'Digital Age' that hit PR, now proves its worth


O'Dwyers, June, 2005 by Greg Hazley


The “Digital Age” and technology frenzy that jump-started a marketing tsunami and pushed PR toward stratospheric billings, salaries and exposure a few years back ended with a crippling crash. But, ironically, the sluggish years that followed the dot-com boom and bust became a period of significant research and innovation in the PR services sector.


In broadcast monitoring, industry titans like Video Monitoring Services and enterprising start-ups like Multivision Inc. quietly began integrating new technology--and developing their own--to be in a position to reap the benefits when PR again lifted its head up from recession and clients began spending again.


And new technologies have emerged and come of age during the economic slumber like weblogs and RSS feeds, which industry executives say are beginning to take shape as effective replacements for traditional marketing tactics like blanket e-mails and PR’s favorite whipping boy, the 30-second spot.


But at the root of the PR services sector’s mini-renaissance is its embrace of digital technology to prove PR is working for a client, especially in TV.


“If you’re a consumer products company, you live or die based on what’s spoken about you on TV because more than 80 percent of Americans only get their views from TV,” said Sean Morgan, CEO of web-based TV monitoring company Critical Mention.


TV’s continuing importance in PR and new digital capabilities have sparked strong competition in the TV monitoring sector.


“Anyone can extract broadcast data now,” said Brent Bamberger, VP of Marketing for broadcast monitoring company Multivision, referring to his company’s widely copied innovation a few years back of using closed captioning text to track video news coverage. “The real talent now is being able to search it and understand it. It’s analytics and proving PR’s worth. The days of rolling a TV into a conference room and saying, ‘Look at our latest coverage,’ are over. We all want to move away from PR’s tape and transcript world.”


Chasing ROI

Return on investment has for years been touted as the silver bullet for proving PR’s elusive worth in the
corner office. PR is a better bang for the buck than advertising. PR builds third party credibility, rather than buying it. A well researched news story, the argument has been made, will always bring a more meaningful stakeholder return than a ad buy.

In May, APCO Worldwide President Margery Kraus cited an “intellectual challenge” for PR to mitigate a world of 15-minute news cycles. “We’ve always been at a disadvantage because people think we only bring something to the table in a crisis,” she said.


But the elusive quest for consistent proof of ROI in PR is finally beginning to strike productive chords, thanks, ironically, to the Digital Age that economically crippled the industry. The technology has allowed research and monitoring shops and PR firms to bring news coverage and client mentions, especially video, to a level of ubiquity, reach and simplicity that couldn’t previously have been imagined, even in the early years of the Internet boom.


The competitive PR services industry is working toward a common goal of giving clients the means to track every spoken and printed word uttered in the Digital Age and translate what it all means. It’s the latter that has boosted PR’s elusive goal of proving ROI and where much of the service industry’s innovation has focused in recent years.


The monitoring industry has made solid strides toward putting PR professionals in a position of knowing what is being said about their clients – be it on a mainstream outlet like Fox News Channel or a quirky website like WalMartSucks.org – and now in finding out what the mention translates to in terms of value or harm.


“Clients, especially Fortune 500 companies, told us they wanted us to monitor in the smaller markets, they wanted to make sure something like Firestone doesn’t happen again,” said VMS President Peter Wengryn, in reference to the textbook PR crisis of 2000 that began with a small market news story. “Now we can notify a client within minutes of an airing and they can actually have a digital clip to view what the coverage is so they can respond.”


VMS, still the dominant video monitoring shop in the industry, in May became the first such company to hit the critical mass for TV tracking when it added capability to track all 210 TV markets in the U.S. thanks to digital innovations.


Multivision’s Bamberger said broadcast monitoring had lagged for years because service companies had focused on bringing print models over to video and hard-copy tapes continued to be a PR industry standard. As digital technology came into its own during the Internet boom and in its aftermath, video monitoring and analytics have increased five-fold, he said.


Along with Multivision, another rising player in the space is Critical Mention. CM’s web-based platform significantly expanded--it now tracks about 400 channels in 100 markets--its reach in April because of improved technology.

But as CM’s Morgan notes, monitoring is not just about tracking one’s clients anymore.

“Now they’re using it as a business intelligence tool,” he said. “For example, we’ve got their sales groups tracking competitors while their legal groups are tracking lobbying issues. People are incorporating our platform into the daily ritual of managing their brand and products and people in real-time.


CM’s progress hasn’t been ignored by investors either as Morgan, a co-founder of ScreamingMedia, is working on a new $5M round of financing after attracting about $2M last fall. Although CM is not yet profitable, Morgan said CM has about 150 clients with a low overhead of about 18.


But while the digital era advanced the tracking of TV coverage, it has revolutionized the Internet and its interactions with consumers.


Medialink President and CEO Larry Moskowitz describes the difference between TV and Internet media as a contrast of “lean-forward” and “lean-backward” media, based on the position of the user or viewer. "Consumptions habits are changing, but the common thread continues to be the moving image,” he pointed out.


Lean-forward media

One of the most widely covered digital movements affecting PR is recent months is the exponential growth and, some say, influence of web logs.


Americans’ affinity toward writing online journals on all matter of subjects not only opened up doors for marketers, but also for innovative ways to track mentions.


One of the early winners in the space has been PubSub, a two-and-a-half-year-old startup that tracks mentions across the Internet and the so-called blogosphere, based on keywords supplied by users.


But rather than functioning as a traditional search engine, PubSub utilizes a different algorithm to initiate proactive searches for clients, telling them as mentions occur, rather than a client having to seek them out.


“Rather than running, say, a Google search and essentially answering a query that says, ‘Tell me what is known,’ PubSub says, ‘Tell me when something new happens,’” said Bob Wyman, President of the company. He told O’Dwyer’s that the technology for “prospective searches” had been limited to niche industries like stock traders or SEC monitors, but advances have put such search capabilities in the hands of the masses.


“Exposure to blogs recognizes the change in the way the audience demands and wants information,” said Gerry Schwartz, President of New York-based G.S. Schwartz & Co. “As recently as three years ago, most people still got their information offline. But today the New York Times has more subscribers online than it does in print. If your client sells products or services to a target audience between 18 and 35 years old, you aren’t getting them through television anymore.”


But Schwartz also said PR should be careful not to embrace the medium too closely or quickly.


“Blogs are just one little piece. It’s one of 20 different digital ways to reach people. You’ve got IMing, video streaming, audio streaming, satellite, podcasting, e-mail blasts. The problem with blogs is that every PR turkey in the country is trying to be the next Seth Godin [who writes a popular marketing blog]. Everyone wants to be the next new philosopher of blogs. There’s 40,000 new blogs a day. Do you really thing the public cares about most of them?”

In a telling shift from the way content has been delivered in recent years, PubSub notifies its users via RSS feeds or its own program installed on a web browser, shying away from e-mail in most cases, which can easily becoming overwhelming when tracking mentions, said Wyman.


And parallel to the rise of blogs is RSS, an acronym for real simple syndication, which has shown its own potential for transforming aspects of PR.


“There are PR agencies that have really recognized what this technology can do for the industry,” said Fergus Burns, who heads Ireland-based Nooked, which catalogs corporate RSS feeds and helps companies incorporate the technology to disseminate information. “But there's also a larger group of agencies with their heads in the sand.”

Burns noted Richard Edelman's blog “Speak Up” was a good sign that PR is beginning to embrace new tools like blogging and RSS and put the field front-and-center in the PR industry.


Burns sees applications for RSS in traditional PR disciplines like media relations, noting RSS’ advantage over traditional newswires because RSS feeds are more targeted and reporters subscribe to feeds they are interested in covering.


He also sees uses for internal communications on corporate Intranets.


Nooked recently inked its 1,000 corporate customer for its FeedWizard RSS publishing tool and is building a searchable online directory of corporate RSS feeds--http://dir.nooked.com/--for journalists and researchers.


But Burns is not looking to blue-chip companies or the major industry players to turn the tide toward widespread acceptance of RSS in corporate PR.


“We’re not just going after the Fortune 500 companies, even though they are the biggest,” said Burns. “They take too long to adapt when things are changing. We can’t wait for them to make a decision.”