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July 9, 2009

Twitter Secrets for PR: Microsoft-WE Campaign at Black Hat '08 Drives Huge Buzz and Coverage

By Frank Zeccola

Microsoft had never before connected in an online forum with security researchers attending the Black Hat USA conference. They hadn't invited blog comments or participated in any kind of online dialogue with top researchers at the event.

They were a tech company falling behind on the tech.

Yet for years Microsoft attended the Black Hat conference—the largest security researcher conference in the world. It hosts the industry's most elite security researchers and top-tier influencers. Thousands attend.

These are key audiences for Microsoft that frequently discuss the company, its products and news that affects them.

The challenge: Break through the noisy high-tech clutter at Black Hat, save Microsoft from falling behind the times—and build buzz, showcase Microsoft's expertise and raise their visibility among highly influential experts, endorsers and key press.

In 2008, the Microsoft Trustworthy Computing Team changed everything about how it engages its audiences at Black Hat. They teamed up with agency Waggener Edstrom for a groundbreaking and perception-changing campaign—on Twitter.

Microsoft was in danger of getting caught in the high-tech clutter like a fly in a spider web, as Black Hat was crowded with competitors. "With so many companies competing for attention at the event, we needed to find a new way to connect with this audience," says Waggener Edstrom vice president Nicole Miller. "We wanted to use the latest communication tool—which was Twitter."

The strategy: Engage Twitter to directly connect with key audiences ahead of the pack of companies at the event. Microsoft stakeholders were initially reluctant to try Twitter because of the risks it posed: Loss of message control, a cyber wild, wild west environment and other potential pitfalls. But they searched through several circles of security experts on Twitter and found encouraging info: While many Twitterers followed the conference Twitter profiles, such as RSA and Black Hat, there was a lack of voice from companies.

It was an opportunity they couldn't pass up: "Microsoft wanted to connect with attendees in a more direct way," Miller says. "One of the ways we thought to do that was through the use of Twitter."

Microsoft and WE had extensive knowledge of Twitter, but Microsoft had never taken to the Twitterverse as a Tweeter. "We've been involved with Twitter for a long time, but we had not engaged in Twittering ourselves," Miller says. "As part of our efforts in understanding the audience, we had been following the community and had knowledge of who was on Twitter."

Getting down to the nuts and bolts: Planning and execution gets back to PR basics. Planning began about a month before the event. Ten Microsoft experts volunteered to Tweet. "It wasn't mandatory, but anyone who wanted to communicate with the security community could use Twitter," Miller says.

There were no hard-and-fast rules about what the Tweeters could or couldn't post. "Everyone was clear on their area of expertise and what they could bring to the table," Miller says. "Some of our people are experts on the security community, for example, and some are intimate with Microsoft's tools, resources and tech solutions. Our only guidance was that they stick within their knowledge area."

From there, they used straight media relations tactics to inform the press, public, security researchers and Black Hat attendees. "We used various ways to get the word out," Miller says. "We made announcements on Microsoft's blogs, websites and through our communications with the press. We also ensured that our spokespeople were following the people who would be at the conference."

The results: Microsoft controls the Twittersphere and drives huge buzz and coverage on all "Big News." Throughout Black Hat, Microsoft took control of the Twitter world, releasing and reacting to news. One of their spokespersons, Katie Moussouris, Tweeted 144 times during the event.

Hundreds of the event attendees engaged in Twitter, but none of the participating companies had profiles like Microsoft's security engineers. Microsoft took a risk by leaping from blogging to Twitter, showing key audiences the company is innovative in the way it communicates.

The risk paid off: Microsoft security engineers were able to connect directly with press, analysts and researchers in a seemingly unfiltered manner.

In addition: "In many cases, we were able to clear up misperceptions and negative news cycles before it started," Miller says. For example, When notable security researcher H.D. Moore attempted to seed a negative story with Ryan Naraine/ZDNet, Microsoft's Katie Moussouris cleared up the inaccuracy and suppressed a news cycle before it even started.

"Our press outreach questioned that researcher and we were able to immediately correct the information," Miller says. "The press took notice of the comment and posted the correct information."

All told, the campaign was a huge success: "The media landscape is undergoing radical changes, and in this case, we adapted our approach and were extremely successful," Miller says.

Key findings and tips on using Twitter:

"Our first key to success on Twitter was our voice," Miller says. "The brands most effective at building and engaging communities on Twitter are the ones that convey a personality."

She offers additional tips:

1. "Twitter is a tactic—not a strategy. It's just one asset to a company. It's not the end all, be all." You should buff up your campaigns with additional on- and offline PR tactics that work together to create a cohesive, impactful PR campaign.

2. "It's essential to be engaging. We participated in the latest conversations, started many of these conversations and built a community of followers by being interesting, relevant and adding value to the community."

3. "MSTC was successful because they were apart of the community and participated in an authentic way. They did not push news. They didn't push an agenda. They truly added value to the discussion. Microsoft security experts truly participate in an ongoing conversation with the community."

4. "They discussed issues the community cared about. The conversations that they started or contributed to were relevant to the community."

5. "You have be reactive in the moment. You really open yourself up. Your customers expect you to address all of their comments. You can't just cherry pick."

More secrets for success: Read on as Miller offers more tips and explains why this campaign won Silver in Best Use of the Internet, Business at the 2009 Bulldog Awards for Excellence in Media Relations and Publicity:

1. Get out and gather psychodemographic info about your target audience through old-fashioned, offline "field work." "You have to know your audience—and the best way to do that is through traditional methods," she says. "For us, we know our audience by talking with them directly. In security research, for example, we go where they go. We build our relationships and talk to them while attending events they attend. We socialize and communicate with them on a regular basis."

2. Incorporate real-time social media monitoring practices into your PR programs. "Social media moves fast—and you have to stay up on it," she says. "If you don't have people following the conversations in real time, you'll miss opportunities and you'll miss the hart of the discussion."

3. Create engaging social-media content that focuses on the community and the audience—not your company or product. "Content is king," she stresses. "It has to be relevant and focus on topics the audience cares about." In addition: "Engagement, transparency, nimbleness and authenticity are central to success."

WINNER'S PROFILE: Waggener Edstrom Worldwide has partnered with many of the world's leading brands—including GE Healthcare, MasterCard International, Microsoft and T-Mobile USA. They've helped drive world-changing ideas and life-changing visions. One of the largest independent public relations firms in the world, WE has a global team of highly seasoned, highly motivated and extremely skilled experts. That, combined with the company's worldwide capability and renowned Innovation CommunicationsSMmethodology, ensures that clients enjoy unparalleled expertise, incredible day-to-day service and seamless execution.

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