Weber 4.0

In Communicate, Public relations, Published journalism, Q&A on November 23, 2010 at 5:50 pm

PR guru Larry Weber talks about the future of the Internet. And golf balls

Originally published in Communicate, February 2009

In 1987, Larry Weber founded the Weber Group, which grew – as Weber Shandwick – to be one of the biggest PR businesses in the world. And in 2004, he started out again, with W2 Group, which specializes in digital PR. He has long been a proponent of the Web, having worked with Tim Berners-Lee, the man credited with inventing it, and has been called “the town crier of the Internet.” Communicate caught up with Weber when he was in town to be a keynote speaker at the PR Congress in Dubai. We took the opportunity to find out what he’s been up to, and to gauge his thoughts on PR, the region and technology.

You’ve been working with some countries in the region, including Saudi Arabia, Libya and the UAE. Have you been doing PR for them?
Yes, government PR, issues positioning, social media consulting. I’ve written a bestseller on social media, called Marketing to the Social Web, so governments are asking about it because anything that has a lot of information – that’s organized by constituencies – is going to be interested in social media. You’re going to want to have an interaction with your constituency. So governments are trying to understand this era of Facebook and MySpace and how that makes an impact on the way they present themselves.
How well are they doing?
It’s a learning period right now, so not everybody is doing it here [in the Middle East].
You’re seeing a lot of states in the US aggressively starting to do it; you’re seeing some countries like China, believe it or not, trying to at least understand social media. China probably has more blogs than any other country.
The thing about the Middle East is that right now there’s a fast-growing Internet usage. It’s off a small base, but it’s well over a 1,000 percent annual increase now. So there is going to be a period of discovery around the types of social content that are available to people. I think it’s also going to be interesting to see how governments lighten up on any kind of suppression of information that’s shared in social sites, because a lot of it won’t be developed by a specific publisher, it will be people sharing. It’s hard to monitor every conversation.

Do governments in the region have to relinquish some control?
They don’t have to let go of their information. They’re just going to have to let go a bit of their control over information and try to have a dialogue with their constituencies rather than having a one-way or a broadcast mentality.
I think they understand, it’s just hard to change – much like a magazine. It’s hard to change from 80 years of going one way with communication. It’s hard to understand brand as dialogue and how that builds. That will take time.
What you’re also going to see in places like the Middle East, as well as everywhere else, is an evolution of social media. You’re going to see far more self-editing of the social media, where more sophisticated blog sites are more popular than the less sophisticated blog sites. And you’re going to see that evolve over time.

What other sites will grow?
You’re going to see what I call “gated communities.” A lot of people push that back on me and say that’s antithetical to the Web. But it’s not, when you start thinking about companies that want to have a private area for their
customers or potential customers, give them a password, and talk about the issues of the day, let them meet each other, and share topics and other things. So I think you’re going to see a rise in gated communities too.

Where is the Internet going. What is Web 3.0 going to be?
It’s actually going to be 4.0. I always held that 1.0 was just pre-browser, where you just put collateral online. The browser was where all the
e-business started because you could click through things – it’s transactional like eBay and Google and Amazon. And then 3.0 is just a social phase which will continue to mature. Lastly, we’re going to move into this broadband and rich-media phase.
You’re going to have less text; it’s going to be highly visual. And that’s when the advertising people, and their kind of communication, can come back, because they understand how to present information visually.
I think the biggest thing to understand about the Web is that it’s not a channel, and magazines and marketers have got to stop saying, “there’s TV, radio, Internet…” The Internet is going to eat everything. You’re just going to have the Web and the real world.

Are we going to see PR and advertising work more hand-in-hand in a digital context?
Far more hand-in-hand, and I’m hoping the PR people rise to the top of that, because they’re the ones who have the hardest job. They’re the ones who have to convince you to do something without placing an ad or paying for the media.
And you’re forgetting about the third part, which is technology. The future of marketing is going to be a combination of paid, unpaid and technology that targets, illustrates behavior, tracks things and helps shape custom-type messaging.

What do you think of PR in the region at the moment?
I’ve been to the region a bit when I was building Weber Shandwick, between 1997 and 2001. But at that time, there wasn’t a lot of sophistication in public relations.
Now, it’s trying to understand social media. It’s still too press release-driven. There’s no reason for press releases, but in the meantime, they should do a lot fewer, and they should be more visual in nature. I would take more advantage of RSS feeds than press releases.
I would also bring faces to companies. It’s interesting that regions like this stay very generic in their press, and it’s all about the company. How about bringing some personalities in, to bring more of a warm feeling about companies?

Wasn’t a press release a turning point in your career?
Yes, I thought I was going to kill myself. I was writing a press release in 1983 on why more dimples on a Titleist golf ball will make your golf ball go straighter and further. I thought, if this is what life’s about, I’ve got to get out of this. So that’s when I serendipitously discovered the technology industry. That really took off and I built Weber, which was the largest tech [PR] firm in the world before I sold it.

How do you see yourself? As a PR man, as a technology man, as an entrepreneur?

I see myself as a communications marketer who happens to be very fond of PR. At its core, if it’s sincere and transparent, it’s a thoughtful way to market. And a lot of people would say I’m a visionary around communications.
Sometimes I get a little too far ahead of myself, but I think I’ve been pretty accurate in calling where this is going.

Where is it going?
The next big thing you’re going to see is a huge decline in broadcast television, and those budgets going towards more building of communities, more social media content creation, more permission-based e-mail, things like that. So the money is not going to go away; it’s just going to move to different applications.

At the moment, those applications are a lot cheaper than broadcast. Will marketing budgets be cut?

Budgets will get a little leaner. They won’t get cut but they will be re-associated. If you have a $50 million ad budget, you don’t need that to build a $2 million community. It’s probably more effective than the television budget. My Madison Avenue and London cohorts hate  it when I talk about that, but I’m sorry, the broadcast era is over. If you do use traditional media, it needs to get people to digital destinations.

What advice do you have for an in-house PR department wanting to get their brand more involved in the Internet and social networking?

The very first tip is: Understand the landscape. Use a tool like Technorati (that is free) to help you know what’s being said about your company online, where there are other conversations, and where there are topical things that are being talked about.
Maybe it’s not your company, but it’s energy or sustainability or clean fuel, things like that.


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