The Future Of Conferences And Events: A PR Planner’s View

A year ago, our B2B Tech PR clients were finalizing their 2020 conference speaking strategies, looking forward to sponsoring or winning speaking gigs at tech stalwarts like Cannes Lion, DreamForce, and Hubspot INBOUND.

That was then. As the pandemic hit the U.S., I recall the first big event to cancel was South By South West (SXSW). Soon, the event dominoes toppled in a quick series of cancellations and postponements, with most moving their meetings to the fall. We were speculating about how jam-packed the fourth-quarter 2020 tech calendar would be – and that was in some ways true, but only on our screens. Event producers hustled to pivot to virtual conferences, which forced innovation throughout the entire live events industry.

Now, as tech leaders look at their PR and marketing 2021 calendars, they see a transformed conference ecosystem. Here’s what the near and distant future will look like in the evolving world of live events.

Live will return, but don’t count on it in 2021

After a year of Zoom meetings, virtual happy hours, and family Facetime calls, most would agree that there is no substitute for in-real-life (IRL) experiences. The B2B world in particular is dependent on live events to meet business objectives; (97%) of B2B marketers believe that in-person events have a major impact on business outcomes. Everybody wants IRL, but only 62% of event marketers are planning to resume in-person events in 2021. Many conference producers have announced their 2021 in-person events in hopes that vaccines will quell fears and increase confidence about attendance. But as happened in 2020, live events like Cannes Lions, currently planned for June 2021, may have to be postponed yet again or adapted to a virtual platform. The Consumer Electronics Show and SXSW have gone virtual this year, and most events well into summer are still being planned in virtual or hybrid formats.

Virtual is more “real” than ever

In 2020, necessity became the mother of innovation. B2Bs and media outlets rely heavily on their own events and industry conferences as full-funnel engines of customer engagement, conversion, and retention.  Many raced to transform their annual conferences to virtual experiences. Some like Social Media Week did so with astonishing speed, revamping its model in 3-4 weeks. At first in survival mode, they were just salvaging what they could of their event marketing programs. Yet savvy producers created compelling online conferences with the help of tech advances and good old-fashioned creativity. They created ways for attendees to interact and network in real time virtually, for exhibitors to have virtual booths, and for sponsors to enjoy robust ROI in virtual environments. As some conferences embark on their second virtual event in 2021, they will offer experiences that are compelling and interactive, approximating the IRL experience more than ever before.

The future is hybrid

The scramble to salvage vital pieces of the B2B marketing mix has produced a positive by-product. In-person conferences will almost inevitably include online, on-demand, and other virtual elements that will result in better overall attendee and sponsor experiences, improved personalization, and new opportunities to engage attendees with broader reach. Event producers who had never dipped toes into online elements are now busy incorporating virtual tracks into their conferences permanently.  The bar has risen for online conferences, with better video production value, live attendee chats and Q&As, and virtual exhibition halls. In 2021 and beyond, there will be very few live conferences that do not offer some kind of online element. Still, event solution providers and marketers are still addressing the biggest challenges of staging online conferences, mainly how to mimic the electricity of real-life, one-to-one human engagement.  In a ‘best of both worlds’ scenario, the future of tech conferences in particular is certainly hybrid, combining the magic of face-to-face interaction with the technological efficiency, data collection, and broad reach of virtual meetings.

Trade organizations like the Consumer Technology Association, B2B techs like SalesForce, media companies like Digiday, and independent event producers like SXSW are all adjusting to the strange new normal. Perhaps because they see the upside of lower barriers to entry and reduced costs, a few event producers like O’Reilly Media seem to have no plans to return to IRL, opting to hold their Strata Data and AI events in fully online environments. But no matter how event marketers decide to handle their meetings, tech conferences will be better in the coming months and years, as they benefit from a crisis that forced us to rethink the everyday.

When is It Okay To Get Political In Brand PR?

It’s (finally) Inauguration Week. With a new government starting, it’s a good time to look back at how brands communicated during the turmoil of the Trump administration, and how it informs new norms. 

Many of us were raised with the idea that it’s bad form to speak about religion or politics. Brands historically have followed suit, yet things have changed over the last several years. 

Was Trump’s presidency a turning point?

Just last year, hundreds of businesses released strongly worded messaging in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. More recently corporate leaders spoke out against the unprecedented unrest at the U.S. Capitol and pointed the finger directly at President Trump. 

Not every moment will be as clear or as big as watching an insurrection on television, so the question arises: when is it appropriate for a brand’s external messaging to verge into politics or politically charged issues? The answer: it’s complicated. 

Brand values start with the customer

It all starts with understanding your brand. That includes its values and those of its audience. This also means messaging that is seen as authentic and not merely to seem “woke” or drive profit. Taking a political stance that’s not really informed by brand values won’t work; customers are good at spotting who is pivoting to benefit from the political environment.

For instance, if spice company Penseys or ice cream maker Ben and Jerry’s make a political statement, it’s not unexpected or inauthentic because we know the history of these brands. They’ve been speaking out about social and political issues for a long time. Senior management actually believe what they’re saying, and they know their audience agrees. 

However, in the Trump era, more brands are trying to dip into political messaging, and sometimes it doesn’t ring true. Remember the fallout from the Pepsi commercial where Kendall Jenner handed a police officer a Pepsi, and it magically solved an unnamed issue? Pepsi took a lot of heat for that commercial and it wasn’t because the brand got political. The problem was that the message was so inauthentic. It also trivialized true protest action. (Did they really think a can of Pepsi would solve a systemic problem? We didn’t, either.) The ad was so tone-deaf that the public saw it for what it was. It wasn’t because Pepsi decided to take a stand against police violence, but instead was a clear sales play. 

The winners will always take some heat

Pepsi failed by addressing activism in a shallow and inauthentic way. That’s not to say that a calculated risk can’t be worth it though. Another company tackled the racial inequality issue head-on and reaped the benefits for its brand. When it signed a deal with Colin Kaepernick in 2018, Nike knew that its audience supported the social justice issues Kaepernick kneeled for. Of course its stand was met with some backlash, but Nike product sales jumped in the following months. Why? It wasn’t because Nike went into politics, but rather because the message was true to the brand and its history. Nike’s branding has always conveyed passion, drive, and pushing yourself to do better, the very values that Kaepernick embodies as well. 

Now that we’ve made it through four years of the Trump administration, we’ve moved past brands staying away from politics for fear of alienating consumers. On the contrary, many of today’s customers are looking for brands that share their values and actively communicate it. So, it’s up to marketers to identify areas of alignment and to convey their positions in a way that feels true. 

5 Reasons Your Story Wasn’t Picked Up: A PR View

Every experienced PR person has had their share of media opportunities that looked promising but never resulted in coverage. In fact, most can recall a particular occasion where everything went right, whether it was a full interview or a quick comment, and nothing came of it. Although there’s no magic to guaranteeing a 100% coverage rate, there are ways to maximize your chances of seeing your company’s quote in a story. Below are five reasons why the story didn’t materialize.

The spokesperson wasn’t prepared

Even if your spokesperson is an expert in the field and on the subject at hand, they will need a thorough briefing. This should go beyond a topic and journalist bio. A PR rep should get as much information as possible, pressing for detail on the proposed discussion and the story’s slant. You will not get specific questions, but pulling together a predictive Q&A is useful. In addition, structure is just as important as content. Often your spokesperson will review the briefing document during the interview, so creating an easy-to-scan guide they can review and absorb in real time is critical.

The quote lacked color

For a quote, context and color are often the major factors for inclusion in a story. Make sure your spokesperson is providing new and intriguing insights instead of reiterating what the reporter has likely heard, especially since they might have multiple quotes to consider. A quick brainstorm for unique points and turns of phrase can prepare your spokesperson to offer something new to the journalist. In addition, make sure every insight is relevant to the story and topic at hand. Don’t be afraid to go for a contrarian angle or quote, but make sure the opinion is authentic, and that the spokesperson is comfortable with offering a point of view that’s outside the mainstream.

The interview was too late

Reporters are always on deadline and they often need to speak as soon as possible. It’s important to lock in any opportunities quickly. If your go-to spokesperson is busy and can’t talk right away, consider other executives or experts who might be qualified. There are also circumstances where a pre-prepared quote or comment may be helpful, especially in situations that are anticipated, like the release of government unemployment numbers, or an announcement by a competitor. Also, a quick follow-up with the reporter is helpful. A journalist will often request more information or confirmation of details, so quick responses are warranted and appreciated.

The spokesperson wasn’t the right expert

As helpful as a thorough briefing document might be, it’s also essential for any media spokesperson to have real and relevant expertise on the subject at hand. This is why it can be advantageous to have a matrix of spokespersons, whether in-house or outside experts, on hand for multiple opportunities. Trying to shoehorn a vague or irrelevant comment into a story that needs informed expertise is almost always a waste of time. But when the situation calls for an opinion as opposed to an insight, a colorful metaphor or analogy can win the day.

The comments were too promotional

The quickest way to shut down a journalist’s interest in an interview is to turn it into a sales pitch. Any company spokesperson or third-party expert should avoid jargon, especially comments that talk up a product or service that’s not the point of the story. A good PR rep will coach their executive on ways to demonstrate expertise without devolving into sales-speak. 

Big Business Must Help Us Unify

Pundits and politicians have bemoaned our country’s cultural and partisan divisions for years. Yet things have gotten worse. There’s just not much that brings us together these days. We’ve seen an erosion of confidence in our major institutions –  government, faith groups, and media, among others.

I’ve long thought that this perfect storm of disunity represents an obligation – and an opportunity – for corporate America. It’s time for the business community as a group and individual businesses as brands, to help us heal the divide. In the wake of the shocking violence last week, that may be starting to happen, and there’s a role for PR and corporate communications. After all, we are all about credibility. But it’s now America’s reputation that’s on the line, and the right messaging isn’t enough.

Why business can help

The roots of what happened Wednesday are deep. But big business is in a unique position to help restore confidence in our systems. Large companies are mostly bipartisan. Citizens and media respect and listen to them, and elected officials count on their support. Most have huge advertising and marketing clout. Sure, they have their own best interests and that of their shareholders in mind, but they rely primarily on facts and numbers, not ideology or opinions. After years of staying out of most political and cultural controversies, many corporations spoke out during the Trump administration, especially following the murder of George Floyd. Now, the stakes are higher.

As images of the flag-waving mob filled our newsfeeds, business groups mounted a strong response.  The National Association of Manufacturers, a business lobbying powerhouse that has welcomed many of the president’s policies, pointed a finger directly at Mr. Trump and urged his removal.

“The outgoing president incited violence in an attempt to retain power, and any elected leader defending him is violating their oath to the Constitution and rejecting democracy in favor of anarchy. Anyone indulging conspiracy theories to raise campaign dollars is complicit. Vice President Pence, who was evacuated from the Capitol, should seriously consider working with the Cabinet to invoke the 25th Amendment to preserve democracy.”

Many AAM member companies offered comment in support of the statement. Other groups, including labor unions, the National Retail Federation, and the Chamber of Commerce, followed with strong statements of condemnation. The AFL-CIO called the riot “one of the greatest assaults on our democracy since the Civil War.”

Companies pause pursestrings

What’s encouraging is that other businesses were even more pointed in their actions, putting their money on the line. By Monday, Marriott, Blue Cross Blue Shied, Commerce Bancshares and Citibank said they will stop donating to members of Congress who objected to the certification of the Electoral College vote. CVS Health Corp., Exxon Mobil, FedEx and Target are reported to be reviewing their political giving. Still others, including Bank of America, Ford Motor Co. and AT&T, say they will “take recent events into consideration before making future donations.” I’m not sure what that means, but it’s clear that every major corporation is looking at its public affairs, lobbying, and candidate donation commitments in a new context. This is big. And in what might be the unkindest cut for Trump, organizers of the 2022 PGA Championship canceled plans to host its event at his Bedminster, N.J. golf course.

To be sure, many commitments are vague or open-ended, and the repudiation comes after several corporations chose to look the other way for too long after the election results were confirmed. Many overlooked inhumane policies or controversial tweets because they loved the administration’s tax cuts. As Starbucks founder Howard Schultz put it, “The Trump tax cut was fool’s gold.” Last week, those businesses woke up – too late to tamp down the lies that led to the insurrection, but not too late to help repair the damage.

The president loses his MAGAphone

The most attention-getting corporate responses were by the tech companies who control social media platforms. Weeks after slapping labels on many of the president’s tweets, Twitter suspended his account, then banned it altogether. Facebook announced a suspension until after the inauguration, and Amazon Web Services took the extraordinary step of denying hosting services to right-wing platform Parler, a destination for #StoptheSteal organizing. The move forces Parler offline until it can find another host.

These actions raise questions about the motives of companies like Twitter and Facebook. The suspensions don’t violate free speech, as some have alleged. But the tech giants have been rightly accused of wanting to have their cake and eat it, too – the freedom of a neutral tech platform with the scale and sway of a media company, yet with none of the accountability. And their actions come just after the Georgia runoff elections that gave slim control of the Senate to Democrats – many of whom have pushed for tighter regulation. But their motives don’t have to be pure for the actions to make an impact. If nothing else, it sets a precedent for the future.

A “truth reckoning”

What does it all mean, and how should corporate communicators behave? First, I think we can’t underreact to what happened. What may have looked like a clown coup on Wednesday now emerges as a violent mob bent on insurrection and very real harm. The videos are ghastly, and more will surely come out. Everyone can unify around a position that rejects violence.

Corporate America can also stand up for objective truth. We’re witnessing this trainwreck because reckless lawmakers claimed the 2020 election was stolen, and their lies were amplified within the right-wing media ecosystem. As much as I hate to see lawsuits against a media outlet – any media outlet – it was impressive how fast NewsMax and OANN backed down after being threatened with defamation complaints. Our judiciary is probably the only U.S. institution that has held up during the president’s unceasing attacks on the integrity of our election, so let’s use it when other methods for accountability fail.

Business media can also step up, and it has. Forbes did something unprecedented. In what it terms “a truth reckoning,” it is calling on corporate America not to let the “chronic liars cash in on their dishonesty” by hiring Trump administration press secretaries as communications officers. Reeling off a list of former administration presssecs from Sean Spicer to Kayleigh McEnany, Chief Content Officer Randall Lane points out that in PR, “credibility is the coin of the realm.” They are words to warm any CCO’s heart.

“Hire any of Trump’s fellow fabulists above, and Forbes will assume that everything your company or firm talks about is a lie. We’re going to scrutinize, double-check, investigate with the same skepticism we’d approach a Trump tweet. Want to ensure the world’s biggest business media brand approaches you as a potential funnel of disinformation? Then hire away.”

Then there’s the advertising clout of big business. In my opinion, ad boycotts are tricky. They’re invoked too often for silly reasons and they often fail to produce the desired results. But now is the time for every top advertiser to scrutinize its traditional media and digital/social commitments to ensure they’re aligned with corporate values – and common sense. The election lie isn’t going to go away, but it cannot be allowed to fester and grow.

The opportunity for business communicators

Finally, businesses must support their communities with leadership, backed by solid communications about their intentions and actions. There are plenty of bipartisan issues and initiatives to champion. There are opportunities to speak out on tough issues without being divisive. There are ways to fight back against malignant propaganda about our institutions through public service campaigns, advocacy, and one-on-one diplomacy. Our glorious and imperfect country has suffered under a lack of leadership, but there’s nothing like a little sedition to bring us together. As influencers and advocates for business leaders, we in public relations all have a role.

How Influencers Can Elevate Your PR Campaign

As digital content consumption continues to grow, PR pros are always looking for ways to target specific audiences through social media. We know the power that social media campaigns can wield – from amplifying earned media that PR generates to marketing products. And adding influencers to the mix can boost those PR efforts exponentially. 

Influencers who resonate with a specific segment help brands stay relevant by cutting through the digital noise. The blend of social media reach and trust in specific personalities can really amplify a campaign. Read on to find out how to craft the best collaboration.

Don’t count out influencers for B2B PR

The splashiest influencer marketing campaigns tend to be in beauty, fashion, and other lifestyle sectors, but don’t count it out for B2B PR. Many B2B categories, like software, have long selling cycles where customers spend significant time learning about products and services. Educational or service-oriented content that shares expertise is typically a big part of a B2B PR program, and that’s where expert influencers come in. A business leader or subject-matter expert (SME) who posts content in the form of bylined pieces, white papers, blog posts, or explainer videos can help differentiate a company and add personality to its brand.

Influencer marketing creates trust

In nearly any category peer recommendations can play a pivotal role in a buying decision. Ninety percent of people are more likely to trust others they see when scrolling through their feed versus a traditional marketing post by a brand that’s clearly pushing a product or service. 

Influencers typically spend a significant amount of time – in most cases, years – building a relationship with a base of fans or followers. Their credibility (or lack of it) stems from how they show expertise while remaining relatable. The most successful will leverage their emotional connections with audiences to create brand loyalty and inspire people to try something new.

Micro-Influencers help manage risk 

As engagement with traditional media channels like TV, radio, and print has declined, marketing with influencers offers a natural and low-pressure way to get brand-related information in front of a targeted audience. 

Micro-influencers have between 5,000 to 100,000 followers and may operate in niche markets. Some will even have higher engagement and conversion rates compared to mega influencers with millions of followers, due to their perceived authenticity. These smaller-scale influencers can also be powerful for B2B PR efforts, where they offer the advantages of lower costs and the ability to generate social engagement that is more tightly focused in vertical sectors like financial services or business technology, for example. 

Working with micro-influencers is also a way to manage risk and stretch a marketing or PR budget. A group of micro-influencers with small, but highly engaged audiences might be a wiser investment than partnering with a single, more expensive mega- influencer, and there’s always the flexibility to ramp up or down as things progress.  

Finding the right influencer

The right fit is essential to a successful influencer campaign. Brands and their PR teams should look for the right partner based on a highly engaged following rather than a dazzling follower count. Here are other factors to keep in mind:

Relevance 

Look through the influencer’s content to see how it aligns with your messaging. The content and the audience of the influencer far outweigh the amount of traffic they receive. 

Engagement 

Engagement is indicative of how frequently an influencer’s audience engages with their content. Frequency of fan engagement is a key sign of meaningful relationships.

Reach

Though it can actually be overrated, reach is a valid metric, and the trend line of an influencer’s reach is an important factor in planning a future relationship. It’s also vital to keep in mind the platforms prioritized by the target audience, of course. B2B brands will want to reach industry decision-makers who are typically more engaged on Twitter and LinkedIn, while consumer marketers may want to focus on Instagram or Snap. 

Frequency

High-quality content posted on a consistent basis correlates with the traffic and a higher rate of returning visitors, which, in turn, this increases audience engagement and reach.

Authenticity 

Influencers with a smaller ratio of sponsored content appear more authentic and are more trusted by their audiences. Personal anecdotes with natural mention of a brand are also a good idea, as they often hold more weight than a review.

It’s also a good idea to see if a potential influencer has strong relationships with other influencers, and if so, how their respective audiences overlap. The overlap between their audience and yours is a key indicator of whether a campaign or long-term partnership will offer a high return-on-investment.

Influencer content and measurement goals 

Explore the type of content that potential influencers publish and compare it with your audience’s preferences and behaviors.  

Creating content with an influencer is a great way to build a relationship. Here are some ideas:

– Host a live Q&A 

– Hold a webinar with an influencer as the host

– Write a series or blog together

– Record a podcast episode

Match metrics like reach and share of voice with your overall PR goals to examine the impact of your influencer.

Engage with your community and build relationships

Once the collaboration begins, it’s time to focus on building and strengthening relationships with your followers. Offering valuable content on a regular basis will lay a foundation, while aligning with an expert or influencer will deepen the engagement and build trust over time.