Interview with Dan Simon: Ride the wave of change in PR

The Communications profession is transforming at a breakneck pace, and I’ll bet a drawer full of  iPhone chargers I’m not the first person to mention it to you. From traditional articles in the increasingly digital-only newspaper, to the proliferation of credible, powerful blogs, to deepfakes on social media, to AI-powered storytelling and easy-to-use, computer-assisted multimedia production. The nature of the PR pro’s work is not the same as it was even five years ago. Maybe even five minutes ago. Luckily, innovators in the field can ride the wave of change.

I had the opportunity to interview Dan Simon, CEO of Vested and creator of Qwoted, a communications platform that enables the marketplace of news, about where he thinks our profession is headed and the changes he’s seeing to our work and our world.

Q: What would have been impossible to imagine in PR five years ago that is relatively commonplace today?

A: There's a lot of things that have changed in the last five years. Five years ago, you didn't have platforms that look at social media influences and quantified them. That whole idea about media fragmentation into a kind of social landscape was only at its nascency five years ago. It's really an Instagram, Snapchat kind of phenomenon. Now you can say ‘show me who is the most influential’ by a hashtag on any particular topic, and let me engage with that person.

I think one of the other areas that I talked about during the Page Up* panel was about earned media professionals taking a greater amount of control over the content and storytelling. Taking the skills PR people have and being able to say I can create rich, dynamic, exciting, interesting environments. For example, just three and a half years ago we were contracted by Citadel to create a microsite about making movies and how financing worked, and how Citadel positions on IP and the entertainment industry. It was a very rich, parallax storytelling environment designed to be socially promoted. It was a great success, but it cost about $200,000.

A year and a half later, we did a similar project for a company called Rockefeller Asset Manager, and we could do it in house this time. It required a Chief Creative Digital Officer to really oversee that project.

Now, this morning I walked into American Express with an account executive who used a platform called Shorthand to create the exact same thing for free in three hours. The same thing that took our creative director six months, two years ago, and cost $200,000 was done by an account executive in three hours.

Q: What would you say is or will be the biggest disruptor in the Communications industry in terms of technology advancements?

A: Social is a big transformation. You know that with internal, because we now know the share from your employee is six times more valuable than the share from the brand. Internal communications becomes external communications. That is a transformation, which you know from leading that part of it at Bloomberg.

Of course technology is driving all of this, but the transformation is not technology alone. It is cultural. The marketing and communications department in an organization as we understand them today will cease to exist. I don't know what the new super duper function's name is going to be, but it is going to be something that is native with all of these channels and has a complete understanding of this internal/external dynamic or paradigm that we're talking about.

I met with the CMO of Finastra in Vegas, and he is a very futurist guy. They’re the third largest fintech company in the world. He has a whole proposition called “The death of the CMO.” He believes there won't be CMOs in five years time because of the way that social media is evolving. Organizations can just drop content out there and audiences will A/B test this stuff themselves. So what the marketing department does today simply won’t exist.

Q: Let’s talk about technology. What is Qwoted doing to help the PR world? Can relationships really be automated?

A: The idea that matching reporters with intelligence sources is an art form that will never be automated is true. The big realization for us as we built Qwoted was to look at the industry that we're in. It's very hard to look at an industry from inside the industry and I think this is where imposter syndrome becomes very helpful. If, like me, you never really believed you were a PR person, but you would just fake it until you made it. It’s quite helpful because I never drank the Koolaid.

I started making media relationships because I had to for my job and I got to a point where I had the best “media relationships” in the industry and they were based on being friendly and having good content and that was it. It wasn't anything material. I couldn't make something happen on the front page of The Wall Street Journal.  I saw just how much it is about logistics and how little PR people contributed to the program.

In the PR industry, we have a lot of intermediaries and we have a few things that have tried to move the needle on directories. Things like HARO or ProfNet are somewhere in between. I would call them protean networks.

At Vested, we’re building a match.com for PR. What did match.com have over Craigslist years ago? Vast amounts of social proof. You go to match.com and the first thing you see is tons of photos of real people, human beings. Everyone has to be authentic and verify a photo. That left Craigslist with the people who, for some reason, didn’t want to share their photos. That’s where ProfNet and HARO are, whereas Qwoted is full of credible and authentic sources.

We applied the same principles, which is through loads of social proof, and take reporters who would never use HARO or ProfNet and get them to ‘date.’

The one trap people often fall into is who you’re talking to today. Many SMEs think “Oh, I’m talking to the Wall Street Journal.” But really it’s just another person on the other side of the table or phone.

So again, if you want me to play futurist and say what the biggest transformation is going to be in the next five years, it’s going to be Qwoted or a similar platform that connects sources of insights and information with the reporters that need the help or expertise.

*Editor’s note: Dan Simon, Kevin Ackeroyd (CEO, Cision) and Greg Shove (CEO, Social Chorus) spoke on a panel moderated by Ethan McCarty at the Page Up Annual Conference in October, 2018.