot of money to be here so don't waste their time" intimidating.  On the panel was Kathy Grannis of the National Retail Federation and David Ringer of the Audubon Society.  They clearly knew their stuff.  Earlier speakers represented big brands or organizations who constantly dealt with newsworthy issues.

Before I spoke, I took a look at the registration list and noticed that many of them weren't in organizations you're likely to see on the front pages of national (or even regional) newspapers.  They have to do much more than push out a press release to expect any semblance of coverage from "mainstream" journalists.  While I had my "tips and tricks" of practical advice teed up, and was ready to talk about using Twitter as a personal positioning and curating tool, I really wanted to demonstrate there were options beyond traditional outlets.   USA Today probably won't cover the latest marketing initiative from a small brand, but an influential blogger who really likes your brand just might - and she might reach a more appropriate audience.

Luckily, I had the perfect example in the room. I noticed Kim Orlando was there, sharing her thoughts about the conference on Twitter while also facilitating an online conversation about tech and travel. Kim is the founder of Traveling Mom, a popular website that provides the kind of information parents need but may not always find in the pages of old-school travel mags and guidebooks.

I've been following Kim on Twitter for some time now - after all, it's my job. I know she's a well-respected and authentic voice in the mom-o-sphere with reach and influence. I know she's passionate about what she does online.  She's very smart - she "gets" working with organizations and brands, and understands the value of her work.  She's no-nonsense yet very social.  And she's always looking for new ideas with new people that have something relevant to discuss with her community.

So a couple of minutes into my talk I called out Kim and described her as "the most important person in the room." It's an unconventional thing to say, and I think she was surprised at the attention.  Yet for many in the room - comms directors for small museums, trade associations, and small to mid-sized companies - she represented the best chance they had to build relationships and trust for their brands.

If that's the only thing people got out of my talk in DC, I think I did my job.

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