Edelman Academic Summit #3: My take, finally…

DC1No rest for the old professor this summer. None at all.

It started with a week of intense training in digital storytelling, followed a 3-week crash course in Ethics & Issues. I was student in the former, teacher in the latter.

In the last week of Ethics, I skipped class for a few days to attend the  Edelman’s New Media Academic Summit in Washington. I won’t rehash the sessions. It’s all on the conference website, and it’s well worth your time. Some excellent case studies.

What did I learn at #NMAS09? Not a helluva lot, really. I’ve been studying 2.0 communication for about 5 years, and symmetrical communication for 25. The case studies presented were new me, and at times even enlightening. But the theory, strategy and most of the research I’d heard before.

Still, I’m damned glad I attended #NMSA09, if only to reinforce our decision at Kent State 4 years ago to integrate 2.0 concepts into the PR coursework. At the same time, the conference reinforced my skepticism about social media, and my fears about in world in which “everyone is a publisher.”

My reservations about SM are no reflection on Edelman — good folks who do great work in SM. In fact, all of academe owes Edelman a big wet kiss for sharing what they’ve learned. You see any other PR firms doing this kind of thing?

Some nuggets from the conference — and my take on them…

My wife shot this at the Hirschhorn Museum in D.C. Said it reminded her of me.

My wife shot this pic at the Hirschhorn Museum in Washington. Said the sculpture reminded her a lot of me.

The attention span of online consumers is shrinking. We’ve all seen this coming for a decade. According to a 2008 Pew study, the average person now uses 8 news sources per day and hits hundreds of URLs per week. Translation: We must craft messages that are brief and hard hitting, but at the same time engaging. I trust you see the paradox in that.

The shrinking attention span of consumers online forces us to write and think in sound bites. And sound bits are shallow. Still, in a 2.0 environment, we can link the sound bite to in-depth content, so at least those truly interested in the topic will find details.

My take? As PR professionals, we gotta dumb it down, and we have to get a bit outrageous to garner attention. This troubles me, but it’s not our fault. In PR, we don’t create the media landscape, we simply operate in it. If our stakeholders use Twitter, we use Twitter. While the messages may seem shallow from our end, you ignore it at your peril.

kirkTwitter and social nets are the new distribution channels. And you thought they were for conversation! David Kirkpatrick, senior editor at Fortune, told us that Twitter and Facebook are “exceptionally important as vehicles for media distribution.” As the risk of reading into his remark, what I heard is that social nets are becoming push marketing channels. My experience of late on Twitter and Facebook supports this idea. Lots and lots of one-way messaging, but also a productive place to distribute links. It’s not all bad, but it’s not all “conversation.”

Mobile Web is huge growth area. Mobile devices amplify the need for brevity — the need for billboard-short messages that can be transmitted via 2-by-2-inch screens. Think of it as trying to connect with a bunch of ADD types who read while walking, eating, driving, and — as I saw twice in D.C — while peeing. Seriously, man. That’s unsanitary.

So let’s recap. We have an audience with an attention span of milli-seconds, and we’re trying to reach them on a screen the size of a business card. Are we up to the challenge?

google-logoGoogle rules. Landing on the first page of a Google search is more important than landing on the front page of the Times. I know, you knew that, too. But it emphasizes the critical role that “search” plays in our communication strategies, and in everything we write. Your audience is people, but it’s also an algorithm.

2.0 PR is more about what you DO than what you SAY. It surprises me how many people don’t get this simple idea. Reputation (another name for “brand”) is built on performance, not on communication. We heard this message in the case studies presented at the conference. But if you’re as old as I am, you’ve been reading about it for 30 years or more, thanks to the writings and teachings of Pat Jackson.

From my notes in Day 1 of the conference: “Pat J. taught me this in 1985.  The more things change, eh?” Social media have amplified the importance of performance, as one voice can become really loud when it’s bookmarked or “retweeted.” Unlike messages, performance is something organizations still control, even in a 2.0 world.

We’re all publishers. Been hearing this since Cluetrain. It’s exciting, and it’s troubling. As traditional media continue to disintegrate, PR has an opportunity to fill the information gap — to go direct to stakeholders with unfiltered content. No more pitching those pesky gatekeepers. From my notes at the conference: “Wow! This is a model for PR job security as we create more and more content to serve our stakeholders. Scary, huh?”

Why is it scary? Because public relations people are — by definition — advocates. We can fill cyberspace will all sorts of useful information, but we can’t be called upon to be the objective watchdogs of business and government. We work for business and government.

Social media criticism? I didn’t hear much of it, but I didn’t expect to. We came to Washington to learn from an acknowledged leader in the SM-PR niche. Edelman did not disappoint. The firm’s clients shared excellent case studies, and they did so with enthusiasm. Edelman demonstrated that social media must be a key component in any PR campaign.

But no one has yet convinced me that social media have fundamentally changed the DNA of public relations.

Edelman spent a pile of money on this conference, and shared a pile of information. I’m grateful. OK, I could ask what Edelman hopes to gain from all this effort and expense. But I don’t care. An industry leader showed leadership, and that’s good enough for me. I like win-win situations.

Blogging in a vacuum. I wrote this post before reading what others have said about the conference. I wanted it to be my take alone. This weekend, I’ll review what others have said about #NMAC09 and post links to some that I think you might enjoy.

But if you’re truly interested in social media — or if it’s becoming part of your job — set aside 10-12 hours and watch the videos. It won’t be as much fun as being there, but you won’t have deal with the Beltway traffic!

5 Responses to Edelman Academic Summit #3: My take, finally…

  1. Hi Bill,

    Thanks for posting your evaluation and findings from the conference.

    I agree completely with you about the lack of sm criticism. We have an obligation to teach public relations (and business, marketing, critical thinking, etc.) fundamentals, which our students think are antiquated because of social media.

    So, I’ll keep on studying and teaching social media, but I reserve the right to be critical. I completely agree that we have to remain vigilant about teaching them social media and fundamentals.

    Part of your post made me sad. Personally, I built a communications career around the ability to write. It is appalling to think that “writing” now consists of crafting 140-character Tweets or “status updates” on Facebook. I hate to think that we have to cement the sound bite society in this manner.

    I was in Silicon Valley when the mantra was “The Net is Going to CHANGE THE WORLD!” Sadly, yesteryear’s Kool-Aid sippers were right, but it is certainly arguable whether the changes were for the better. Today’s social media Kool-Aid sippers are carrying on the same mantra. Again, however, I wonder if what they are selling is good for the profession.

  2. Bill Sledzik says:

    One PR professor at NMAS09 asked Richard Edelman what his firm looks for in entry-level candidates. First on his list was “facility with digital content,” including experience posting video. Second, he said, Edelman seeks multilingual candidates, and finally, the firm wants students with a commitment to public/community service.

    Can’t argue with anything on that Mr. Edelman’s list. But it represents the first time I’ve heard a PR executive answer this question without mentioning “writing skills.” Maybe the core competency of writing goes without saying at Edelman.

    Regarding criticism of SM… Like you, Bob, I believe critical thinking (and writing) must be at the top of our list of competencies. If one can think and write clearly, using SM is pretty simple. But critical thinking includes the willingness to question prevailing wisdom. We like to think Kent grads leave with a lot of social media savvy. But I also hope they’re willing to ask the “why” questions when the lemmings are headed for the cliff.

    In deference to the Edelman folks, they’ve asked those questions for a while now. Their clients’ case studies convince me that social media can play a significant role in PR practice for a long time.

    How do we express this idea in 140 characters? Maybe we require a class in haiku! It’s not the worst idea.

  3. PR doesn’t create the media landscape– really? I think it *helps* to create it. The stuff PR pros put out there adds to the mix, creates (or pushes) expectations and standards for media content, etc. Hopefully we can help our students recognize an obligation to the public on that.

    I absolutely agree there’s more push than conversation in the PR/marketing going on now. I think it’s a missed opportunity in many cases.

  4. Rick Murray says:

    Hi Bill,

    Thanks so much for the thoughtful post. You asked what we (Edelman) hoped to gain from the Summit, and I’d say we see five real benefits.

    First, igniting (or acclerating, in your case) a passion for change amongst your teaching colleagues;

    Second, creating a sense of urgency among attendees such that the topics discussed are ever more widely intergated into the core PR, Comms and Journalism curriculae at your institutions;

    Third, demonstrating — through the panels and discussions — that this is more than theory and hype; that it’s being put into practice, being measured, and having a real impact on business outcomes by some of the world’s leading companies, governments and NGO’s;

    Fourth, sharing everything we did “live” with anyone and everyone who wanted to watch and participate. FYI, at one point, we had 550 people signed on, which far exceeded our expectations;

    Finally, having people like you think of Edelman first when your best and brightest students come to you and ask, “I want to get into the agency business. Where would YOU want to work and why?”

    This was, as you know, Year 3 for us. Based on the buzz in the room, the blogosphere and on Twitter, we’ll be looking to build on its success next June. Hope to see you there.



    • Bill Sledzik says:

      Thanks for dropping by, Rick. This confirms my thinking that NMAS09 was, indeed, a win-win project for Edelman and for those who attended. I’m grateful you kept me on the list — especially after this 🙂 — and hope to join you again next year.

      It also underscores a lesson we preach often to our students: Social media never let you take a day off! Here we are on this wonderful Saturday doing blog conversation. Were in your shoes, Rick, I’d put away the mobile device and head for Wrigleyville to root, root, root for — the Tribe!

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