We met in person at BlogWell New York this past year. I've been a long time reader of his blog, PR-Squared, and have implemented public relations strategies inspired by his ideas on social media.
We both serve as Advisory Board Members for the SmartBrief on Social Media.
Find out more about Todd here, and follow him on Twitter for more pithy insights on the inner workings of SHIFT Communications.
Tell me a little bit about you and how you came to start SHIFT Communications. The term hybrid PR firm intrigues me. Tell me more.
Todd: Back in 2003, I was the founding GM of the San Francisco office of a high-tech PR agency that had been around for 20 years. These were the waning days of the dot-com crash and that firm was fading fast, with just a couple dozen clients left over from the heady Internet Bubble days. I partnered with some fellow execs to buy-out the assets of that agency and we re-branded as SHIFT Communications. Luckily, all of our remaining clients and staff signed on to the new venture and we were off to the races.
Our very first new client as SHIFT was Quantum Corp (San Jose, CA), which would have qualified as one of the biggest companies we’d ever serviced at the preceding agency. That early coup put us in the right mindset to tackle big challenges. (I am happy to report that Quantum is still a client, almost 7 years later!)
“Hybrid PR agency” simply speaks to our belief that Public Relations and Social Media are merging, inter-related disciplines. Whereas many firms (whether PR, advertising, or interactive) will “bolt on” a specialist Social Media group to a traditional team – and often charge extra for it – all of our account staff, at all levels, must be equally well versed in both traditional media and Social Media relationship building.
What has been your biggest challenge to date?
Todd: Although we ended 2009 with a healthy profit, the Great Recession has been our biggest “macro” challenge. We performed lay-offs for the first time as SHIFT in January 2009, which was a wrenching experience for those of us who had wielded the axe once before, during the dot-com bust. (By the way, we are now hiring again: email@example.com!)
The Great Recession also complicated our ability to respond to our other single biggest challenge – the growing trend in which we are pitted against advertising and interactive agencies to handle Social Media tasks for large brands. It feels as if each discipline is “backing into” an approach that incorporates the strengths of its peer industries, i.e., PR is trying to become more interactive, Advertising is trying to focus more on relationships: whether these strategies work is going to be based in part on an ability to properly invest.
You're the inventor of the social media release, which has gotten many a conversation going. You should be well positioned to drive what's next. Do you see a better future in PR?
Todd: I strongly believe that PR has a bright future. Social Media has breathed fresh vigor into the industry. As I’ve written about numerous times before, “Public Relations” has really been “Media Relations” for the last several decades. While media relations will always be an important arrow in our quiver, and a differentiator vs. competing disciplines, Social Media technologies have empowered consumers and brands to engage in a direct dialogue, causing all sorts of angst and opportunities that PR – with its emphasis on influence and relationship-building – is well suited to help wrangle.
You're an active participant in blogs and Twitter. Have you found the experience fulfilling? How much does your direct involvement help you feel you understand social media dynamics well enough to explain them to customers?
Todd: The New York Lotto ran a commercial many years ago with the theme, “You can’t win if you don’t play.” That’s true in lottery tickets, in business and in Life. I was blogging for almost two years – pretty unsuccessfully – before I had the epiphany that led me to read and engage with others rather than to focus solely on publishing my own content. The result was a small miracle: the more I gave to the community, the more I received in the form of ideas, and a reignited passion for my profession. New tools like Twitter only added to that sense of wonder.
When talking to skittish clients, I try to relay that sense of gleeful “participation for its own sake.” Admittedly, this can make me sound like a granola-chewing netroots zealot, but then again, I figure they wouldn’t have invited me into the room if they weren’t interested in online engagement.
This is also why we are pretty fierce about encouraging our staff to jump into the Social Media wading pool. They need to understand that Social Media represents a sea change that cannot be delayed or denied, and to be able to express as much to their clients on a daily basis. They need to be able to do so with experience and authority.
Credibility and value are the currency of social media. Companies are struggling to figure this one out, especially those that are used to think in terms of their messages. You have an advantage over internal resources in companies: as an outsider, your advice may be followed. How does SHIFT Communications work with companies to help them build better relationships with their customers?
Todd: At SHIFT, everything starts with Forrester’s POST Methodology (People, Objectives, Strategies, Tactics): it’s not rocket science but it helps us keep our heads on straight. We perform research both in online communities as well as with our clients and in their industries, to understand WHO we are trying to reach, WHAT we’d like them to do, and HOW we might motivate positive behavioral changes.
From that starting point, we consult with clients on listening and response strategies to build relationships online that will subsequently buoy any creative campaigns. We are big believers in incrementalism: the “Big Splash” approach rarely works, whereas taking the time to build a community creates a reservoir of respect and goodwill that can only serve the client well when they want to do something more fun or edgy.
What do you think is in store for agencies in the next 3-5 years? Will PR agencies rethink their dependency on mainstream media? How is SHIFT integrating bloggers in its media outreach?
Todd: While the RFP process for PR agencies was relatively straightforward for the past 50 years, in the next 3 – 5 years agencies like SHIFT will need to suss out their proper role on a client-by-client basis: some clients will want a traditional Media Relations firm; some will want a Social Media specialty shop; some will want Content Creation (video, microsites, iPhone and Facebook apps); and smart clients will desire a hybrid model that incorporates all of the above – yet which could also potentially be sourced to an advertising agency.
Meanwhile, mainstream media relations will continue to be important, but ultimately no more or less important than Blogger Relations, Facebook Group Administrator Relations, etc. That’s the power of Social Media: when everyone has a printing press, everyone is important. And that is how SHIFT already operates today.
What is your personal secret sauce? How do you influence your colleagues and team?
Todd: Thankfully my colleagues at SHIFT don’t need a whole lot of “influencing” from Yours Truly. They possess a sense of mission and an entrepreneurial zeal that I can only fan. Even though the past year was tough, we feel that our progress over the past seven years has been damn near miraculous; it is a precious gift that we work hard to deserve.
My personal secret sauce, for what it’s worth, is my family. I adore my gorgeous wife and devote 2 hours of every morning to hanging out with her, and – despite their teenage foibles – our kids are warm, funny and good. I am blessed on all fronts. I know it, and work hard to keep it all in balance.
Who would be your ideal client?
Todd: Our ideal clients recognize the value of our efforts, our experience, and our thoughtfulness. I don’t care how big their budget is: the ideal client acknowledges that we’ve put some nice, smart, hard-working folks on their account, they trust us and they charge forward with us, as partners.
The Big Splash worked when there weren't so many options that pull at out attention all the time. Small increments works very well when it comes to building bridges with people - any one of whom could potentially become influential as an evangelist of your brand.
These were my questions. What questions do you have for Todd?