Approximately 200 people – including attendees and speakers – participated in Capitol Communicator’s March 28 Convergence in Communications Conference at Artisphere in Arlington.

The full-day conference focused on the fundamental changes impacting the communications community – in everything from how the media covers the news; to the growth of social media; to video, mobile, crisis communications, and the blurring line between PR and marketing.

At one of the more than a dozen panels, there was a discussion about how the dissemination of news used to be “top down” – namely that, because there were limited sources, the traditional media told their audiences what was news. Now, news “consumers” decide what’s news – and that’s broadened the definition of what’s “news” as people get their information from a multitude of sources that can be updated 24/7. In fact, the traditional news media is changing to the point where WTOP radio, the most profitable radio station in the country, has grown to be far more than a radio station and now has a robust online operation. Equally, Washington Business Journal, which publishes its print edition once a week, has moved into the digital space to give its readers information on a more timely basis.

The lunch speaker, Benny Johnson, BuzzFeed, was a prime example of the change, showing those attending how he has changed the way that news is presented to younger people – in effect, talking their language. 

Below is an overview of most of the Convergence in Communications sessions, provided by a team from Hager Sharp that attended the conference:  Debra Silimeo, Lauren Sogor, Katie Mahone, Rachel White, Barry Knight, Jenna Boyer and Janine Clay.

The Evolving News Media:

This session, moderated by Hager Sharp’s Debra Silimeo, featured panelists Lisa Matthews of AP Broadcast, Arin Greenwood of Huffington Post, Meera Pal of WTOP and Chris Jenkins of The Washington Post. The dynamic conversation focused on interactions with and the role of media in 2014. Key takeaways from the session included:
• Building mutually beneficial relationships with members of the media is (still!) the key. Regardless of the medium in which they work, reporters/writers will most respect communications professionals who have clearly done their homework, understand the writer’s interests/beat, and are able to offer information in exchange.
• Reporters are increasingly open to receiving pitches via social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, but pitches MUST be tailored and relevant for the reporter.
• When reaching out to large news outlets, engage the Planning Desk; staff there route all requests and make sure that audio and visual components are leveraged for print stories. At the AP, the email to use is tvplanning@ap.org.
• As many communications professionals struggle to explain to clients that online placements are just as valuable (if not more so) in terms of reach as print, we can consider asking reporters for web analytics related to online stories. Many are willing and able to give basic views data that can help us show our client the value of digital publication.

Digital Trends and Their Impact

Moderator Allen Gannett of TrackMaven helped lead a conversation on digital trends and their impact with Leigh George, VP Digital Strategist at Ogilvy Washington; Greg Kihlstrom, Creative Director at Carousel30; Lindsay McGettigan at R2integrated; and Anthony Shop at Social Driver.

The conversation primarily focused on the ever-changing digital sphere and how organizations have adapted to all the changes in the field. The discussion of the intertwining roles of public relations, marketing, customer service, and social media led to the conclusion that specializing in one digital area is beneficial, but being present, embracing change, and becoming digitally curious are necessary for succeeding in today’s fluid world.

For the future, panelists largely agreed that “wearables” are the future of health and technology and that social listening will become an even more important component of audience research.

Reaching the Spectrum of Minority Audiences

As our audiences become increasingly diverse, it is critical for communications professionals to build cultural competency and understand the perspective of sub segments of our audience. This panel was moderated by Business Wire’s Danny Selnick and featured Hernando Ruiz-Jimenez of Impremedia, Omar Tewfik of Arab American Institute, Reid Walker of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, and Amanda Miller Littlejohn of Mopwater Social PR. Each speaker touched on audience-specific considerations for African American, American Indian, Latino, and Arab American communities. Key takeaways included:
• Social media is a key channel for communities of color (e.g., “Black Twitter” and Paula Deen; Redskins advocacy and #NotForSale) since it is both an outlet to share community-specific information that may not be present in mainstream media and a tool for mobilization/advocacy.
• Cultural competency matters and audiences pay attention if the individuals in ads don’t look like them. Communications professionals should use common sense and with messaging and visuals to show they understand diversity.

Convergence in the News Media: A Growing Trend

Donna Spurrier, president at Spurrier Media Group, moderated a session titled “Convergence in the News Media: A Growing Trend.” The panelists included Kris Van Cleave, reporter at ABC7/WJLA-TV; Rob Terry, managing editor at Washington Business Journal; John Meyer, director of digital media at WTOP, and Martin Kady, managing editor at Politico.

The conversation addressed the media’s overarching challenge of getting the right information through the right channels at the right time. The panelists stressed that more media channels only make it harder to get the right information through the right channels, at the right time. As the media landscape changes, communications professionals must adjust. For instance, WTOP has a strong brand, but people don’t have radios anymore. Some companies are going digital-first, but will eventually need to be mobile-first.

The panel also discussed pitching, offering a few key tips:
• Know your outlets and you strategy.
• Each pitch should be like a snowflake.
• Creativity and due diligence are key.
• Use plain language, not jargon.

News media is an ever-evolving industry. While journalism may look different and be produced differently today, it is more alive than ever.

Measuring the Success of Your Organization’s Website

Kara Alcamo, director of search marketing at R2intergrated, presented key strategies for organizations to use in the ever-changing environment of web analytics. While organizations have more tools for measuring and tracking data on their website than ever before, the information is useless without an understanding of how certain site actions are connected to organizational goals. A high number of pageviews may sound great, but if isn’t leading to an increase in online purchases, other metrics need to be examined. Organizations should also work to identify and measure site engagements that, while not directly connected to the site actions and organizational goals, help “funnel” users to those actions (non-conversion clicks, incomplete forms, etc.).

Kara also provided attendees with some key steps to reporting web metrics:
1. Define your audience. CEOs need more high-level reports than the CTO.
2. Ask questions. What’s the story you’re trying to tell?
3. Create context. How are these numbers compared to last year? Last month?
4. Make it easy to read. Green means good. Red means bad. Fonts and graphs first have to be big enough to read in order to be understandable.
5. Test and adjust. You can always adapt your reports. See what works and what doesn’t for your audience and update it.

“Boring to Viral: The art of transforming the conversation in Washington”

BuzzFeed’s Benny Johnson’s spirited lunchtime keynote focused on four key principles of viral marketing, using fun examples from BuzzFeed’s work to highlight his key points. Benny began by explaining all viral phenomenon sharing the fact that “we should not know them.” In other words, the model of taste making has changed from one in which a few leading media outlets decided what was “important” and interesting and disseminated it to one in which everyday people decide and drive popularity. Benny’s key priniciples were:
1) Never forget who your audience is. There’s no magic number that defines what is viral; if you have saturated your audience, you’ve gone viral.
2) Your audience wants to interact with you. It has to be a two-way conversation.
3) The political world has never been more personal and accessible. Citizens no longer expect robots to be responding; they expect some flawed reality.
4) Speak to the internet the way it likes to be spoken to. The example of explaining the Syrian crisis using The Hills gifs illustrated how young people became engaged in a complicated and serious issue by meeting them where they were.

Is it PR or Marketing?

Moderated by FleshmanHIllard’s David Wickenden, this panel featured Cary Hatch of MDB Communications, Barbara Shipley of AARP, Colonel Rivers Johnson, U.S. Army (retired), and Jeff Pyatt of Outbrain. The speakers talked about the increasingly blurred lines among PR, marketing, social, and advertising, reinforcing the need to become a “renaissance advisor” who understands how to use all the tools available to communicators. Additional key takeaways included:
• Success in communications now means being intellectually curious and open to learning new things constantly, given the constantly-changing environment and technology.
• It’s still about telling a story, regardless of the channel. Shipley summed it up nicely: “Consumers only care about their experience, not where it comes from.”

Coping with a Crisis in a Social Media World

Peter LaMotte, senior vice president & chair of LEVICK’s Digital Communications Practice, moderated this panel on how to handle crisis communications over social media. Panelists included Len Biegel, principal of Biegel Group; Daniel E. Webber, SVP of Digital at Edelman DC, and Amy Robinson, Senior VP at Direct Selling Association.

With examples cited from BP, Royal Caribbean, and more, takeaways included:
• 70% of crisis work is preparedness work.
• Failure to prepare is preparing to fail.
• During a crisis, sensitivity is key.
• It’s okay to show emotion in a crisis. Know when to push it and when to hold back.
• Being 100% transparent is the only way to go.

Measurement: Research, Evaluation and Beyond

This session was moderated by Shonali Burke of Shonali Burke Consulting. Speakers included Johna Burke of BurrellesLuce and Frank Ovaitt of the Institute of Public Relations. Ovaitt shared IPR’s recent efforts around research standards, directing the audience to learn more at instituteforpr.org/researchstandards. Johna Burke offered a few concrete tips, including:
• Also define the return on investment with the client so expectations are clear; you can’t measure if you don’t know what you’re looking for.
• Fast, cheap, and easy are rarely the answer when it comes to measurement and evaluation. Don’t cut corners.
• Technology can’t answer all the questions, you still need thoughtful humans to interpret and package.
• Ad value equivalency is becoming increasingly meaningless and most of us should stop using it.
• Know your audience and have the ability to turn data into a digestible chart or table.

Moving to Mobile

Jed Williams, vice president at BIA/Kelsey moderated this conversation. The panel included Gary Nuzzi, director of interactive services at Adfero Group; Don Goldberg, partner at Bluetext, and Todd Marks, president and CEO of Mindgrub.

The panelists emphasized that mobile should and needs to be simple. To be successful in mobile requires more than a presence.

Key takeaways included:
• People use tablets differently than mobile, it has a different ad potential.
• People often have two screens open at the same time.
• “Snackable,” easily digestible content is key.
• Graphics, minimal text, and a call to action are ideal for mobile.

Legally Protecting Your Organization in a Digital World

Moderated by Professor Mitch Marovitz and featuring Heidi Salow of Thomson Reuters, Jason Weinstein of Steptoe and Johnson, and Caroline Klocko of Reed Smith, this panel reminded attendees of the importance of considering the legal implications of our communications work. All three speakers noted that many privacy-related legal issues are case specific, but that our rights are similar on- and off-line. Communications professionals should pay particular attention to legal implications for:
• Images and likenesses (if the individual is a foreign national, consider checking laws for their home country)
• Activities on social media that could look like spam (even auto-replies), since spam rules apply here too
• Using intellectual property for things like memes (most is protected under Fair Use law, but be careful and site the source)

“Change or Die” A New Way of Thinking in a World of Convergence

Not literally, kind of. Joe Witte, VP/Marketing and Biz Dev, ISEBOX, led Evan Burfield, founder, 1776; Chris Hays, senior vice president, Edelman; and Sabrina Kidwai, senior manager of public relations for ASAE; in a panel about the need to adapt to technology to survive in the converging communications world. While it’s generally believed that small organizations are more adept to change than larger ones, each have their own advantages and disadvantages when it comes to change. Teams within these organizations shouldn’t fear new tools, methods, or technologies. Panelists encouraged the audience to try new things and then evaluate them as it can be more time-consuming and expensive to analyze. While not everything is going to work, teams and organizations shouldn’t be afraid to fail. However, Burfield encouraged the audience to “fail fast” to quickly evaluate what works so you can move on to the next thing that will help your organization attain success. The panel closed by noting that while technology and our environment will always change, the need for key characteristics such as resourcefulness and critical thinking will not.

Native Advertising” and Content in a Digital Communications World

We have a wrapup on this panel in Insights.

Making Complicated Ideas Simple!

As moderator, Frank Pietrucha offered a mantra for this panel: “Simplify, Clarify, Humanize.” He reinforced that these are key principles for communications efforts. Panel guests Steve Drake of Steven Drake Associates, Randall Kelly of Nixon Peabody, and Joel Machak of Crosby Marketing each provided some examples of these principles from their own work, such as rebranding for education clients and part of a legal practice. One key point was the idea that our brain works as an aggregator, taking in information from the world around us and organizing it for us quickly. We should approach writing in this same manner, regardless of the channel being used.

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