PRNewser Interview: Steve Rubel, SVP and Director of Insights, Edelman Digital

rubel1.jpg’s biggest event of the year, the Mediabisto Circus is coming up this June 2nd and 3rd in New York. We hope you’ll be able to join us, as the events team has assembled an all-star lineup that fits into this year’s theme: “Extraordinary Impact: Where Media Meets Technology.”

One of this year’s presenters, Steve Rubel, SVP and Director of Insights for Edelman Digital, took some time to speak with PRNewser about a variety of topics in advance of the conference. Rubel gave us his take on the rapidly changing media landscape – “I don’t know what media is anymore.” – his advice for job hunters – “Decide what your core genius is.” – and PRWeek‘s decision to go behind a subscription wall online – “I don’t think they have a choice.”

Your presentation at Mediabistro Circus is titled “Brand All-Stars,” with the descriptor, “having a powerful personal brand might be one of the most important assets you can have, especially during turbulent economic times.” Who in PR/marketing do you follow that have powerful personal brands?

There are a lot of people.

Chris Brogan. Jeremiah Owyang. Charlene Li. Steve Hall at Adrants. Folks like that for sure, all have powerful personal brands.

You recently wrote, in a post titled, The Next Twitter or Facebook is the Open Web, “Marketers need to really embrace the fact that it’s peers and their data, rather than brand, that will become the primary way we make decisions.” What are some of the macro-level implications here for marketing and PR pros?

Well I mean, I’m looking at that somewhat from some of our client’s perspectives. The semantic web is just getting going and that is going to be huge. The more things we search for, the more personal technology comes into play. When you combine social footprints and facts with algorithms and search footprints and facts, you’re going to find the content finds you and you don’t have to seek it out. And that’s a big deal. All this data were putting into social networks and search data, eventually the machine gets to be very smart, it helps us make decisions without us seeking things out.

Brands have to make decisions. Over time I wonder if the data from our friends, and aggregated info will lead us to more decisions than the brand will. It’s early, but it’s coming.

It seems much of the talk in the PR industry is geared towards the client/brand. For example, we “leverage” audiences, and “maximize the reach of social networks and influencers” The thing is, audiences are people, and people don’t want to be “leveraged.” How can PR pros balance using language that is attractive to their clients with what will work in the “real world?”

It comes back to the words in describing what we do: relations. Public relations.

If you’re a good husband, you don’t say, “I leverage my wife.” Or, “I leverage my mother.” We have to be thinking it’s about building relationships and if you stick to that and if you do it well, you will be effective. And the people who take the other side, [the “leverage” side] that’s meaningless, it has to be around bigger things, bigger objectives.

Advertising Age editor Jonah Bloom recently wrote that PR is “underused and underfunded.” Would you agree?

I do think it’s undervalued. There is no question that it’s undervalued. One thing about the PR industry, we didn’t really focus on measurement for a long time. The industry wasn’t built in a way…it’s not like advertising where you pay and you know what you’re going to get. PR is a risk, so things happen. It’s not always trying to control. Life is hard to control. It’s a different value system in terms of the finances that go into it.

However, the great iceberg that is TV advertising, is starting to break up. Online, display advertising is starting to break up. It’s going to be the PR industry that gains. That money is going to go to relationships, and PR is relationships.

What do you think of PRWeek‘s new stance of putting all of their content behind a subscription wall?

I don’t think they have a choice. The people that are advertising in the trades are the agencies, the vendors, and they [PRWeek] have to find a way to make money and I think it’s the only option they have.

For them it makes sense. They’re in a tight spot because things kind of collapsed.

Do you think all agencies should diversify and begin offering additional services that may include SEO, web development, social media services, etc. Or is it OK for some to continue to be tried and true media relations shops?

They have to be what they’re good at. They should not try to be anything they’re not good at. Edleman does “traditional” work, but we can’t be everything. For example, we don’t do a lot of paid media buying. Also, there will be a lot of firms that bring in experts and pop them in and out as needed.

However, media relations will be around for a long time, but how we define media relations is big, very big. I’m defining it by relations, not media. Because I don’t know what media is anymore. I don’t know where social media ends and media begins. It’s very exciting to me.

Has their been a campaign (Edelman or other) that has been done the way you envisioned it, you recommended it and the brand showed ROI out of it?

I think what Jet Blue (not an Edelman client) has done a remarkable job. Many of the companies that have done well are the ones who have been hurt by social media. Jet Blue recognized they had to open up and be more transparent and they did a remarkable job with Twitter. They built followers, relationships, and it has had infleunc on their search equity. What they’ve done is remarkable.

Someone says to you, “I’m graduating this month,” or “I’m back on the job market again.” What are a few things I can do to stand out?” What would you tell them?

First and foremost, you have to decide what your core genius is. What can you do really well that a lot of other people can’t do? Being a “social media expert” is not that. I’m good at spotting and understanding trends, translating that into actionable strategy, and being right maybe half the time. It’s impossible to be right all the time.

Use the channels out there by creating value, not by being the greatest. Show you are the greatest. You have to pursue that with gusto. And build relationships towards that. That means helping people who need help and being open to being helped.

In your career, what are some mistakes you’ve made or lessons learned along the way?

One thing I didn’t anticipate, was going from a small organization with 30 people to a large global one with 3,500. There was a lot of learning there.

I recently read a book called “The Four Agreements.” I learned it’s not always about you. Something someone ate for lunch may affect how they treat you.

You just have to know people well. Put yourself in their shows. Look at Obama. He is really able to put himself in your shoes and understand what you’re thinking. And he does that on a global scale. And that is something I’ve learned working at a big global company.

On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 is most, how happy are you?

Ten. I am up every day at 4:30am and I am so excited to get to work. I feel like I work for leading organization in the industry, in terms of intelligence. I work with smartest people I ever have, both on client and agency side.

I really feel like I’m playing for the Yankees. I told Richard, as long as thing don’t change, as long as he keeps running the business the way he has been, I want to be with Edelman for life. I work my butt off, but it’s not work to me, it’s fun.

Steve Rubel is SVP and Director of Insights for Edelman Digital. His blog, Micropersuasion, explores how emerging technologies are revolutionizing marketing communications.