Building the data commons for health, social media, and more…


A little while ago I was interviewed by Don McPherson for his 12 Geniuses podcast series on The Future of Social Media. It was a great conversation. We covered a lot of territory, starting with the history of social media through to today and beyond. 

One of the ideas I discussed was the potential for a ‘data commons’ to give not just each of us individually the value of our own data, but to create collective value. I observed:

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Virtual Reality is Here To Stay, Now What to Do With It


A recent communication trend study released by Hotwire PR, indicates virtual reality (VR) could begin playing a more significant role in the coming year as companies use it to bridge the pervasiveness of increasing amounts of data with the desire by customers to experience a brand before buying. While the study identified several other trends – for instance, how advertising will be forced to change with the popularity of ad blocking and how Millennials can no longer be treated as a single demographic – its point of view on VR was the most interesting.

For the uninitiated, VR didn’t recently come to fruition with Facebook’s purchase of Oculus Rift or the popularity of role playing games. Jaron Lanier, considered one of the earlier pioneers of VR, gained notoriety in the 80s and 90s by introducing the first VR gloves and goggles. But the company he had co-founded to commercialize VR products eventually went bankrupt. The patents for the products Lanier helped develop were eventually bought by Sun Microsystems, and Sun was eventually bought by Oracle. Lanier now works for Microsoft. Who knows what Oracle has done with his patents today?

Since then, VR has continued to have fits and starts. More recently, 3D TV was supposed to give us a more immersive experience. How many people watch 3D TV. But the Hotwire study points out that the hardware issues that have stood in the way of greater mass adoption of VR seem to be rapidly working themselves out. Entertainment and gaming are what will evidently drive the pervasiveness of the hardware.

But as the study points out, there will be more to VR than play. The travel industry is already experimenting with ways to use it to provide travelers with a virtual look at a destination, a hotel or even a mode of transport. Earlier this year, Marriott experimented with a 4D experience that allowed travelers to be able to see, hear and even feel what it would be like to be in various destinations.

The non-profit industry is another potential VR adopter. With prospective donors suffering from “donation request fatigue,” non-profits are being forced to find more ways to move people to give.  According to the Hotwire report, Amnesty International used VR to give people a more realistic experience of the crisis situation in Syria. The result was not only an increase in donations, but also an uptick in online chatter about the experience and the crisis.

What’s evidently driving all of this is not an increased fascination with VR, but the fact that companies are finally seeing the potential for VR to bridge the daily onslaught of data with the desire to experience a brand before committing to it. In other words, developing emotional connections in the absence of physical presence.

There’s a slippery slope here, though, because just as social media has been targeted as being as much a bane as a boon for society, VR is bound to be at the receiving end of an even greater potential backlash. After all, it is removing the end user even further from the physical present than a text, post or shared photo ever will. Communicators and content creators who contemplate using VR will need to keep this in mind and not treat it as one more communication tool to tick off a list of others that have come before.

For the public relations industry, this also means getting even more comfortable with the idea that emotional connections are driven by providing consumers with immersive experiences. The more immersive the better. Any type of service or product demo is essentially an immersive experience and an opportunity to bond with a prospective customer.

What VR can deliver are experiences that are even more immersive and reveal aspects of a company, service or product in ways that have never before been available. In an age when consumers are also demanding even greater transparency to go with their immersion, this can only be a good thing for everyone involved.

5 Big Ideas about the Future of PR: Employee Amplification, Budget-Neutral News and More


Diversity is perhaps the hallmark of the future of PR. This realization was evident at the Creating the Future of PR Forum held in Sydney last week, when five speakers, each with very different perspectives, shared insights on how they see the industry developing. The speakers’ big ideas ranged from employee participation in company communications, to the role of branded content, evolving business models, and responses to the shift to consumer power.

Below are five brief snapshots of key ideas the speakers shared at the event.

Localization, personalization, and employee empowerment: Matt Trewin, General Manager – Retail & Media Communications, Telstra

Two thirds of Telstra’s 40,000 employees are interested in advocating for their company on social media, said Matt Trewin from Telstra. He revealed that Telstra and other large corporates are using social media for social engagement and empowerment. Key to this strategy is rethinking, “Who are our spokespeople?”

The move to involve employees and local communities in PR is generating personalized content, Facebook pages with local audiences, and local programs and events. According to Trewin, these trends are emerging because PR is becoming “less centrally controlled and uptight”. Trewin believes that the future will see more organizations pilot and invest in social sharing platforms that can reach clients, prospects and locals directly.

PR professionals need balance: Tiffany Farrington, Founder of Social Diary

Working in PR used to be about “money and titles”. But now it is about “work-life balance”, said Tiffany Farrington, the Founder of the Social Diary online network for PR and media.

Regardless of whether work-life balance revolves around more family time, freedom, or more time to explore personal projects, the trend towards flexible workplaces is making its mark. The United States has seen a growing phenomenon called “Summer Fridays”, where staff can leave work at about 1 or 2 pm in the afternoon. The panel also mentioned LinkedIn’s recent decision to grant its employees flexible, on-demand holidays for extended durations. Similar strategies that resound with workers’ interests may entice young professionals to stay longer than the industry average: only 18 months with one company, for junior and mid-level staff.

Perfecting tailored and branded content: Tory Maguire, Editor-in-chief, Huffington Post Australia

Since becoming Editor-in-chief of the recently-launched HuffPost Australia, Tory Maguire has observed a growing challenge for PR: tailoring content to specific platforms.

Internal PR initiatives at the Huffington Post, in particular Partner Studio, are helping brands to attract more followers through authentic storytelling. The panel debated the newsworthiness of branded content, which for some speakers meant the ability of content to stand alone—and be engaging and shareable—if stripped of its brand message.

Evolving budgets and business models: Allison Lee, Director of Media and PR for Destination NSW

Allison Lee foregrounded the rise of “budget-neutral news solutions” in PR. Once the exclusive domain of PR related to the travel industry, budget-neutral news is becoming widely expected, Lee said. As a result, PR firms are increasing their budgets by partnering with large corporates.

Another shift Lee observed is that more PR firms are viewing their staff as producers. This is a response to an emerging challenge for PR: developing new business models for broadcasted news based on the most engaged audiences—such as computer and tablet users—and the best return on investment.

Keeping up with consumer behavior: Jamie Verco, Lead Partner, N2N and Fuel Communications

We live in “an era of instant everything”, said PR innovator Jamie Verco. Immediacy is making consumers more discerning. Content, therefore, needs to be more relevant and convenient than ever before. PR agencies will need to adopt a range of strategies to keep apace with consumer behavior, including:
– diversifying agencies’ services to solve complex and non-traditional communications problems
– increasing agencies’ scale and networks of relationships
– developing professionals with world-class, specialist skills
– evolving agency structures to have a client-centric focus, and
– being open to new forms of communication and publication.

Audience insights

Audience members at the Creating the Future of PR forum were asked to describe in a few words their vision of the key issues and opportunities shaping the future of PR. Here is the “word cloud” they generated through Twitter-to-screen live interaction:


Across the diversity of ideas expressed at the event, PR professionals proved to be sanguine about the future they are helping to create. The opportunity to reflect upon this future and the quality of the ideas shared made the Creating the Future of PR forum a standout event.

Five Steps to Being a Highly Visual PR Agency


A couple of years ago there was quite a flurry of discussion, panel topics and articles bemoaning the state of public relations relative to its entrenched use of words over pictures. The reason for the hand wringing was that most public relations professionals were still focused on the highly non-visual means of communicating through press releases, email pitches and written statements. Who could blame the profession for their concern considering the growing propensity of the world to be far more enamored with pictures and video over text? Meanwhile, ad agencies, design shops and digital production houses were all beating PR to the visual punch.

Unfortunately, the most substantial visual element that PR could lay claim to in this burgeoning visual age is the popularity and use of infographics. While both praised and decried, infographics at least gave PR a means to an end in terms of conveying data rich information in what could be a visual but meaningful way.

But infographics aren’t the same as the pictures and video that is becoming the shared content of choice in social media. Even the most popular text intensive social media platform – Twitter – has added greater ability to share videos and pictures; and one visual oriented social channel after another has entered the market. Even popular video sharing sites like YouTube, Vine and Vimeo are being chased down by the likes of up and comers Meerkat and Periscope (connected to Twitter).

While it can be argued that any self-respecting PR person has known the value of a good visual for some time, product shots or even short explainer videos accompanying a press release don’t really count. This isn’t visual story telling. It’s just attaching a visual to a written document. That’s not the way people want their information, how they consume it or even the most effective way to communicate it.

To provide some idea as to the impact of video from a marketing standpoint, consider these facts about video usage from an article in Business2Community

  • The use of video content for marketing increased 73% this year; use of infographics grew 51%.
  • Articles with images get 94% more views than those without.
  • Posts with videos attract three times as many inbound links as plain text posts.
  • 62% of marketers use video in their content marketing.
  • Two-thirds of firms plan to increase spending on video marketing in the coming year.

The future of communications is clearly established in the visual arts, so how do PR agencies match or even catch up to ad agencies, digital agencies and design firms to ensure relevancy into the future? Here are five steps you can take:

  1. Take a class – the most common forms of visual storytelling are movies and television. Encourage, maybe even require, your staff to take screenwriting classes. Alternatively, periodically bring a professional screenwriter or script doctor in. Maybe even someone who writes and produces commercials. The ability to tell a story in 10-30 seconds is an art and most of the video content out there is going to continue to fall into this category.
  2. Push visuals as a given not a choice. Challenge your staff, your clients, and your agency to be more visual. Eliminate superfluous words in favor of stronger visuals. Guy Kawasaki, the former Apple marketing exec who worked on the introduction of the first Macintosh in 1984, famously penned the 10/20/30 rule for PowerPoint presentations. Ten slides, 20 minutes, no smaller than 30-point type. The latter being the most important from a visual standpoint because once you use 30-point type, the available real estate on a slide drops drastically.
  3. Hire for the skill. It’s impossible to get an entire agency or in-house department caught up in this movement at once. So finding people already skilled in the art of visual storytelling is a possible shortcut. Just understand that what they make up for in skillset they may lose in understanding the difference between PR and advertising. What’s interesting is how many PR firms are responding by hiring people outside of the typical PR agency world. Last fall, Edelman, the world’s largest PR firm, went on a hiring spree adding several senior level staff all from advertising and marketing firms.
  4. Share insights. The Millennial generation is the first generation that has grown up never knowing a world without the web. Their lives are so intrinsically connected to it that they are hard-pressed to fathom what life must have been like without it. This generation is also driving the visual evolution. So tap the members of that generation for personal and broader insights, and then feel free to share. They get that this is part of the process.
  5. Don’t fight it. For those in PR who are proud of their writing skills and accomplishments and may believe that the emphasis on visuals over text is like equating graphic novels to classic literature, have to realize that hanging on to outmoded methods is a fast track to irrelevancy. The ability to craft a well-written sentence then string several of those together to explain a particular point is still valuable. But the ability to mix pictures with those words to tell a more compelling story now trumps that ability.

There is a caveat. No matter how visually oriented the world becomes, everything can’t be about a story in pictures. Some aspects of the world will continue to become more complicated. Connecting words and pictures to make the biggest impact will be critical toward communicating those complicated elements in the most understandable way possible. The future of PR may depend on it.