Josh Merkin|Apr 28, 2015

“Why are you here?”

This was a question I was asked a few times last week while attending the 2015 Society of Business Editors and Writers (SABEW) fall conference in Chicago.

These bi-annual events are attended by a who’s who of business journalists from the U.S. and Canada, as well up-and-coming journalism students from acclaimed universities such as Northwestern and Missouri. There aren’t many PR professionals running around, so it didn’t surprise me when there was curiosity and perhaps skepticism about my participating.

But the answer to this question is pretty simple: I’m there to learn just like everyone else. Attending SABEW provides a unique opportunity to hear what issues and challenges business journalists are facing in the industry and how they cover the news. It’s also an opportunity to network and gain a greater understanding of the best ways PR professionals can work with reporters. These lessons keep us one step ahead and help shape the integrated communications plans we create for our clients.

Now onto some of the highlights from the conference.

Kris Kringle is saving shopping malls

During a panel on the future of shopping centers, Sarah Alter, CMO of General Growth Properties, one of the largest mall operators in the U.S., noted how her biggest line item budget expense last year was Santa Claus. One of the ways shopping malls are evolving to keep foot traffic (in the battle vs. online shopping) is by creating unique experiences customers can’t get anywhere else.

At five of its locations, GGP pulled out all the stops to create huge Christmas themed events – and it worked. Alter noted how these locations had double digit sales compared to locations that did not host these events.

Dana Telsey, CEO and Chief Research Officer, Telsey Advisory Group, also noted how the U.S. market continues to be a huge attraction for international brands who target shopping centers to expand their brand in the U.S. Keep your eyes open for European brands such as Primark and Ted Baker.

And what does the future of shopping malls look like? Disney’s Magic Bands or more specifically the RFID technology, according to Neil Stern, a senior partner at McMillan Doolittle. This technology will track all consumer’s data about their shopping preferences, which will then be used to customize their retail experience and market directly to them for both e-commerce and brick and mortar shopping.

The business of journalism is starting to look a lot more like the business of public relations

Several of the sessions at SABEW focused on social media and how journalists are leveraging it to not only build their brand, but also to develop sources and get content out. As I was listening to these panels, I couldn’t help but think how all of the lessons being taught are the same discussion points rbb has with its clients when it talks about digital marketing.

It’s apparent that social media has changed the business model of journalism by turning reporters into salespeople. They want you to buy (by reading their content), show them how much you love them (by following them on Twitter) and spreading the word (by sharing the content on Facebook and LinkedIn, and then retweeting it and favoriting it).

Additionally, they are looking for social media influencers who will help expand their reach. Sounds a lot like something a big consumer brand would do, right?

These were just some of the lessons highlighted in a panel led by Randy Hlavac, CEO of Marketing Synergy Inc., who discussed a host of social media tools outside of the standard Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. One that caught my attention was an app called Secret, which lets people post anonymously based on their geographic location. He noted how his daughter was able to find a job by using Secret to find out what problems the company was having, and then addressing how to solve them in her interview. Are people talking about your business on Secret? As a result of this panel, more journalists will now be using it as an investigative tool to get the skinny.

One last point to make here. I talked with a well-known journalist who told me if she uses a source and they don’t retweet or favorite her story, she is far less likely to use them again.

Ethics still matter

Journalism ethics remain a hot button issue and one that continues to be cloudy as the industry adjusts to the new rules of reporting. Of course, Brian Williams and his resume were a point of discussion and more specifically the blurred line between journalism and entertainment.

Also discussed was news aggregation or stealing people’s work as some would note. With more media outlets aggregating the work of other journalists, there is some friction in the industry about what is acceptable and what is flat-out theft. This issue is further magnified by the point noted above about journalists needing to build their own brand. In some cases, they are doing the work, but not getting the credit and (more importantly) the readers they need to make their editors and CEOs happy.

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner could use a brand-aid

For all of its conferences, SABEW always books well known business and/or political leaders to speak, but their rules are very clear: We want you to come, but you must be willing to take questions.

This year, the conference had Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel on one day, followed by Bruce Rauner, the Governor of Illinois, the next. While Emanuel took a few questions at the end of his speech, the Governor did not and it made for a really bizarre scene. After a speech where he touted his plans for the state and the ethics issues his predecessors had, he abruptly left and refused to take any questions, despite promising to do so.

This left a room of journalists notably annoyed. For any of the reporters based in Illinois or covering the state, they’ll get another shot at him, but the real takeaway here is the damage done to the Governor’s “brand.” He had a roomful of people who have had little exposure to him and he blew it. All of those reporters will remember the way he handled himself, and it will not only taint their feelings about him, but they will also share that story with their peers. At minimum, Governor Rauner should have answered a few questions which would have fulfilled his SABEW obligations while leaving the crowd with a better feeling about him.

Last, but not least, I also attended SABEW to make the announcement about the second annual Larry Birger Young Business Journalist Award. rbb is proud to sponsor this contest in cooperation with SABEW, which honors the memory of late Larry Birger, a former Miami Herald business editor, SABEW president and rbb partner.

Young business journalists, 29 years old and younger, are eligible for this award which includes a grand prize of $1,500 and an all-expenses paid trip to SABEW’s fall conference in New York City to receive the award. Submissions can be made on SABEW’s Web site.

I look forward to handing out this award at the fall conference in October.


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