PR Rock Stars: A Conversation with Greg Swan

You hear something once, you may dismiss it. You hear it twice, your ears start to perk up. You hear it three times, you start to believe the hype. This has been my experience in getting to know Greg Swan, digital strategy manager with Weber Shandwick here in the Twin Cities.

Over the last few years, I’ve heard so many great things about Greg and his work–from my PRSA colleagues, mutual friends and PR leaders throughout the community. But, I’d never really had the chance to meet Greg and sit down and chat until just a few weeks ago. Instantly, I became a huge fan. 
Smart. Plugged in. Creative. Early adopter. Greg Swan is many things. What he is not is just another media relations pro. Sure, Greg knows PR backwards and front. But, what makes Greg so unique is his ability to draw upon his experience with digital solutions, citizen journalism and PR to craft integrated marketing and communications programs for his clients. Now, that, my friends is how you become a PR Rock Star.
You’ve been one of the pioneers in the Twin Cities blogosphere since starting your PerfectPorridge blog in 2004. How did you get into blogging and who would you consider your key influencers and mentors in that space?

After my ad agency stint in Des Moines, I interned at the alternative newspaper in Des Moines and had the opportunity to put that journalism side of my PR degree to work and fell even more in love with writing. Shortly after leaving the paper I co-founded and edited a statewide arts magazine dedicated to the arts, Art Scene. When I moved to the Twin Cities and moved into PR full time, I still needed an outlet for all of that arts-writing passion. Perfect Porridge was born.

However, I first set up a LiveJournal blog back in 2000, where I eloquently shared rants like, “Why I Refuse to Call Independence Day the Fourth of July.” Now I maintain three to four blogs daily: PerfectPorridge, Greg Swan, Minneapolis Metblogs, PerfectPorridge Second Helpings; but try to stay away from the pajama-style rants. Twitter is the ultimate blogging tool, and because it’s so simple to update, it’s my preferred publication medium.

There are so many pioneering trailblazers across the blogging landscape; it’s difficult to give them all enough credit. I can’t say I regularly read a single blog, but I do make it a practice to skim FriendFeed, Twitter and Google Reader a few times a day and use a sundry of new media widgets and alerts for constant updates.


I have this horribly personal analogy for mining this overwhelming data stream I can’t stop myself from sharing: I imagine myself as an F16 fighter pilot who flips down a 360-degree lens wherein real-time data is piped through the lens and enters the sensory awareness of my consciousness as I fly the plane. I may not directly pay attention to every post or news story, but there is a working madness to the osmosis of skimming hundreds of streams a day and gleaning a general feel for news of the day or what’s really important. That’s how I use social media streams – straight to the brain!

You play a key role on the digital strategy team at Weber Shandwick here in Minneapolis. As we ease into February, how are organizations integrating social media and digital tools into their marketing communications mix differently in 2009? What kind of trends are you seeing there?

Clients and agencies are looking are continually evaluating and evolving their approach to social marketing. Weber Shandwick Digital has a focus on inline communications, meaning we don’t create a stand-alone, traditional communications campaign and bolt on a few online tactics just because. We also rarely deliver solely digital or social media plans. Instead, we craft integrated strategic plans that reflect the audience our clients are trying to reach, as well as the approach that will be most effective in driving advocacy for a specific brand, issue or company.

Advertising, interactive, pure-digital and even events companies are trying to carve out their own approach to social marketing. In my opinion, PR agencies already build campaigns that help a company/brand foster two-way dialog with their stakeholders. Therefore, social media is a logical, next-generation framework for generating the opportunity for this discussion to happen.

Additionally, legacy media reporters are increasingly using media tools – often without realizing it. The “2008 Journalist Survey on Media Relations Practices” study found the greatest change in journalism practices as a result of the internet to is the ability to access corporate news and contact information online 24 hours a day. Nearly half of journalists reported visiting a corporate website or online newsroom at least once a week, while nearly 87 percent visit at least once a month.

Many companies see those kinds of stats, review their own corporate newsroom and take a big “gulp.” We’re helping companies bridge the gap between 1) legacy reporters who may still want a formal news release and a high-resolution photo, and 2) citizen journalists who may want two bullets and a Web-quality photo, plus a digg or del.icio.us button.

Whether it’s a social media newsroom to accommodate unique media needs, a corporate blog for consistently updated information, or a Twitter account for less formal updates, I feel we’re enabling the trend toward corporate transparency and immediacy using new media tools.

As for other trends in the mediasphere and PR industry, check out these other stats from that same study:

* Nearly 75 percent follow at least one blog regularly
* More than 75 percent of journalists say they use social media to research stories
* Nearly 38 percent of journalists now say they visit a social media site at least once a week as part of their reporting
* More than 53 percent of journalists now say they visit a social media site such as FaceBook or YouTube at least once a month
* Nearly 19 percent of journalists receive five or more RSS feeds of news services, blogs, podcasts or videocasts every week

This blurred gray line between traditional and social media is the reason I’ve tried to stop myself from using the terms “mainstream media” a
nd “new media.” It’s increasingly hard to distinguish the two.

With that said, mass media is still “mass,” yet legacy news outlets now publish their stories online and include comments and sharing tools. I think what’s left of that gray line will dissolve by 2010.

You’re actively involved in both PRSA and MIMA (Minnesota Interactive Marketing Association). In fact, you just moderated an outstanding panel at a recent MIMA meeting at the University of Minnesota that covered digital reputation management. Why do you continue to be so involved in these two organizations? What value does it bring to your professional life?

I highly recommend PR pros join one or more professional organizations. My college advisor was a long-standing APR accredited professional and frequently extolled the importance of accreditation to help shape and restore PR’s reputation.

Based on Wednesday’s unfortunate USA Today piece, “Despite dim view of public relations, it may be needed,” the PR industry still has a long way to go on the reputation front.

PRSA’s code of ethics and APR programs are a great foundation for new and tenured PR folks to lean on day-to-day, and especially in time of a crisis or need for a snap-judgment.

MIMA is leading the way as the go-to organization for interactive marketing strategies. They also hold less formal, more frequent and integrated discussions about a wide range of topics that help me stretch my thinking beyond PR 101 blinders.

Back to the inline concept, it’s important for all PR professionals to understand the changing face of the media landscape. You don’t have just one person in your company/agency who knows how to write a press release, so you can’t afford to just have one person who reads blogs or even more importantly, understands how an innocuous blog post can seriously and immediately impact mass media coverage.

I can understand the challenges professional organizations face in recruiting these days, particularly with 1) the economy tightening our belts and budgets and 2) a Millennial generation who may view their employment as an 8-5 commitment and perhaps not a career that demands investment, education and peer interaction.

Event groups like Social Media Breakfast MSP, Conversations About the Future of Advertising and Likemind provide all generations with a less formal opportunity to get together, network and collaborate. I think we’ll continue to see formal organizations become more dynamic while these information organizations adopt formal protocols to manage growing membership bases.

I recommend seizing the opportunity to interact with peers at every chance, and the Twin Cities marketing community offers countless opportunities every month.

As I mentioned, you started PerfectPorridge, a Minneapolis-based music blog that covers the national, international and local music scenes. Clearly, you have a passion for music, but what keeps you blogging? It doesn’t seem like you have a lot of free time on your hands with your position at Shandwick, professional association duties, speaking engagements and your growing family. What’s stoking that fire?

That’s a great question. I like to be busy and have my irons in lots of fires. But last fall we bought this gorgeous 120 year-old house, and if you were following closely, you may have noticed my tweeting, blogging, tagging, etc. severely dropped off while I refinished the hardwood floors and tended to home projects.

I also rarely tweet or blog between 5-8 p.m. when I try to give my son the attention he deserves. With new technology tools, it’s simple to stay connected, but I try to maintain a healthy level of offline discipline, too.

Interested in a live band take from you. Give me your top three local (Minneapolis) bands and three national bands you absolutely have to see when they come to town.

I understand the reasoning behind this question, but I always hate ranking local bands. Our musical community boasts a tremendously creative talent pool across multiple genres.

The new P.O.S. album, “Never Better,” is shaping the next generation of hip-hop. Adam Levy (of the Honeydogs) recently put out a kids CD under the moniker Bunny Clogs. I took my two year-old to Rock the Cradle at the MIA a few weeks ago to see Adam and his daughter perform tracks from “More! More! More!” Jeremy Messersmith is another talented singer-songwriter who has recently come on my radar. His track, “Welcome to Suburbia” was my theme song last fall.

Nationally, I have to recommend Raleigh’s Annuals, who never fail to disappoint when they come through town. I’m also a big fan of Great Northern’s dissonant songwriting and poignant live show. They have a new album coming out, “Remind Me Where the Light Is,” poised to really break them out. I also caught Fujiya and Miyagi last night at a sold out 7th Street Entry show. My ears are still thumping twelve hours later.

You seem to be somewhat of a hybrid in professional terms—you have a keen interest in citizen journalism as the captain of the Minneapolis Metroblog, you work for one of the largest PR shops in Minnesota and you clearly “get” the social media/digital space. What do you see as the advantage of focusing on multiple areas of expertise instead of specializing in just one?

Unlike some traditional brick and mortar trades, public relations is an industry that changes dynamically nearly every day. I’ve found the best way to stay in touch with those changes is to jump into the fray head first.

For example, to be a good PR pro, it’s critical to understand journalism and the natural flow of news. Both the definition of “news” and how that news is reported have changed greatly in the last decade. But it’s not as easy as touring the local newspaper and TV stations and reading the local daily newspaper every morning.

Reporters are scanning blogs, LinkedIn and using Twitter to source experts for their stories. Stories are now often updated after they publish with corrections or better, fresher content. And where do they get that content? Press r
eleases still serve a purpose, but that purpose is fading. Matte releases are headed the way of the Video News Release. With the advent of e-mail, reporters are the most accessible they’ve ever been, yet they’re completely overwhelmed with competing pitches from our peers. Meanwhile, everyday people – citizens – are using new tools to publish, share and tell stories and impact mass media coverage.

The most daunting challenge we face – that tomorrow will never be the same as today – should be the easiest hurdle to overcome. I want to be involved in knowing and shaping what’s next, and the best way of knowing and shaping is by doing.
2 comments
Leah
Leah

Arik,

Not sure if you've had interviews like this on your blog before, but I love it! I find this refreshing. This is a great way to supplement the other PR resources in the community. It seems like this is just what I've been missing.

Leah Otto

Connie Bensen
Connie Bensen

Arik, thanks for providing a great in-depth interview with Greg!
Greg is passionate about his work & very active in supporting & promoting social media.
Greg's definitely a thought leader & a great resource!