Howard Oliver, the founder of the Toronto-based PR firm What If What Next, has a long history in the communications business. His experience includes numerous projects working for major high-tech companies such as Oracle, Newbridge Networks and Accenture, to name a few.
Pipeline spoke to Oliver, who describes himself as “head over heels in love” with blogging, shortly before he presented at the 6th Annual Communications Performance Measurement Conference in Toronto.
Pipeline: Your bio says you are an expert on the use of scenario planning to accelerate the diffusion of technological innovation. What does that mean exactly?
HO: Scenario planning tells the story of the future, which informs you what to do next, which is really what my company does and is named after. The captain’s job, which is also our visual image, is how to go to the port, how to come back, how to do it safely and manage it moment to moment. Scenario planning is a very specific technique that blends in very well with the journalistic effort, which is about story telling and scientific analysis and objectivism.
Pipeline: What emerging technologies do you see as the most useful to the PR or marketing professional? Are you doing anything particularly innovative with any of your current clients?
HO: I am head over in heels in love with blogging. I became interested in blogging maybe eight, nine years ago when it was called content management, and to do one you needed several hundred thousand dollars, if not more. A few years ago it was a little bit simpler — you needed $10,000; now you do it virtually for free. It’s content management for the rest of us, and it opens up a whole brand new world. It really holds the full promise of what (Microsoft’s) Front Page was. We’re using it for clients to help launch them into North America in the technology sector to communicate with customers. We’re using it as a selling tool in the biotech sector, which is very interesting because there are tremendous intellectual property issues in biotech. A blog creates a mutual ground or common ground where interactivity is possible and communications can be a lot straighter. We’re finding three PhDs in a room can’t talk to each other, but on a blog there’s a common ground.
It’s multifaceted and that’s the beauty of it. A blog can be sent to subscribers so your universe of people you want to sell to or talk to gets your messages on a weekly or daily basis. We have our own blog at www.wiwn.blogspot.com. All our contacts are subscribed to it, so once or twice a week, not every day, we put another article on it so our people hear about it in a way we could never do before. You can’t do it through e-mails because nobody reads e-mails anymore and there are firm statistics on that.
Pipeline: How is this different from sending out a newsletter?
HO: People don’t read newsletters; that’s the point. They get screened, and there’s no potential interaction with a newsletter.
Pipeline: So why would people read these?
HO: Because it’s considered hotter and sexier, and it’s more concise, and, most importantly, it’s a common ground of communication. It’s not necessarily a features and benefits sell, it’s a more informal interaction. It’s not ‘this is what we are, here are our clients, this is our mission statement,’ it’s a different voice. It’s a voice that ultimately bridges the marketing message and the journalistic message. You have to ask ‘who, what, where, when and why’; you have to ask ‘what’s the interesting story’ and this is the interesting way to get it out in ways you can’t do on a Web site. The other thing is it’s cheaper. That’s one aspect of blogging.
The other is they are really very easily optimized for search, so it’s a push marketing tool that goes out to The other is they are really very easily optimized for search, so it’s a push marketing tool that goes out to the universe. Web sites that are overly optimized look like Frankenstein’s monsters, as far as I’m concerned. They’re ugly and they just do not work from a content point of view.
Pipeline: What’s the uptake these days with corporate blogs?
HO: It’s growing by leaps and bounds. If you go to http://prmeasure.blogware.com/blog, there’s an article from the New York Times; it’s huge because it’s an informal way to communicate. CEOs are doing it, Microsoft is doing it, Google is doing it; there are lots of little interesting applications. One of the things we’re really focusing on is making it issue-based. A blog on company XYZ is fine, but when it’s the journalist resource for a particular technology, with all kinds of links, it’s a huge opportunity to link. If you knew there was a blog that contained the best information that was originated by a company would you go there? We’re most interested in issue-based blogging, which is probably a weakness, and we’re very active in that and we don’t do any blogs that don’t have a message or focus and therefore we’re much more effective.
Pipeline: So who do you see as the audience for these blogs?
HO: The media and customers. We think it’s a way to really break through the clutter with media. The press release is dead. Trade shows are difficult. This is the way to go.
Pipeline: It used to be if you got a story done that would be a measurable impact. But now it could be word of mouth generated in a blog or on a podcast, So how do you keep track of that? How do you measure your performance in this kind of expanding universe?
HO: It’s not that easy. A major technology journalist mentioned a client in his blog. The client wanted to go in (the publication) and got the blog. But how do you measure that? It’s a very interesting question.
There is a new field that’s arising called share of discussion that’s really important. You look at reach, you compare and do share of discussion, and these are all bona fide techniques. There’s a lot of use of spreadsheets, and there are new services that track media in these new ways. I’ll be talking about them. Bacons is the standard, PR Track, Lexis Nexis; I think in the end it’s really about using all these tools as a way to talk to people in the media … really developing relationships and getting known in a particular area. In our technology business, we know who these people (journalists)are and we develop a relationship. My MBA is in market research methods. You never want to have perfect measurement because it costs too much. Good enough is fine. After all, it’s not brain surgery, it’s PR, but there are some really good things you can use.
Pipeline: You have a background that includes working on projects for IT firms. Is there any difference in strategy or approach when you’re trying to generate stories in the trade or mainstream press for these clients, as opposed to say consumer or business services clients?
HO: Consumer is easier. We recently did very successfully a launch of a local ethnic restaurant here. We wrote with love and we got fabulous coverage in the Globe and Mail, it was a huge piece. We would have died to get that in technology. It’s just more interesting, people would rather hear about food, it’s more approachable, you can bring in the human element with greater precision, it’s more sensual. Content management is not a sensual experience.
Pipeline: Your blog says you see PR as a sales function. Is this different from the way most organizations view PR?
HO: We use PR as sales function, absolutely. For one of our clients, we did what I think is the essential job of a PR person: go speak to 20 customers. This is more important than a focus group, because what happened was from those 20 conversations we got really good leads. This seems to be a thing that repeats itself. It has also helped me, because when I speak to journalists my ability to communicate deeply what the technology is (is improved) at a quantum level. So it’s really worth the $165 an hour I get paid for; it’s a huge value, and that’s a direct hook into sales. We do not take technology engagements (with clients) who do not let us do this.
Pipeline: Any company in any industry can be hit by scandals of various sorts. What kinds of issues should PR professionals representing IT clients be particularly prepared to manage, in your opinion?
HO: I think there are sensitivities to intellectual property, non-disclosure agreements have to be respected, and there are sensitivities to competition. You have to take the high road and not name competitors; it’s old school, but in other industries they are aggressive and I don’t think it’s a good thing to do in the tech sector. It’s the good old-fashioned don’t do unto someone else what you wouldn’t like being done unto you. Being a mensch, that’s what drives us.