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Inside Innovation: MSLGROUP

“Technology will continue to change PR as we know it”

Our quest to seek out the world’s most innovative communications teams led us to New York in May where I met the inspiring Jeff Melton. Jeff is the senior vice president for global technology & platforms at MSLGROUP.

Jeff is based in the New York office, however oversees technology partnerships across the agency globally.

Here, he shares how technology has led innovation at MSLGROUP and how the Public Relations practice as we know it will continue to change forever…

Describe your role at MSLGROUP?

We believe that marketing & communication-focused technology continues to make a significant impact on the world of public relations. Technologies will have a huge impact to the daily lives of our client’s target audience and also how we perform our daily tasks for our clients as an agency. It is therefore an agency-wide focus to fully grasp that change – to embrace both best-in-class as well as bleeding edge technologies.

Because of the opportunity that technology presents for PR my role at MSLGROUP was developed two years ago. Specifically, to enhance the sophistication of current services and to also develop new services that will help our clients to succeed in the ever-changing communications landscape. I am responsible for overseeing MSLGROUP’s global technology partnerships – which includes identifying, deploying, and managing partnerships with well-established as well as bleeding edge companies.

Jeff Melton, MSLGROUP

You can think of my role as a spectrum – on one end I play the role of procurement as I identify and deploy best-in-class, industry leading technologies to ensure cost and knowledge efficiencies. For those technologies deployed across many global offices I serve as a center of excellence for any questions as well as education & training. On the other end of that spectrum I play the role of technology futurist – this side of the spectrum is where my ability to spark & inspire innovation via new technologies comes to life.

It’s my responsibility to keep a pulse on macro technology-driven trends – or what we call change spaces – as well as the technology startups unlocking the demand within those change spaces. Like everyone in PR we track the zeitgeist. As comms professionals we have to know what is affecting the public and what is being shared. However, we have a term that we use when we truly see something that won’t just be a passing trend and we call that ‘change-space’.

Trends may come and go but ‘change-space’ means this trend is going to stay and make a big impact. Too many agencies send out a clutter of daily technology updates – but this is distracting and lacks a strategic lens.

What does innovation mean to MSLGROUP?

Innovation can come from anywhere and it can be related to many topics – including process, products, as well as technology. And since everyone will look at a perceived innovation differently, it’s important to establish a taxonomy, or language, for describing the stage of a given innovation – from a new idea all the way through to a market-ready breakthrough. Using a taxonomy such as inspiration, alpha, beta, and gold can help to properly communicate the meaning of innovation within an organization. For example, it is a new beta stage process? Perhaps it’s an alpha stage service. Or perhaps a gold stage, market-ready technology.

What are current Change-Spaces for Public Relations?

Virtual Reality is change-space, Artificial Intelligence is change-space, bots are a change-space.

But let’s focus on VR since that’s where we are putting a lot of time and energy. We predicted that 2016 would be dominated by VR and we continue to be right.

“Major media companies like Facebook and Google and importantly major publishers like New York Times and The Wall Street Journal are taking VR very seriously”

Major media companies like Facebook and Google and importantly major publishers like New York Times and The Wall Street Journal are taking VR very seriously. Consumers are beginning to adopt – both consuming as well as creating – 360 as well as VR content. As public relations professionals we need to also. It is critical that we contextualize the opportunity for our clients and their business. The change that this technology brings to the public is that they will no longer look at a story, they will be in the story. Many leading publishers now have dedicated editorial teams working purely on integrating new tech into their comms. The Huffington Post recently invested millions of dollars and acquired a virtual reality studio, that’s just one example.

We predicted that SXSW would be consumed by VR this year so we thought it would be the ideal time to focus a discussion on how VR will impact PR. We partnered with PRWeek as well as leading technology brands and held a large-scale event that focused on VR & PR. Everyone in Austin that attended was able to see the opportunity for PR as well as the duty to develop communications to adapt to the technological change. We also developed an ebook on the topic for those who were unable to make it to the event too. You can download the ebook here:

VR in PR at SXSW

Then, it was time to really set our learnings into practice at MSL. Following SXSW we passed the findings and insights to our Learning & Development Team to roll out to all staff. We can be confident in our invested interest in the area of VR purely by looking around and seeing how big communication outlets are reacting to the development. The message to our employees and clients is that VR isn’t just a cool trend but rather a new opportunity for communicating and storytelling.

As MSLGROUP develops muscle memory around VR I will shift my attention to inspiring everyone about the opportunity that AI and chatbots will present.

These types of technology innovations are the future of communication so PR has to lead in that. That is why innovation has never been so important to us as an industry.

“technology innovations are the future of communication so PR has to lead in that. That is why innovation has never been so important to us as an industry”

How do you share new knowledge in global agency like MSL?

First of all, we don’t want to create anxiety. There are so many shiny objects out there so I try to filter and make it clear to MSL staff whether it’s ‘nice to know’ or information to be taken seriously. That’s when we take further action in sharing that insight.

Our goal is that the new information along with our insight will make the teams motivated & inspired and spark interest to integrate into client campaigns.

And it works. Related to VR, we have several clients right now working with leading VR production houses to film 360 & VR content. It’s very exciting.

What technologies could your agency not live without?

Honestly, all of the tools that are in use in our agency are now essential and we couldn’t live without them.

I can answer that confidently because every quarter we run a comprehensive usage report on all technologies – again, this is where that procurement side of my role comes into play. I ensure that engagement is high on all partner technologies and if it ever declines we have to ask why. If the technology is truly providing value (as all tech should) then we should use the heck out of it! If we’re not, then maybe we no longer need the technology – or we need a more advanced version. Perhaps a startup that addresses the shortcomings of the current industry leaders.

As an agency we use technology throughout the full workflow. From insight, planning, strategy, creative to media outreach and distribution and measurement. That means there are a lot of technologies! We constantly create partner cheat sheets & educations for staff so they know when to use technology.

What inspires you, other than new technology?

I am a nerd for measurement and analytics and I find that my passion for measurement helps me to perform at the two spectrums of my role – adding a data-driven, strategic lens to technology partnerships as well as bleeding edge technology opportunities.

Better measurement in Public Relations is a big topic and its always a focus for MSLGROUP, in terms of demonstrating what we have achieved for our clients. However outside of client work it also a passion of mine. I’m from a digital marketing background where just about everything can be quantified – so I love analytics and I’m keen to find better ways of proving business impact from communications.

What are you reading?

I recently finished ‘How Brands Grow’ by Byron Sharpe. It’s inspiring and I can’t recommend it enough. Unlike other marking books this has new thinking and it’s so interesting in a time where everything is changing in communications.

I’ve been listening to the audio version whilst walking to work along the Highline in New York and I have thoroughly enjoyed it.

It’s an inspiring read for any forward thinking PR practitioner.

This post originally appeared on Coverage Book on June 17, 2016.

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