SHIFTxSW: How to Prepare as a PR Professional

2016 marks the 30th year of SXSW. The first official SXSW was held in Austin in 1987, and it focused entirely on the music industry. The charm of Austin drew more people than expected to SX’s inaugural event, and the conference has experienced steady growth since. In 1994, the conference introduced the popular Interactive and Film tracks, and today SX has become a well-known creative epicenter for everything from tech, music and film, to fashion, sports and even medicine.

It may be hard to imagine a time when SXSW wasn’t the huge event it’s become today – especially if you’re in Austin and see pop-up, temporary buildings go up in a matter of hours to host a brand’s party. It can be overwhelming to know where to start and get your client prepped in an environment where even the pedicabs are splashy brand activations (French fries, anyone? Maybe Game of Thrones is more your style.).

The goal of SXSW is to bring together creative people to foster new ideas, encourage discussion, collaboration, and spur industry and professional growth. Keeping that in mind, here are some tips for PR professionals heading to SXSW this week:

  • Clearly define goals and messaging early on:
    Set your client up for success from the beginning by clearly defining goals and key messages. Develop a budget and review what your client is comfortable with in terms of sponsorships or guerilla marketing opportunities. Do they want to make a big splash or are they looking for something more budget friendly? Are they going to have a presence by hosting a party or do they simply want to be involved in the social conversation? Establishing these guidelines early on will allow you to utilize your planning time more efficiently. Also keep a clear focus on what need your client’s product or service fills. When brainstorming, it can be easy to get caught up in fun and wacky ideas. Those ideas are all great, but ultimately they need to tie back in to your client’s business goals and provide a return on their investment – no matter the size of budget you’re working with. The beauty of SXSW is, at its very core, it promotes new ideas and embraces change. Whatever you may be working on, think about how you can highlight how what your client is offering is relevant to attendees. What do they offer that that can’t get from anyone else? Preparing for SXSW is a good opportunity to inject some new enthusiasm into your outreach efforts. Work to learn something new about your client’s offerings and see how you can incorporate it into your plan.
  • Develop quality content to reach your target audience:
    Be sure to establish a schedule for providing quality content leading up to, during and post SXSW. You’re likely familiar with the old adage “content is king,” and there is a reason it’s repeated so often. Knowing where the best places to reach your target audience is key. Providing quality content centered on your now-defined key messages leading up to SXSW establishes your client as a thought leader and someone to watch during the busy festival week. Whether they are speaking, just attending or sponsoring, SXSW is an opportunity to become an influencer in the space and become a go-to source surrounding a particular topic during the event and beyond. Read more about how to cut through the noise in a previous SHIFT blog – “How to Get Your Campaign Noticed Without Shouting Above the Rest.”
  • Research media and influencers in attendance:
    Use Twitter and general news coverage leading up to SXSW to gauge which media folks will be attending. SXSW does not release an official press list to attendees or speakers, so you’ll have to do some additional research to see who may be in Austin. By looking at members of the media who are speaking on panels throughout the week, you can also get a good feel for who might be relevant to speak with.
  • Get the most out of networking opportunities:
    Is your client speaking on a panel? If so, work with fellow panelists to maximize outreach to your networks, build buzz, encourage attendance and create content that drives interest. Take full advantage out of your passes by attending sessions with speakers who you would like to foster a relationship with. Encourage clients to attend a session and take notes so you can follow up afterward. If you are onsite with your client, introduce yourself to media. You can make a more valuable connection if you’re able to reference a recent article you read or what you enjoyed about their session, so be sure to prep yourself as well as your clients. Genuine enthusiasm will stand out.
  • Leverage appropriate hashtags and live-tweet sessions:
    If you want to be a part of the conversation, be sure to use appropriate hashtags and live-tweet events (when applicable). Positioning both yourself and your client’s brand (if you’re in charge of social) as relevant to the industry is a big opportunity at SXSW. Take a good, hard look at this year’s schedule and strategically choose sessions to attend for both personal growth, as well as, thought leadership opportunities. Not only could you grow your social network, but you could also land some sweet engagement with a target market – and for a brand, that is some major ROI.
  • Be opportunistic:
    While it’s necessary to go in with a game plan, don’t be so fixed in the schedule that you turn down an opportunity on the fly. With so much happening during the week, last minute opportunities will come up. Develop a strategy for how you will evaluate these quickly with your clients so you can make smart, fast decisions.
  • Evaluate, evaluate & evaluate.
    Conversely, be critical of your results – whether you went big with a sponsored event, or stuck to pure social content. What worked? More importantly, what didn’t?

Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet to brand engagement at a large industry event, and SX is no different. However, if you keep an open mind (and prep your client with realistic expectations), you should have no problem gaining invaluable insight into your brand’s reach – especially at an event boasting roughly 84,385 registered attendees a year.

Julie Frey
Account Manager

Jessica Melton
Account Executive


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