PR Roundtable Discussion: Brand in the Internet Era

We continue the PR/Blogger Roundtable discussion with Doug Haslam, Marshall Kirkpatrick, Brian Solis, Cathryn Hrudicka and Marc Orchant.

Yesterday we discussed the challenges facing Public Relations professionals as it pertains to social media. Today, we discuss branding in an open, internet driven society. I think you’ll like what they have to say.

What does the concept of “brand” mean to you and how do you see the concept of brand protection (or the concept of “open source brand”, so to speak) being transformed in the internet age?

Doug HaslamDoug Haslam: Brand is the concept of you or your company– what people think when they hear your name. What has complicated brand in the Internet age is that individuals now have a ready means to develop and promote their personal brands. Further, personal brand and professional brand are intertwined. Any communications an employee makes, whether on behalf of the company brand or not, affects the company brand in ways small and large. Likewise, anything the company says or does reflects directly on the personal brands of the employees. This intermingling of brands should affect companies’ thinking, from blog policies to employee morale and larger internal communications policies.

Cathryn HrudickaCathryn Hrudicka: A brand is more than an identity or logo; it’s the markets’ and your clients’ experience of you, what you stand for, your special value, what benefits you or your company offers, what customer service experiences you provide, and more. It is the sum total of how you communicate in writing, design and graphics, audio, video, print collateral, online, in your blog, everything. I feel PR and social media are an essential part of branding, and that branding messages used in advertising and marketing campaigns need to be included and coordinated with PR and social media campaigns, even if the communication styles are a bit different. For example, I’ve recently taken on a very cost-effective branding campaign for my new company services under the banner of Creative Sage , which is successfully crossing boundaries between social media, public relations and marketing, and each area is enhancing the other, which is ideal.

Tomorrow, the panel will discuss blogger engagement of social media. Stick around.

How can we protect brands on the internet? It’s more of a challenge, but certainly the concept of a trademark still holds weight in a court of law. I’ve found, though, that if you are strongly represented all over the internet, in a practical sense it becomes foolish for others to encroach upon your brand, and those who try are becoming more recognizable to the general public as scammers. You do have to be more vigilant in searching regularly for those who would violate or defame your brand (or your clients’ brands); and PR professionals spend more time now in online discussions defending a brand or responding to criticisms, false claims and defamers. It’s an unfortunate side effect of having a major Web presence. I’m an optimist and think that the accessibility of the Web and number of social media outlets and blogs will continue to create more intelligent discussions and debates that can ultimately enhance a brand. It certainly offers PR professionals more opportunities to fight back against defamers, false and negative claims against their clients. Anything negative usually offers a positive opportunity as well-we just have to see it.

Marshall KirkpatrickMarshall Kirkpatrick: The word brand has negative connotations for me, but let’s pretend it doesn’t for the moment. If your brand is at all based in the reality of your actions, then you should have enough staff capable of acting that way and who are actively engaged in social media.

I was just reading a comparison of Miro and Joost, for example. The Miro brand will be protected and extended by having people actively blogging, twittering, commenting, etc. in ways that promote free and open culture in general. Friend me on Twitter and pass me interesting news about DRM, Creative Commons, etc.

If you’re Joost, you should have a rich, probably European guy regularly do interviews about mainstream media’s embrace of innovation, with leading bloggers covering online video. Both of those companies are doing a good job of protecting and extending their brand using new social media.

Marc OrchantMarc Orchant: “Brand” may be one of the most bandied about and least understood terms in the PR and marketing business – and this is not a new thing. Many of the same questions about what constitutes a brand were being debated 30 years ago when I began my career in the publishing and advertising businesses. To me, a brand is the promises a company makes to its customers and how well it keeps them. That may sound a bit soft and fuzzy but I think it ultimately defines how consumers experience, relate to, and choose which brands they want to associate themselves with.

When I look at the powerful brands in my life ““ Apple, BMW, Southwest Airlines, and Starbucks to name a few ““ I see a consistent pattern of excellence in execution and focus on core values that separates these brands from their competition. They make a promise to me as a consumer and deliver on that promise faithfully over the long haul. This execution earns them a greater degree of “forgiveness” when they misstep ““ and all companies do from time to time ““ that I do not accord to others.

I think that’s the key to “brand protection” is earning the trust (or loyalty if you prefer) that can only come from an established pattern of delivering on promises made, these companies promote two important behaviors that help to protect their brands. They cultivate me as an evangelist ““ something Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba have documented in their books Creating Customer Evangelists and Citizen Marketers (aff). Having built up my personal enthusiasm for their offerings, I become part of the “front line” both in terms of spreading positive messages about their products o services and acting as a vocal defender when those brands are attacked by others.

Brian SolisBrian Solis: The brand is something altogether different today than it was BSM (before social media). The brand used to be something dictated by corporations and reinforced by marketers and ultimately evangelists.

However, these days, many marketing and business executives foolishly think that they can still solely control the brand and the corporate messages 100% when in fact people are also contributing to brand identity and resonance.

Social Media zealots preach that participation is marketing, and indeed it is, but there are ways to do it right and ways to completely f it up. One thing is for certain is that covering your ears to customer commentary taking place in social networks and the blogosphere and repeating “la la la la la” over and over pretending like it doesn’t exist IS NOT participating.

It the era of social media companies have no choice by to relinquish control, well somewhat, to those who chose to discuss it openly, in public forums that are in large part, actively contributing to the extensive influence enabled by social tools.

That doesn’t mean that companies can’t help chart the course of a brand, businesses just need to take into account that people now have voices and there in lies a new opportunity.

Let’s not forget that a good brand, or a terrible brand for that matter, evokes an emotion bond.

The true “open source brand” will acknowledge and leverage the “voices of the crowds” in order to extend and mold brands for both now and in the future – by connecting with people.

Again, Social Media is about people, not audiences, and therefore, brands affect people and in turn evoke responses. The smart marketers will learn how a brand relates to the various markets they wish to reach, why it’s important, different, and helpful, and connect with people directly to help them. This reinforces the brand and service attributes we ultimately hope to carry forward.

PR Roundtable Discussion: The Challenge of Social Media

Doug Haslam

Last week was a tough week for the public relations community dealing with social media. I even contributed a bit to the fuss, though independently of Chris Anderson or anyone else. It’s really quite easy to flame people and make bold statements like, “PR people, You’re blocked“. It’s quite another to try to facilitate healthy dialog and discussion to try to help the PR industry acclimate to a social media environment and getting bloggers to understand that the buck doesn’t end with us! In fact, both the PR community and the social media community need each other for different reasons.

I decided it would be useful to try to pull together some respected voices on both sides of the game and have a bit of a “roundtable” of discussion. We’ve discussed five questions, and I’ll be sharing their responses to these questions over the next week. I hope you find something useful in the discussion here. If you have anything to contribute, you’re welcome to do so in comments or on your own blog. I usually turn off trackbacks, but for these entries I will turn them on so you can join in the discussion any way you want.

But first, the participants.

Doug Haslam is a public relations professional with Topaz Partners, specializing in technology clients in the Web 2.0, mobile, storage and networking industries. Doug comes to public relations after a decade in broadcast journalism, and has spent his years with Topaz putting to practice his observations on how new media affect branding, reputation and communications.

Marshall Kirkpatrick lives in Portland, Oregon, has written for some of the top blogs on the internet and consults for companies who want to rock online. For more info see marshallk.com

Cathryn Hrudicka started her original company, Cathryn Hrudicka & Associates, working primarily in public relations, marketing, record promotion, arts management and event production in the entertainment industry. She has also worked on projects for technology and other Fortune 500 companies, universities, museums, major nonprofit agencies, trade associations, entrepreneurs, artists, performers and authors. She was recently quoted in Fast Company by Robert Scoble, about her use of social media, including to brand her new company branch, Creative Sage™, offering creative thinking and innovation training and consulting. She is also an executive coach and management consultant, a blogger, journalist, editor and media producer. She is on the planning committee for the San Francisco Social Media Club. See http://www.CreativeSage.com and http://www.CathrynHrudicka.com.

Marc Orchant is an independent consultant working with a number companies in the areas of new media integration, market and community development, and enhancing personal and team productivity. He is the Technology Editor for blognation USA, part of a global network of blogs focusing on emerging trends in technology and mobility. Prior to blognation, Marc wrote blogs on the Weblogs, Inc. and ZDNet networks. He was named a Microsoft MVP (Windows ““ Tablet PC) in 2006 and 2007. Earlier this year, Marc wrote The Unofficial Guide to Microsoft Outlook 2007 for Wiley and Sons, which was published in April 2007.

Brian Solis is Principal of FutureWorks, a PR and Social Media agency in Silicon Valley that “gets it.” Solis also runs the PR2.0 blog. Solis is co-founder of the Social Media Club, is an original member of the Media 2.0 Workgroup, and also is a contributor to the Social Media Collective.

What do you think the biggest challenge is for the Public Relations industry to fully embrace social media?

Marc OrchantMarc Orchant: Pinning down the single biggest challenge is a tough question to answer but I think it essentially comes down to redesigning a game plan that better addresses the scope and scale of the social net compared to the relatively smaller field of play in the mainstream media world. The fact is that there are millions of blogs, discussion forums, wikis, and other conversation spaces available to PR practitioners if they know where to look. This demands a bit of “long tail” thinking on their part and I’m not convinced, based on my personal experience, that they have, as an industry, figured out how to do this well.

Pitches that are broadcast to all possible outlets rarely achieve the desired effects. Most credible bloggers who have established a solid readership have done so not by not cutting and pasting press releases but by offering analysis and opinion. So research needs to be done to craft effective pitches that speak to a blogger and, by extension, to their readers.

The best way to ensure that a client’s story is told well is to get into a 1:1 conversation with the top tier bloggers in a particular product space. But setting up briefings with bloggers is difficult because of scheduling difficulties and the payoff is often difficult to measure because the traffic benefit might not be immediate.

Doug HaslamDoug Haslam: The biggest challenge for PR at this stage is to stop treating social media as an orphan, distinct from the “traditional” media. While pitching blogs may be different from pitching, say, a business weekly, so too is there a difference between pitching one blog vs. another blog, or one weekly vs. another. The larger point is that all pitches need to be properly targeted, and individualized for the recipient. So, those who would treat blogger relations as a separate effort form other media relations are, in my opinion, making a mistake.

This leads back to all the talk about “relationships” and conversations.” This isn’t something new, but the need to pitch bloggers and other social media has brought us back– or should bring us back– from the brink of “spam pitch” hell.

Brian SolisBrian Solis: What if we asked the question this way, “Should the PR industry participate in Social Media at all?” There are several pundits who have flatly said that “PR is too stupid to participate in Social Media” and therefore shouldn’t have a seat at the new marketing table.

After all, Social Media is about people.

In the eyes of many PR is associated with used car and snake oil salesmen or far worse, lazy flacks that have no clue what they’re talking about.

Yes, it’s true many PR people simply don’t or won’t ever get it. The other thing is that, as in any industry, there are also opportunists in PR who simply see Social Media as a new golden ticket and in turn, are selling a new portfolio of services without having a clue as to what Social Media really is and how it works.

The challenge for PR in Social Media isn’t any different than the challenge that already exists for them in traditional PR. For far too long PR has taken comfort in blasting information to the masses in the hopes that something would stick. Until recently, the industry really hasn’t seriously considered requiring people to learn about what it is they represent, why it matters and to whom, how it’s different than anything else out there, where customers go for information, and how it benefits the customers they’re ultimately trying to reach.

The lack of presence or the drive to inject these questions into the PR process and also take the time to answer them genuinely, without marketing hype, is perhaps the greatest inhibitor of PR’s legitimate entrance into Social Media.

Marshall KirkpatrickMarshall Kirkpatrick: For many people the biggest challenge will be getting over their tendency to have only two, often overlapping, modes of communication: being condescending and kissing ass. Engagement with social media, like many things in this world, is all about adding value.

In order to add value, PR people should get in touch with their own personal strengths. Are you particularly good at coming up with helpful metaphors or translating between two different people in a conversation? If so, save me from CEO hot-air. Are you particularly fast at what you do and consistently in the know about breaking news, early? If so, help me be early in the news cycle and get your client’s perspective in before the most competitive writers consider
the topic old news. Can you drink more than a normal person can and still be pleasant in conversation? All of these are ways you can add value to the work lives of writers online. When clients will let you add these different types of value, instead of offering nothing more than “access” (the importance of which is rapidly declining) – then I think things are good.

Cathryn HrudickaCathryn Hrudicka: I find that some of my public relations and marketing colleagues “get it” and some don’t. Some are still debating whether they should be writing blogs, let alone participating in a true conversation (not just posting links and events in a promotional manner) on Twitter, Jaiku, Pownce, Facebook and others. I’ve been making a lot of noise trying to educate them. One key is that we do need more specific case studies using social media examples and hard data to show numerical (or even qualitative) benefit to clients. We’ve been starting to produce such data, but it’s difficult, and a bit slow in coming.

In addition to PR and social media consulting, I also do innovation consulting and training in creative thinking, as well as executive coaching, I see similar barriers to innovation in the PR industry as I find in other industries. Ironically, success can be a barrier to innovation. Some of the “late adopters” are actually very successful in their practices and are unwilling to tamper what’s worked in the past to try anything new or relatively unproven. Since PR pros are under intense time and budget pressures, and they are often working in hierarchical agencies that don’t allow them room to experiment and “fail” on specific pitches, they don’t have as many opportunities to experiment with social media. Younger PR pros need ongoing mentoring, training and coaching, and judging from the programs I see at some traditional PR agencies, they are not getting enough forward-thinking training. It is essential to get the C-level principals at a PR agency into social media first.

I have always been on the edge, in that I built the PR side of my business in a maverick way. My earliest PR pitches were more conversational in style, with outstanding results, so social media conversations with media people were always natural for me. You must know how to craft story angles and what each individual media source really needs from a PR professional; do your research on specific media targets and keep up to date with contacts; and have ongoing conversations with media contacts, so they also get to know you and will come to you when they’re looking for an interview subject or story angle. It is vital to view media people, social or otherwise, as colleagues, not just the targets of a “pitch,” which really seems like an outmoded word to me now.

If you found this article notable and you want to hear what the folks have to say on other topics, make sure you subscribe to the feed or come back tomorrow. The conversation tomorrow will deal with the issue of brand in the internet era.