2016 PRSA International Conference puts data and social in the PR driver’s seat


Last week, I spent three days in Indianapolis learning and networking alongside nearly 3,000 public relations professionals at the 2016 PRSA International Conference. This was the first year I’ve attended this event, and I was impressed on the diversity of professionals from corporate, in-house teams to agency owners; fresh-faced newbie and crotchety old-timers.

It’s appropriate that the conference this year was held in the motorsports mecca of Indianapolis — it seems our industry is changing at the speed of a Formula One car racing to the checkered flag. The keynote sessions were entertaining and engaging and the breakout sessions where relevant and informative. The only criticism I have is the hotel didn’t keep the coffee around all morning and the line at Starbucks was WAY too long (Did the hotel not understand there were 3,000 PR folks on the premises?).

Cybersecurity is real and it’s frightening.

img_0967Theresa Payton is a cybersecurity expert and former White House CIO during the George W. Bush administration. Her background is in IT strategy in the financial sector. Payton says spear phishing is still the number one cybersecurity problem for businesses. If you are not familiar with that term, spear phishing is when cyber thieves use fraudulent emails to gain access to internal IT systems. Most of the time, this tactic doesn’t require a lot of sophistication because most of us use very weak (and lame) passwords. It is a very successful and low-effort tactic which is why, according to Payton, spear phishing has been associated a majority of the largest cyberattacks.

It so happens, Payton’s presentation came just four days after the major Internet blackout on October 21. The attack was not; however, ignited by a spear phishing tactic but with smart devices. That’s right folks, our Wi-Fi enabled speakers, web cams and baby monitors were taken hostage and used to carry out the biggest Internet blackout of our time.

Why is cybersecurity a major topic at a PR convention? Because it’s us who need to communicate these breaches to our key publics and navigate the crisis effectively to maintain customer loyalty and trust. It isn’t if a data breach will happen — it’s being prepared for when it will happen.

Branding is not about logos, it’s about storytelling.

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So the next day – after spending the evening changing ALL my passwords – Scott Stratten’s keynote became the highpoint of the conference. Frankly, I wasn’t sure if I was at a PR convention or a comedy club. Stratten is the author of UnMarketing, host of the UnPodcast and the most dynamic speaker I’ve experienced. No wonder Forbes listed Stratten as one of the Top 5 Social Media Influencers in the world. Maybe it was his affinity to the Gen Xers and his hilarious un-affinity to Millennials that I found charming.

Stratten’s main points were that effective communication often relies on making the audience feel something. It’s about generating experiences and emotions to the point where the audience doesn’t simply identify the brand with the written word, but it’s how those words or images make them feel.

As PR professionals, we know we must build and cultivate relationships with our customers to gain their allegiance. To do this however, we must understand what makes them smile, gasp, laugh, cry and believe. That is what storytelling is for. The best illustration of this is Stratten’s example of the Ritz Carlton and “Joshie” the giraffe. According to Stratten if you don’t smile and say “awwww” by the end of that article, you are a robot.

There was one downer of the week. A seasoned professional who should have known better posted a sexist remark about one of the keynote speakers on Twitter. Not only should he have known better, it’s a shame he had to do so among 3,000 of his industry peers.

I guess it goes to show that not everything changes at the speed of an IndyCar.

Learn more about PRSA here.


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