Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Isn't the New York Times Already Pretty Social?

You can read all about the New York Times new social media editor nearly everywhere today. Or, you can just follow Jennifer Preston on Twitter and hear from her directly. Of course, there's the original memo announcing her new role, the CJR article telling us, um... not much, and Mike Volpe's on target criticism of her hiring, pointing out that a single person can't do it all, that social media needs to extend through out an organization. Though, to be fair, when I read the original memo I felt that her hiring was as much an internal educational move as an external outreach play.

All that being said, if all Preston takes away from this job is a few ideas from the peanut gallery like creating standardized hashtags for breaking news, then I'd call this a failed experiment.

Isn't the Times already a pretty good community? They have content, people who come to read the content and the ability for people to comment on that content. In fact, they have multiple communities, not just the readers but also the various communities they cover. Shouldn't the Times be working to galvenize those communities and strengthen them, rather than simply trying to Tweet more?

The Times, and other newspapers, should start inviting their readers to be editors. Their model should be Facebook, letting people interact and use the information as the basis of that interaction. I touched on this concept back in 2005, but I think it's much more important now.

The social media world has taught us that people follow people, but that organizations such as the New York Times and its more localized sibling the Boston Globe command trust and respect from their readers. They need to build on that, but also let the people have a say.

And not just on Twitter.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Thoughts After Layoff

Update: Much of what I laid out in this post has been on my mind for the past several months. As of 10/7/09, I have teamed up with Todd Van Hoosear to create Fresh Ground Communications, a firm dedicated to changing how companies handle their PR.

As those of you who follow me on Twitter and Facebook know, I recently became a casualty of the economy. Yes, I was laid off from my job at Schwartz Communications.

I worked there for nearly 9 years, in various times as a Senior Account Executive, Supervisor, Director and New Media Strategist. I started during the last of the dot com boom, watched the fallout after a devastating round of layoffs, then saw business rise again as money flowed back into the technology sector.

So I thought I'd take this time to reflect both on my work, the industry and where I'm going. You'll probably see a theme emerging in my blog posts as I to through a bit of self-discovery.

While at Schwartz I started to lead the agency into the social media landscape, working with clients as far back as 2003 to get them blogging and participating in online discussions. While I often found myself presenting ideas that were nodded and smiled at but ultimately ignored, I achieved greater success internally getting people to try things out on their own.

I liked the teaching. I liked the discussions. I liked helping people think about new ways to approach getting their clients publicity with the right audience. Even if I couldn't get my specific clients to make the move, many other people could across many other accounts. The cool part is, I don't need to stop doing that, I just won't be doing it there.

I firmly believe that PR has a great future in the new media landscape. But traditional media relations is dead, as though you haven't noticed. Companies need to shift from being content pushers (pitching media) to content creators.

This raises a pretty basic question: can the same people to do that job? I come at this from a different perspective, having had a career as a print and broadcast journalist, plus being a decent photographer, but can agencies expect their current staffs to have or gain those same skills?

Interestingly enough, many people with those exact skills are scattered around the job market. A few weeks ago I watched layoffs at IDG play out over Twitter. Over the past few months a lot of great journalists have lost their jobs and a number of great publications have closed their doors.

Not only does this mean there is a lot of talent out there for the taking, but it also means that traditional media relations firms have to completely reverse their business model or face more cuts, just changing from pitching reporters to pitching bloggers is not enough. Basic fact: if you pitch to a channel and the channel dries up, then you're toast.

Smart companies know this has to change. But people still fall back on what's safe and known, so change will be slow.

As Kenneth Lerer pointed out in his speech to Columbia Journalism School students, the newspaper industry got caught in what Clayton Christensen calls "The Innovator's Dilemma." That is, they listen too closely to their customers in a time of change, only to find themselves overtaken by younger, nimbler and riskier companies. The PR industry currently faces the same problem.

In her survey, Jennifer Leggio points out that there is a gap between client social media and media relations needs and agency deliverables. It's a gap made more confusing when you consider that on the agency side, quite a number of people felt that their clients held them back from pursuing alternative media.

That is, customers want one thing but they're saying quite another when it comes to their PR firms. PR firms are meeting what their customers want, but are not meeting their needs.

I believe that while clients know that they need to change, they also want to see their names in print. They come to PR firms with certain expectations and that includes the ability to walk into a board meeting and put up a PowerPoint slide showing all the great "hits" they got that quarter.

But this is also what traditional media relations firms are comfortable doing. This isn't just about flipping a switch and saying "OK people, now we're going to get involved in conversations," but about changing the way that management rewards employees, how employees report to clients and how clients understand what their agency can do for them.

Part of the answer lies in measurement, but part lies in taking risks, trying new things and just seeing what works.

More importantly, clients and firms alike need to reward the risk and embrace the change, not look for quick fixes. Projects will fail, some experiments will work, others won't. But don't punish the failures.