Lee Odden

MiNterview on Future of Digital PR With Albert Maruggi

Albert Maruggi

Albert Maruggi

Minnesota is home to one of the most vibrant social media communities in the country, with attendance at Social Media Breakfasts exceeding 300+ (more than NYC or San Francisco).

With all that local interest and talent, I thought I would do a few interviews with some of the Minneapolis social media set that I’ve come to know.

Albert Maruggi is a 30-year communications practitioner whose career spans journalist, public affairs adviser in national politics, global marketer for technology companies and founder of Provident Partners. Through PRSA & Media Relations conferences—as well as through hair-raising driving in the hills of San Francisco—I’ve had the chance to get to know Albert and his keen insight into the future of digital marketing and PR.

One of the things I like most about Al is he “tells it like it is.” In this interview, he shares his wisdom on the future of digital marketing and the PR industry, justifying and testing social media, practical tactics and resources you can use today.

You’ve worked in the government PR machine and in senior communications roles for companies. And over the past 8 years, you’ve had your own agency with a heavy social media focus. How have your agency and the communications/PR industry changed in that time?

Holy transformation Batman, how do I answer this question? I met recently with a long-time PR pro who is in the job market. He was struggling to understand all the hubbub about social media. His claim was that relationships have existed for years in PR—that’s what the profession is based on. I wonder where PR would be if prohibition still existed since plenty of old-school PR relationships were enhanced at a bar. But I digress.

Let me put it this way: PR/communications and its essential premise of storytelling and relationship-building is like the earth—land, shall we say. Social media is like the tectonic plates shifting to create mountains, valleys, earthquakes. It’s still land, but the way we traverse it is different.

I suppose old-schoolers still look at numbers. One airline passenger out of millions? How much of a problem could one passenger possibly pose if a baggage handler unfortunately broke his guitar? Now in the old-schoolers’ perspective, if Eric Clapton sitting in first class had his guitar broken, that’s a different story. But Dave Carroll?

The fundamental change is everything a company does has the potential to matter.

Provident Partners really jumped into podcasting and video early. Coming from television journalism many years ago, I have an appreciation for how each format, each medium can impact the way a story is perceived. Add to this the way humans are wired to be connected, be part of something larger, plus the way search has impacted information distribution, and you can see the progression of how information is originated and shared. This has created those shifts in the way companies must communicate to all of their audiences. This really influenced the change Provident Partners went through 6 years ago.

I also continue to see tremendous value in reaching a level of what I call practical vision building. This is strategic thinking that is somewhere between the tasks necessary for a marketer to do this week and the work of a futurist who thinks about personal space travel. This is a spectrum of how I shape the future. The first is very little; the second is so far into the future that it is hard to see the impact of that thinking. There is a middle ground.

Practical vision building is modeling something that doesn’t exist in your company today, or doesn’t exist at all, but will allow you to leapfrog a typical plodding growth path. I see much practical vision building coming from combining technologies and/or consumer habits that exist today. This is important to me because with the speed of change, the decrease in product lifecycles, and consumption of information and news cycles, thinking like a visionary has greater application today than it did even 10 years ago.

What arguments or business-case justifications have you found to be the most compelling to convince companies to invest time, people and other resources into projects that heavily involve the social web?

1. Decline of mass market data, whether it’s typical network TV consumption, newspapers, you name it.

2. Immediate feedback for those companies that thrive on customer opinions. Now that also means companies must be willing and capable of changing to meet those opinions.

3. Fear of the unknown. Smart people are those who know what they don’t know and are willing to learn.

4. Justification for the status quo. So tell me Mr. Prospect, how has your marketing been doing lately? Stand up and make the business case for that, please. “Er, oh well, you know in this economy it’s hard to…” However, I don’t mean to be flip. What happens in situations like the present is they paralyze people. Their colleagues just got laid off, you have 3 times the workload, and you don’t need to stick your neck out because you are the one with the health benefits in your family. Lee, I know you asked me to respond to these questions because I’m a straight shooter, and that, my friend, is the real deal I’ve seen. This too shall pass, and I’ve seen signs that it is. Humans get tired of whatever situation they are in, good or bad, and decide to say “enough of this” and start to implement change.

The Marketing Edge podcast has been effective for your own marketing and branding. When I talk to marketers and communications people about podcasting, many aren’t as enthused about it as a few years ago. However, eMarketer is reporting that podcast media consumption is actually up. How do you decide podcasting is the right channel for companies? Is there a difference with BtoB or BtoC?

I started in radio as a senior in high school. Don’t be a wise guy, no, Marconi wasn’t a friend of mine. I edited sound on reel to reel with razors and tape, so perhaps I’m too much a fan of audio. I advocate audio for the following reasons:

1. It is less intimidating than a camera, it’s just a conversation. In fact, you can do a great quality podcast interviewing someone over the phone. Try www.utterli.com or www.blogtalkradio.com.

2. Do people in your company gives speeches or participate on panels? If so, that’s reason to consider podcasting.

3. Podcasting can also be viewed as digital sales collateral, but without being salesy. I have seen audio interviews with news makers and thought leaders presented in a sales presentation with great effectiveness.

4. Remember the line of people in the morning at Starbucks, and listen to all the different ways people want essentially the same product, coffee. It’s the same with information, so consider that some people are audio learners, others might be visual, etc. At the cost of audio podcasting, it is a simple way to improve your marketing without busting your budget or your time commitments.

5. Hey, it’s just a soundbite. I believe all media is multimedia. The New York Times has video on their site. I’ve seen media websites use soundbites that are part of news releases. Examine how www.pitchengine.com has you thinking differently about the social media release. It’s a great way to shape the way you package your information.

6. Sure there are differences with B2B and B2C, but I’d suggest that it’s not the obvious ones you might think, such as with B2C, you can be more creative. No, it depends on the community of recipients of that message. We’ll have to answer that question as “yes, there is a difference,” but that difference is not determined by broad category definition of B2B or B2C.

What advice would you offer to social media neophytes for experimenting and managing their first efforts?

This is a loaded question, but what the heck.

1. Regularly read, listen or view this and 3 other blogs you find have value.

2. Get yourself involved in the Social Media Breakfast or Social Media Club in your area. Talk to practitioners, they love to share what they know

3. And I really have to say this because even in a “free” economy (Chris Anderson’s theory), pay for someone knowledgeable that you trust and has a good working chemistry with your group to work with you. I’m talking about companies that want to truly understand how communications is transforming, not some penny-pinching CEO that’s looking to dump headcount to peddle product.

I’ll add that I truly believe those agencies are still few and far between, and also they are not “running” your social media effort. Being social is not something that can be outsourced forever. At a defined point, the company either absorbs the workload and the community, or the effort dies.

One way companies are managing and acting on social web participation is through a community manager. How would you define that role? If a company cannot afford to add a full-time person for that role, what’s your advice?

I love this role and concept. It’s the perfect role for good communicators with excellent interpersonal skills. This person could come from marketing, PR, sales, customer service and other places within a company or with that kind of background. I believe a community manager can play a role in facilitating conversations and topics of a community in close, emphasis on close, conjunction with a company.

The community manager should have immediate access to a designated person within the company. The company should also be prepared to handle any type of issue that arises in the community.

The role would be to raise topics for discussion; broker introductions among the community members; provide interesting facts, trends and news items related to the interests of the community; be able to produce content across different media and relay company information without being an advocate for the company; and be a conduit of information useful for the company that originates in the community.

Let’s get practical! Please share 3 tips for social media marketing or PR efforts for companies on a budget.

1. Focus on what you want to be online—e.g. relationship builder, price value blaster (there is nothing wrong with this, Dell Outlet does it well), repository of expertise. Then execute to that focus.

2. Pick your medium/format. If you stink at writing, then use audio or video. Play in the format of your strength. iJustine made a career out of iPhone photos, not a bad gig if you can get it.

3. You and your company are not the center of the universe. Having 5 kids, I learned this a long time ago. Always talking about your stuff is, well, boring. However, you can be an integral part of conversations in the areas of interest in which your company has a stake and is involved. For example, if there are proposed government regulations effecting your customers, blog about it. When news events involve your industry, issue a statement about it. When you have ideas about innovation, jump in the social stream to comment about it first. Get associated with those innovative ideas, others will talk about them and your exposure will increase.

We’ve see each other at PR industry conferences in other cities more than in our own city. The outlook for the traditional PR industry is bleak, in my opinion. What is your take on the future of PR in a world of citizen journalism, death of print, shifts towards digital and social media?

The future of PR is terrific really. If you are a communicator it’s great, but you need these skills:

• You know how produce multimedia content, not just say, “Oh, we should have a video for x,” but actually produce in multimedia.

• You know HTML and can dig into things like WordPress.

• You can write! I mean write well, fast and in different styles. Holy Cow, you will always have a job.

Now I’m not saying you’ll be making millions, because I believe price points will remain static until the employment picture clears up. But those skills are essential to anyone in communications.

Now we have the inevitable social media measurement question. What strategies and tools do you use to measure the effectiveness of a particular social media effort?

Look, all these shiny new objects are part of the problem of accepting social media. It’s too much, so I’ll keep this simple.

1. Measure what will drive your objectives. That’s not rocket science. It includes mentions, conversations and relationships, and I’d also include traffic and name ID in specific audiences.

2. The tools include a spectrum from free like Google to paid like Techrigy. I try not to jump from one tool to the next. Stay focused on message and audience.

The social web changes quickly, and with all that information overload, our readers are looking for good, trustworthy resources to learn about social media marketing and public relations. Besides your fine Marketing Edge podcast and blog, please share 3-4 resources for staying on top of social media marketing trends and tactics.

Between my fine podcast and this blog, if they can figure it out, I hold little hope for the free world. OK, I just had to say that.

• Mashable
For Immediate Release podcast with Shel Holtz and Neville Hobson
Society for New Communications Research (especially their forums where you get to talk 1-on-1 with practioners. Disclosure: I’m a senior fellow)
TED talks videos

• Use Twitter just to get you thinking about how to see and seize opportunities.
• Talk to people in your company with a sense of what would be interesting to share with any of your key audiences (a meeting is not something to get through, it’s something to sift through to find the nuggets you can expand on using social media).
• Dedicate an hour daily to exploring the web. Not for work, just go online to discover stuff. It will open your mind to things you have yet to think about.

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Lee Odden About Lee Odden

@LeeOdden is the CEO of TopRank Marketing and editor of Online Marketing Blog. Cited for his expertise by The Economist, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal, he's the author of the book Optimize and presents internationally on B2B marketing topics including content, search, social media and influencer marketing. When not at conferences, consulting, or working with his talented team, he's likely running, traveling or cooking up something new.


  1. PR is not dead, it's just bloated. One of the best articles I've read in quite some time. Big thanks to Albert & Lee!

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  3. This is a great article. The public relations industry (of which I am a member) really needs to move closer to the marketing/advertising industry and become more about driving sales and results instead of just piles of clips. Customers are becoming more strategic about their marketing budgets and have to tie expenditures back to results. The retainer model is also broken and the industry needs to move towards a-la-carte and pay-for-performance models. Always a trend setter….


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