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How to Moderate a VIP Panel

February 24, 2010 11 comments

Heather & me (see my listening face?)

I had a ball at the Mom 2.0 Summit in Houston last week. The highlight? Moderating  a VIP panel – or perhaps I should say VIB (Very Important Blogger) – and living to tell the tale.  Did I mention Heather (aka Dooce) Armstrong was one of those panelists? More on that in a minute.

Here’s how it went down. I had submitted a panel idea to the conference organizers about “Bloggers, Brands and the New Publishing Paradigm.” The topic sprang from a post I wrote last year about how marketers and PR people need to rethink how they approach bloggers; it got nice response and you can read it here.  I was jazzed when the idea was accepted and designated the closing keynote panel.  I figured I’d be one of the panelist and that was great.

Several weeks later I got a note from Laura Mayes (one of the Mom 2.0 organizers and a thoroughly spectacular human being) that I’m actually going to be the moderator and the other panelists will be announced shortly.  I’m excited and just a teeny bit anxious because good moderating takes some prep and I now need to work this into my hot mess of a schedule.

Another couple of days goes by and then I see this In Laura’s Twitter stream:

 

Zoink. I’m moderating three of the most popular bloggers known to man including Heather Armstrong who (for those of you who don’t know) is arguably one of the most famous (and often controversial) bloggers in the galaxy?

My moderator prep anxiety has now gone defcon level 5. And here’s where I must make a confession. I’m a pretty cool cucumber when it comes to professional stuff but you know who gives me the willies? Male CEOs and Very Important Lady Bloggers. Don’t ask me to explain, it’s complicated and for all I know rooted in Freudian issues. Suffice it to say I was nervous about reaching out to Heather, Maggie and Gabrielle to get the ball rolling on panel prep.

But I did and in my neurotic  hyper-organized way — as if preparing an important client for a presentation — start hurling emails into the ether with suggestions about discussion topics and Q & A and conference calls…want to guess how well that went?

Right. Not terribly. 

Very Important Lady Bloggers are important for a reason. They are busy. They are focused on their blogs (which are their businesses) and their families. With three weeks to go before the conference my anal-retentive discussion guides were not yet a priority in their minds.

Well, they were MY priority and there’s the problem. I was not reading my audience. I was prepping on my terms, not theirs. Which leads me to the most important advice I can offer to anyone preparing to moderate a VIP panel:

It’s not about you. It’s about them.

I don’t care how fancy-pants you are, if you’re moderating a big-deal panel you will be eclipsed. As it should be. You are not the headliner, you are the facilitator who if you’re smart will make the headliners look great.

Cutting to the chase, I will tell you the panel went off really well. It all came together perfectly (if not a little last-minute.) Heather, Maggie and Gabrielle were lovely, created content that made the presentation visual and dynamic, and generally rocked the dais.

Moderating a panel of this stature is kind of like being a jockey – or maybe a rodeo rider is a better analogy (we were in Texas, after all). You climb onboard that filly and do your best to stay on. You listen, you listen some more, you roll with the punches and adjust the questions based on the flow of the discussion. You take the mike only to ask the next question or to clarify a point.

You are not the show. Did I mention already that it’s about them, not you?

I’ve been in the audience for panels where the moderator hogged the spotlight. I’ve been on the panel when the moderator ceded control of the discussion to unruly audiences. My goal was to make sure neither of those things happened and based on the crowd reaction, I think we just may have accomplished it.

Fiona Bryan live-blogged the panel here if you want to check it out.

[Image via Sarah Hubbell]

UPDATE:  More great posts about Mom 2.0 from women a) I want to be when I grow up except that I’m older than all of them; b) should come to my house for a slumber party so I can braid their hair and c) I am inspired by constantly…

Gabrielle “Design Mom” Blair (from the aforementioned panel) here

Maggie “Mighty Girl” Mason (also from aforementioned panel) here  

Liz “Mom 101″ Gumbiner here

Jenny “The Bloggess” Lawson (who my god I love so much it makes my eyeballs hurt) posted not once but twice

The Bra Color Meme: So What?

January 8, 2010 19 comments

So this was me at 5:32 PM last night on Facebook.

 

 

If you’re a chick, I bet you had your own “what up with all the colors on Facebook statuses?” moment yesterday.  And, like me, you probably had your little moment of epiphany: 

 

 

 

As I think many of us now know, someone somewhere invited women to share their bra color on Facebook yesterday without public explanation, all by way of spreading breast cancer awareness (Mashable speculates on the origins of the meme here.)

 

I actually adore this idea – it does everything a viral campaign should. We saw, we questioned, we buzzed, we laughed, we passed it on. And it was a uniquely chick-ish “social object” to be passing, wasn’t it? Our bra color, for god’s sake. Intimate but not embarrassing, a way to express individuality (I’m talking to you, animal-print ladies) and sisterly solidarity at the same time. And kind of keep the boys out, except when the boys themselves started playing along. Which is hilarious and alarming in equal parts.

 

BUT. As a cause-related effort? Not as successful. Feels like there was a big missed opportunity here. I’ve done a bit of cause marketing in my time and subscribe to a cardinal rule: tell people what they can do to make a tangible difference.  The bra meme got the hard part out of the way – it got us buzzing. It just needed to connect the dots and give us the tools to make a difference.

 

Is it because this was a grassroots effort started by a woman without ties to one breast cancer organization? Possibly, and fair enough. Was it just intended to “create awareness” without any other call-to-action? Again – possibly (though breast cancer is hardly a disease which needs to be put on the map.) For me, if you gave me a shortened link to share along with my color on Facebook and Twitter which let people click through to make a donation or sign a petition or something else concrete – done and done. I would’ve shared it gladly and hopefully made a measurable contribution to the fight against a disease which has touched every single one of us.

 

So did you participate in the bra meme? If you’re a marketer or PR person, how would you have handled it as part of a cause campaign? 

Thanks to my Twitter pal @karinatweedell for sending the Mashable post and holding my hand as I struggled to understand what all those damned colors meant.

My Mea Culpa New Year’s Post

January 7, 2010 Leave a comment

Ugh, I am the world’s laziest blogger. I didn’t manage to hit any of the usual bloggy post milestones — no “Happy holidays to my readers,” no “Year in Review,” no “Predictions for the Year Ahead…” I’ve been too busy this holiday season shredding my carpal tunnels playing Guitar Hero and poisoning the Russian with turkey tetrazzini I made with, uh, slightly aged turkey leftovers. 

HOWEVER. I do want to take this occasion to wish you a very heartfelt and belated Happy New Year. I can also say to all my Russian friends (and those who love them) — Merry Russian Christmas. I wish everyone who comes in contact with this blog all the best for a healthy and happy 2010. Thank you for reading my scribbles. It means a lot to me, it really does.

To make myself feel a little less slackerific and prove that I have actually thought recently about this industry of mine (not just turkey salmonella and Guitar Hero), I am sharing a video interview I did before Christmas with the one and only Owen J.J. Stone a.k.a. “OhDoctah.” For those of you who don’t know, Owen is a brilliant vlogger and social media consultant who actually knows his stuff and doesn’t spout jargon at you all day. No snake oil, just smarts and a WHOLE lotta charisma. To know him is to love him, which I learned the moment I met him at the 140 Character Conference in LA last fall. You can find him here and here on Twitter or at his company website (IQMZ).

Anyhowdy, we sat down to jaw about public relations and social media; check out our conversation here.

Image via.

Should PR People be Part of the Story?

December 7, 2009 7 comments
Back in the days when publicists plotted from behind the scenes: Uber-flack Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) with columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) in “The Sweet Smell of Success.” 
 
My first exposure to public relations came not in an agency but on the client side. I wasn’t in an official PR role but was working as an executive assistant to designer Donna Karan right at the time when her company was exploding in size and visibility. Donna was besieged with press requests from all corners of the globe 24/7. As keepers of her calendar, it was our job to coordinate all interviews with her communications team, a task of insane complexity and relentless pace.
I learned a lot during that time, namely that I did not want to pursue a career in fashion PR. I’m no stranger to crazy, but fashion PR is crazy crazy. At the helm of this insanity was Donna’s head of corporate communications, Patti Cohen. Patti was — and still is, I’m sure — a whirlwind of frenetic energy with bright red hair and swags of black cashmere wrapped around her tiny frame regardless of the season. I’d sit in her office discussing calendar details while she juggled a phone on one shoulder, whipped through the master calendar (paper!) looking for 15-minute increments of Donna’s day to dole out to WWD and Vogue like a mama bird feeding her babies…all the while chomping on raw sunflower seeds she kept in a big glass bowl on her desk, right next to the towering arrangement of Casablanca lilies and a mason jar full of impeccably sharpened black pencils.

 

The wall behind Patti’s desk was covered floor-to-ceiling with Donna’s press hits. For all I know Patti started tacking them up there when Donna first started the company and never stopped — by the early 90s, when I was there, several layers of magazine articles and photos and newspaper clippings had already accumulated. It was a gorgeous pastiche, and I’d pore over it whenever Patti got wrapped up in a call and forgot I was sitting in front of her.  One day I asked Patti why she wasn’t in any of the photos to which she replied, “A good publicist is never in the picture.”

 

That stayed with me for years. Not only did I put it into practice, sidestepping photos with clients at public events whenever I could, I also passed it along to the many young publicists I went on the manage at other companies. Somewhere along the line, Patti’s advice morphed into this:

“A good publicist is never part of the story.”

Except now…we are. Or at least, we can be. Sarah Evans talked about this during a panel discussion I moderated recently on how Twitter has changed journalism and PR, and one of the points she made was how boundaries have blurred among PR,  journalist and blogger roles. There are journalists who blog, bloggers who do PR consulting, PR people who blog… It is in fact quite possible for PR people to participate in on-line conversations about their client through blogging, micro-blogging, status updates, photo sharing, and so on.

So all due respect to Patti, I believe it’s okay for the publicist to be part of the story, or at least the conversation. I do it, but only with disclosure. I’ll tell you if I’m blogging or tweeting about a client, and it’ll be an honest reflection of my feelings.   For example:

I started taking pictures recently at the client events I attend. I’ve got the Droid megapixels, why not? There was a time when those pictures would only have been shared internally at the agency but now, why not share publicly? Especially when apps like Whrrl make it so easy.  Here’s how I captured the action at a client’s launch event last week:

So what do you think? I’d love to hear from other communications professionals on how they’re handling the transition from being behind the conversation to participating in the conversation about their clients and brands.

In Which JumpStart Allows Me to Review their Product

December 1, 2009 8 comments

I was contacted recently by the team at Knowledge Adventure, creators of the well-known JumpStart educational game software. They had released a virtual online world earlier this year; would I let my six-year old son test drive it and provide feedback? And would I share my perspective on using technology to help kids learn?

No one ever asks me to review anything, which is tragic considering how willing a consumer I am, also considering how eager I am as a PR person to be on the receiving end of a product pitch for once. So of course I said yes, also because everyone I interacted with at Knowledge Adventure was professional and friendly to a tee.

Back to my take on kids learning with technology: it’s awesome.  I’m a member of the first generation to grow up with “Sesame Street,” “School House Rock” and “Zoom,” all of which used technology to educate, early-70s style.  By which I mean TV.  And you better believe that TV-learnin’ stuck. It’s been nearly four decades and I can still recite the Preamble to the Constitution, tell a conjunction from a preposition, and sing the Boston zip code. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you were probably born after 1975. 

But don’t think we’re lax about computer use and gaming in the Smirnov household. DS, Wii and watching “Charlie the Unicorn” on YouTube for the 9000th time are strictly curtailed to weekends or an hour after school. That said, I always knew I’d be willing to bend the rules if there were an educational reason for my son to be on the computer.

Enter JumpStart.com. I had my doubts at first, just looking at the sweet, cartoony imagery on the home page. My kid is used to the 360-degree immersion of Wii Sports gaming and the non-stop kinetic blitz of Sonic and Mario, so I wondered how well JumpStart would hold his attention.  Well, that was before we installed the required 3-D plug-in, registered and started exploring the AdventureLand portion of the JumpStart online world.  The kid’s first comment?  

“This. Is. Awesome.”

In a nutshell, JumpStart combines traditional video game elements with learning challenges and age-appropriate, secure social interaction in a series of shimmering, immersive worlds geared to kids ages 3-10. The company says the educational curriculum is “based on state standards from the top, most influential states: CA, FL, TX, IL and NY” and that they “combined all the standards from these states to create our proprietary scope and sequence which spirals through skills based on grade level.” That’s fancy teacher talk for they take their curriculum development very seriously, which is good enough for me.

You should note there is a $7.99 monthly subscription fee (per family, not child), though you can try the game out for free for a 10-day trial period. (Not bad when you compare it to the one-time game rental fees Blockbuster’s charging these days.) Here are some highlights from my little gamer’s test drive:

  • One of the first things your kid will do is customize his or her avatar or “Jumpee.” I don’t know about yours, but my child spends hours hanging out in the Wii Plaza, messing with his own Mii and creating different ones for his friends. The JumpStart creators tap into that childish need to customize and control their game image out of the gate.
  • I ask my kid what he thinks of the look of the game. “I love it. Write that down.”
  • After swimming his Jumpee through the gorgeous underwater environment MarineLand, my son chooses his first game. He is initially non-plussed: “Dude. This is math.” But waiting at the end of the math challenge is part of a sand dollar. Earn enough sand dollars (or coins, depending on what Land you’re in) and you unlock awesome stuff like a shark tail for your Jumpee, or a cuddly friend at the Petz Shop. My son gets over himself and plunges in happily.
  • Later. “This is like Club Penguin, except with stuff for big kids.”
  • And still later. “They should call this 3-D World instead of JumpStart.”
  • The ultimate accolade: “I think the guy who made Star Wars made this.”

Game developer Chris Williams says the worlds are designed so kids can explore on, around, underneath and behind cool objects -- like waterfalls, for instance.

My kid’s been hanging at JumpStart.com consistently for over a month with no sign of waning interest. He’s even put the new JumpStart Adventure Island Wii game on his Christmas wish list. Can learning and computer fun co-exist? Apparently yes, even to the most jaded of 6 year-old gaming sensibilities.

Final verdict: thumbs-up.

Check out the JumpStart blog here, and visit the home page for a guided tour.

Love note to the FTC: I received no payment for reviewing this website, including neither sand dollars nor cuddly Petz. We were given access to the site for a limited time to try it out but ongoingly I would happily pay the monthly  fee. It’s good stuff and worth the sand dollars.

Images via Knowledge Adventure.

True Hollywood Story: DeVries PR at the 140 Characters Conference/LA

November 4, 2009 8 comments

  screen 

Image via Jon Cronin and Whrrl)

Our agency sponsored the “140 Characters” Conference in Los Angeles last week, supporting a two-day exploration of what conference organizer Jeff Pulver calls “The State of Now” and the effect of the real-time internet on culture. We created a DeVries PR Buzz Lounge in the lobby of the Kodak Theater, a place for everyone at the conference to recharge and connect. We kept them stoked with free caffeine, cupcakes and ethernet connections. We also thought it would be an interesting challenge to see if we could capture video sound bites from conference speakers and in something close to real time, send those sound bite packages out across the interwebz to give people at home a taste of what was happening at the conference. You can view and share these segments at our DeVries YouTube channel; meanwhile, this is a bit of what went on behind the scenes as we worked to bring our Buzz Lounge concept to life.

Sunday, October 26th

8 PM: Heading for LA tomorrow. I have convinced my boss that it is a good idea for DeVries to sponsor the LA edition of the “140 Characters” conference. I tell him it will demonstrate our commitment to and understanding of the cutting edge of social media. I also tell him it will enable me to stalk Jeffrey Hayzlett of Kodak, my current CMO crush. Hayzlett doesn’t know it yet, but he really wants to work with DeVries.

9:55 PM: Packing on hold. Time for me to live-tweet this week’s episode of “Mad Men.” Evidence of how cutting edge and Twitter-savvy I am.

11:00 PM: Back to packing. Based on the NYC 140conf dress code, I am going casual. I tell my team to wear jeans and heavy black-rimmed eyeglasses so they fit in with all the geeks digital influencers. I also suggest they don’t shave but am shot down since most of them are women.

Monday, October 27th

7 AM: Airport. Never have I seen a security line this long. I ask airport worker lady where the Elite Access line is. She points to a queue of people that snakes around itself and out of sight like a coiled serpent of unhappiness and misery.

7:40 AM: My line has moved forward three inches. I feel very Elite.

12:00 PM: West coast time! Hollywood here we come! Meet driver at baggage claim. Tell him I’m waiting to meet my colleague Danielle who’s flying in on a different airline. Realize that airline is two terminals away. It seems driving two terminals away to fetch Danielle will inconvenience him. I’m confused because I’m pretty sure I’m paying him.

12:02 PM: Try to reach Danielle on her cell to get her to take a tram to our terminal. I worry driver will do me bodily harm if I can’t make this happen STAT. Try to explain why it’s important we find Danielle because she’s my awesome video blogger correspondent but driver doesn’t seem to care.

1:00 PM: Danielle located and secured in SUV. Relief. I have my video blogger, without whom our whole sponsorship concept falls apart.

1:30 PM: Check in at Roosevelt. Rooms not ready.

2:00 PM: Rooms still not ready.

3:00 PM: Rooms still not ready. Resolve for the 800th time never to stay in a boutique hotel again.

4:00 PM: Head over to Kodak Theater to meet Thom, our brilliant event designer. Jeff Pulver himself lets us in so we can check out our space in the main Lobby.  I’m pretty sure Pulver can tell by looking at me how cutting-edge and Twitter-savvy I am. Meanwhile, Thom has outdone himself and other than the fact that in-house caterers are not allowing us to bring in our special cupcakes, things are looking great for tomorrow.

5:00 PM: Cupcake-gate resolved. We pay extra money so that we may offer red velvet goodness to conference attendees. This turns out to be a very good investment.

cupcakes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(The photo is blurry because we had to refill the cupcake trays at warp speed to keep up with consumption. I’m not kidding. Image via Heather Meeker and Whrrl)

8:00 PM: Pre-conference-party sponsored by RealPlayer. Connect with beloved Twitter friends Jessica Gottlieb, Heather Meeker and Shelly Kramer, meet many amazing new people with whom I exchange cards, and watch in amazement as Owen JJ Stone aka “Oh Doctah” downs five Long Island Iced Teas without breaking a sweat.  

 

me and owen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Me and the man they call “Oh Doctah” (image via askohdoctah)

10:00 PM: Realize I’ve offered four people jobs and proposed marriage to three others.  Time to call it a night.

 

VIP party

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(That’s the DeVries crew in foreground, slightly out of focus at the end of a long day. Back of my head and Kathy’s reveal impeccable highlighting upkeep. Danielle is making shadow puppets while Jon mimes the use of a handheld electronic device. Image via RealPlayer)

Tuesday, October 27th

8:00 AM: Showtime!

pulver and danielle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Danielle and cameraman extraordinaire A.J. making it happen in the DeVries Buzz Lounge, interviewing Jeff Pulver on the State of Now. Image via Jon Cronin and Whrrl)

The next two days pass in a blur. Because one of our Twitter Critters falls ill, we end up short-handed which means less time for all of us in the auditorium watching speakers, more time hustling in the Buzz Lounge. But that’s fine, since much of the conference action is taking place right here on and around our white lounging sofas and lucite bar stools. We are packed from the time the conference doors open till they close at night. I go home at the end of Day One covered in cupcake icing. Danielle and our crew from Pack Media Online  are tireless, wrangling speakers for interviews (including my CMO soulmate Jeff Hayzlett) and turning around beautifully edited packages on impossibly fast timing. Jon and Kathy are working the keyboards, tweeting and retweeting our video content along with all the other amazing insight coming from the Kodak Theater stage.

It is a glorious experience. Oh Doctah recaps it beautifully (as only he can) here. And this is our final highlight reel in which Jeff Pulver offers  what may be my all-time favorite quote about Twitter: “At the end of every tweet, there is a person.”

Update: While we were grabbing footage in the Buzz Lounge, fellow sponsors RealPlayer were doing a great job documenting what was going on inside the theater. Check out their videos here.  Oh, and here’s footage of my CMO boyfriend Hayzlett doing a striptease and definitely not pitching his brand *at all.* 

Posted via email from Stephanie Smirnov’s Posterous

The Future of Journalism: BWE 09 Recap

October 23, 2009 2 comments

Oh how I wish I had been at Blog World Expo this year. For one thing, I would’ve like to have seen Guy Kawasaki drool over Jenny “The Bloggess” Lawson up close and personal at the closing keynote. With Chad Vader on the same stage, no less. For another (and perhaps more professionally appropriate), I wish I had been a spectator at the fascinating “Future of Journalism” panel hosted by Brian Solis and featuring CNN anchor Don Lemon; NYU journalism professor and PressThink blog author Jay Rosen; conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt; and Current TV COO Joanna Drake Earl.

 There was a lot to this discussion (including some hostile questions from a blogger who – heaven forgive me – looked like he hadn’t seen a shower or the outside of his mother’s basement in a while), but what was most valuable to me were these three distinctions:

Professional vs Amateur
Vertical vs Horizontal 
Broadcast vs Share 

I’ll explain.

The Numbers Please: According to Solis, there are 400MM tweets published in any given month. There are over 2 billion pieces of content shared on Facebook each week. Twitter has more monthly uniques than cnn.com and nytimes.com (by the way, if those stats are inaccurate please blame Solis. I was merely watching innocently at home via web video. In my PJs.) That’s a LOT of information swirling around the interwebz. The question is, how reliable is it as news?

 A Hybrid Approach: News may unfold on Twitter, but you don’t get the full depth of a story the way you would if a professional news organization were behind it.  A hybrid model seems to be what’s emerging, or at least that’s what Current TV’s Earl suggests. You still need an editorial point of view and journalistic rigor (fact-checking, anyone?) to bring shape and structure to the mind-boggling amount of content being generated all around us. She describes this as “pro-am” journalism.

“The Wired Ecosystem”:  NYU’s Rosen describes the blogosphere as a continuum between amateur (“citizen”) producers and professional (“traditional) media.  Solis gives the example of NBC’s Ann Curry looking for information on North Korean missile test, getting nothing from her traditional sources but finding leads on Twitter. CNN’s Lemon asserts that even breaking news found through social networks requires double- and triple-confirmation before it can (or should) be reported. The point is, it’s one big ecosystem and the best content is generated when traditional and “new” collaborate.

From “Network” to Networked: My favorite distinction of the panel comes from Rosen. He cites the iconic scene in the film Network when deranged anchorman Howard Beale incites his viewers to fling open their windows and yell, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore!” That image – millions of atomized viewers uniting in behavior not because they are connected to one another, rather, to a central mass media outlet – defines traditional media. The viewer-media connection is vertical and one-way. Now, thanks to technology, we are connected not only to mass media but to one another – so we still consume information vertically but can instantly share it horizontally.

I marvel at people who continue to dismiss social networking as a time-suck, or microblogging as self-indulgent narcissism. Well, maybe my dad can get away with it – but then again, he’s a retired lawyer and not a practicing communications professional. Those of us who fall into the latter group will do well to embrace the lessons of this panel and be aware of the boundaries collapsing all around us: between professional and amateur journalism, vertical and horizontal communication, and – crucially – broadcasting messages vs sharing stories.

 

 

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