Social media, PR and the next big thing

This is an article by Drew Benvie.
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“So you’re the blogging expert?” said the food chain CEO, as I was introducing myself from across the board room table. “Yes, that’s right” I replied.

I had just finished explaining to our client how my job on his agency team would be to make sure he knows whenever a blog, forum or social network makes some kind of untoward accusation about his company online. The idea was that the client could then react before the press do and begin taking control over issues that were developing online. It was a rather progressive move at the time – this was about five years ago – but one which was forced, as a series of negative mainstream media stories had been coming directly from internet rumours. The client had experienced online grumbles turning into full scale media crises once too often and they wanted to take matters into their own hands.

In other words, my services were to be employed as some kind of internet insurance policy. This was before I had seen any such kind of activity like this being offered by other PR agencies at the time. This was before it was considered normal for big companies to listen to social media for such things. Before the term social media was first coined, in fact. Hence me being called a blogging expert by the CEO.

“Yes, that’s right,” I said. “I specialise in blogs.”

“So you’re the one that will be out of a job in 12 months then!” the client concluded.

I wasn’t quite sure what to say. I had been making use of my knowledge about blogging and ‘Web 2.0’ technologies in my day to day job as a PR consultant for some time. I was certain this was not just a fad. I just laughed it off, literally, in some kind of nervous knee-jerk reaction to the statement.

But that accusation brought about a realisation in me as a consultant. I knew the permanency of the changes afoot in media landscape. I knew that terminology would change just as quick as the most fashionable social network. I knew that I had to ensure whatever next big thing I was that I would be working on understanding and explaining to my clients, I always had to make sure I was focusing on precisely that. The next big thing. Not the current one.

I realised that this was the reason why I had gotten myself into the situations I had. That clients were after what’s next, as much as what’s big now. Innovation, experimentation, and a safe pair of hands to guide them along the way. And this client in front of me had seen all the big fads come and go.

I realised that the way in which social media, as we currently call it, is changing my client’s needs is not to do with any single kind of technology or media platform. It’s about the need to understand and manage the change itself. So from then I consciously applied the focus on innovation in everything I would come to do.

That focus was always there from me really. In my earlier days in the PR profession it was out of my geeky curiosity for any new web technology that I could get my hands on. When coupled with my day job of advising senior executives on reputation management, it became apparent that there was a demand for a mix of the two.

More recently this has manifested itself in me being able to set up a new agency that offers purely digital and social media PR consultancy to organisations of all shapes and sizes. So in this focus on the next big thing, we knew that the positioning of our agency, 33 Digital, would be key to ensuring relevance not only now, but for the long term. And absolutely key in persuading that blue chip CEO that their agency isn’t going to disappear if some social networks go out of fashion. And as a result we are very lucky to have been given the opportunity to work on some of the most exciting campaigns I’ve ever seen.

Saying that a web trend will be here today and gone tomorrow is one way of expressing oneself. Asking ‘what is the next big thing’ is a much more common question we get asked, and says pretty much the same thing. It is something we get asked almost much every day.

I personally think one of the best parts of the job at 33 Digital is that we have licence to experiment with the new technologies so that we can stay a step ahead. Or at least have fun trying. We call this 33 Labs, and it’s a popular service with our clients.

The big things on the horizon as we see them? For me it’s all about understanding the tidal shifts in the way information is connected to our social graph. When you think about it, social networking is just the internet joining up our comments, photos and videos and making the flow of information into a more intuitive way of socialising online. We all know how it has changed how we consume and publish news, how we keep in touch, and how we shop. If you take that impact of the internet’s connections and impose it on to other types of media, you can see these tidal shifts approaching other parts of our lives.

Look at television, for example. How would TV work when instead of channels being in the order the set top box decides, they were in the order that your social graph thought most relevant. What would it be like if the way we like, retweet, share and favourite content meant we started experiencing television in a completely different way too?

This might mean that you always catch the best shows because the popular content would always get front and centre, and also the more obscure but hidden gems would get unearthed too, in the same way that stories float to the surface on Twitter when friends start buzzing about a trending topic. What would that do to the organisations that want to get in front of an audience? It would be no longer enough to just ‘get in the news’ or secure some placement in a show. You would have to get buzz, engage, drive some word of mouth, fill the backchannel, and that is what we’ve seen happen to other forms of media in the last few years. I think the way social media has changed the way we consume content has only just begun to get interesting.

There are too many next big things to mention, and it’s all numbers game. You really do need to experiment with all of them to be able to see first hand what the opportunities are for all involved. Personally, I have found that sparing the time to try new technologies out until I can break them is the only way to be able to give quality advice to a company that has a communications problem that needs to be solved.

That’s how I arrived at where I am now. And for me someone who can mix the level-headed consultancy that a client will always demand, with an in-depth knowledge of the next big things will have a job in our agency for life.

Follow and talk to Drew on Twitter here.


  1. Fantastic article.

    Often people concentrate on the here and now and miss out on opportunities that arise because they haven’t seen them. This article points out that you always have to be scanning the environment and looking out for the next big thing.

    Social media is one of the areas I am looking forward to working on the most when I graduate and move into the world of work. For me it is a hobby, trying new sites and comparing them all to each other. Combining this curiousity and the theoretical models I learn at University you can see the benefits of using such sites as part of an overall PR strategy.

    The prospect of companies being able to enter into even more dialogue with consumers is exciting.

    I shall be keeping my eyes out to see what’s coming up next!

  2. What I note is that you’re explaining why clients come to PR consultants. It’s not so much about helping them to work with specific tools, techniques or channels – but helping them to navigate safely into the future.


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