November 19, 2018 / Public Relations 2018 PRSA Conference: Musings From the Road

Steve Graham

By: Steve Graham

PRSA Event

The 2018 PRSA International Conference in Austin, Texas, was informative, insightful and entertaining. Here’s what we learned.

I recently attended the 2018 Public Relations Society of America’s International Conference in Austin, Texas. Austin is a blast of a town, full of young hipsters who enjoy classic Texas barbeque and the arts, especially live music. They don’t call Austin the “live music capital of the world” for nothing!

The conference was appropriately titled “Communications Convergence: Big Ideas. Big Future.” According to PRSA’s National Chair, Anthony D’Angelo, the theme is a description of the “profound and accelerating changes that make our profession critically important to the organizations we serve.” Well said, Anthony. The times, they are a-changing.

When I wasn’t preparing for a presentation with two of my Godfrey colleagues (more on that later), Ihad a chance to take in two sessions, both of which were entertaining, informative and thought-provoking. I’ll start with the one that was the most informative and thought-provoking. It was a panel discussion called “The Digital Transformation of Communications: Dive Into the Evolution of Technology-Powered PR Strategy.” Panelists included John King of SparkCognition, Christina Felton of Edelman, Sarah DeRocher Moore of Spredfast and Gay Gaddis of The Think Tank.

Digital PR

My main takeaways from the session were threefold:

  1. The lines between digital PR, marketing and social media are more blurred than ever. PR (earned media) supports paid, owned and shared media, and vice versa. You can’t have one without the others.
  2. Measurement is also more important than ever. It’s not enough to track clippings, share of voice, potential audience reach, impressions, website traffic or even the dollar value of PR results. You need to tie PR activities to sales leads and, preferably, actual sales. That’s the bottom line; that’s how you show the C-suite the true value of your PR investment.
  3. Brands need to take a stand. It’s one thing for brands to be completely transparent in the content they create and disseminate to their target audiences. It’s quite another when brands take a stand on political and social issues. That’s what customers expect these days. They want brands, including B2B brands, to “do the right thing” when it comes to those issues – even if it means alienating some customers and potentially losing their business.

The most entertaining session was the closing keynote by Ann Handley, a digital marketing pioneer and partner at MarketingProfs. Ann is a phenomenal speaker; she has a unique way of engaging her audience, telling rich stories and drawing some laughs.

Charlotte's Web

Ann is huge fan of E.B. White, who wrote the much-beloved children’s book “Charlotte’s Web”. Ann pointed out that “Charlotte’s Web” is not a children’s story. It’s the biggest, boldest, most integrated marketing campaign ever. (Okay, Ann, I’ll have to read it again to see if you’re right.)

My main takeaway from Ann’s presentation was this: Your brand voice is your biggest, boldest, bravest asset. Use it to your advantage. Big, bold and brave brand voices can change narratives. She cited an example by the Humane Society Silicon Valley, which ran a clever advertising campaign that changed the narrative about pet adoption. The campaign demonstrated that adoption not only changes a pet’s life, but it can also be a life-changer for the owner. Very cool!

Ann added that smart companies, truly innovative ones, don’t follow conversations – they lead them. She suggested that you develop an intimate knowledge of, and camaraderie with, your client or customer. Strike up a conversation with your target audiences. Get to know them, not only on a professional level, but also on a personal level. Because, after all, emotion sells.

4D Storytelling

This brings us back to the presentation I did with my colleagues Scott Trobaugh and Travis Macdonald. We had the unenviable position of presenting at 5 p.m. on Monday, right before happy hour was to begin. However, our topic, “4D Storytelling for B2B Audiences: How to Engage the Imaginations of Accountants, Engineers and Other B2B Buyers,” was extremely well-received. In fact, several attendees told us afterward that it was one of the best presentations they had seen on the conference’s first day.

I hope PRSA brings the conference back to Austin. I hope to check out the music scene again and chow down on some incredible brisket (highly recommended: Terry Black’s). But first, I need topick up a copy of “Charlotte’s Web.”


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