A New Generation of Publishers

Ted-BirkanBy Ted Birkhahn, Partner & President, Peppercomm

If you told me five years ago that we would promote three of our leaders to newly created positions as directors of audience engagement, digital and content strategy, I would have asked you to up your meds. But, in an industry where change moves faster than a NYC cabbie, we find ourselves in the midst of an exciting evolution in how we win, service and grow client relationships.

Historically, the PR industry has revolved around media relations. Over the years, many firms have talked a big game about providing other services, but almost all buttered their bread by generating a mound of media clips for their clients. Are media relations still important? Absolutely. Do we still provide media relations services at Peppercomm for most of our clients? You bet.

But, unlike the past, it’s not the focal point; instead, it’s one of many channels that we use to reach and engage with our client’s most important audiences. For the first time ever, our clients have the ability to generate content in multiple forms and distribute via a number of channels, and audience members might even feel compelled to circulate themselves.  It’s no longer enough for a consumer products manufacturer to run 30-second TV spots touting their products. Now, they need to understand consumers’ lifestyles and engage in a meaningful, fully transparent way that brings real value to their lives.

This is why agencies like Peppercomm are starting to look more like publishers and less like traditional public relations firms. Companies need content that engages audiences and builds their brand’s value among stakeholders. And, if they know the best channels – digital and otherwise – in which to reach their audiences, they need agency partners that can develop content in multiple forms and distribute it effectively.

To embrace and stay ahead of these changes, agencies must adapt in three fundamental ways or risk becoming a commodity among a sea of competitors:

  1. Have the talent and resources to understand the audiences their clients are trying to reach.  They must embrace the notion that it’s not about what the client wants to say; it’s about what the audience wants to know. To do this, agencies must become audience experts by listening to, empathizing with and ultimately understanding those our clients seek to reach.

  2. Build a content engine that can continuously produce compelling, meaningful content (not marketing fluff) on behalf of their clients that take multiple formats – video, text, mobile, pictures, social, etc. Agencies need content developers that think more like investigative journalists and storytellers, and less like marketers. And they must create that content to serve what audiences want to consume, rather than what the company wants to say.

  3. Develop distribution expertise – i.e. they need to embrace the channels that are most effective at reaching target audiences, generate meaningful dialogue and engagement across those platforms, and create stories audiences want to share.

For the first time in the history of our profession, we are in a place where communications can be about helping our companies and clients relate to their publics in meaningful, human ways. Are we up for the challenge?


 About the Author: In his role as president of Peppercomm, an integrated marketing and communications firm, Ted Birkhahn is in charge of client services and managing agency operations. During his 12-year tenure at Peppercomm, Ted’s work has included managing some of the firm’s largest and fastest-growing accounts, launching a number of Peppercomm’s practice areas and spearheading the firm’s acquisition strategy. Ted is a member of the Counselors Academy, a professional interest section of the Public Relations Society of America, and serves on the public relations committee of the New York Chapter of the Legal Marketing Association. He also has the pleasure of serving as a national advisory board member for Youth About Business, a leadership-training program for youth in under-served communities. Before joining Peppercomm, Ted was the press secretary for the New York City Department of Buildings in Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s administration. Previously, he worked as a reporter at WOR-AM Radio and as a production assistant at 1010 WINS Radio in New York City. A graduate of the University of Vermont, Ted resides with his wife, Tracy, and two children, Benjamin and Sydney, in Irvington, NY.  Ted can be reached at tedb@peppercomm.com and @tedbirk94