Eric is managing partner of Austin-based Webber/McJ Communications, an agency focusing on communications consulting, public relations and reputation management.
Door Number 3: What plans does Shiner Beer have for SXSW? Is it tough to compete with the “official” beer of SXSW? How do you position a beer like Shiner?
Eric Webber: Shiner sponsors a party (two actually) with Bloodshot Records at Yard Dog. We’re also involved in a deal with ME TV, and Shiner Records (a small label owned by Shiner Beers) has a party featuring their artists at Waterloo Records. We try to keep it about the music and the musicians more than about the beer. We do run print ads reminding SXSW-goers that Shiner is a small, independent brewery and so understands the challenges of independent labels and the bands trying to gain recognition. It’s not tough to compete with the “official” beer in that way. Miller merely buys the sponsorship, but their connection to the event, musicians or labels doesn’t go any farther than that. I think there’s an unfortunate disconnect between a mega-corporate brand like Miller being a sponsor of an event like SXSW, but I certainly understand why the organizers want and need deep-pocketed companies like that.
What are ways in which you get the word out about a brand during SXSW, given that the environment is already so saturated with messages?
We try to do it subtly. Partly because we don’t want to clash with the official beer sponsor, partly because that’s Shiner’s style and also because we don’t have a lot of money to spend. One thing we developed last year, which we’ll use again, was a “musicians survival kit.” We used Shiner Bock six-pack containers, but only one can of beer was in it. We filled the other slots with a t-shirt, a pair of Shiner logoed tube socks, a toothbrush and toothpaste, a bottle of water and an assortment of pain relievers. We tried to think of some of the things needed by struggling musicians who might be traveling lean and sleeping on couches during the festival. Again, it was about demonstrating that we understand them. At the parties we mostly rely on signage, including a very cool retro-poster for the Waterloo event that’s plastered all over town. And, of course, giving away free beer is always a hit.
How are the tactics to get buzz around a movie different than, say, a new mobile device or a website?
The tactics about getting buzz for a movie aren’t very much different than for, say a website. You want to get influencers on your side and let them help you with the heavy lifting of getting the word out. So you offer to give some people a preview peek, and then you hold your breath and hope they like it. That much hasn’t changed in a long time in the movie publicity business. But you know we also have the power of social networking working in our favor. So influential bloggers are important as mainstream media. And you should have had a MySpace and Facebook presence for months leading up to the debut so you can build interest and a fan base. You can work multiple angles in that regard. If music is a key to the movie, then you can talk it up among the music crowd. Or if addresses a particular social issue, you can hit it from that angle. You don’t want to only speak to movie enthusiasts. And did I mention that you have to pucker up and hope people like it?
The whole Zuckerberg interview drama unfolded in real time – on Twitter and Meebo, liveblogging and then video. How could a PR firm do damage control on a situation like this?
I’m not sure that just letting that particular fire burn out on its own isn’t the best approach. Nobody looked very good after that train wreck. The reporter came of as arrogant and ill-prepared, Zuckerberg didn’t do anything to shine either, and the audience mostly came across as churlish and immature in a lot of ways. For the reporter, she violated a number of rules that PR pros would have advised her about. First, she didn’t seem to know her audience. She said as much after the interview. That’s a cardinal sin. Second, she didn’t adapt to the changing tone. You could sense that things were going poorly, and she just forged ahead anyway. In preparing someone to be interviewed, you always spend some time talking about worst case scenarios and how they should be handled. You can’t always anticipate everything, but you can make a pretty guess about what the most obvious speed bumps are going to be.
Speaking of Twitter and Meebo, are more real-time communication tools being used for public relations? Are traditional media formats still the most important?
PR pros who don’t recognize the potential (good and bad) of real-time communications tools are, well, tools. The principles of PR haven’t changed much at all, but the speed at which information is disseminated and the channels available seems to be changing about every day. Blogging allows everyone to be a journalist, or at least for everyone to think they are. That’s a potential opportunity, but also potentially very dangerous. At the very least, companies have to keep an eye on what’s being said about them in the webular world, and be prepared to respond quicker than they would have in the past.