‘You’re only as good as the last email you sent’

This is an article by Sean Ball.
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An interview with Matt Grossman, Vice-President for Publicity, Communications & CSR at The Walt Disney Company EMEA

Since starting my internship at The Walt Disney Company (TWDC) back in July, I have worked on a number of campaigns and initiatives including the Inspired by Minnie Mouse designers collection, the Winnie the Pooh Storytelling Academy and most recently the collaboration with Harrods to create a Disney Boutique, the first Disney Cafe in the UK and a Disney Princess Windows Extravaganza in the Knightsbridge store.

I have enjoyed access to some of the most senior executives in the European business, all of which I’ve found to be extremely passionate and inspirational people with a real desire to develop their staff, in particular their interns, as much as they can.

With this in mind, I approached Matt Grossman, Vice President for Publicity, Communications and CSR at The Walt Disney Company, who kindly agreed to let me interview him.

Path into PR

Matt Grossman, Disney

Yes, it’s Matt Grossman.

Matt’s path into PR is an indirect one, which emerged from his love for film and entertainment. Matt studied his undergraduate degree in Film & Production at Middlebury College in Vermont, USA.

It was at this time that Matt began to get his first real taste of the entertainment industry, including working as a ‘runner’ for Woodstock 94 – the 25th anniversary concert of the famous 1969 Woodstock festival.

Soon after that, Matt was taken on by worldwide talent agency for writers, actors and directors, William Morris, as a trainee – despite failing his typing test!

“I loved working for the William Morris Agency; I got to see the whole film process from start to finish,” he tells me.

Matt knew he wanted to work in the entertainment industry, but hadn’t quite found his calling. It was at this stage he decided to study for a MBA in Marketing and Entertainment at the highly regarded Anderson School of Management, UCLA.

Having gained an invaluable network of influential contacts during his time at UCLA, Matt was soon snapped up by First Look Entertainment, an internet company that promoted movie, music, games, TV releases with sneak peak previews on the internet.

Matt moved on to The Motion Picture Association (MPA) in 2001, working on digital strategy and corporate communications.  The MPA is funded by the major US studios including MGM, Sony, Universal, Fox, Warner Bros, Paramount and of course Disney. Matt’s network multiplied significantly during his time at MPA, as he liaised with all of the studio comms heads on a regular basis. During this period, internet piracy was beginning to emerge as a serious threat to the future of the entertainment business.

“What we had to communicate was that illegally downloading content was stealing! People just didn’t seem to understand that they were harming the industry they enjoyed so much.”

In response to this growing problem, Matt and his team at MPA launched an industry-wide education programme in more than 40 countries to raise consumer awareness on the impact of new technologies and piracy. Although Matt is keen to stress that getting seven competitors to form a consensus was challenging.

He then decided to use expertise in the increasingly significant digital world as Senior Vice President of Digital Entertainment, Rights & Technology at Edelman in California, before moving across the pond to Paris in 2007. Matt’s clients at Edelman included the likes of Microsoft, Warner Bros, MySpace, Avid Tech and Xbox.

“In an agency environment, attention to detail should be at the core of everything you do. When I was at Edelman, I used to preach to my team that you’re only as good as the last thing you sent – so make sure it’s perfect!”

In 2008, Joyce Lorigan left her role as Vice President of Corporate Communications at The Walt Disney Company EMEA and one of Matt’s contacts at Disney from his MPA days put him forward as a candidate and he was offered his current role.

Marketing vs PR

Working at such a vast, transnational company has reignited my interest in the turf war between marketing and PR, and where one ends and the other begins. When asked for his opinion, Matt says there is a fundamental difference:

“Marketing can be seen as one to many, where as PR is one to one, then to many. Marketers just want to get their message out there, there’s not really a dialogue — think of most advertising for example. Where PR is concerned, there is an argument to make, which makes getting our message out there and presented in the desired way somewhat more challenging.”

He argues that marketing is either owned or bought, where as PR is earned – resonating with Fred Hoar’s saying: ‘advertising is pay for play; PR is pray for play.’

Who owns social media?

I asked Matt about his views on social media, and more specifically should it owned by PR? Or marketing? Or neither?

Matt claims that social media should certainly not be a standalone business function and instead should be utilized by both Marketing and PR initiatives, depending on the nature of the message or call to action. According to Matt, there’s no reason why Facebook and Twitter should be exclusively used by either discipline. Although, blogging and blogger relations has to be handled by PRs.

However, as the discussion developed, Matt illustrated how it’s not always as simple as that and the nature and sector of the organisation will dictate the division of ownership over social media.

For example, the social media channels of an FMCG brand like P&G will be dominated by marketing. However as Disney’s multichannel business model derives from a heritage of storytelling and quality content, the way in which Disney leverages social media is split between the two disciplines.

“I think people get caught up in who ‘owns’ social media. Slice and dice it however you like – as long as your messages are aligned and coherent.”

In-house or agency?

I asked Matt to critically analyse his experiences of in-house and agency roles in terms of skills gained from each and which he thought would be more suitable for a graduate.

Matt responded immediately with: “time management skills! When you work for an agency, you have multiple clients to cater for – all expecting you to devote the most time to their account, you learn how to prioritise your work much more effectively”.

The randomness of the clients you work with at agency is also beneficial to developing your skillset, according to Matt. In addition, in an agency, you work on products you don’t always want to promote, which really tests your PR skills. As Matt puts it ‘you get really creative when you have to sell s*** products!’ But you have to be at on the edge of changing industry and are expected not only to embrace new trends, but also be an instant expert.

“Agencies compete for intellectual capital. Therefore to thrive in this extremely competitive market, you have to have a rigorous work ethic. Your clients expect exceptional results, and if you don’t deliver, there’s always someone else who will. But the main advantage for a graduate is agencies are always looking for new people.’

Matt then talked about how in-house roles are generally more secure, but you don’t get the breadth of work as in an agency.

What’s the best way to evaluate PR?

During my degree, I’ve found that evaluation of PR is a tricky subject to talk about. Despite the CIPR trying to curtail the use of AVE as an evaluative tool, Disney still relies on AVE its main measurement of success.

When asked about his views on evaluation of PR, Matt cited a famous saying: “I’d cut 50% of our marketing budget, if only I knew which 50% to cut!”

Matt advocated that although PR initiatives are not always easy to evaluate when studied under the objective lens of ROI, it is still a vital business function. Positive editorial coverage in the media is something you can’t put a price on. Matt highlighted how Microsoft evaluated their outreach initiatives during his time at Edelman based on impact. Microsoft would set a target of a certain number of what they deemed “top stories”. But the criteria for a top story included among other things:

  • That the brand name is in the title of the article
  • The article must be exclusively about the brand
  • It must feature a powerful quote from one of the brand’s executives
  • It should include a placed image

Matt then claimed that thinking of PR in terms of ROI is fundamentally flawed as reputation is not always a monetarily quantifiable thing. Evaluation of PR should consist of comparing the results of your initiatives against the initial objectives of what the initiative wanted to achieve – whether that is awareness, sales, brand elevation, social engagement, tune-in etc.

On the future of PR

As a student entering the PR industry, I find the changing interefficatious relationship between PRs and journalists fascinating. I asked Matt how he envisages the future of PR in a changing media landscape.

Matt commented on how every journalist has increasing workloads, shrinking resources and less expertise and influence.

“Consumers get their info from so many different sources nowadays. New technology, such as Google Alerts has changed everyone’s mind-set – we no longer look for news, news finds us.”

With this in mind, Matt advocates that PRs should be extremely mindful of what journalists and the communities they write for want.

Advice for students and aspiring communicators

Matt was keen to stress the importance of experience to any budding PR, but not in the conventional sense.

“Of course climbing the ladder is important, but students and young professionals need to look at the importance of inspiration, broadly speaking. The next step in enhancing your career and personal development is not always upward or linear.”

Matt then went on to discuss how choosing to study an MBA in Marketing and Entertainment presented a pivot point on how to develop his broader skillset with a more business-focused lens.

When asked for advice on my own academic path, Matt recommended that I gained 3-6 years work experience after obtaining my BA before considering studying a Master’s degree, as this will ensure my skillset will be developed enough to maximise value for money and indeed time.

All in all, Matt Grossman is a fascinating, knowledgeable guy who relishes in sharing his wisdom with employees of all levels, and I hope to emulate his success in my own career.

Sean Ball is a PR student on a year’s placement with The Walt Disney Company

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