21st Century Communications

I like to believe I’m a 21st Century Communicator, and you probably are too. Firms like Women Online bridge the gap between traditional public relations and digital marketing, and I believe it’s the future of communications. Let me explain why.

It’s time to flip the script on false divides between PR, influencer, and social media marketing, and to stop the ageist barriers that these divides create.

In truth, Women Online and many like it are full of talented people practicing a brand new, powerful discipline in search of a better title. Not only that, those of us in the business who are over 40 can feel squeezed by a culture that equates youthfulness with an understanding of how digital and social media drive communications.

Women Online creates digital campaigns that mobilize women. We work with clients who truly seek to create a better world and foster positive behavior change––from non-profits to progressive political campaigns to companies with a pro-social mission.

But what does that look like on a day-to-day basis? Like many issue-driven communications firms, on a given day, we might be creating a brand’s Facebook page from scratch, recruiting a team of social media influencers for a brand activation, or writing an op-ed for a major newspaper.

We used to call ourselves an influencer marketing agency but that term is truly too limiting. After all: who counts as an influencer these days? It varies for each client. In our view, the client is the influencer, and it’s our job to help them get their influence out the door and into the minds of the public.

Like many communications professionals who came up during an era when most managers thought the digital team was also responsible for fixing the printer and coding websites, I’ve pretty much done it all. I got my start working with the message boards of the late 1990’s online community. I was a political consultant, a political blogger, and before that a digital marketer with some heavy quantitative experience. I’ve written too many online fundraising emails for political candidates and advocacy campaigns to count, and I know my way around Google Analytics, Cision, and Instagram Insights. I can even staff talent (my first job as a film publicist involved a lot of movie star babysitting) and “curate” a panel. I write a lot of freelance articles, host a podcast (Launches 9/30!! From Harvard Business Review: The Anxious Achiever), even a book. Am I a digital marketer? A PR professional? Freelance writer who consults? A social media expert? A content strategist? An influencer marketing person?

In truth, I’m a 21st Century Communicator and my power lies in understanding how to create the mix. In my worldview, it’s creating digital content first, with an emphasis on truly understanding not just what moves your audience, but who moves them, and via which platform. This includes professional journalists who write online and local mom influencers on Facebook or Instagram.

Understanding the Client Ecosystem

Perhaps it’s because I have a nature obsessed child, but a couple of years ago, I started thinking about my client engagements in terms of ecosystems. If the client is a frog in a pond (stick with me here) then what other lily pads do they need to surround themselves with? What’s the network unique to them?

And each client’s ecosystem truly is unique. In every engagement, what seemed like straightforward audience targeting always took a surprising turn. Strange bedfellows would surface: a stray technology reporter among a cadre of moms online writing about the connected classroom, a widely read but firmly left wing magazine joining a briefing call we held about large corporations supporting working parents, the economist at a prominent think tank who moonlighted as a style influencer on Instagram, or an influential parenting blogger who just happened to freelance for a major national publication and wanted to include our client in a write up. Why would a campaign that wanted to reach Latinas from age 19-20 make more use of influencers on YouTube and Instagram, while one reaching midlife influencers focus on key Facebook voices and Facebook Live content?

In an ecosystem, actors depend on each other. In a communications ecosystem, different media outlets and diverse voices support each other as well. Typical PR follows a “beat” methodology: identify reporters and influencers who cover the particular beat of your client, and pitch them on the story.

What Is Ecosystem Marketing?

Ecosystem marketing looks at each situation’s unique ecosystem of influence: who are the top voices on Twitter that cover your issue (they may not list media as their day job)? Who are the strange bedfellows who have a soft spot or unique take on your issue? What are the other networks of influence that might be interested? Where do they hang out? What platform is their favorite? What conferences or summits do they attend? Who do they follow and “like”?

Thinking about those strange bedfellows, I began to toy with the beautiful alchemy of contemporary PR. About a year ago, I became obsessed with placing op-eds for clients. This seemingly old school form of media is actually a hugely powerful tool to inspire online sharing. As powerful as social media content can be, there is simply nothing like being “in the paper,” as my father would say.

So here’s my perfect media mix for 21st century communications: your client’s content is covered by a professional journalist or journalistic outlet. The client itself creates compelling social media content and backs it up with online advertising. And people who influence the client’s particular audience- share stories in their own words about the client campaign via social media channels. Throw in a snazzy event or two and a great email newsletter and wow, that’s power.

This is indeed an ideal scenario, but this is the modern discipline of communications as it should be practiced.

The line between PR, media relations, influencer marketing, social media and content marketing is extremely squishy. Anyone can be forgiven for not knowing who does what and also, who is media?

Many years ago, the Web 2.0 pioneer Dan Gillmor said we are all media. That’s only proven to be partly true. In the age of Trump, the capital M Media carries unique and crucial power. But it’s only part of the communications mix.

In a highly visual and celebrity driven social media world, it’s hard to still argue that influencers are journalists. But are journalists influencers? When journalists let it all hang out on Twitter, the lines become blurred.

How To Plan Your Next Communications Campaign

The key is understanding how all the communications puzzle pieces fit. Each client project or campaign will be its own unique puzzle. What does this look like in practice when you’re planning your next communications campaign?

  1. Establish a culture of true media literacy: All team members should consume all kinds of media and partake in niche communities than engage them. This looks like junior staff reading print newspapers and senior staff loving Instagram stories.

  2. No more digital departments. No more interns or junior staff holding sole power over the passwords to Instagram and Twitter. Media is digital, and digital is media.

  3. Understand the unique communications ecosystem for each engagement:

    • What professional media has covered the client or issue, and what will engage these media again?

    • Who are the influential cheerleaders who will support and amplify a story? This can include other organizations or leaders, bloggers or informal influencers.

    • Who are potential new voices who could carry their message to an entirely different audience? These can include consumers or experts who reach diverse audiences .

    • In which platforms or communities do each group “hang out” on online?

    • What conferences or events do they attend offline?

    • What professional media influences each group?

    • What kind of content and messages will move each group?

  4. Ban ageist language and self deprecating asides. This is perhaps the most important point. 21st Century Communications requires the wisdom and insight of every team member. It’s not about new and shiny platforms, but about the messages and voices that move an issue forward.

What do you think? Would an ecosystem marketing approach work for your organization? Drop me a note or comment below with your thoughts on what the communications industry of the future looks like to you.

Kris-Ann RaceComment