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July 28th, 2008

How has social media changed PR? – An interview with Ross Mayfield of Socialtext

Recently, we blogged about some new trends in social media PR—namely Stowe Boyd’s call for pitches via Twitter and Marshall’s request for an OPML from PR firms. We blogged about those items because they are areas where much of the PR world is afraid to tread, and exactly where Voce wants to be. I was talking about some of this with Ross Mayfield of Socialtext fame. He had some great insights from both a PR client perspective and as an innovative software vendor in the very space causing these new disruptions.

I think what he said would be of interest to some of our other clients as well as to other PR professionals. There is some good fodder in here for further discussions about:

  • What is the big shift in PR and why are people split about whether or not to be happy about it?
  • What is the role of a modern PR firm?
  • Tactically speaking, how has the PR process changed?

What is the big shift in PR?

Question: What is the big shift in PR and why are people split about whether or not to be happy about it?

Answer: I think we are shifting from a world of exclusives to inclusives. In the old days, you only had people like John Markoff that had the ability to publish. So, you would pay way too much money to PR firms, such as your own, that had these trusted, expert relationships with the only publishers in town. They would give the executives some media training and you could hone the perfect pitch for the short window you had with the big broadcaster.

Now it’s changed to where everyone has the ability to publish. The number of relationships with publishers went for a few to thousands, if not millions. As a result, it is much more difficult to determine what PR firm you want to work with to get your story published. At the same time, that has become a new opportunity for PR firms—to understand the more complex media landscape. It also means that it’s not just one executive that is the originator of the message—it could be anybody in the company.

Edleman’s Trust Barometer reported that in 6 out of 10 countries surveyed, individuals trust peers over institutions, such as media institutions. And, 50% said they trust a rank-and-file employee over an executive. The new PR challenge is how to enable and trust your rank-and-file employees not just to carry a message, but for them to engage in conversation. That’s actually a greater opportunity than what existed before. While you might not be able to do highly-instensive expert media training for the executives, you are able to train and empower thousands of people within a company. However, if you’re whole model of PR is based on being good at the traditional approach, you might not be looking forward to the change.

Q: Another shift you talked about that I thought was interesting was from that post you sent me from Joi Ito’s blog. It’s the one were he applies a concept from Ed Hall’s book Beyond Culture of M-time and P-time to blogging and microblogging. Do you see a shift in PR work from M-time (linear progression) to P-time (asynchronous progression) as a result of the shift from exclusive to inclusive conversation?

A: Let’s put it this way, when you get truly overwhelmed by the information flow coming in you have no choice but to shift from M-time to P-time. That is because you have this different level of connectedness. Journalists and bloggers are not just driven by deadlines, they’re also driven by opportunity. And, so are PR firms and the best marketing firms. Given how fast memes propagate these days, you need both M-time and P-time to manage your communications.

In the old days, you would interface with the media in strict M-time. It was all about the PR firm getting you on the docket. And you would have these long campaigns building up to a point where you get a big bang. With P-time, you get much more of a flow in and out of opportunities. In that post you’re referring to, Ed Hall gives an example of P-time from the perspective of a government official in Latin America where he has people waiting for him in the hallway every morning. When there is an opportunity to bring them in, he would. In cases of emergencies, that official is able to immediately pull in any number of experts to solve a problem. Online, you don’t have to hang out in a hallway, so you can remain productive while you wait for a response. In a world with your continuous and partial attention, you can remain productive operating in P-time in a way that you couldn’t before.

The hard part of P-time is the communication inefficiencies. What I think the media, like Stowe and Marshall, are feeling is that everyone is trying to pull them into their own P-time. People do such faux pas as direct messaging someone on Twitter or IM or call them when you don’t have that kind of a relationship. The truth is, P-time tends to occur more in public. Therefore it’s far more possible to operate on P-time in the inclusive structure than the exclusive structure, which is why I say these days, you need both M-time and P-time to manage your communications.

What is the role of a modern PR firm?

Q: Given that software like Socialtext enables more people within an enterprise to be heard, how do you see PR as a service evolving to support the enterprise as a whole joining the conversation? How are relationships assigned and managed?

A: What we have are new problems. I don’t need help following people, aggregating is easy. I need help with real analysis to make sense of what trends and memes matter, particularly for the ones where my brand is not already involved. Part of it is that we’re going to need different types of tools. But, where the modern PR firm can help the most is in providing the inbound analysis to contextualize it for me, their client.

Clients that are testing things outbound should involve the PR firm earlier, which can be done asynchronous.

Q: Do you see the PR firm as having a role in facilitating/organizing communication within the enterprise or is that more a process that just needs to be defined and it will self-manage?

A: I would say that there is a competency that could be helpful for enterprises to learn from PR firms. For example, when we first started working with Voce, Mike Manuel turned out to be a darn good blogger in his own right. Steve Rubel and some other PR professionals are good at blogging too because they are great communicators, which is why they are in PR.

I think that the role of the PR firm, which has really been their role the whole time, is not to manage the gateway between the company and its market, but instead to provide the right pH balance for the osmosis between what is in the firm and what is outside. They are in a really perfect position to be experimenting with these tools and to advise their clients on how to get value from them.

Tactically speaking, how has the PR process changed?

Q: Is PR a different game now? Are there new best practices we should be adopting?

A: None of this is new, it’s just the modalities. If you think about it, traditional journalists were bombarded with the same kinds of requests that prompted Stowe and Marshall to share their preferred pitch approaches. What’s happened is two things: first, anybody can be a journalist. Secondly, the cost of outbound communication via email is much cheaper than postal mail. It costs 0¢ to throw in an extra CC on a given pitch. So, what most bloggers end up getting bombarded with is a very impersonal message and if there is a reply, then there is some follow up. Ever since email, every journalist and every blogger has had to deal with the same information overload issue. The difference is that some of the ones on the leading edge who have immersed themselves in the new social tools, if for no other reason than to understand them, if not to cover them, are now turning to them to structure their communications because now their inbox is completely overwhelmed.

10% of your email is what you could call productive, maybe 20%. 30% is occupational spam (CCed or BCCed or Reply) from people in your organization, in this case [the blogger's] role is public facing so the scale of their colleagues is much greater. You’re basically stretching email into a broadcast system since it’s so cheap to do so.

Most bloggers are doing everything themselves, such as filtering through story tips. As compared to being in a media organization that has resources for that. A couple of months ago, Arrington and a few folks were exploring how to make email more efficient, yet again, and this time they were looking into outsourcing to a personal assistant. But, TechCrunch and Read/WriteWeb have more resources than the average blogger, so some are turning to things like Twitter and OPMLs.

Another resourcing issues is that many bloggers have a small group of folks they turn to for validation on a new story. Public pitching, such as using Twitter, starts to create that preferential attachment before they really start writing the story. Vetting it in public lets them test out if the story is going to have legs before they write it.

What you’re seeing are shifts from everything focused on pre-briefings with a few big media done under embargo to stuff like our inclusive days where you involve some bloggers early on, even if it’s early in the product development process. You’re not pitching them on a message because you haven’t defined what the message is because the product is half-baked, but you’re getting their expertise and preferential attachment (also called “buy in”). Bloggers are deep in their trades, so sometimes you’re getting better expertise than from your customers.

Some of it is doing a different type of pre-briefing with bloggers, and including a wider group of folks in that pre-briefing. Not putting as much emphasis on the embargo. You’re seeing a weird counter trend too where bloggers intentionally break the embargo because they want the benefit of preferential attachment. So at a certain point, people are going to become more comfortable pitching just a facet of the message in open conversation. You still need to be able to give people differ angles based on the relationship with that blogger, the depth of expertise they have, and how the conversation can play out over a longer time frame.

Q: Where do you expect to see more innovation from PR in the near future?

A: I’ve been surprised more PR firms aren’t taking advantage of these tools to go more global. What I don’t understand is that between the US and UK there isn’t much distinction, so that should be a no-brainer. However, when you have the mass adoption of blogs in France, for example, I’d like my PR firm to be able to extend my messages there too. Now, I can get my message out there by reaching out to the local French speakers. But, there is still something lacking there. An ideal case is that I could engage a local firm, then at a modest level that firm would have relationships with global partners where we could use say, a wiki, to translate much of the communication between us. Wikipedia is the largest translation effort on the planet and all volunteer, which proves the model is possible. There are promising new tools out there, but it’s the practice that hasn’t yet arrived.

Filed in Public Relations, Social Media

Add Your Comment12 Responses to “How has social media changed PR? – An interview with Ross Mayfield of Socialtext”

Paula Thornton on May 28th, 2008 at 6:32 pm

The models simply shift. PR firms are middle-men, message brokers. They’re like the ‘translation stations’ of the broadcasting industry of old. They amplify the message and direct it further. Now there’s just more middle-men, so the economics shift. The price for playing the role goes down because the reach is less (although potentially more directed).

PR still plays a role, it changes in strategic focus. The value proposition has to adjust to adapt to the changes. And the message has to change — directed messages to directed audiences (different values).

Justin Kistner on May 28th, 2008 at 6:41 pm

The price for playing the role goes down because the reach is less

That’s an interesting aspect you point out here, Paula. So hypothetically speaking, if a PR firm can maintain a large reach in a more complex media landscape, is that worth more? In other words, should PR firms be touting their reach more than ever if it is more elusive now?

Ethan Bauley on May 29th, 2008 at 4:00 am

Re: market-beating reach

My take is that it depends on how you define “reach” and “middle man”, and how rational/efficient you believe the market for information is.

Beyond that, I loved Ross’s comment about PR guiding information flows within and without the firm (“pH balance”). I think optimizing this skill will go a long way towards serving the increasingly vital “reverse market” for leads (GetSatisfaction, BrewBlog, SERPs, etc).

Nice interview…looking forward to digging into Ross’s blog.

Justin Kistner on May 29th, 2008 at 2:09 pm

Ethan, the pH balance comment was my favorite of the interview! I thought it was a great description for PR’s modern role without tying it to specific tasks. Tasks like “designing a blog” could be done by a design firm, web design firm, ad agency, marketing firm, etc. Maintaining the pH balance has this “do whatever it takes” undertone that puts a spotlight on how services are divide up between the marketing, advertising, design, and PR functions. It says to me that in today’s market, what defines the services you offer is the objective you’ve been assigned–not what skill is required to pull it off.

Ethan Bauley on May 29th, 2008 at 2:34 pm

Someone forwarded me an article from MediaPost last week; the gist was “What’s the killer app for consumers on the Internet?” He goes on about consumers organizing to negotiate better pricing, etc.

The answer seems to be hidden in plain view. Isn’t the question to ask “What’s the implication for advertising/PR when customers DO connect with each other and create reverse markets?”

Justin Kistner on May 29th, 2008 at 4:42 pm

Bingo! I think you’re spot on about an unspoken fear in the promotional industries (marketing, advertising, PR, and communications) — What if the brands and consumers don’t need us anymore!?!

That’s why I love what Ross said about pH balance. It’s not that we aren’t needed any more, in fact, we’re more important than ever before. Our job is no longer to act as the gatekeepers of a small number of connection points across the firewall, rather, we need to make sure the water is nice to swim in. That’s part matchmaker, part coaching, part design, part communication, part relationships, part quantum, and lots of business intelligence!

I hadn’t heard about it described as reverse markets before, I’m going to look for some good links on that topic. Got any handy?

Sam Lawrence on May 29th, 2008 at 7:52 pm

Bottomline: On the agency side PR and Ad agencies need to fuse. On the client-side Marketing and Customer Service need to fuse.

I’m sick of dealing with agencies still thinking in media dollars and pieces of the picture. Stop waiting for your clients to figure this out and build the capacity for it yourselves and then sell it to us.

I haven’t blogged about the Marketing and Customer Service fusion yet but you can read about the PR/Agency stuff here: http://gobigalways.com/why-hasnt-marketing-duked-it-out/

Justin Kistner on May 29th, 2008 at 7:59 pm

Sam, that’s a compelling challenge. I’d bet social media PR is the most cost effective means for a business to connect with its market of all of the available disciplines. Shoot, I’d go so far as to say it’s more than cost effective, I think it’s the most effective regardless of cost!

Chris Heuer on June 3rd, 2008 at 9:25 pm

Sam – it goes back to the Cluetrain – its not about conversational marketing, or social media pr, its about market conversations – how are we talking with customers and other stakeholders. This is the fundamental difference in the approach we are taking with our agency and that I am beginning to see from a few PR agencies and a few more digital marketing firms. But even the explosion of social media consultants dont see this bigger picture, where some are so focused on blogging and twittering that they dont understand that different people have different media habits which require a holistic strategy.

Ross’ customer inclusion days are where its at. How do we talk with our customers and figure out what they want and what they respond to. Good market research isnt done in a fishbowl behind one way glass, its done in a conversation with the people who understand your market… typically there are more smart people outside of your company then there are inside – its actually a statistical fact.

Josh Hallett on June 4th, 2008 at 1:16 pm

Along the same lines as what Chris has said, it’s about facilitating communication, via any channel…social media being one of them. Of course you need to make sure you have something relevant and of value to establish/maintain a dialogue with your various publics.

Ross Mayfield on June 5th, 2008 at 1:53 am

Right on, Chris. In the support side of the business they have what they call the iceberg. 1% of product knowledge assimilated, 10% of problems touches the call center and the rest is below the water.

Ethan Bauley on June 5th, 2008 at 2:34 pm

@Chris Heuer

Yes! The Bill Joy-ism (“smart people outside your firm…”) applies to all parts of the value chain these days, from supply/logistics to design, marketing, and management.

For more on that subject, I strongly recommend John Hagel and John Seely Brown’s mind-blowing book “The Only Sustainable Edge”, which takes this idea and expands on it to redefine strategic advantage: from competitive advantage to cooperative advantage.

This article from HBS gives a good taste:

http://hbswk.hbs.edu/archive/4778.html