MARCH 26, 2021

What happens when influence outshines advertising?


CIO of MSL Bryan Pedersen

Bryan Pedersen,

Chief Information Officer,

Paul Quigley,

CEO & Co-founder,


Paul Quigley, NewsWhip CEO, is joined by fellow PR Week Dashboard 25 honoree Bryan Pedersen, Chief Innovation Officer of MSL. They explore MSL’s approach to linking up earned, owned, and paid media in a world where consumers are in the driving seat.



As the CIO Bryan Pedersen leads MSL’s digital and innovation center of excellence that includes developing new offerings and tools, as well bolstering core capabilities like storytelling and influencer marketing. He was previously a part of innovation efforts at a number of different agencies, including FleishmanHillard and Marina Maher Communications. Follow Bryan on Twitter: @bryanpedersen.

Note: This transcript has been modified for clarity and brevity.

Paul Quigley: [starts at 1:19] Bryan is one of the people that we love talking to, because he’s at the cutting edge in communications technology, and understands what’s out there and how to put it into action, and I think that can be a vanishingly small group of people who are getting a good understanding of the technology and applying it to the workflow and the dialogue between communications workflow and technology today. So really looking forward to this, Bryan. So to get started and maybe get a bit of an introduction in, the chief innovation officer can mean many things, what does the CIO role mean for you at MSLGROUP today?

Bryan Pedersen: Yeah, sure. I mean, we get asked that a lot, actually, it’s kind of a new title, but I think it’s for communications, it’s such a good time. And I think the reason why MSL or the new CEO, Diana [Littman], she created the role was because she saw so much change happening in the space, so much as you know, from the technology side, the way that we’re measuring, the way that we’re tackling some of the bigger challenges around measurement, scaling communications and PR attribution, all those things to bring the value back to communications. And I think also just from the clients, right? They’re really looking for new ways to reach consumers, especially now when it comes to that fragmented consumer journey and all the things that comms people do really well, it’s not just driving buzz, but it’s really central to the way consumers decide. So it’s broad, I mean, it’s pretty much everything digital, but I think really at heart trying to change the industry in that way and tackle this big problem.

Paul: Oh, great. There’s something that you mentioned there, this fragmented consumer journey, and you’ve mentioned before that comms is moving too to a place where we are accepting consumers who are in the driver’s seat and they have more control of their journey and that has a lot of implications for the industry. Can you tell us a bit about that?

Bryan: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think that we all know this just inherently as consumers ourselves, the last thing that you’ve bought you’ve consumed. How many pieces of content on your way to get there, right? There’s a great quote from Mathew Sweezey from Salesforce, where he says that “Today there’s no unconsidered decision,” and it’s true because you have so much information at your fingertips. We’ve been trained now over the last 10 years to Google everything extensively. Google has great studies, Think with Google, and that sticks out for me is this one where they looked at table salt and they had hundreds of those kinds of queries, people kind of just going down that rabbit hole, researching all these things about salt, and Himalayan salt, and pink salt, and sea salt. But that’s where we live, we don’t want to make a decision.

We go on Yelp, we go on Google, we go on social media, we ask friends, we have that control now and we expect no less when it comes to making important decisions. And the irony is that, in that world, most of that content that people are looking for is what you can consider communications or earned content, whether it be reviews, ratings, social media requests, not requests, but social media thoughts or opinions, or just traditional earned media saying “This is the best product out there for this category.”

Paul: That’s interesting. So, I guess there’s places where social media is going to matter more and that’s if I’m very invested or into something like running and influencers and earned media from the running world is going to influence me. And there’s a one-off stuff like, I want to know part of the highest iodine content salt is because I’m a little obsessed with iodine content and we’ve heard this pink stuff is good, right? So what are the roles for communications? Because one of those sounds a bit like SEO, one sounds a bit like influencer marketing. So can you tell us a bit about how communicators should think about that journey?

Bryan: Yeah. I mean, I think it starts with really that technology layer, because now there’s so many things that we can start to kind of measure in comms that we really couldn’t measure even just one, two years ago. I mean, certainly even with a NewsWhip when it comes to tracking how stories start to go viral, seeing how that content is being engaged and shared. We know that news probably does get even more viewership because it goes viral on social and it gets shared that way, people aren’t typing those URLs, but when it comes to that overall value of content, we can start to measure those things, right?

We’ve spoken with some companies and we work very closely with some where what they’re doing is they’re getting the publisher analytics directly. So when you have that information, if you have that GA data, you can say, “Well, this story people came and found this story because they came from search or they came from social, or they came from an app that aggregates news.” And that allows you to start thinking about what is the value of this content? How are people finding this content? And then even more importantly, what do I do with it to get even more people to see this content? Because we know it’s valuable and it is converting people.

Paul: And when you see that particular kinds of content gets more social engagement or an author who is influential on a topic by virtue of how much their content gets engagement, how does that turn back into workflow? Are you playing a long game and saying, “We need to write more about these things or potentially engage with these writers,” or is there other things?

Bryan: I think there’s a couple of things. I mean, you can kind of do the immediate, which is, you take that content and you partner. For us, from MSL perspective we’re with Publicis, so we obviously can lean on some of our media agency partners, but you can start to scale that content out and you can start to retarget people. There’s so much overlap now between the worlds of communications and marketing, where you can start to do some of the tricks that they do really well when it comes to building lookalike audiences, using the data of how people are engaging and then finding people that look like that audience, re-targeting that content, pushing it out on social in particular if we see that’s the type of content that really resonates on social media based on the numbers. And then there’s other things you could do too, to your point of crafting your longterm strategy, seeing that that content is very social, engaged content.

So what are the types of stories that you can start to craft that are similar? What are the insights you can pull from that story? Whether it’s the type of content, the headline, is it something that’s maybe short form or a list that really works well on social, it gets people to want to share it? All these things can kind of come together. And if you are at heart data-driven from the communications perspective, it just opens up all of those doors to you to start thinking more like, I almost want to say a digital market. I mean, I don’t want to say that comms is becoming like paid media, but taking some of the tricks and some of the things that do really well in the tactics.

Paul: Yeah. And ultimately knowing even if it’s an earned piece that you’re using to retarget someone with that, that’s going to potentially be a lot more impactful than something that’s an ad or owned, right?

Bryan: Definitely.

Paul: And Bryan, we should talk a bit about the marketing and comms work together. One of the things I know you think about is transient interests and I’m an armchair amateur psychologist, I love ideas like this and how they’re applied to your work. So can you explain transient interest and their value?

Bryan: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, this is one of the areas that we were so excited about, because like I said, we’re part of Publicis, we have a huge amount of data about people when it comes to our paid media agencies, Starcom, and Spark and Zeneth, and also Epsilon, which was an acquisition by publicist last year. But when you start to about all the things that they collect, and this is everything from your household information, what kind of car you drive, education levels, number of kids, all these things, stuff that you like to buy, it doesn’t get to, what do you care about right now in that moment, right? They can’t tell you what are the things that you are obsessed with in that moment, and that changes so dramatically.

We live in an era where people are just surrounded by information, right? When you’re scrolling through your phone, you’re seeing so much content, you could be obsessed with one thing one moment, obsessed with something else another moment. And you could still be the soccer mom that drives a minivan that has two kids, but that week you might be obsessed with this particular thing. And what we’ve done is, we’ve started to really separate out what are static variables about a person? And then where does comms come in and say, “What are these kinds of variable traits? What are those obsessions in the moment?”

And we’ve quantified this and actually NewsWhip has been a huge part of this, but we’ve quantified this, and we basically put a model in place that’s our approach to it. What we do is we say, “What are people reading, talking, searching, and sharing?” And if you think about that, I guess that quadrant there, you can basically make some really good assumptions like what is important to that person. They’re reading all this stuff, they’re talking about it, they’re sharing it with their social networks, they’re searching for more information, obviously on Google and trying to get more of that. And when you start to put all that information together, you get a really good sense of what people care about in that moment.

Paul: That’s really interesting. And the sharing bit is very curious from you, is it that people will express it so you could say there’s a product or there’s a topic or collection of products. And so what are people sharing about them and we see what traits? Or what are the stories related to this that people engage with and choose to share? Is that the kind of analysis that-

Bryan: Yeah, no, it is. And I think there’s almost like two buckets that are about external facing, which is, the talking, what are they going to post about? What are they going to share openly? And then there’s much more of the personal, right? So there’s the stuff like, what are they actually reading? What are they searching for? So we have partnerships with Google where we do get data that really starts to segment out audiences and how they’re searching for information. And then also we’re partnering with the publishers and getting data directly on how are they actually reading these stories?

They may read the story, they may never decide to talk about it or share that story with their network, but it’s still influencing them and it’s still filling their consciousness in that moment. So I think having all of that picture is really important because we know this as consumers too, some of us like to share, some of us don’t like to share, it’s important to get that full picture. And I think that we’re just starting to get to a place where comms can lead the way and have all that data and start to make really smart kind of insights around people.

Paul: Brilliant. Well, I think it’s probably very clear to audience that you’re comms marketer’s coming from this with a deep digital marketing background and very comprehensive digital background. So are you seeing a spread of ideas, technology, methods between comms and marketing generally? And where are the places that’s having the most impact?

Bryan: Yeah. I mean, I think we’re definitely seeing it and we’re seeing it from some of the really big clients. I think that some of the biggest marketers now are starting to think about communications and insights from comms as a key part of their strategy, because I think they also understand, right? That it’s not that advertising is declining, it’s just that consumers are changing. And the way that they’re consuming media is changing, and by nature of that, how they’re consuming advertising is changing, right? Linear TV obviously is not what it used to be, there’s a lot more options on the table, consumers have a lot more control. And I think that those brands are looking to comms and saying, “We used to always think of comms as this big splash or this PR moment, and maybe getting out our advertising campaign to the public consciousness,” but what they’re saying is well, influencers, for example, look at all the interaction that’s happening there, look at how much investment is happening.

But again, influencer itself almost started as just a very PR-ish kind of tactic. “Let’s get the word out, let’s get people that are influential to talk about this,” there wasn’t a lot of measurement, but now they’re coming back and they’re saying, “Well, why aren’t we using all the learnings that we have from influencer marketing, right? That’s that very personal one-to-one connection that people are having. Why are we bringing in the influencers themselves as well, because they understand the audience so well, they know what’s resonating, how to message, what are the types of challenges that their audiences are having and how are they helping to solve that, bringing all that data back together.”

So I think the really smart marketers are starting to combine this data into one place. And from a comms perspective, we just needed to speak the language because comms for so long was very much imprecise when it came to saying, “This story got 50 million impressions because it was in the New York times,” it doesn’t necessarily mean that that story was read 50 million times. Now that we’re starting to collect data in the right ways in comms, both of those sides can talk to each other.

Paul: Great, yeah. I think there’s a big evolution away from the vanity metrics. I was a judge in awards recently and seeing all of the campaigns that got billions of impressions was eye-opening, some of the many more impressions than there would be living in the United States. But the overlap between PR and influencer marketing seems really clear. I mean, ultimately we’ve got relationships, we’re reaching out to writers however, authors are not influencers that want to get paid, it’s an interesting dynamic, should media relations start to embrace also be taking in influencer marketing as a discipline or those kind of church and state different disciplines? Because ultimately you’re trying to find people who are able to reach this audience, who were influential in this space.

We’ve even had this dilemma in our product, we’ve got, do we call? It’s almost demeaning. We can’t call there’s New York Times writers, the influencers, even if they’re the influential people on the top, we call them [inaudible 00:15:16], we called the people to amplify and share the content, the influencers, but clearly there’s a huge intersection, it doesn’t make sense to separate those. Do you think those kind of come together as a discipline?

Bryan: I think they do, and I think that there’s been a lot of different ways to tackle it I think over the last couple years. I think more of the paid side, they’ve kind of engaged influencers and they’ve kind of thought of influence as media. So, you’re getting X number of impressions, you’re getting this message out to this many people, you’re just paying transactionally to get them to promote your brand in that moment. I wouldn’t say that it’s wrong, but I don’t think that that really takes advantage of really what influencer marketing is. And I think that the PR people and the comms agencies out there they’ve looked at it just like you’re saying more like that traditional – going out to journalists, co-creating stories together, asking them what’s relevant and letting someone else tell your story.

And I’ve seen where that’s been very successful, where again, the influencer knows their audience, they are a media property all to themselves, they understand the audience, the publishing, the content production, all of that. And that’s always been good, but where the comms people and the PR people, I think might’ve struggled traditionally is that many of them rely on that organic reach. And we know that you can’t reach that many people, even if you’re a big influencer, you’re only going to reach maybe 20% of your audience at best based on the algorithm. So now the worlds really have to come together and really start to think from both sides of, what is that unique and that compelling and that authentic content? And then how do we scale it out and really get to something that is going to move the market and reach that scale where we can say we’ve raised sales by 10% based on this effort?

Paul: Brilliant. And is other places are any examples you’ve seen where that kind of comprehensive marketing communications, holistic approach has really worked?

Bryan: Yeah. I mean, there’s a couple recent, I mean, one brand, and this is all public that we work with last year was Invisalign. And they really pivoted hard into influencers, particularly TikTok. And they were really an early mover there, they engaged some of the biggest influencers in the space. I think the biggest one on Tiktok actually without naming names, but their CEO came out and they basically announced, I believe it was their quarterly earnings, it might’ve been their half year, but it was the best result that they had in a decade. And they really attributed a lot of that back to influence marketing, and it was again a combination, right? So it was getting onto the right platform, using the right influencers, telling that story authentically, but then also making sure that you’re reaching that scale and that mass audience and combining those worlds of paid and earned and making sure that you have a business goal in mind. And that goal was obviously to get more teams to really think about Invisalign and buy into that, but that’s just a great success.

Paul: Brilliant. So moving from the campaigns and the positive, if you will, to reputation management and which can also of course be positive in enhancing reputation. Especially with misinformation with declining trust and with various other dimensions that are kind of playing out in the news and digital ecosystem at the moment, are you seeing an increased demand for reputation-related services?

Bryan: Yeah, I mean, definitely. And I think that it goes back to the earlier comment that we were saying around how we’re just surrounded by information, right? There’s so much out there, there’s so much whether it’s on Twitter, whether it’s just that enormous amount of blogs and news and social sharing and all this happening, the brands really are aware of all of this happening and it moves so quickly. And I think that what they’re really concerned with is how quickly things can spread now and how fast those things move. And what they’re looking at is not just relying on polls as they’ve traditionally done for a long time, you have a lot of different established vendors out in the space, they do annual polls, they talk to thought leaders, but as we know polls may not be accurate today because polls only get that one piece of the opinion.

And really, if you really looked at how are the stories being spread, who’s sharing them, who’s engaging with them, some of these things are happening in closed networks like Facebook, where it’s not publicly available, all of this information is really important. And I think that the brands themselves really understand that this is happening behind the scenes. And I think what they’re trying to do and what we’re trying to help our brands do is process all of that data. So that to me is where a lot of the tools come in, a lot of the machine learning around a lot of the modeling comes in and being able to get in real time. When a negative story breaks, is this something that’s really going viral? Is there a lot of people getting behind this? Is there a lot of commentary? Is it starting to really occupy people’s top of mind? So I think there’s a lot there, but it definitely is one of the things that we’re seeing the most of when it comes to client concerns.

Paul: Right. I mean the data being there to start to answer those questions in a sense that’s an upside of the digital era. Once upon a time, maybe a negative story appeared very but difficult to see if it was going to grow legs and how widely distributed it might become, whereas today, you can see in real time that spread and even estimate where it’s going, which is, I suppose, some comfort and may prevent Streisand effect kind of knee jerk responses in some cases.

Bryan: It’s so true. And you know what’s actually so interesting? I feel like you need to have a really holistic kind of tech stack approach to these things, because I’ll give you an example. We were working with a company very recently that had two big issues and one was very left-wing you can say, and one was very right-wing focused, and they were getting attacked on both sides. And the funny thing about it is that when we looked at the social listening data and people just publicly saying things, the issue on the left was the one that got the most attention. But then when we looked at and we actually used NewsWhip for this, when we looked at the social engagements happening on the article shares of the story, it was 10, 20, 30 times more than what we were picking up in social listening.

So what was happening is that people were sharing that story on Facebook. Facebook everyone was commenting and engaging with it, but that wasn’t being picked up by public listening tools. So you really have to start to contextualize a lot of these things and start to think about how all the data has to come together to really get that full picture. And it’s really interesting because you start going down that rabbit hole even more and start thinking about, “Well, then is this issue trending more because you have more of those kinds of engagements, but then it’s also a very closed group and there’s a bit of that echo chamber on Facebook.” So there’s so many aspects to it, but I think that just having the data and having it all tied together is what makes all of this so interesting, and it starts to kind of pave the future for communications and analysis.

Paul: Really interesting result there to getting that comprehensive view. I mean, there’s a thing that certainly came up after the U.K. Brexit vote, which is, “Twitter is not the real world in terms of it,” the demographic composition that it’s maybe 20 – 25% of population in the U.S. to U.K. have accounts. And of those, I think either five or 10% of the people do 90% of the tweeting, so it’s a particular kind of data set, I suppose, when used for sentiment. And does higher awareness of potential reputation issues and all of the “unknown unknowns”, which I have to thank Donald Rumsfeld for that great, I love “unknown unknowns”. And does that give communications and communications thinking more of a role in campaign structure in how you put together a marketing campaign or a set of ideas? Are you thinking more about reputation dimensions of it sooner?

Bryan: I think it definitely can be. I mean, we’re still seeing it probably a little bit more on just the brand reputation aspect, almost separated then campaign. I know that the campaigns could fuel that reputation. I think that as the data itself starts to become more real time, and as we’re tracking these things and putting metrics where we can say, “This is your reputation in this moment right now around this particular issue,” I think that’s going to start to inform more creative campaign development. Because we can measure those things, we can get that data back right away, we can feed what that moment is right then and there, because the campaign itself that might just be over the course of a month or two, and we’re just starting to see the brands move from this annual reputation report into a little bit more of this real-time reputation monitoring and tracking.

Paul: It’s fascinating. There’s a huge interesting gap emerging there between these crisis that can play out in hours and days and periodic reputation data that’s gathered and drawing lines between those things, right? Do you think about that?

Bryan: That’s right.

Paul: Yeah. How do you use data when… Or maybe data counting can’t help here, but when a group of people does have a negative view of a brand, and maybe you’re thinking about your recent example where getting it from the right and the left, is there any hope of reaching those consumers where they have a negative view? Do you try and change their minds or do you just not engage with that conversation? And how do you make that decision?

Bryan: Yeah. I mean, it’s a really good question. I don’t know if I have the exact answer to that, but I think there’s some really interesting thinking around this concept of a moveable middle, right? And I think that you see a lot of big marketers moving in this direction, right? There used to be this idea of reaching as many people as possible, and now they’re focusing on “Well, the people that really love us or hate us, it’s very hard to move those people, but the middle is where you need to focus.” And one of the things we’ve been thinking a lot about is this idea of “Yes, there’s going to be negative press, and yes there’s going to be people that they’re going to hate you and they’re going to love you, and those are the people that, not that you don’t need to address them, but that’s probably going to stay pretty static no matter what you do.”

And one of the things we’ve been looking at is things like, for example, semantic analysis. So looking at some of these stories and starting to match data and say, “Well, these types of people read these types of stories, this negative story came out and it said this thing about a brand,” but who are all the other potential readers that haven’t read that story yet but they might read that type of story? And how do we reach those people with maybe a different side of the story to present both sides or maybe a more nuanced view that they didn’t get from just a, let’s just say, a click-baity headline that paints a certain picture. How do we reach those people? So that’s again, where the ideas of digital media targeting start to play into the world of comms and being very specific and very targeted in how you’re getting your message into the right hands and into the right people to change that perception almost before it happens.

Paul: What’s going to be really interesting cross-fertilization, I think here Bryan is moving people who are working in the realm of misinformation. And I’ve had two guests on the show, they’re working in often in the Middle East and Africa with public health misinformation. But it’s also about saying in some cases that they’re some people we can’t reach, but there’s a narrative and it could reach a lot more people, but also at the same time respecting how do we create a narrative that can counteract this narrative? Instead of just saying, “Fact check, these guys are wrong,” you need to meet people where they are a little bit. That’s going to be a lot of ideas from communications being used there and probably aren’t being used enough in a sense where we think if we stump a fact check on something that the problem is solved.

Sorry, that’s my little observation there, Bryan, but I hope to see a lot more of those ideas being cross-fertilized. I’d one last little question as you’re a metrics and data guy, Bryan, that came in from Danielle just now, and that’s, for media planning and earned media planning in your work generally, is there any metric that you wish you had access to that you don’t currently?

Bryan: Yeah. I mean, I think one of the things that we’ve been thinking about a lot has been this idea of how do we start to measure the effectiveness of paid media within the context of earned? And what I mean by that is, how do you quantify the value of, let’s say it’s an amazing story that says, “This is the best new car,” or “This is the best new SUV,” when that great earned coverage is in market for an auto maker, how do we start to say, “Well, yes, that will drive people to the website by itself, but that’s also going to make people much easier to convert with advertising as well.” Because they’re going to say themselves, “Well, here’s an ad for this new SUV,” they’re going to Google it, they’re going to find that article that says, “This is the best new SUV by Car and Driver or Road & Track,” or whoever, and then they’re going to continue down that purchase funnel, maybe schedule a test drive, maybe do other things.

How do we start to connect that data? Because we can say all we want about PR being more powerful and more measurable, but the reality is that’s really only a tiny part of a big brand’s marketing budget. All that money being spent on paid, how do we start to show that comms is actually affecting paid and making it that much more effective? Especially in this world where again, the consumer is in control, they’re going to Google, they’re going to go down that information journey and all the stuff that we create is going to help them down that funnel.

Paul: That’s pretty inspiring, I hope we can get there. And a lot of the little bits are there, but it’s so hard to join it all together. Bryan, thanks for joining us this week, this has been really interesting conversation. Before we go, I just wanted to invite everyone who’s able to join us in two weeks. We’re going to be doing the Pulse an hour later at 12:30 Eastern, and we’re going to be covering real-time decision-making with McDonald’s Kate LaVail. She’s the senior director of performance and intelligence in McDonald’s, she has a PhD and she’s going to be… Bryan, you’ll love this, discussing the applications of inductive reasoning for weathering vices on evaluating opportunities. Looking at early indicators around reputation, crisis, management standards, and for evaluating reputation issues, and how to then bring in your personal experience to play out in your decision making. So that should be a really great conversation, and I hope you can join us then. Bryan, thank you so much for joining us today.

Bryan: Thanks everybody, take care.

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