The north-east of England probably wouldn't be the first place that would spring to mind where you'd expect to find one of the hottest gatherings of communicators eager to learn about the new PR - the place where communication and the new media ecosystem (blogs, wikis, RSS, podcasts) intersect and connect.
Yet that's what happened at the University of Sunderland on Friday when nearly 100 people got together to participate in Making the News: Blogging, Really Simple Syndication and The New PR (PDF) organized by Philip Young.
As I mentioned in my brief post yesterday, this is the first conference I can recall being part of where everyone who signed up, showed up. Not a single no-show.
Not only that, people travelled far and wide to be part of this event. They came from the north-east, from Newcastle to Stockton. They came from Scotland. They came from the Midlands. They came from London (and you know this must be something compelling for anyone from London to take a train or drive nearly 300 miles up the M1 for a one-day conference). And they came from continental Europe, from as close as Belgium and from as far as Latvia.
Yes, this was a very special day for the development of PR and new media.
Already three of the group has posted some great commentaries - Philip reflects on how he put the event together, Stephen has a great personal take on the event, and Stuart has commented too. (Everyone seems to like the same photo!)
Some very thoughtful questions were put by some of the participants (and there were lots of questions after every presentation). Two I liked a lot - "Will the credibility of commercial blogs suffer if they are 'crafted' by the PR department?" and "Will writing for blogs become a special skill?" (How those were answered could be worth a post...)
So what was it about the event that made it so terrific? Some thoughts in no particular order -
- Both Philip and Tom used some good metaphors to help communicate their points that the "old PR" is dead - Philip with turkeys and Tom with a tombstone. You need to see that in their presentations to fully appreciate the point in context: those presentations will be online for download - check Philip's blog for info.
- At one point, I stood at the back (the top, really) of the auditorium and observed what people were doing during the presentations. Paying rapt attention, every single one of them, and writing lots of notes.
- Only two people I saw were using laptop PCs (well, three counting me) for their scribbling. Tom's looked the coolest - a Toshiba tablet PC.
- Philip: "Knowing someone's RSS address is as important as knowing their phone number."
- Tom had an excellent way of illustrating the life cycle of new media tools and channels - a variation of the Gartner hype cycle diagram
- The opening speech was by Tony Bradley, the incoming president of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR). One thing he said caught my attention - the UK PR industry has a turnover of £6.5 billion, contributes £3.7 billion to the British economy; 62 percent of people in the PR business are women, and the average PR salary is £46k. (He then dented his own credibility somewhat by saying "I use RSS to get feeds every day; how sad am I?" Not a smart statement at an event like this from the new leader of the PR profession in the UK.)
- Stuart's presentation on blogs in business included some great examples of who's doing what with blogs. He's made that presentation available for download (PDF, 6 megs).
- Elizabeth's presentation on monitoring and evaluation included an excellent discussion on the potential consequences for organizations who don't pay attention to what's being said in the blogosphere. She used Adrian Melrose's Land Rover Discovery story that I've been using myself in recent months, but explained and presented in a far more effective way than I've been doing it.
- Chris Rushton, head of journalism and PR at the university, helped everyone focus on some fundamental things that will always be important no matter the communication channel - how to get newsrooms to notice PR. Have you ever thought about little details like the date format you use in your press releases? In the UK, everyone tends to use the day-month-year format and that's what goes in most press releases. Yet almost every newspaper uses the month-day-year format (just as in the US), so Chris' point was that getting little details like this wrong invite a news editor to either edit your text or hit the delete key.
- My presentation on podcasts was the final one of the day, in what is usually regarded as the graveyard slot in any conference. Yet when I took to the floor to do my stuff, I saw that the auditorium was still packed. This was followed by a panel discussion - and we had loads of questions from the audience. In fact, I'm certain we could have carried on in our discussions for a good hour or more past the 4pm close of the conference. Available for download: my presentation PPT (1.8Mb) and the podcast clips MP3 I played (3.3Mb).
- After the event finished, one of the participants told me that his organization was experimenting with podcasting internally. He was in a public sector organization, a city council. Indeed, nearly 20 percent of the communicators who participated in the conference work in the public sector, city and borough councils mostly.
Speaking of Chris, he's not in the photo at the beginning of this post. So here's one that includes Chris (in the middle) along with Tom Murphy and me:
The best judgment of how really successful the conference was will be made from what the participants said when they completed their evaluation forms. The signs are looking encouraging - at the end of the panel, I just asked everyone whether they thought the event was worth their time (and the £75 they paid to be there).
A resounding "Yes!" was the answer.
So I do believe this was indeed a special event. If all the participants get into their places of work on Monday and start talking to their colleagues about what they experienced in Sunderland and so help continue the conversation, then we'll all have done a pretty good job in broadening that conversation.
Philip (and Stephen - definitely a great example of a new generation for a new PR) did a simply terrific job putting this event together, aided by Nicky Wake and her team at the beautifully-named Don't Panic Projects. It was a real pleasure to meet them and be part of it all.
Finally, I must say a word about the north-east. I have lots of family connections with this part of England and it was great to be back there again after so many years, even if for a fleeting visit. Philip was a tremendous host for us out-of-towner presenters, showing us some of the sights in this regenerated part of England. The Sage Centre in Gateshead, for example - an arts and cultural powerhouse that rivals anything you can find in London.
On the way to Newcastle airport for my flight home, we even managed to see the Angel of The North, the majestic statute just outside Gateshead:
The Angel of the North is a new landmark at the entrance to Tyneside. Its wide, open arms greet visitors as they reach Gateshead.
Which nicely sums up Philip, Stephen, Chris and everyone I met at the University of Sunderland. True angels of the north.