PRSA Notebook: LEARNING, Technology Dominate; Spurlock Pushes Ideas Not Products

(Boston) After day 1 and some of day 2 of the 2017 PRSA International Conference, a few trends emerged.

Learning: How many times did we hear outgoing PRSA chair Jane Dvorak use the word “learning” in her opening remarks Sunday? It wasn’t coincidence. PRSA is pushing the need for communicators to be lifelong learners as it celebrates its 70th anniversary.

In addition, incoming chair Anthony D’Angelo made a presentation to the board that featured the acronym L.E.A.R.N.I.N.G. The L stands for learning; the E is for ethics (Dvorak also emphasized ethics in her opening remarks, noting PRSA was the first organization to hit back against the White House's embrace of alternative facts and fake news); A is for advocacy; R is for re-tooling; N is for new ideas; I is for inclusion; N is for networking; and G is for growth.

The fact that D’Angelo is an academic explains his penchant for learning as a concept, but he’s also a former veteran in-house communicator and agency executive. In an upcoming interview in PR News, he counts offering members continuing education, ethics training and networking opportunities (in person and online) as some of his priorities during his chairmanship.

Technology: The exhibitor space is technology-dominant. An unscientific survey yields the observation that technology to help communicators find influencers, keep track of social posts and conventional media mentions are the most prevalent during this show. There’s also the smattering of academic institutions represented on the exhibit floor. Speaking of which, Boston University’s graphics yesterday as the opening general session was about to begin were terrific. Flashing questions such as, “Where were the first newspapers in the United States published?” and “What was the first college to offer a degree in PR?” were edifying and entertaining. (Answers: Boston and Boston University.) Another Boston question flashed on the screen had little to do with PR, but was fun anyhow: “What historical event happened within days of Fenway Park opening?” The answer is the sinking of the Titanic, April 15, 1912.

Youth: The PRSSA presence at the event is unmistakable. It augurs well for the future of PR.

Morgan Spurlock: The entrepreneurial filmmaker was undeniably entertaining during his keynote address to a packed ballroom. His use of hilarious graphics and apposite clips from “Super Size Me” and short films his company has created for brands also were terrific. Besides being a 90-minute commercial for the success of Spurlock and his content-creating company, his opening remarks were applicable to PR.

First, he zeroed in on a tactic many PR pros are emphasizing to brand executives when they want content created for videos and podcasts: Avoid selling your product on video and podcasts. Push an idea, not your product, was his message. For example, instead of selling GE products in a short video, Spurlock’s company created a 3-minute film about how a GE technology helped a small girl overcome lymphoma [that film is below].


To promote Star Wars for Lucasfilm, his company created a short video about a little girl who was bullied because she was a Star Wars fan.

Another tip he emphasized that aligns with good PR: Storytellers, even if they work for brands, need to create stories that “help people.” Said another way, communicators’ stories must provide value or they won’t be viewed.

The brief Q&A portion of Spurlock’s session contained some of his strongest advice (maybe because he was spontaneous and reduced the hard sell). He urged PR pros working with influencers to push them to advocate for causes. “Influencers have followers, but they don’t influence anything,” he said. “They should.” Influencers, he said, should “push back” on brands to support ideas and causes.

In a room filled with young PRSSA-ers, his urging young people to take risks “while you can” was welcome advice. We also appreciated his response to a question about lessons learned. “Listening is hard…especially when you’ve had some success,” he said. “I wish [my company had] listened better” early in its development, Spurlock added.

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