Local 600 publicists get “linked in” for a special all-day workshop exploring the best of new virtual online tools

Stradella Road CEO Gordon Paddison

Some people naturally embrace social media, others get dragged, kicking and screaming, into a 24/7 online world. The issue is mostly educational, teaching publicists how to weather the avalanche of new communication tools. That’s why Local 600’s Publicity and Publications Committee, chaired by Publicists Guild President Henri Bollinger, reached out to Weissman/Markovitz Communications, which partnered with Gordon Paddison, CEO of Stradella Road, to produce a one-day seminar on social media.

Paddison invited a savvy group of social media users that included Bob Tourtelotte, Editor Entertainment and Lifestyle at Reuters News, and Sean Phillips, Yahoo! Movies Executive Producer, who both gave attendees a practical view of how online networks are changing the landscape of public relations.

Michael Fisk, Senior Vice President, Sony Pictures International, focused on new media’s impact on the global dynamic, while Edwin Wong, Senior Director of B2B Strategic Insights at Yahoo! supplied statistics as to just how pervasive online marketing has become. Rachel Blum, Director of Social and Digital Public Relations at Stradella Road and Marian Thomas Digital Media Consultant attacked the new “info-universe” from different angles, including defining the various platforms from Facebook to Google, YouTube to Pinterest and more.

During the second half of the day unit publicist and communications consultant Deborah Wuliger kick-started an open-ended question and answer session with the panelists, which served up as many opinions as issues on the table.

“One out of eight couples have met on social media,” Paddison explained, “and 78 percent of the population gets their information, and more importantly trusts peer opinions, found through advertising platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Google.” Paddison said a staggering 75 percent of TV viewers are on various forms social media, while they are watching popular television shows. “Online user reviews have taken more power than movie reviews,” he added.

L to R: Local 600 Unit Publicists Deborah Wuliger (L) and Ernie Malik (C)

Reuter’s Bob Tourtelotte outlined how [social media] has changed the flow of public information. “We watch Twitter and Facebook pages all day long,” he explained. “Once we’ve verified that site, we see a post and it’s out there.”

“These venues open our minds to all possibilities,” Phillips added. “We work with the studios but we also find ways to use the assets presented to us and [social media] platforms supply that.”

Phillips explained how social media reporters often seize control from the moment a trailer is released. It could be a new co-star for a super star, why they got cast, or, in the case of heavy effects films – snippets of how these effects were done.

It’s also about creating a brand. “When you give us a piece, we spin it and distribute it through Yahoo Movies, and it gets pushed to a lot of different demographics,” explained Wong. Websites are more traditional – social media more hip. But, as Wong pointed out, they all tailor to highly niched audiences.

“It’s not traditional media,” explained Stradella’s Blum. “It’s more like online stalking. People post through Google, LinkedIn, Facebook, for information. It’s frightening what you can find. No longer is there a traditional media list.”

Edwin Wong, Senior Director of B2B Strategic Insights at Yahoo!

That doesn’t mean publicists learning about new venues can disregard traditional cycles; they just have to tailor what they feed social media to make the best use of their information. Reuters follows a “retail cycle.” Tuesdays are “in store” days. People are in the office on Monday and get the information traffic. Wednesday through Friday they make the decisions, and they break Thursday and Saturday.

The notion that so much of the process may be beyond the publicist’s control was a red flag for some attendees. Press information may not always be relayed correctly. Many bloggers, intent on establishing a presence, rarely fact-check. Even an established agency like Reuters will admit a less than 100 percent source-check ratio.

“How do you get this stuff off?” one distressed publicist lamented. “You can’t,” Paddison replied. “Some organizations have relationships. But, if something is hot it goes out. You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.”

“You don’t own the conversation [anymore],” offered Sony’s Michael Fisk. “You are just part of it, and publicists have to realize that.”

So how do publicists take advantage of something they can’t control? There are WebChats, Twitter feeds and posts, Twitterviews, Facebook posts and more. When promoting 21 Jump Street, for example, the studio’s publicity created a “tweet off” between Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill. They were talking back and forth, encouraging their fans to chime in. The star that got the most Tweets, won. And the list of similar online promotions is limitless. It’s the new “gag” to get an audience’s attention.

Local 600 Publicist/Writer Peggy Mulloy

One of the most interesting parts of the day was a panel on social media for television, where publicists learned many productions are taking promotion into their own hands. Creators, writers and even some cinematographers are getting involved in this venue to open up audience reach. Jordan Blum, the driving force behind American Dad, explained how he put together an online campaign that was character based to drive the publicity for this very low budget project.

“We had our most popular character, Roger, with his own Twitter feed,” Blum detailed. “We crafted a story around the character [him running for President], and created an interaction with fans. We even had Fox sell mugs and T-shirts.”

The show Criminal Minds presents yet another wrinkle. The character “Garcia” literally tweets extra content throughout the show, and one of the producers found a young woman with a mega Twitter following and cast her on the show. She Tweeted her experience – pulling in millions of followers to help build awareness for the show.

It’s all about engaging the audience. “Royal Shakespeare did Romeo and Juliet on Twitter,” Paddison said. “They did the entire arc of the play.”

But the lines of engagement often get fuzzy with new social networking devices. Like producers, writers, and stars shooting videos on their iPhones and iPads and posting them, without going through the publicist or studio.

Michael Fisk, Senior Vice President, Sony Pictures International

“The studios are still old school and trying to adjust to new markets,” Paddison said. “What’s happening is happening so fast that people have to constantly pivot.”

Which makes training and cooperation between production, publicity, and social media sites crucial, even if to many members that sounded like an impossible task.

What were the main takeaways for Guild members once the day ended? “Gordon helped us understand the broader value of social media from multiple points of view; journalists, market researchers, international publicity teams, creative content producers and unit publicists,” observed veteran publicist Peggy Mulloy.

“As someone who started out in print journalism, I was amazed when editor Bob Tourtelotte said Reuters is now willing to quote sources directly from Twitter feeds without verification,” Mulloy continued. “When I mentioned this to a studio friend later, she said it’s common practice with many outlets. Eyes wide open everybody!”

For many, the day solidified fears about this brave new world of online publicity. “Social media is very often in the moment,” said unit publicist Michael Umble. “There might well be great personal stories that can be tweeted and images that can be captured on a cell phone, but as publicists we don’t want a crew member or even a producer or director sending out material on their own. There is no control when such things happen and that was emphasized again and again: once something is out, you can’t bring it back.

L to R: Weissman/Markovitz Vice President Cheri Warner, Weissman/Markovitz Communications Principal Rick Markovitz, In-House Entertainment Vice President Susan Reiner

“The lesson for me,” Umble continued, “was the great potential for social media. But it needs to be controlled. If managed it adds a new layer to what a unit publicist can do. We have talented stills photographers who take great images. If the idea is to send out an Instagram or cell phone image, the stills photographer is the best one to accomplish that.”

Unit Publicist Ernie Malik, although enthusiastic about the presentation, is still not convinced social media sells tickets.

“If ‘social’ translates to word of mouth, then it, in theory, should be effective. It’s one of the reasons I came. To see if I could learn anything and be convinced it works,” Malik related. “Presently, it supplements traditional/mainstream PR. The $64,000 question is: will it supplant traditional/mainstream media in the future? I wish I had a crystal ball.”

Ever the pragmatist, Henri Bollinger put the event into sharp focus. “It was an excellent introduction to social media and how it can be effectively integrated into publicity campaigns,” Bollinger shared. “Many publicists find the topic to be overwhelming. Its importance and relevance as a communication tool in today’s business world makes it imperative that those of us who say we’re not technologically savvy realize that we cannot afford to ignore its existence.”

Bollinger praised conference producer Paddison for articulating the topic in layman terms. “The program took us through preparation, planning, execution and evaluation,” he continued. “Experts described the best uses of Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, YouTube and Google and more. They all emphasized the professional applications of social media, and made the case that publicists need to invest the time and energy to acquire this knowledge.”

That time and energy invested will, no doubt, continued to be helped along by Local 600’s Publicity and Publications Committee, which, after delving into the overview provided in the day-long seminar has more such events on the board. First up – the basics for incorporating social media in publicity campaigns, which will include step-by-step directions designed for the uninitiated.

L to R: Stradella Road CEO Gordon Paddison, Stradella Road Director of Social and Digital Public Relations Rachel Blum, Unit Publicist Deborah Wuliger

By Pauline Rogers. All photos by Bonnie Osborne.

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