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So What Do You Do, Keith O'Brien, Editor-in-Chief, PRWeek?

Balancing a hallowed PR mag's new media expansion with a print brand is part of this upstart young EIC's day-to-day

By Joe Ciarallo - August 6, 2008
Editor-in-chief of the public relations industry's largest trade publication, PRWeek, Keith O'Brien hasn't yet reached the ripe old age of 30. Getting his reporting start at the then-Jason Calacanis-owned and now-defunct Venture Reporter, O'Brien has been with PRWeek since 2004.

The PR industry continues to report growth numbers, despite current economic conditions, which bodes well for his publication. While O'Brien thinks PR has "done itself a service by explaining its worth in a very specific way to the 'C' suite," the fourth quarter this year will reveal much in terms of economic realities. O'Brien spoke recently to about rolling out new digital features while still getting people excited about a print product, former PRWeek reporter Hamilton Nolan's defection to Gawker, and whether he thinks people should heed Julia Allison's PR advice.

Name: Keith O'Brien
Position: Editor-in-chief, PRWeek
Resume: Researcher, then analyst at Venture Reporter. Started as editor of in 2004, and then became news editor, and subsequently, executive editor.
Birthdate: March 19, 1979
Hometown: New Providence, New Jersey
Education: Syracuse University
Marital status: Single
First section of the Sunday Times: Magazine
Favorite TV show: It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Mad Men
Guilty pleasure: Fantasy football
Last book you read: Blindness by Jose Saramago

You recently wrote on the PRWeek editor's blog, "I talk to a lot of agency leaders who are very proud of their blogs, but don't really talk much about what value it adds to the business." The responses to your question about blogs' return on investment (ROI) ranged from "education" to "SEO" to "the ROI is indirect." How would you have responded in terms of PRWeek's own blogs?
I think there's an ROI in a couple of different ways. One, I think, which is really unique in the history of the publishing industry, is that a blog allows you to float story ideas out. In the past, journalists and media organizations were much more guarded with what they were working on for fear of being beat by competitors, or people not wanting to see how the sausage is made, but we are in a unique time, where blogs allow you to find sources that you may not have had, to check the validity of the story you're pursuing.

I remember one story: We were writing about a major company hiring a new agency and we tried unsuccessfully to get the old agency to talk. I almost absentmindedly was blogging that I was waiting for what we call "the splash" -- the main, front-page story to come in -- and I mention verbatim, "I'm waiting for the splash to come in," and the agency who lost the account saw that, and realized there was still an opportunity to comment and they called me. It's not necessarily life-changing, but it made it a better story and that was something that probably wouldn't have happened in the past.

Another ROI is that there are some people in the public relations industry who are not as well-acquainted with [PRWeek] the print publication, and perhaps they are more likely to get their public relations news and opinion through an RSS feed. I felt like we needed to be part of that conversation and be reaching that audience, with hopes that if they're not already, they'll turn into subscribers of the print publication.

Third, the ability to cover more stories with the same amount of resources: How you can write for blogs allows you to call attention to work of other publications and add your two cents. Again, in the past, publications may have loathed to link to competition or other sources, but I believe we're here to educate the PR industry however we can.

Former PRWeek reporter Hamilton Nolan left for Gawker earlier this year. Obviously, there will be some change in a reporter's writing style when making a move like that. What are your thoughts on Hamilton's reporting for Gawker?
Well first off, I'll say Gawker obviously looks at the PR industry in a different way than we do. I'm really proud of the work that Hamilton did here. I think that he is a brilliant reporter, and if anyone has the opportunity to look at some of his past work, the economy that he had with words should be taught at journalism schools.

As far as the work he does now, they have a different approach to covering this industry, and he's obviously doing really well there, and the commenters there seem to agree with his point of view. I wish him luck there. Hamilton and I still talk a lot, and I think it's a good fit for him.

PR pros have been involved in TV as long as the medium has been around, but the real heritage is in the print medium. I think all publications should be dabbling in both multimedia and new media, and what I think is refreshing is that there isn't that major fear of failure there.

PRWeek has added numerous digital features recently, including main-page video interviews, blogs and podcasts. How did the decision come about to implement those features?
I think in some respects it's -- again -- a unique time in publishing industry, that you don't necessary need a four-month plan for rollout of technology. Obviously, we wanted to serve an editorial purpose. We share a camera with one of our sister publications, a more proper traditional camera, but I've also equipped some of our reporters with the Flip camera, which I see proliferating throughout agencies. It sounds like I'm doing product placement, but it's a great device to shoot video quickly.

While we are shooting a lot of video, we're trying to think how we can go beyond just Q&As. It's interesting because the PR industry itself is contemplating how it can go beyond a text- and audio-based environment. PR pros have been involved in TV as long as the medium has been around, but the real heritage is in the print medium. I think all publications should be dabbling in both multimedia and new media, and what I think is refreshing is that there isn't that major fear of failure there. There is an opportunity to try to stuff out, and we -- like any other publication -- have our goals for it. It's not merely throwing some stuff up and seeing what sticks.

I went to a conference recently where a PR professional did a video segment interviewing me, so it's really a unique dynamic. It seems both journalists and public relations people -- pretty much everyone that has a blog -- are out to try. I mean you're interviewing me right here.

Exactly. So, what has reader reaction been to these new digital features?
The video part is relatively new, but the feedback that I think is best to us in some respects is the feedback of acceptance. Anyone who is a reader of our publication knows that for our major features, where we highlight the public relations and corporate communications functions of major companies like CA, GE, and Pfizer, it takes a lot out of those busy people's time to work with us on the feature, and one of the things we started doing is to extend the features through podcasts. We really try and get things with the podcast that aren't covered in the print edition. When we propose a separate podcast interview, people are like, "Yeah, let's do that." Again, it's an interesting environment covering public relations -- in some respects they're curious of how we as a publication are using multimedia and new media, because it will inform them in some respects how other media might use it, and they can see how it looks on their perspective.

How do you feed readers' thirst for constantly updated online content while still keeping people excited about the print product?
That's a question we have to ask ourselves daily. We decided a long time ago: Nothing waits for news. News of a company selecting a new agency or a crisis communications situation like we've seen with the airlines industry, or we thought with the tomato -- but now perhaps jalapeno -- industry. That news is out there, and we need to be out there covering it.

What we can do to make sure our subscribers are getting the product that rewards them is to focus the analysis for print publication. I would be lying if I said I had the exact formula for how to balance those two. A lot of it is trial and error, and we made the decision to un-gate our news because news is out there and we had to be competing. We, like any other publication, will attest to power of being first or second on a Google News search for a high-ranking term.

However, pretty much all of our features are gated. A two-page spread with major company is something takes a lot of effort and really provides an enriching product, and that is something that is only available to our subscribers. It's always remembering about the subscribers, while also making sure you're relevant online and also looking to certain aspects of online product as ways to engage and alert potential subscribers and people interested in the industry about all the news that's happening out there.

PR people pitch you about PR. What are three things they could do better when pitching PRWeek?
One would be -- and we're not unique in this -- to know their audience. It's interesting because we get a lot of pitches from PR agencies or corporations that are pitching the general-interest pitch, which holds little interest for us. So that's one: just being mindful of what we're covering, or the list that you're sending things out to.

Two is not being afraid of talking about strategy. I think the industry has historically looked at the tools behind its success as something that should be guarded, and the industry has an unofficial charter of being more transparent, and I think that goes beyond making sure you identify yourself on blog comments. It's about treating the profession like any other when you're doing something successfully; it talks about it in a balanced and informative way.

The third thing is, I always try and get more people that work with us that are pitching stories or working with us as a person trying to get his or herself or his or her client into the publication -- to really think about interacting with us as a reader, not just sending feedback when you think we got something wrong, or praising us when we got a story right, but to think about type of things they would want to read, that doesn't have to do with their own personal work.

What percentage of pitches to PRWeek, roughly, would you say contain some sort of digital content, besides just a link to the agency's home page? For example, a link to an online newsroom, video, blog post, etc.?
For all of the conversation, a woefully small percentage, I'd say -- probably single digits. Press releases have worked in the past and a lot of people still see some success in them. I'm a fan, as is any reporter, of a personalized message and putting the salient bits at top. Then, if it's necessary, putting the narrative release beneath, but you really have to get bullet points of info at top. Considering how many press releases a reporter is reading a day, it's a lot.

Are there any areas of the industry where PRWeek is looking to expand coverage?
We're trying to do more coverage of how PR intersects with other marketing disciplines. I think we're covering enough digital -- that's to say, I think we're extremely cognizant of the importance of digital in public relations. We're just trying to be much more focused on what the story is, what elements are relevant to our readers. We tell potential and current reporters that anything can be a PRWeek story, because ultimately public relations is about communications, and everything has a communications aspect. That doesn't mean we'll cover everything, but everything has that potential. Their can be a public relations angle for any story out there -- the question is finding it, and making sure that we're adding something relevant to the conversation.

What stories over the last few months have received the most reader feedback, positive or negative?
I wrote a piece recently about diversity, not just gender diversity and multicultural diversity, but also cultural diversity. When you talk to companies, they talk a lot about their culture being important. While I understand that, a lot of times that seems shorthand for, "We're looking for people who will join our softball team." What I came to hypothesize is that a company or an agency -- as my story was more geared towards -- that is looking for the next team softball player might miss out on the opportunities to hire someone who is completely unique to the organization, and therefore will provide insight that it's not getting elsewhere.

My assertion was that if you have all the same people, you're not going to have anyone that notices this trend that might become huge, and you might miss out. Or, if you're looking for people that are all early adopters, you may have everyone saying, "Oh my god, this is going to be the biggest thing ever," and not have anyone say, "Well, I don't know, this might fizzle out."

Obviously, there are a lot of people, thankfully, who are very vocal about gender and multicultural diversity, and I got a lot of feedback on those points, but it was good to get some feedback from people who also talked about the need to make sure that you have as diverse a firm as possible, in every different permutation.

What about something that got a lot of criticism?
I think we wrote an editorial about Fox News and the David Carr column and there was some commentary that [said], "Well, they're just advocating for their bosses." Since they're client-side, the boss is the client. And -- fair point -- people were pointing out that it's an often-attacked company, so their PR strategy is different than that of, say, a Stoneyfield, or Seventh Generation or Apple.

I always welcome commentary like that, because I think our editorials are the places where we have to be most concerned about taking the broad view. We try not to write editorials that deal with particular companies. If there is a particular news element that allows us to extrapolate into a broader commentary, that is what we try and do.

You got your start working at Silicon Alley Reporter, run by current founder Jason Calacanis. What was it like working for Calacanis? What do you make of his ability to draw in a large audience online? What can PR pros learn from that?
Working with Jason was interesting. It was my first job out of college, and Jason has always been -- as far as I can tell from anecdotes and my own experience -- an incredibly driven businessman. I think, what's helped my career is that he wasn't much of a micromanager -- he probably should've been more of a micromanager when I was 23 and writing these reports for him.

What I've learned from that whole experience is that being given a good first opportunity to be responsible for one's actions is pivotal for self-development. If you look at some of the alums from there, Rafat Ali was one, who just sold his company [PaidContent] which, in a bit of a tweak, the valuation might be more than Jason's, although no one has the official numbers. Will Leitch went on to Deadspin [which he left in July for New York].

Jason had Silicon Alley Reporter -- it turned into Venture Reporter, which is when I was there. Considering the height of Silicon Alley Reporter and the success of Weblogs, Inc. and the much buzzed-about Mahalo, I don't think it's incredibly unfair to say that Venture Reporter was the time where he was sort of regrouping. He may disagree with that, but the fact was that his drive allowed him to seize upon a completely new idea. When you really think about it, he went from running and owning a publication that dealt with very specific venture capital investments, and then he we went on to make his success through automobile blogs and Engadget. The fact that he could completely remake himself; people just knew that if he were to try an idea, he would devote a lot of energy to make it work.

When I think back to that time, I think about the ability. In the journalism field, there is a lot of doomsday [talk] and nay-saying, but if you put in the effort and have a concrete idea that people want, you're allowed to be successful.

Think about it this way: If you think about number of people at Gawker Media, for instance, that have been hired because of their own personal blogs, it seems so completely different than what I imagined the case would have been before I got out of college. The equivalent, pre-blogs, would be to have your own pretend publications and just send in Word documents to a potential employer and say, "Hey, this is my publication." Obviously, blogs are public and I don't mean to belittle blogs because they're great, but the fact that people are getting hired based on their own publication means that it is a great time in the industry for hard workers.

PRWeek is celebrating its 10th anniversary this fall. Are there any celebration plans underway?
We're still finalizing things -- we're going to have a special edition and roll out some specific content online. But we're starting to get really excited about it, and I think the industry is starting to get excited about it. Stay tuned, is all I'll say.

You became editor-in-chief of PRWeek in March 2008, with then editor-in-chief Julia Hood moving to publishing director. How much is Julia still involved with the editorial side of PRWeek?
[With] the publishing director, as in any publication, I report to her as [does] my colleague in sales, and it's sort of hard to quantify. I certainly look to her for advice, but as far as day-to-day editorial decisions, they are handled by me. She is spending a lot of her time thinking about long-term brand strategy.

What are some of the most important things you've learned since becoming an editor-in-chief?
The most important thing about being an editor-in-chief is a simple thing: always having a reason for any edits that you have. You do the publication and you do your reporters and senior editors a disservice if you just go through things with a red pen without explanation. I try and include as many people [as possible] -- if I have question about particular issue, I solicit as much advice as possible, and I think that's the smart way to run a publication. Of course, it helps when you have a great staff that is eager to learn and thinks of the process of putting out a great publication as a team effort.

One year from now, will the PR industry still be in growth mode?
The big question mark is how long this economic uncertainty [continues]. I think Q4 is really going to be telling moment, because just think about it: The business industry went into 2008 with pessimistic views for the year, and I think the fact that -- the current problem in the financial services industry and some pessimistic news from some of the blue- chip companies [aside] -- it's been a more positive situation than we previously may have anticipated.

A lot of agencies were reporting just phenomenal Q1's, and Q2 was a little down from Q1 but still success. There is a concern that in Q4, if things aren't looking up -- and especially in industries that depend on Q4 for a bulk of sales -- it could be a much lower period of time.

I think the industry has really done itself a service by explaining its worth in very specific way to the 'C' suite. We just wrote a story about GM that they are looking across the company for ways to trim costs, but they realize the importance of the communications function and -- should things require it -- that they may look to increase the work that they give the communications function.

In July's Wired cover story, Time Out New York dating columnist Julia Allison said of her Internet celebrity status, "Now we are all our own publicists, and we all have to learn the tricks." How do you think technology and "DIY" PR will continue to change the industry?
It's all a matter of context. Do I think that CEOs of major companies should heed her advice? Probably not. If you're in the New York media industry, and certainly I'm not in the Gawker, New York, Vanity Fair-type media industry… so, everyone that follows media in New York is aware of Julia, and she is pretty transparent in talking about the downfalls to her quest for celebrity. I think that if you were to ask some PR professionals how they would handle Julia's celebrity or quest for whatever it is she's looking for, they might have different answers.

It's not just about the technology -- it's about culture in which we live in now. A perfect example is the just-out-of-college woman who saw Emily Gould and Keith Gessen at a party and wrote a blog post on how she was so disillusioned with the scene that she had yet to enter. That may have been an email that she sent to her friends and that's it, but then New York asked her to write a blog post about it. The culture we live in now -- [one of] perseverance and willingness to put oneself out there, good or bad -- is what's getting people jobs in the media.

How often, if ever, do you get confused with Keith O'Brien, staff writer for the Boston Globe?
I never do. Let me just check. Every now and then I check Google and I'm in third behind the Boston Globe reporter and the Scottish Cardinal. I'm No. 2 now. I've never met him, but he's been at it [longer] than I have. If I'm looking at the most recent Google search, I'm showing up there through things like blogs and other things that we're doing here. That's proof positive that new media works.

Joe Ciarallo is co-editor of PRNewser.

Photo credit: Devon Banks (2008)

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