What does #PRSAICON mean to me? Reflections from a PR professor

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(Photo credit: Zignal Labs)

Informative, innovative, and invigorating – these are the words that come to my mind when I think of the recent PRSA international conference in Atlanta from Nov. 8 to 10, 2015. If you were fortunate enough to attend the conference in person, you know how much great content you have packed away.  While I wasn’t able to attend the conference in person, I managed to participate actively through the #PRSAICON hashtag. For three days, I was glued to my phone, tweeting, retweeting, commenting, and giving favorites.  As a teacher of public relations, several highlights strongly resonated with me. I will share these highlights with you in the order of Inspire, Content, Outcome, and New (ICON) given how much I loved their ICON hashtag.


To quote William Arthur Ward, “The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”  To me, the most challenging part of being a good teacher is indeed to inspire students to have passion for the field and for lifelong learning even after their formal education approaches an end. At this year’s PRSA conference, there were several keynote presentations that were inspiring and memorable.


Daniel Lubetzky (Photo credit: PRSA.org)

For example, Daniel Lubetzky, a pioneer in social entrepreneurship, talked about the importance of strategic communications in establishing a brand. As the founder and CEO of KIND, Lubetzky also discussed in length about the importance of mission and how that should be the defining feature for an organization. Having a strong mission is a critical driving force behind their successful #kindawesome campaign.


James Kane (Photo credit: PRSA.org)

James Kane, a behavioral scientist and consultant, offered an in-depth discussion about loyalty and what makes someone loyal to another person, an organization or a cause. I particularly liked his distinction between “satisfaction” and “loyalty.” Whereas satisfaction is a mood and is in the past, reflecting what brands have done for their customers, loyalty talks about behaviors and the future, entailing what your publics can do for your brands.


Sheryl Connelly (Photo credit: PRSA.org)

As a futurist, Sheryl Connelly gave an inspiring talk about the future. Connelly is the lead person at the Global Trends and Futuring Department at Ford Motor Company. Specifically, she offers six tips to think strategically about the future. These tips are:

  • You can’t be afraid of the future.
  • Explore the things you can’t control or influence.
  • It is better to be generally right than to be precisely wrong.
  • Be provocative.
  • Be plausible.
  • The best way to predict the future is to create it.

Among those, the first and last are my favorites. As an educator teaching such a fast-paced industry as public relations, it is important to be uncomfortable with the status quo. If we are afraid of change and the future, we will communicate that fear to the students. In a way, we educators should all be the futurists of our PR education and classrooms by initiating and embracing change. Students in turn can mirror that and at least become change-adaptors rather than resisters.


In today’s information-overloaded society, it has become increasingly competitive for anyone or brand to stand out among their peers. Lee Odden (@LeeOdden) talked about the emerging trend of content co-creation and participation marketing in the sense that content was co-created by brands and their internal and external influences (check out his slide here if you want to know more about his talk on crowdsourcing content). And here’s some food for thought for educators: How can we co-create a course curriculum between the professor and a professional influencer  in the industry?

On a personal level, Odden suggested that an important question to ask is, “What is the singular specific thing you want to be known for? Specificity makes you stand out and takes you to the top.” He offered three specific tips to cultivate a strong personal brand online: to create, curate and network. He suggested that we start with specific and then expand, give, influence and scale. The giving part echoed with me strongly. As in the Chinese language, there are two words to describe “receiving,” which are “giving” and “receiving”. This means that one cannot receive without giving. It is through giving that one is receiving. This perfectly describes the role of PR professionals as content creators and distributors. By creating and sharing useful content, we bring people to our businesses. Likewise, Shonali Burke (@shonali) talks about generous offering. She urged people to think more about “what’s in it for them?” as opposed to “what’s in it for me?” to bring more traffic to one’s website for example.  


Today’s PR is a lot different than before. The digital landscape has transformed how public relations is practiced and measured. As Shonali Burke (@shonali), nicely put, “Social media engagement and consumer empowerment” are two of the biggest changes to PR over the past five years. With a wide range of tools, apps, and software, should it be Return on Investment (ROI) or Return on Relationship (ROR), creating desirable and measuring PR outcomes have become a lot easier. One effective channel to ensure good outcomes is to engage and interact with influencers. As Burke said, “Engage with influencers by listening to them, participating in what they’re doing and curating their content.” At the same time, don’t underestimate the power of paid posts, as Steve Radick (@sradick) stressed, “Paid posts can get just as much engagement as the most compelling editorial.”

Even for common activities such as storytelling and media pitching, the digital evolution has shifted how things used to be done. As Radick suggested, “We must stop thinking of ourselves as story ’salespeople,’ and start thinking of ourselves as story-creators.” Cathy Hackl (@CathyHackl) shared her personal example of how she used Periscope as an effective tool to build relationships with journalists.  Michael Smart, who is an expert on storytelling and media pitching, offered refreshing and empowering advice on pitching. For example, he discussed how the commonly practiced “spray and pray” method is not effective when it comes to media pitching and will not give you the outcomes that you aim. Customizing one’s pitch is crucial, which he reiterated several times. In fact, Cision did a #pitchpromise to invite people to pledge “to learn influencers’ contact preferences and abide by them.” Many attendees took the ledge. Smart also suggested using less crowded channels to reach out to reporters such as Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook messaging to ensure successful pitching.


What is something new that you tried and learned lately? Do you have a priority list of tools, apps, or software to learn or courses to take? Lifelong learning is a strong theme mentioned by lots of attendees and presenters. Take Periscope as an example. Cathy Hackl (@CathyHackl ) offered an informative and engaging in-person and periscoping session on Periscope. You can watch the replay of her talk here. She discussed the power of Periscope as a live-streaming tool to manage crises. Hackl also believed that live-streaming apps are the missing link between TV and social media.


(Photo credit: Casey Cawthon)

Analytical tools and software are another popular topic at this year’s conference. Zignal labs, with their impressive screens capturing data trends and patterns, hosted an amazing command center that attracted a good number of professionals and educators. I really hope you caught their display if you attended the conference in person. If you want to know more about this tool and identify ways to incorporate this into teaching, please contact DJ Waldow (@djwaldow).

In conclusion, I hope this recap is Inspiring for you to read, gives you some good Content to ponder, offers you some ideas to achieve better Outcomes, and provide you with a few New tools and apps to explore. As an educator, I am constantly seeking ways to improve my teaching and to better prepare students for today’s rapidly changing and developing industry. I love the 1% rule discussed by Shonali Burke (@shonali), which states: 1% of the population creates news, 9% share and curate news, and 90% consume the news. Innovators fall into that 1%. How can we help our students become that 1%? It starts right now in the classroom. There’s a lot that we can do to prepare our students. With the communication firing back and forth between academia and the industry, the opportunities to innovate our classrooms and prepare our students are endless. Of course, there was a lot to absorb from the conference, whether you attended in person or digitally. To end this post, I would love to use what Deirdre Breakenridge (@dbreakenridge) shared during one of the “express learning” sessions. “Listen, watch and learn” — this is how we reinvent ourselves and reignite our careers, as educators, students, and/or professionals.


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