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Research Insights | Highlights from the 2014 PR Forum 

This Research Insights is an overview of the recent 4A's PR conference, titled "24/7: Always on Communications," which focused on the many opportunities available to brands and their agencies in today's digital, social and mobile environment.

Digiday’s Brian Braiker pointed out that while the craft of journalism and its core competencies haven’t changed, the timing and toolkits have. Fellow panelists and presenters—largely composed of editors and reporters—echoed this sentiment. Throughout the day, a recurring theme was that great content can come from anywhere.

Working With Top Media Brands

Speakers outlined the types of stories that interest them, as well as some new ways PR professionals can work with the media brands. Bob Safian, Editor and Managing Director, Fast Company, explained that there are 350 stories online each week. Safian is always looking for story ideas that are unique, preferably focused on the future of business and ideas that will help readers be successful. USA Today’s Laura Petrecca is always on the quest for consumer insights, behind-the-scenes details, and unusual trends. Not surprisingly, Suzanne Vranica of The Wall Street Journal explained that her brand’s marketing stories have taken on more of a business angle, including how agencies are handling technology and what mergers mean to the business.

Advertising Age’s editors said they reduced the frequency of the magazine to reallocate resources toward videos, student editions and a new CMO section. They also have started creating custom content for marketers. James Cooper, Editor, Adweek, stressed his magazine’s new emphasis on design and photography, saying that just because it’s a trade publication, it doesn’t have to look like one. Adweek also loves long-form stories and their ability to dive deeply into issues.


Meredith Levien, EVP, Advertising, New York Times, talked about the state of storytelling, which combines art (narrative) + science (digital). This framework allows stories to be much richer. Case in point: The publication’s most-read piece of content EVER was a dialect quiz that determined where readers grew up. Written by a Times intern, the quiz’s results were based on solid data from a Harvard linguistics study, but were expressed in an interactive and personalized way that was highly effective.

The New York Times thinks about its approach to storytelling in the following ways:

  • Stories are conversations and readers are contributors in this mobile/social world.
  • Personal context is everything. Take a big story and make it matter to people by framing it in a way that is personal to them.
  • Mobile-centric content design is a must. Stories should be told in ways that were designed for that device.
  • How to amplify content really matters. Brands have a role to play in in-the-moment reporting, as well as retrospective storytelling.
  • Newsroom metrics are today’s standard. Page views, social referring, social sharing, and how people engage with the content all matter.  

The UK-based Contagious is first and foremost concerned with consumers and their behaviors. Senior Writer Chris Barth explained that the latest trends are ephemeral, therefore his publication is interested in “behaviors over bandwagons.” The type of stories that speak to them are ones about brands that move at the speed of culture, offer connected experiences, provide services that evolve based on users’ interaction, and contextual integration—no division between brand and the medium.  

Social Media

Attendees heard from Facebook and Twitter representatives, who outlined how PR folks and their clients could take advantage of opportunities available on these social media sites. Melissa Barnes, Head of Global Brands at Twitter, helps marketers understand the mechanics of using the platform. Brands should know how to harness Twitter’s power considering the results it’s capable of producing, e.g., after Nina Garcia, Editor of Marie Claire, tweeted complimentary things about JC Penney, its stock went up 20%. Barnes explained that a key element of success on the platform is anticipating potential scenarios and responding quickly, creatively, and in ways that support the brand’s story. Twitter also affords marketers a lot of targeting options, so the right audiences are reached at the proper times. Tracking patterns, like when people are hungry or when they go for a run, Twitter gives brands the “power of predictability”, thereby informing when they tweet and who they target.

Dave Dugan, Global Agency Lead, Facebook, illustrated how the social media giant gives brands enviable targeting options: When Coke aired a Super Bowl ad featuring “America the Beautiful” sung in seven languages, it was met with a fair amount of negativity. Coke then created 19 different versions of the spot and used Facebook’s profile data to deliver each version to the appropriate audience. The favorable response was overwhelming. Since a huge portion of Facebook’s business comes from agencies, it is working to build more tools and provide insights to make it easier for agencies to plan and buy on the platform.

The opportunities available on social media are numerous, but PR professionals and brands should be prepared when mistakes happen and crises occur. David Krejci, EVP of Digital, Weber Shandwick, and Mike Paul, the Reputation Doctor®, gave practical advice on what to do when social media goes awry. Krejci said that in social media, mistakes are easy to make. But both speakers agreed when strict social media policies are in place mistakes can be handled efficiently. According to Paul, it’s important to have strict policies because social media is a very powerful tool that can cost money, stock price or even loss of a client if not controlled properly. Both recommended that when a social media crisis does occur, honesty is the best policy.

Pitching Your Ideas

Over the course of the conference, journalists and editors imparted helpful tips to attendees on best ways to reach them, types of information they want, what things not to do and more.

  • Email is a great medium for pitches, especially when it gets right to the point. Remember, technology does work and they do get your emails, but if you want to follow up once (and only once) then that’s acceptable. Todd Wasserman, Mashable, and Michael Learmonth, Advertising Age, both said that Twitter is not a great place to pitch.
  • Personal relationships are integral – The majority of editors and journalists said that if an email for a pitch comes from someone they know personally, they are more likely to read it.
  • Introductions are powerful – Learmonth mentioned that he doesn’t get enough agency pitches and would love to be introduced to the people who could give him stories about what’s happening in the agency world.
  • Compelling stories – Each publication has a different definition of what they believe is a compelling story for their audience, but Bob Safian may have said it best: stories must be sexy and fun because we still have to compete with Angry Birds and Orange Is the New Black.
  • Ask the right questions – Questions are a tool of the trade according to Warren Berger, Journalist and Author, and you should make sure you ask the right questions to solve the right problems.
  • Good art – Suzanne Vranica said that art is key (the bigger the art, the bigger the space you get) and it should be a number one priority. Laura Petrecca recommended sending a photo right away because she has to add art herself and this makes her job easier. Safian again told it how it is —younger is better than older, female is better than male, non-white is better than white, and attractive will always trump ugly.
  • Accuracy is paramount – Don’t withhold information. And be honest—you are representing yourself as well as your brand.
  • Be fast – Everything is so fast now, companies have to respond quickly and always have to be ready. The new motto really is 24/7.


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