Aedhmar Hynes is a world leader in new media communications. As CEO of Text 100, she has won numerous prizes, and most recently the World Technology Summit Award for Contributions To Marketing & Communications. Text 100 has grown to twenty-eight offices worldwide employing over five hundred staff members, and its client roster includes IBM, MTV and Facebook.
MBJ: Public Relations is often mislabeled as advertising or marketing. How would you define PR in today’s corporate world?
AH: In the corporate world, PR can be defined as a strategic discipline developed to communicate who a company is or the essence of “the brand”, if you will, to its various stakeholders both internal and external. When a company considers its brand strategically, it understands that it needs to ensure that its core values, its behavior and how it conducts its business internally, need to align with what it tells its audiences externally. A successful PR strategy should be rooted in the business goals of the corporation, be they entering new markets, beating the competition, introducing new products, aligning with government regulations or delivering shareholder value. Effectively focused on the right business goals, campaigns can be developed based on an audience and measured to ensure that strategy is effective.
MBJ: This seems to be a crucial part of a company, but traditionally budgets have been disproportionate between PR and other departments. Why is this?
AH: Traditionally, PR has been the poor cousin to advertising in terms of budget spending simply because PR is ‘earned media’ and advertising is ‘paid media’. The consulting fees are not that disproportionate when you strip away the costs of paying for media placement. If a corporation believes that its audience or customers are central to its success, then it will spend to engage them. As a consultant, I see that the best campaigns to do this, regardless of their nature, will garner the greatest share of overall spending for customer engagement.
MBJ: How has PR changed since the emergence of Internet 2.0?
AH: The fundamentals of good PR have not really changed since the emergence of 2.0. However, the emergence of the web as an enabler for more direct communication between corporations and stakeholders has lead many PR teams to revisit the very essence of what makes great communications. Lincoln once said “character is like a tree and reputation is like its shadow”. For some time now, much of what I would consider ‘PR spin’ has focused on the shadow and less on the tree. It has relied on PR hacks to spin a story via the media that presents the corporation in whatever way it deems fit. But we all know that the shadow does not make the tree. With the emergence of 2.0, a corporation’s character is far more transparent, as social media tools and all forms of online communications mean that people no longer have to rely on media to get their information. ‘Prime time’ has changed to ‘my time’ and people can find information where they want, when they want, and in any form they want–driving far greater need for a corporation to be authentic in everything they say and do.
MBJ: Is this why there is such a fear of social media among many businesses?
AH: The greatest fear of social media is perceived as a lack of control. Prior to the emergence of social media, many corporations believed that they could control the message and by working closely with the media they had a high degree of influence on the story that was read by their audiences. In truth, this control was limited at best, as any good journalist will investigate a story and check for accuracy. For many executives who are digital immigrants (those who have not grown up with technology at their finger-tips), there is little understanding of the true power to leverage the social media for even more effective communication and they simply perceive it as a digital version of the “Wild West”. I believe that the evolution of web 2.0 as a strategic enabler for communications is a generational one. As more digital natives enter the boardroom and gain positions of power, you will see this fear replaced by an embracement of the opportunity that web 2.0 presents.
MBJ: It seems as if fear is the only thing getting in the way?
AH: Well, there are actually many barriers to the adoption of social media in strategic communications. One of these barriers is that corporations have built business models that meet the needs of a world where they broadcast a message from within the company to as many people as possible. The advent of social media has usurped the broadcast model and given way to dialogue and conversations, which revolve around the needs of the audiences. With the audience at the center of the conversation, corporations need to rethink how they engage with the customer on their terms. To do this effectively, they need to rethink what skills are needed and where they reside, which I believe will give way to rethinking the structure of their business. These new business models will build teams of people who will see the audience as central and will re-imagine how best to engage them, going far beyond the methodologies that drove marketing and advertising goals of the past.
MBJ: You are a huge advocate of social media. Would you go as far as to say it is “the way of the future”?
AH: While I’m a huge proponent of the power of social media, I am not one to promote that digital communication will be the only form of communications in the future. Social media has done a phenomenal amount to democratize information, create communities of interest around a common belief and make our world flatter in many ways. However, there is still huge power in “face-to-face” interaction and communication in the physical world. I believe there will be a rich interplay between both the physical and the virtual world and the best communicators will comfortably navigate the two. For this reason, Text 100, which employs 500 PR consultants, has adopted an aggressive training program that focuses on ensuring all staff is trained in the digital and physical world. In time, there will be little difference between the two, and story telling will move effortlessly across worlds. We’ve built a fun program that leverages the game principles of Foursquare and promotes competition among individuals and offices across the world to win more badges based on building skills, executing digital programs on behalf of clients, and engaging with audiences externally to build Text 100s brand.
MBJ: Many say that social media has been hyped up and that people are returning to more traditional mass media sources. What would be your response to that?
AH: If you define mass media as a broadcast media, where the broadcaster communicates information in one direction and there is very little opportunity for dialogue (or conversation), then there is little evidence to suggest that this media will ever be favored over social media in the future. Is there a danger that some people will only follow a few social channels and default to one over many others? Yes, I believe that this is possible. For many, there is a favored channel. But what is key to the evolution of social media is that technology never stays static for long. The study of human behavior and the research into how people communicate is far ahead of the tools or channels that exist today. While twitter and Facebook may seem to represent the latest and greatest, I believe they will soon feel as old-fashioned as a newspaper once people are exposed to newer and more powerful communication mediums that meet their individual needs in the future.
MBJ: It seems like the theme that you have really been getting at is authenticity. How have you implemented this concept into your company and dealt with unforeseen problems?
AH: For Text 100, we believe that authenticity is at the core of all good communications strategy. While being authentic will not prevent products from failing, disasters from happening, or a business becoming a victim of sabotage, it will allow you to get ahead of the story. As long as people believe that your communications is consistent with your values and character, trust will be built. This trust can be an extraordinary asset when things go wrong. We will always provide counsel to our clients that building trust should be at the core of their communication strategy and in all actions they take. If the tree is strong, it will cast a long shadow in challenging times.
MBJ: How do these concepts apply in the entertainment industry?
AH: It’s probably most helpful if I answer this question in the context of discussing one of our clients, MTV, who has had to rethink its entire communication strategy in the past five years. Today MTV’s target audience, Millennials (aged 14-24), are the ultimate digital natives, and thus are consuming media predominantly online.
Stats from an April 2011 Piper Jaffray survey of 4500 teens showed that (i) 65% use peer- to-peer music hearing networks to find music; (ii) 77% consume music through digital downloads; and (iii) 22% own a tablet (another 20% are expected to buy one within 6 months). MTV realized 5 years ago that the music habits of their audience had changed and that moved most of their music initiatives, including music videos, were taking place online.
For MTV, the audience was central, and therefore the brand had to engage them effectively. Two examples are worth quoting.
First, Hive is MTV’s digital emerging music platform that features multimedia content ranging from in-depth interviews to live-streamed performances from some of the most promising talent like Sleigh Bells, The Drums, Millionyoung and Neon Indian. MTV launched Hive to satisfy Millennials digital demand for emerging music and music discovery. Press results have been amazing. News sources like Rolling Stone, Billboard, Mashable and AOL Music have recently attended Hive’s Live in NYC tapings, which take place every month or so in Webster Hall.
Second, MTV Iggy is a new digital brand that was launched two weeks ago. Its mission is to introduce US music fans to global pop music and culture. Iggy has received tremendous coverage in the media. They are currently running a World’s Best Band search that is completely digital and has had an amazing reception. So far (i) three million votes were cast from 162 countries; (ii) fan groups have organized themselves and are pitting themselves each other like “Lady Gaga” fans Do; and (iii) there are thousands of FB comments daily, with as many as three thousand likes on their page a day (and over a million to date).
MBJ: What would you recommend to elevate branding?
AH: If it hasn’t become obvious up to now, the key word in future communications is authenticity. Understanding your audience is crucial in finding an effective way to engage. When you’re thinking about building a brand in the digital realm it’s really not that different from the real world.
Let me give you an analogy – just think about being a stranger and walking into a party that’s full of people. They know each other, and are chatting and discussing about things you have little knowledge of. It would probably be social suicide if you simply burst though the door and said “Hello, my name is Aedhmar Hynes and I am an incredibly interesting person, please stop talking and listen to me talk about myself”! Social wisdom would prevail and you’d probably politely introduce yourself to a friendly group and spend a little time listening to their conversation first. If you felt you had something to offer or contribute to the conversation you may venture to offer a few words to build on that conversation. Over time you’ll get invited back to that party again and again. On these occasions, having listened to a few conversations you will probably think, I have a distinctive point of view that nobody else is talking about, maybe I can contribute and engage these people because they already trust that my motives are to offer and build on the dialogue of the community. Then, maybe, if what you have to say is truly is unique and interesting, people will spread the word, and before you know it you might build a following. Those followers become fans and tell others, who tell others and you start to gain traction. Now, think about how this might work in the digital world and you’ve got the basis to an effective brand building strategy.
Once you get to the stage where you’ve listened, prepared and engaged and you’re starting to build fans, please come back to me. That is when I charge you a large consulting fee and tell you what to do next!!
By Aaron Bolli-Thompson