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#SXSW: It’s PR, But Not As We Used to Know It

SXSW Interactive in Austin. It got bigger, way bigger. Close to 20,000 people converged on the Texan city for the high noon of digital, interactive and social media. Professionals brought their most shiny decks, their beta versions, their business cards and their elevator speeches. VCs tried desperately not to look too rich, as they browsed the long hallways, looking for the next Twitter or Foursquare to invest in. #SxSW is business, big business. For start-ups it’s make or break; for investors it is key to jump on the right bandwagon. For existing businesses it is a devil’s dance to look smart, on the ball and on the right track. Maintain momentum. For the ninjas, gurus and rainmakers, it is about self-promotion and selling books. For the countless visitors, it is a big show.

Walk the walk

Agencies and consultants maintain a confident front, but seem a more tense than usual. Interactive and social media shuffled the deck in a big way, and agencies and their clients are still scrambling to reinvent their business, incorporating digital tools and social media. Lines between the classic definitions of news and journalism are blurring quicker than is comfortable for most communication professionals. What is news, who brings it, and controls its authenticity? With citizen journalism, thriving blogger communities and social networks like Twitter beating the traditional news consortia on speed and authenticity, the silent question in Austin: Is journalism dying?

Into hell to regroup

Let’s face it: it is not. While lots of journalists are still moaning because social media just got the net worth of their precious press card down considerably, others are embracing the new toolkit and the new way of working.  For the public, there is no difference between a good blogger and a good journalist. A verifiable link on Twitter gives a news story as accurate as a snippet on CNN. Journalism is not dying. It just went public in a big way, turning millions of engaged and highly connected citizens into the game.

Like with noodle soup, the best bits will float on top real soon. Darwin voiced it in a very trendsetting way: It is not the strongest that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most adaptable to change.

The same goes for communication consultants and agencies. The good ones can be seen at #SxSW, working on campaigns where digital and social components are rock-solid embedded in an integrated strategy driven approach.

The cheese has moved

News, messages, communications and journalism moved on into a new space. Your traditional way of thinking about your corporate communications will by no means be able to cope with this dramatically changed set of rules. If your internal and external communication professionals are not ahead of the curve, and adapted to an era where more than ever the public controls your brand, you’re in for a bumpy ride.  No one seems to have all the answers ready yet,

Reshuffle, re-align

A plethora of social platforms, applications and tools were presented at SxSW this year, from interactive platforms to –big hit again- location-based community review sites. With this plentitude of platforms, tools and apps to choose from, a broad range of brands is clearly lost on how to do communications effectively. Looking closer, the steering of their communication machine is scattered all over their organogram.

PR departments, a marketing group, advertising studio, internal comms, the digital wizards, the social media team, customer relations, crisis preparedness groups, … in most organizations communications is spread so broad over the place it is not even funny. More intriguing and worrying is the fact that most of these separate communications cells are not even linked to one another, and are not even working along the same strategic lines. Multichannel communications, with multiple strategies, and no central red line is clearly asking for trouble… as the many presentations on successful and disastrous campaign teach.

Integrated Communications

Successful organizations found a way of getting communications out of the highly silo-ed approach, by kicking in internal walls. In these connected times, where communication messages get out at the speed of an angry crowd, the only way to think about comms is in an integrated way. None of the old bubbles can be successful on their own any more. We must integrate high impact tools like online video, multi-screen social TV, community building tools around profile and location;  using the Web as a giant CRM tool… the possibilities are endless.

Online communication and offline communications need to be aligned, and integrated in an overall strategic battle plan. Ditto for internal and external communications ditto. For the broad audience, it does not matter if a message comes from marketing or comms: it’s a brand message, so it better be consistent, if not it will just fuel confusion. While SxSW certainly shows the new tools, it will need the better strategists and planners to click them in place in a broader whole.

Integrated communications is one of the big topics this year at #SxSW. It requires internal transparency and focus from all communicators within a company. Once an integrated approach exists, the roll out can be done through a plethora of platforms, vehicles and shiny tools. The better agency will be able to help.

Communications starts with strategy,” Brian Solis said on Sunday. And he is right. Start with the strategy; forge an integrated way of thinking. Then, only then choose your delivery vehicle.

A communication campaign never starts with an application.

When in doubt: upgrade

While all this sounds extremely serious, it remains a lot of fun for the skilled communicator. There are more possibilities, better measurement tools, high-powered analytics. And communication tools that defy belief.

To show the world that communications still is an exciting art form, Porter Novell opted to work together with rapper Johnny Polygon, and serve clients and prospects with tongue in cheek, two-minute flashback rap of the previous day. A WrapRap. It sounds nice. It looks good. It rhymes well. But think about this: it is a multichannel, community driven, multimedia approach based on social analytics, trend spotting, storytelling and social sharing. Just saying.

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This post originally appeared on CommProBiz on March 14, 2012.

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