Home Blog Uncategorized PR Rock Stars: A Conversation with Allan Schoenberg

PR Rock Stars: A Conversation with Allan Schoenberg

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One of the great things about social networks is their ability to connect you with like-minded individuals you might not otherwise have the chance to meet. Such was the case when I met Allan Schoenberg on Twitter a few months back. Completely chance meeting–but since then we’ve connected on a number of fronts–everything from family obligations to B2B communications to Bells beer.

Here’s the great thing about Allan is–in my opinion: Here’s a guy who runs PR/communications for the combined largest financial exchange in the country and he somehow finds time to teach and educate the next generation of PR leaders, give back to his alma mater and network with other PR pros across Chicago and the country. 

Rock star, right? Let’s hear more…

You head up corporate communications for CME Group, which operates the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Chicago Board of Trade and New York Mercantile Exchange (combined the largest financial exchange in the U.S.). I know social media plays a large role in your communications and PR mix. How are you currently using social media tools to shape and influence attitudes and perceptions of your customers and stakeholders and how do you see that evolving over the next few years?

Social media certainly plays a role in what we do at the exchanges and has for at least the past 18 months. Let me just go over how we use before I talk about what we use. Our strategies and tactics for social media encompass three things: listening, engaging and servicing. First, social media allows us to follow the trends and issues that our customers are most concerned with and talk about. By using social media we can better understand what is on their mind in both the short and long term. Second, we can actively engage customers with the products and services that matter most to the engage. By listing and talking about these we can monitor feedback and have a dialogue with customers. Third, we use social media to actively provide another way to help answer questions that are important to our customers.

Now, how are we using these tools to better communicate?

One thing that was very simple for us to do was to just make our media room social media enabled. Not only have we provided an RSS feed for our news releases for the past two years, but in late 2007 we took the initiative to make every news release shareable by using some of the most popular social media tools — Facebook, Reddit, Word Press, Blogger, Twitter, Digg, etc. We know that customers want to talk about and share things we’re doing so this was an easy decision for us.

Another way we use social media to our advantage is to monitor what is going on in the blogosphere. There are a number of media, economists and academics who blog regularly about things that matter to us — risk management, treasury bonds, agriculture, energy, market regulation — so following these people and engaging them is part of our strategy. I personally use tools such as Bloglines, Google News and Technorati to help me aggregate blogs and key topics.

We also are actively using some of the tools out there to help us better communicate with customers. Facebook has been helpful in allowing us to build online communities and forums for customers to know what is happening at the exchange. We have a customer group that was formed by traders following the merger of CME with CBOT in the fall of 2007. I proactively reached out to the admin of the group and asked if I could help manage the content. After adding me I’ve been active at posting content from our web site and the Internet with items that we believe should be of interest to the group. There are more than 350 members of this group today. Our Market Education team this past fall also created a CME Group Fan Page on Facebook that we use to showcase our education topics and forums. Both groups help us to communicate in different ways — one in more of a conversation where we can interact with customers about topics inside and outside of the exchange, and another in a way that lets us talk to customers about the many education opportunities we have to learn more about our products and services.

Another social media tool that has been really useful for the exchange is Twitter. I personally started using Twitter in early 2008 (@allanschoenberg) and after seeing the benefits of talking with others I created an account for the exchange in September 2008 (@cmegroup). Today, we have more than 30,000 followers of the exchange. I’m very mindful of how we use this tool since, unlike Facebook that is more of a static post and comment forum, Twitter is a real time conversation. I don’t use Twitter to push CME Group content out to people but I’d rather find the “diamond in the rough” blog posting about treasury bills and someone’s opinion on how that may effect the market. I know that one way our customers are using Twitter is to gain a trading advantage, so if we can help them with useful trading information than we are doing our job. Twitter is an interesting tool for us because I have a number of things to balance with every posting. Since we are a publicly traded company (Nasdaq: CME) I know that there are people on Twitter who just own our stock and don’t trade our products. So I have to converse with these types of customers in addition to traders. We also have to use Twitter like any other communication tool when we talk publicly knowing that we have to meet disclosure and regulatory guidelines. I think the advantages of Twitter for the exchange is two-fold: we can watch/observe/listen to what traders are talking about, and we can actively engage in real-time conversations with customers who need a question answered or want to talk with us.

In terms of what’s next, I can tell we are actively looking at a number of other tools but I don’t want to reveal just what is next quite yet.

You’re also an adjuct professor in PR/communications at DePaul University and Loyola University-Chicago. Do you think today’s cirriculum and programs at our universities and colleges are effectively preparing students for a career in PR or corporate communications? Where do universities fall short and what might you recommend as potential solutions?

I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved with two outstanding universities for the past four years with rich histories in the city of Chicago. In my short time at both schools I have seen a lot of great changes. The College of Communication at DePaul was established in 2007 and works to meet the needs of students in a variety of communication fields, including public relations. In January 2009, the Loyola University School of Communication offices moved into t
he brand new School of Communication building in downtown Chicago.

A few points of observation from my brief time at both universities. First, they both recognize the growing and exanding field of public relations. It is great to be involved with both schools knowing that they see the importance of the profession — and that they tap into professionals to help teach. Second, it’s also evident that we have a lot of work to do as a profession as most of my students know either very little about the profession. This presents both a challenge and an opportunity for me as a teacher.

Like any degree program, I would guess that both schools wish they could require more credit hours and classes to fully immerse students into these programs. I think one way they are both trying to accomplish this is with the help of Chicago’s vast public relations community. Both university’s have PRSSA programs that tap the help of professionals, use professionals as adjunct professors and offer other opportunities for students to connect with professionals. Hopefully as these programs expand the growing alumni base will give back to their respective schools.

From our conversations, I also know you set up a scholarship in your name at your alma mater at Central Michigan University (a wonderful idea, by the way). What gave you that idea, how did you execute it (initially) and why do you continue to give back to the students at our alma mater?

Yes, back in 2002 I worked with Dr. Diane Krider to establish a public relations leadership award given annually to one student. I pay for the costs of the scholarship out of my own pocket and the university and student recipients have all been lucky enough to receive a partial matching gift from the exchange. I can’t take all of the credit for starting this. The idea really came from Dr. Krider whom I met simply because I called her one day and asked how I could get more involved. There were two reasons for me to reach out to CMU. First, I would have to say that my involvement really goes back to my parents, who always pushed me to give back. That has always stayed with me. Second, I really wanted to help build a connection with tomorrow’s future leaders in the profession. There are some extremely bright students coming into this field and they continue to make me push myself to be a better professional. The rest, as they say, is history.

I really would encourage everyone to somehow get back involved with their undergraduate university. My degree from CMU is in Economics so for me now to be involved with the school though its public relations program gives me a new pride. Not only has this been a nice source of accomplishment for me personally, but I do believe in the idea of mentoring up. Each recipient of the award brings something unique to our relationship and I have learned something from each of them. It’s also important that they realize that while the scholarship is a one time deal, I hope to be able to maintain a long-term personal and professional friendship with each of them. To this date I still regularly communicate with each of them. I also work to try to connect them with each other. In addition, I try to make it every year to the university’s annual PRSSA event on campus to speak and every spring I arrange a career day in the city of Chicago for six to 10 seniors in the program.

You can find several past recipients of my scholarship on Twitter (@rachelesterline @LacyQ @tasevedo @Kcovert @MeganSoule) and encourage people to talk with (and consider hiring) them.

We’ve been talking about the lack of conversations and case studies around B2B and social media for quite a while. This week, we finally began our venture to help better facilitate that conversation–the B2B Voices blog (along with Kate Brodock, Anna Barcelos and Beth Harte). How do you think this blog–and the conversations it will hopefully spur–will help communicators and marketers better understand this complex and relatively unexplored space?

I think there are a couple of misconceptions about B2B communications. One is this idea that it is not as glamorous or challenging as B2C communications. I would hope to show that even though some of the things we sell to our customers in the B2B space may not seem exciting, if you look at the value chain of what our companies do there are some very interesting things where consumers benefit from our work. I also hope we can show that many of the strategies and techniques we do really are very similar to the B2C enviornment. Hopefully this can show that making the transition from B2C to B2B and vice versa can be relatively seamless. Finally, I hope we can showcase some of the great professionals in the B2B space who do some excellent work.

Among other things, we share a common love of microbrews. We’ve had many conversations about how these brands interact online. If you were consulting these brands today, what would you suggest microbrews like Bells, Surly and Goose Island do differently to engage and interact with customers online?

Well, actually, I can appreciate any profession that requires a highly intensive skill or craft to achieve. It just so happens that microbrews are something that can be enjoyed with some of my great friends and a grille. I hope that the brands I enjoy really do embrace social media as a way to talk and listen to customers. Most of these brands grew up with their roots around friendships and a small group of people sharing a passion, and social media helps keep that passion alive with fans like myself and others. What I hope they don’t do is use social media to alienate other core followers. I know plenty of friends who enjoy Bell’s and Goose Island, but they’re not active in social media. What any company/brand needs to realize is that social media is just another tool in the toolbox, but we can’t forget the other ways to reach customers. The other
part about using social media is that the brands have to realize that just “doing it” isn’t enough. If you’re going to set something up you have to use it otherwise you can turn customers off. Finally, they should understand that not every tool needs to be utilized; picking and choose what tools to use can be more important than using them.

Another topic we’ve talked about recently–the fledgling newspaper business. With more newspapers shuttering their doors every day, what can these institutions do to transform their model so they’re not only serving their watchdog function for the public-at-large but also creating a sustainable business model?

I don’t want to pretend I know how to run the news business. From what I can see the print side of the business is suffering from two converging dynamics. First, readers continue to migrate online for news, information and stories. I think the industry has known this for years and they have actually done some very interesting things with online content. So while that is effect the bottom line I don’t think that is the key driver of what we’re seeing. The second and more pressing issue of what we are seeing is more an impact of the economy than people not wanting to read the newspaper or magazine. If you look closely at what’s happened with the papers and magazines that have either shut down completely or transitioned to more — or only — online content is that they are struggling through the credit crisis. They’re losing advertisers, not readers, and advertising pays the bills. What will be more interesting is what the industry looks like after we come out of this recession. Will Seattle rebuild demand for the P-I? Will the Detroit papers reinstate weekday delivery? There are certainly some interesting models to follow, such as WSJ.com, Huffington Post, Slate and even what the Chicago Tribune is doing with social media. The way I look at it for myself is that I’m willing to pay for really good content — WSJ, NY Times, FT, Esquire to name a few of my favorites — so if the publishing industry can stay focused on getting exceptional content that its readers want they can charge a premium. And while I really am enjoying my Kindle and reading everything in one location, I do hope (and believe) the print business will be with us for a long time.

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PR Rock Stars: A Conversation with Allan Schoenberg

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