By: Sam Ford, PepperDigital
A series of compelling conversations of late have led me to think about the way we prioritize and think about "thought leadership" and the way we as experts frame ourselves. In mid-March, I had two great speaking opportunities and two quite different venues: the annual South by Southwest Interactive conference in Austin, Texas, and the annual gathering of the Society of Cinema and Media Studies–this year in Los Angeles.
At SXSW, our panel–entitled "Does My Sh*t Talking Really Help Your Brand"–focused on how marketers think about, react to, and deal with negative reactions from their audiences. First, the panel gave me a chance to collaborate with longtime colleagues–Big Spaceship's Ivan Askwith is a fellow MIT Comparative Media Studies alum–but it also gave me an excuse to engage in a public discussion with people I've long followed but never worked with–Emily Yellin, author of Your Call Is (not that) Important to Us; Campfire's Mike Monello; and cyborg anthropologist Amber Case.
During our panel, Amber made a provocative statement basically indicating that outside consultants should not be put in charge of owning a brand's social media presence unless it is a new direction that the agency worked hand-in-hand with the company on designing. My spin on that discussion was that a brand should never really engage an agency in execution if they aren't strategic partners–outsourcing the execution of one's touchpoint with the audience to an agency that hasn't been equipped with the knowledge they need to truly understand the brand and its products and service ultimately does no one any good. Instead, I think it's crucial that agencies and brands collaborate in the social space and that people at the company itself be fundamentally involved with and take ownership of social media in partnership with outside consultants or agencies. In order to have truly strategic social media presences, brands must take ownership of their social media presence but also truly collaborate with their partners on developing both strategy and execution.
At SXSW, we tried to follow the spirit of that edict in the panel itself. We started the panel with introductions of ourselves and our initial answers to the question the panel posed, but we immediately turned that question to the audience and what ensued (and I hope people agree) was a discussion throughout the room and on Twitter and in other social spaces. That approach likewise guided our presentation at the 50th anniversary of SCMS, entitled "The Survival of Soap Opera: Pasts and Futures of a Legendary Television Genre". On the panel were the three co-editors of our forthcoming book on the current state and future of the U.S. soap opera–Abigail De Kosnik, C. Lee Harrington, and myself–and longtime soap opera star and book contributor Tristan Rogers of General Hospital fame.
However, as soon as we introduced ourselves, we dispensed with the traditional conference model and instead went straight to a collaborative discussion with our audience. Those in attendance were Lisa Lo Cicero, a current actress on GH; Sara Bibel, a former soaps writer, current soaps blogger, and contributor to our book; other fellow contributors Racquel Gonazles and Louise Spence, the latter of which has written a book on soaps; Christine Geraghty, who has written often on UK soap operas; and a variety of other academics who have researched the soap opera. To have that collection of people together and then to spend that time lecturing or reading to them seemed quite a waste, and we were very happy with the open discussion that followed as academics posed questions about the current state and future of soaps and industry representatives walked through the frustrations and complications of television production.
During the course of the day, I've had two engaging conversations with smart people I greatly respect on the topic of collaboration: Pete Abel from Suddenlink Communications, who I was meeting with here in the St. Louis area this week; and Julie Anixter from ESI Design, a client of ours that lives and breathes a collaborative mindset in everything they do. In both conversations, the topic of control and collaboration came up, and all of us remarked on how refreshing and generative it is to debate and discuss ideas with fellow colleagues, whether in the course of a project you are working on or, more broadly, about "the state of social media" or "the future of public relations."
In short, even those of us who think about and preach "collective intelligence" still find ourselves locked in the "control" mindset of "owning" a topic or area of expertise or of getting as much publicity as possible out of something that we lose sight of why we are coming together with colleagues in the first place or why we are working with one another or being brought in to speak–idea sharing and collaboration. This requires thinking not about "Networking" with a capital "N" (the kind that leaves me after a speaking event with a long line of potential vendors hoping to hawk their wares or with SXSW questioners spending more time explaining a cool case study they worked on than actually contributing to the discussion) but instead thinking about actual "networking," the kind focused on connecting about ideas more than exchanging business cards. And, by the way, one rule we instituted at SXSW: none of the panelists nor the questioners were allowed to refer to particular projects they'd worked on in more than passing detail, which did wonders to keep our conversation from turning into a series of sales pitches.
Coming out of those conferences and heading into yet another this week at the annual gathering of the Popular Culture Association, I am invigorated and excited about connecting with colleagues and generating thinking amongst one another, talking with rather than at the people I'm fortunate enough to be in the same space with. And I hope to see this growing trend of industry conferences pushing away from PPT presentations from unconnected speakers and academic conferences moving beyond a series of papers being read to a listening audience.