Storytelling & Other PR Schemes

I’m prepping for two sessions at next weekend’s PRSA International Conference in San Francisco. The first will consist of a conversation with three in-house social/tech PR pros from: Facebook, Skype (Microsoft-owned) and Twitter.

The idea grew out of a similar session held last spring in New York as part of PRSA’s Digital Impact Conference. That panel featured PR reps from four fast-growing digital startups: Buddy MediaEtsy, Foursquare and Zynga. It explored how their increasingly beleaguered PR “departments” managed to advance their companies’ brand and business interests with limited internal resources. (In most cases, our panelists were flying solo on the PR plane.)

For next week’s session, I hope to get a better handle on how some of the Bay Area’s more esteemed social/tech brands manage the myriad incoming requests for interviews and information, and the methods they deploy to advance their companies’ POVs and business goals. (In a prep call last week I was told that the news release simply does not exist in one of the featured company’s PR lexicon.)

The second session I’m moderating will take place on the same day and is audaciously titled “The Agency of the Future.” It will feature the CEOs of Airfoil, GolinHarris, H+K Strategies and Ketchum. When you think of the agency of the future, I’m not sure these particular firms come immediately to mind. But, trust me, all are investing in new tools and talent to tackle the tumultuous changes we face as an industry.

Storytelling and the leveraging of owned content will figure in both sessions at a time when PR pros’ historical reliance on the media filter (i.e., pitching stories to unwilling and even hostile journalists) is on the wane. Then again, is it really?

Just how much time and how many resources does a typical agency devote to developing story ideas to take to editorial decionsmakers? And other than the most digitally savvy corporate clients, e.g., Pepsi, Virgin Mobile, Starbucks, etc., aren’t most SMBs still compensating their PR agencies for garnering editorial coverage?

A Wall Street Journal piece on Buzzfeed in today’s edition looks at the communications hybrid of “sponsored stories” in which commercial brands pay for their “stories” to appear in Buzzfeed’s feed. The site’s social-minded readers then share that (quality) content via their own social channels giving the “advertiser,” “storyteller,” “marketer,” whatever, extra amplification, let alone valuable third-party endorsement:

“BuzzFeed President and COO Jon Steinberg tells WSJ’s Liz Heron and Keach Hagey how using social ads are far more effective and innovative than traditional methods, using new technology with old methods to reach the audience.

Over the next few weeks, the post drew 2,000 Facebook “likes” and about 330,000 views. But most of those views weren’t on BuzzFeed’s home page. Instead, they were from people sharing the post on social-media sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Stories go viral every day. But what made the post unusual is that it was an ad for Virgin Mobile, which was promoting more entertainment for sharing on the Virgin Mobile Live website. Aimed at enhancing Virgin Mobile’s brand, the so-called sponsored story was an example of a new breed of online marketing that takes advantage of people’s tendency to share online content with their friends.”

Paid commercial content lightly cloaked as editorial content is so buzzworthy, our friends over at PBS MindShift just complied and posted a series “New Storytelling” with all sorts of useful links. The melding of the marketing disciplines and the growth in number of channels to accomodate such hybrid communications is nothing new. (I penned a piece on HuffPosts’s advertorial model nearly two years ago and wrote about Altimeter’s views on “workflow convergence” more recently.)

But who owns it?

I suppose the overriding question I’ll have for these agency leaders is just how far have they’ve come with regard to paid and owned schemes for advancing their clients’ business interests. As for the in-house tech PR pros, I’m very curious to know how their departments are organized and what role do their own platforms play in the everyday conduct of corporate communications.

If you plan to attend #PRSAICON, please swing by to say hello.  If you don’t, but have some burning questions you’d like me to pose, email me at phimler [at] flatironcomm [dot] com.

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