Conversations Byte: Extending a PR Association’s Conference Influence through Collaborative Social Media

Print Friendly


Why should an association hold a conference these days? What new social PR opportunities exist in the 21st century?

A rethink and reboot of a (social) public relations conference

The conference model has changed dramatically over the last decade, with unconferences and more independent, for-profit organizations gaining increased profile and attendance—particularly when focused on social media—over traditional bodies and structures.

Still, most associations have retained at least one annual conference as the jewel in professional development and member networking offerings. Advantages are a well-defined professional or industry focus and built-in core audiences; however, increased competition, for free or at lower prices, is definitely cutting into conference attendance, profits and mindshare.

Although events must break-even, a benefit to “social” associations is rethinking the purpose of a conference, including radiating out in a sustained fashion to periphery stakeholders via social media, whether or not current, past or potential members. Namely, demonstrating social capital thought leadership and capturing attention and mindshare in public.

June 2013 wasn’t the first time the Canadian Public Relations Society integrated social into its conference program—its mindful and agile concept dates back to Vancouver’s On the Edge – 2009 CPRS Conference (which I attended)—but this year’s committee and volunteer base of around 45 collaborative members and students gave social public relations integration a distinct rethink and reboot, beginning with its Conversations name and a focus on engagement and relevant, useable PR information, before, during and post event.

Per Léa Werthman, APR, chair of Conversations2013:

A core goal for Conversations2013 was to build an engaged community of PR folks across Canada, not only to connect through the event, but remain connected once it was over. Outreach to all 14 of the CPRS chapters was the starting point and we’re excited about the new relationships forged with professional development and social media chairs in local societies.

We look forward to sharing more post-conference about new and interesting speakers and content, and exploring different opportunities to meet online, to keep the conversations going about the Melbourne Mandate and CPRS initiatives.

All material will be shared freely with visitors to our Facebook page, YouTube account and permanent engagement site. These are conversations across the entire PR community about the future of our profession. If sharing our knowledge can help move the conversation forward, we’re happy to have played a role in this.

The following comprehensive Conversations Byte case study is based on questions asked and answered by Léa Werthman, APR and Victoria Procunier (conference co-chair), as well as my “social PR” involvement, observations and assessments.

Even if you aren’t involved in planning or working at a conference, many of the social PR initiatives should be transferable to corporate communication events, such as the AGM, board meetings, online professional development or external community initiatives, etc.

Unpacking how Conversations2013 did this in social

As CPRS is a national PR association, engagement with chapter volunteers was a priority.

Besides traditional conference calls to each society across Canada—to share plans for the event and discuss how best to provide conference-related content to members—the Conversations2013 committee discussed best practices in social media, determined and shared links and hashtags, and generally increased the national network at the grassroots levels.

An innovative concept was to (partially) crowdsource the concurrent session topics and speakers, through an online poll, open to both members and non-members who expressed curiosity. “Response to the poll was excellent; it generated a lot of interest and brought hundreds of new eyeballs to our content.” See my CommPRObiz Part II post for more case study information on how Conversations2013 combined peer-review and planning committee curation with voted feedback from its community.

An engagement platform was built early on for speakers to use for pre-conference discussions with delegates and potential delegates. This provided a useful forum for presenters to gain insight into the needs of their coming audiences.

Pre-conference a couple of contests were run through the Facebook account, to encourage registration before the early bird deadline and a chapter-to-chapter challenge.

In addition to partnering with Relevant Social Media (ReSoMe), the committee recruited a collaborative “army of social media ‘ninjas’ from amongst the volunteers.”

Werthman and Procunier, with social media lead, Kristen Scheel, monitored and generated content based on an editorial calendar built and shared through Google+.

Weekly check-in calls were held via Google Hangouts and included the student lead (who coordinated the work of the volunteer writers). Close collaboration allowed conference leaders to stay on top of social content creation based on the planned program, profiling speakers, highlighting objectives for each session and provoking discussion on topics related to issues around workshop content.

Conference engagement strategies and channels

Conversations2013’s primary channel for engagement, planning, and promotion of the conference was its Facebook account. The Twitter account, @CPRS2013, ran a close second, but at the planning stage was primarily used to drive traffic to Facebook.

The conference web site hosted all core content, including speaker biographies, abstracts, programs and registration information.

Conference2013 site

During the conference, social media “ninja” volunteers were assigned to each keynote or concurrent session to tweet out key information nuggets, including select sessions in French (as CPRS is a bilingual association).

Each volunteer tweeter was given a customized Conversations2013 visual identifier to use throughout the conference, meaning volunteers were identifiable as being part of the organizing team. See @MrsOfficialTalk as an example.

Facebook was the place to share longer stories, with a focus on links to videos and new images from the contracted Living Tapestries graphic facilitator, Jennifer Shepherd.

YouTube was used to host all of the video content—most of which was generated by Kristine Simpson of Young PR Pros:

It was wonderful working with Kristine Simpson, as she represents a critical stakeholder audience for us—illustrative of our future colleagues and CPRS members. All of our speakers were incredibly generous in taking the time to do post-session interviews with her, and some great advice was generated for up-and-coming PR pros. Indeed, if you want the Coles Notes version of the content from any of our plenary speakers, watch their interviews with Simpson; most of them covered off all their main points in their interviews with her. 

Werthman and Procunier indicated partner company, ReSoMe, helped them to manage their feeds, ensuring timely answers to questions asked about the conference. ReSoMe also proved a great asset in helping create Storify posts that required going through numerous posts from a variety of social platforms.

A lesson learned was how valuable it was to have strategic partners like ReSoMe, Accurate(a local Ottawa marketing firm) and Young PR Pros to supplement the volunteer team.

Each online activity complemented the other. Fortunately, our partners and volunteers were up to the task of mobilizing a multi-channel communication and outreach program. It required the focused attention of a small and dedicated army. We are very grateful to all of them for helping us get our story out.

Some challenges and lessons learned from Conversations2013

The potential benefits of social public relations are evident, but it remains a “tough push-and-pull when we want to take advantage of the latest online tools, but don’t want to leave anyone behind.” Or disengage core stakeholders, for that matter.

For example, the pre-conference “poll” was initiated to allow potential delegates an opportunity to review a curated short list of workshop topics, provide feedback on which would be of interest, as well as generate WOM promotion and interest. One lesson organizers learned was that communication around the polling should have been more clear and explicit in explaining underlying objectives, as a handful of stakeholders misunderstood mindful intentions, dismissing the exercise as a “popularity contest.”

Another lesson on education is explaining and then proving the worth of a chosen channel. Regarding their successful use of Google+ for the editorial calendar and, particularly, its Hangouts feature for conference team meetings, Werthman mourned, “It’s remarkable how much resistance I encountered to Google+—‘It’s too much trouble,’ ‘I don’t like it,’ etc.”

One of the biggest challenges and losses was not being able to make use of LinkedIn—the social network of choice for many (PR) professionals—to its fullest collaborative social media engagement capacity, beyond copying and pasting conference email notifications as Discussions.

Why? Because a (now) non-member established a “CPRS” Group—including the trademarked logo—several years ago and has so far proven resistant to giving up ownership (despite playing virtually no role beyond approving new Group members and not even vetting for suitability). This is a lesson all organizations should note: Be sure to “register and own” first and early all major social media channels bearing your name. Alternatively, work with LinkedIn’s administration to regain rightful ownership.

Organizers are considering strategies to make use of LinkedIn–I suggested they create a new and authorized CPRS LinkedIn Group around the Conversations2013 name–to keep post-event conversations going to sustain interest, but definitely are making use of the CPRS national site, the “engage” platform and the established Facebook account.

My role, influence and observations about Conversations2013 social public relations

One direct role I had in influencing the CPRS conference was interviewing Ira Basen late summer 2012 on PR Conversations about the concept of “brand journalism.” He was selected as a keynote speaker on the topic because of my blog post. In a less-obvious fashion, PR Conversations devoting a few posts to the Melbourne Mandate helped influence the Conversations2013 committee to incorporate aspects of its Principles into both the speakers and topics selection, as well as how the conference volunteers would listen to delegates and communicate information.

I also received a LinkedIn mail message from one of the “ninjas,” asking if I’d consider promoting the conference in the days preceding Conversations2013. I chose to highlight the upcoming conference and related hashtags via a tweet on our PR Conversations account.

Because Conversations2013 involved three days and evenings of events, it wasn’t feasible for me to monitor the hashtag continuously. I did make a point of being “virtually” in  attendance during Ira Basen’s plenary, as well as checking in periodically to other sessions via #cprs2013.

As a virtual attendee, what I noted and liked about Conversations2013

First and foremost, I was made to feel welcomed and valued on the #cprs2013 hashtag. It was particularly gratifying to receive a response tweet from one of the keynote speakers, the CBC’s Evan Solomon, as well as a RT from a Member of Parliament, Don Davies.

Other progressive social Conversions2013 traits:

  1. I found the calibre of what was being tweeted or otherwise shared more valuable than most conferences. Likely this was due to the dedicated ninjas tweeting out nuggets at delegated sessions and other preassigned curation roles. I think conference attendees took their cue from the ninjas, meaning there was less noise about inconsequential and unrelated things, i.e., fewer “I’m in the third row, where are you?” public tweets that really should be conducted via private DMs.
  2. Also related to relevant content, I didn’t notice the relatively useless quantitative “sentiment analysis” so many conferences and media monitoring companies indulge in being shared by organizers. Again, private meetups and “the chicken at lunch was dry” tweets have little current or long-tail usefulness for either in-person or virtual attendees.
  3. The ninjas provided a valuable segmenting role in identifying concurrent sessions, making it easier to follow sessions of interest. This was done by indicating concurrent session names before they started, including the Twitter handles for speakers. Most delegates followed this directive by including the speaker(s) handles with related tweets.
  4. I appreciated the curated Storify versions of the conference being segmented into Day One, Day Two Morning, Day Two Afternoon, Day Three Morning, Day Three Afternoon, etc. This allowed me to more easily “research” speakers and topics that I wanted to increase my understanding.
  5. Organizers were quick to make use of “new” tools, such as Vizify to create a video highlight reel of #CPRS2013.
  6. The video interviews with speakers were completed and housed on YouTube relatively quickly, and definitely all during Conversations2013. I found the quality of the interviews also quite good in terms of increasing my knowledge.
  7. The graphic facilitator’s social PR role had been identified in advance, meaning the sharing of the plenary speakers’ tapestries proved popular and visually appealing as Instagrams and Twitter pics, etc.. Jennifer Shepherd also created this overall delegate journal that I’ve included here.Delegates journal

Extending the information and influence, post conference

In an earlier column I mentioned how my journalist colleague Ira Basen is somewhat skeptical about the usefulness of social media beyond LinkedIn; however, when I shared the Storify version of his keynote, he was quite pleased—maybe even impressed—about how key points had been listened to, shared and curated regarding his theme of DIY media. He also had the opportunity to reiterate those same points in his Young PR Pros’ interview featured here.

One thing I learned in following his keynote (via the hashtag) was the much-RT’d piece of info that Ira Basen has evolved the term brand journalism/content marketing to corporate media for his upcoming (early September) documentary for CBC Radio’s The Sunday Edition.

I congratulated Ira Basen on creating this term–which I really, really like–but he was quick to give attribution to his journalist source, Tom Foremski, including sharing the blog post and excerpts that influenced him:

If Hugo Boss journalists or Versace hacks, produce an investigative series into child labor in the clothing industry, or something like that, I’ll eat a Hugo Boss pocket square. And the Pulitzer committee will give them a prize.

My problem is with the term not with the changes in PR and communications. I prefer words to be used accurately while many in PR tend to use words to promote and market.

I prefer the term corporate media. Corporate media spans the entire spectrum of publishing by a corporation. It can include material that is journalistic in its construct and intent. For example, large companies such as Cisco, IBM, and Intel employ people who used to be senior journalists and veteran broadcasters to produce corporate media, but is that journalism?

If corporations want to produce journalism they have to approach this goal in a different way. I think corporate media could win a Pulitzer prize if done right. And I believe it will happen—I’d like to help make that happen.

But trying to rebrand PR work as “brand journalism” is not the way forward.

In conclusion

Obviously the most knowledge and networking opportunities are obtained by in-person attendance at an entire conference such as Conversations2013, including choosing the most-relevant concurrent sessions for your needs, but the profile and usefulness of social public relations should not be discounted.

Here are a few of the “ah-ha” Conversations2013 nuggets shared by Werthman and Procunier:

At the plenary session we were shown very clearly just how dramatically the media landscape is being reinvented. Jean-Francois Dumas completely shook our perception of traditional media; Ira Basen detailed the new DIY media landscape, including sharing the concept of “corporate media” to ponder; Alexandra Samuel reminded us of what lies beneath the surface of those “likes” and “follows,” and Evan Solomon challenged us to seize the opportunity before us as a profession to own “relations.” 

I hope this Conversations2013 case study mindfully inspires you to expand your own social public relations strategies and channels for events.

See Using Twitter for PR events, the all-time most popular PR Conversations joint post, which I shared with the Conversations2013 planning committee months ago. Also The whole world is a communication expert  by #CPRS2013 attendee Emma Shea (in particular, how the conference increased her knowledge about the Melbourne Mandate).

Do you have suggestions for other strategies, channels and collaboration to supplement, increase or complement their efforts? If yes, please share in the comments section.

Judy Gombita
This monthly Social Media and Public Relations column is contributed by Judy Gombita. Judy is a Toronto-based public relations and communication management specialist, with more than 20 years of employment and executive-level volunteer board experience, primarily in the financial and lifelong learning nonprofit sectors. She is the co-editor and Canadian contributor (since 2007) to the international, collaborative blog, PR Conversations. +Judy Gombita
Judy Gombita


Sr/hybrid (social) public relations & communication management strategist. Mindful curation @PRConversations. Heart: travel, film, theatre, opera, books & food.
By @TedMurphy (of @IZEA) for @Convince: New Study Reveals the Lifetime Value of a Blog Post #business #blogging - 4 hours ago
Judy Gombita
MYS - Free Preview - JK


  1. says

    Judy – this is a very timely post (and I didn’t know the content in advance – or didn’t recollect it), as today I have been in an association meeting where we were discussing extending reach, creating collateral for sharing (not sure the ‘corporate media’ term will work for us as a not for profit body) and so on. Much great advice here to consider. Thanks.

    • says

      I tell you in all seriousness, Heather, that when I was researching and writing this one I was thinking YOU might find it particularly useful for your own Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) needs.

      Regarding the term “corporate media” (over brand journalism or content marketing), instead of thinking about MIPAA, think of your MEMBERS’ automobile companies and/or clients, i.e., to focus on the “organizational narrative” (and other non-transactional communication) needs.

  2. says

    Judy thank you for sharing this and Conversations2013 great job at using the tools and having the strategy to make it work. Being a part of the Vancouver On the Edge conference back in 2009, I was excited about using the “new” social media tools to help spread our message around the conference. We truly showed that engaging with your attendees, and sharing valuable content on social media works!

    One thing that wasn’t mentioned here that was more of a concern back in 2009, is that to make this work, your attendees and volunteers need access to wifi. More organizations now-a-days are sponsoring free wifi which helps those that are participating and attending from out of country.

    Again great analysis and other conferences can learn from this.

    • says

      Gus, if we didn’t “meet” initially online because of that Vancouver On the Edge conference (in which you played such a huge part regarding its really quite advanced social media initiatives back in 2009), that conference definitely solidified our friendship. The first time we met was in Vancouver, on the first day I arrived at the conference.

      I also recall you invited me to do a guest post on the conference blog. I remember it was about “disintermediation” and (I believe) included my criticism that Brian Solis’ keynote did not have enough “meat” (i.e., case studies) to satisfy my appetite for relevant and useful information. And to give Brian credit, he visited the blog and responded to the concerns.

      This year I know that we exchanged memories on the #CPRS2013 hashtag, together with @EverettMartin and a few others. Didn’t you feel–just like I did–that the @CPRS2013 conference delegates were MUCH friendlier to the “virtual” attendees than is the norm on conference hashtags? (Including the IABC one this week….)

      Yes, free wifi is definitely a priority these days. I don’t recall “seeing” any #CPRS2013 criticisms about it, so kudos to the organizers on that as well.

  3. says

    You’re welcome @ReSoMe. After interviewing @leawerthman and @VProcunier (Victoria) I really did get a sense about what a huge role your agency played in terms of highlighting the ninjas, segmenting the information (for @Storify, etc.) and answering queries in a timely fashion, no matter where was the source.

    You were kind of their “virtual conference coordinator,” weren’t you? Kudos on the smooth running on all apparent fronts.

Please Leave a Comment!