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‘You’ve Got To Be Bold’ – Why Moving to Virtual Events for All of 2020 Is Turning Into a Win for PRWeek

The hope that live events will return in the fall is increasingly giving way to the realization that many (if not most) conferences and trade shows in the U.S. will continue to be virtual or hybrids of online and in-person for the remainder of 2020. Last week, Informa saw an 8% stock jump when it said select trade shows would resume in Asia but warned that live events in the U.S. won’t return until at least September.

On June 3, Haymarket Media’s PRWeek became one of the first B2B media brands to announce that its full slate of events—including conferences and awards programs—will go virtual for the remainder of the year. Soon after, another Haymarket brand, Medical Marketing & Media, announced it will also be taking the remainder of its 2020 events virtual.

I caught up with Steve Barrett, Vice President and Editorial Director of PRWeek, on making the call, how virtual events are opening up new audiences and how the PRWeek edit team is rising to the challenge by creating new types of content that break the mold of traditional B2B.

On making the decision to go virtual for the remainder of the year…

Steve Barrett: The start of the lockdown came at bad time for everyone but particularly for us because we had our biggest event of year, the PRWeek Awards, set for March 19 in New York City, where we get over 1,000 PR pros in a room at Cipriani.

You’ve got to be bold in business. We had to make a difficult call then and we’ve been making difficult decisions about events since then. We’ve got awards shows, conferences, honorifics like our Hall of Fame, which honors women in PR, our Brand Film Festival at the Paley Center for Media and our Global Awards program that usually takes place in London.

At the end of the day, after taking all the guidance of our stakeholders into account and thinking about safety, which is the most important thing, and whether there’s really an appetite to travel and get together in large groups, we decided for clarity, for safety and so everyone can plan for rest of year, to call it and go virtual.

How virtual events give PRWeek new scale…

Whilst it’s regrettable that we can’t meet in person, there’s a lot of things that you can do like widening it out to a larger audience.

Our Global Awards are normally held in London. We made it a three-part event and optimized each day for a different part of the world—one day for Europe, one day for Asia, one day for the U.S.

At a physical event, nobody wants to sit there and watch loads of content—they want to network, they want to go to parties and obviously, we want to encourage that. In a virtual environment, they are more apt to focus on the content.

Our smaller Convene events usually run over lunch and we do three or four 30 to 40-minute discussions. We had one on COVID-19 and communicating in the coronavirus era and three thousand people registered. Normally, an event like that would get 80 to 90 people in a room.

When we come back to live events, virtual elements will still be part of that going forward. We’ve seen the potential of it.

On redefining content in the COVID-19 era…

We’ve added a lot of new elements to our weekly content. Lockdown Life features profiles of people in their work-at-home situations and includes fun videos where we get kids to say what they think their parents do for a living. We’ve talked to people in the industry who had the virus and what that experience was like; we had one where we featured two people working from home at competing PR firms.

There’s been a lot of bad news this summer so we’ve tried to balance that with some fun and engaging content. We launched Coffee Break, which are just short, 15-minutes videos like we’re doing here, with people in the industry.

At Haymarket Media we’ve got 40 brands across the world and we launched a coronavirus briefing with content from all those brands. Whereas B2B is about going deep in a vertical, this was a horizontal slice on one topic. That was really interesting—I could see that happening on other issues like the future of work or diversity.

Necessity is the mother of invention and editorial teams have been doing this for 10, 15 years now. We’ve had to be scrappy; we’ve had to pivot. We’ve had to work through challenges before like the financial crisis. I sometimes think consumer media is only just catching up to us. We’re battle-worn, we’re battle-weary, but we’ve still got a lot of energy and we’re still full of great ideas and I think there’s some great content being produced in the B2B environment.

 

Business network concept. Group of businessperson. AI (Artificial Intelligence).

‘The Core Job of Journalists Isn’t Going Away’ – ALM’s New AI Content Tool Shows Human Plus Machine is the Way Forward

Last month, legal publisher ALM introduced Legal Radar, a “first-of-its-kind website and app” that uses artificial intelligence and natural language generation to offer faster and more personalized user experiences.

Legal Radar puts the reader in charge, allowing users to select the news they would like to see from a list of relevant industries, practice areas, law firms, companies, and geographic regions, then scrapes information from federal case database PACER to generate automated summaries (usually between 50-80 words) of key details about cases as well as pulling in original ALM content from other channels.

“The newsfeed is filled with short, easy-to-digest news briefs that are intended to be scanned, kind of like the experience you would have on a social media app like Twitter or a news app like Flipboard,” says Vanessa Blum,  head of newsroom innovation for ALM’s Global Newsroom. “It’s a very mobile friendly experience and responds to that habit we know our users have which is responding to short news snippets while they are on the go.”

Legal Radar represents a significant shift in the way that content is both generated and consumed. Connectiv spoke with Blum about the realities of building an AI-driven content product, how the customer content experience is changing in B2B media and what the rise of AI really means for editors and journalists.

Connectiv: Vanessa, how does the AI component of Legal Radar work?

Vanessa Blum: We start with a stream of raw data from the federal court system via PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records). We apply some data processing on the back end in order to normalize, structure and clean up that data.  Then it’s converted into short summaries using natural language generation (NLG) technology from a platform called Automated Insights.

It goes in as structured data and it comes out as a readable summary. Then, as the final step, we have editors review the summary for accuracy and to make any edits that are necessary.

Connectiv: The release refers to a “first-of-a-kind website and app.” Can you talk more about what makes this first of a kind and how this offers a new customer experience?

Blum: I’ll talk about two things. First is that user experience. There’s never been a legal news product, certainly not a free legal news product, that is so easy to use on mobile, that can be personalized by user selection and is so seamless to digest information and respond to it. We think we nailed that UX in a way that hasn’t been done in legal media

The second part, which we are really excited about, is the way we are using technology and data processing to generate content for Legal Radar. It’s not the tech in itself, it’s that using technology allows us to be exponentially faster in delivering news to readers and also to deliver news across a wide array of topics and interest areas. I’m really excited about what the technology allows us to do, not only the tech in itself.

Connectiv: Talk about the interaction of the technology with editors. What’s this mean for an editor day-to-day?

Blum: I’ll start with the development process, and how closely our editors and developers worked together in building the back-end system. There are journalistic insights baked into every piece of the data processing engine—it’s the editors who devised how this data should be handled as well as the categories and the tagging that should be applied to it.

And then at the NLG level, these are templates that were created by editors to produce the kind of output that would be useful to readers. They account for over a dozen different fact patterns. It’s not a simple plug-and-play NLG engine, there is really this contribution of journalists and editors throughout the development of Legal Radar. Now that it’s up and running, we have editorial review of every item that’s created. We have staffing around the clock where an editor is looking over each and every item.

We thought that was necessary for two reasons—one is that the data set we are working with can be messy. We knew we needed something on the back end to protect against an error in the data producing an error in the content.

The other component is the ability of a human to enrich the content that we are putting out. These are very short, very fast-paced summaries but if something catches an editor’s interest, they will take an extra step—they will open a case, they will open a lawsuit and add a few key facts. We think it’s incredibly valuable to have the human judgment at the end of that process to resolve any questions or enrich what we are producing using the automated system.

Connectiv: A lot of publishers are taking a look at AI and trying to understand what they can do. As someone who’s successfully built an AI tool, what takeaways ca you share about working with AI and building and AI-driven product?

Blum: I have two main takeaways from this experience: first is to focus on the end user and not the tech. It’s easy to get enraptured by cool tech but the best practice is focus first on what you want to deliver and then focus on how the tool gets you to that result. In my role, learning about new tech and seeing how other companies are applying it is eye opening and can spark that creative process but it’s essential to stay user-focused.

The second thing is to build truly cross-functional teams. Creating Legal Radar required journalists, programmers, product designers and business strategists to all be around the table in a way that was really new for our organization. We tend to have content creators in one area and developers in another. For Legal Radar, content creation and technology are so intertwined that we had to break down the walls and get editors and programmers talking together to solve problems. Not only has that made our product better, it’s made our company better.

Connectiv: What was the biggest strategic takeaway from this experience?

Blum: Staying open minded. When we first started, we had a different data set in mind that we thought we’d be using to produce automated coverage. We learned early on that data set wasn’t workable for us, we had to pivot to something else.

One other thing that I’ll mention, we are working with Automated Insights and it’s a great product, but we found we had to build a lot of solutions at the front end before the data is fed into Automated Insights and at the back end before the content goes into the Legal Radar newsfeed. That’s not something we necessarily anticipated at the outset—how much thought and creativity we’d have to apply both to the data feed going into Automated Insights and how we would handle the content on the back-end.

Connectiv: As the head of newsroom innovation, what are you excited about with content and media? And conversely, what do you think is overrated?

Blum: I’m interested and excited in the combination of human and machine intelligence. I love watching how other news organizations are using technology, using algorithmic journalism, using AI and combining it with the expertise of their journalists to come up with solutions that are incredibly rich. That’s kind of the secret sauce in my view.

In terms of what I think is overhyped, I hate answering that because I’m sure I’ll be back talking about this a year from now, but I will say that smart speakers and developing news products for Alexa. I don’t get that one yet. I’m not convinced we’ll be receiving our information from smart speakers in the near future.

Connectiv: You’ve talked about journalists and AI working together. What’s your reaction to the idea of AI replacing editors and writers?

Blum: That’s the natural fear that people in our industry have as we begin learning about automated journalism. The more I’ve learned about it, the less that fear seems grounded. What technology is capable of is so different from what humans are capable of that it’s really through combining the two that we will see the most exciting advances. Technology is great at processing reams of data very fast, but in the business I’m in, which involves asking questions, exploring trends, talking to insiders, there’s no potential at this point that a machine will take over those functions.

When you combine the speed and data processing capabilities of the technology and turn that over to a human being to do the investigation and talk to real people, that’s where magic happens. I think journalist jobs will change–my own changed dramatically–and journalists will be forced to become more tech-savvy and be more open to using data processing in their work, but the core job of a journalist isn’t going away and cannot be replaced by a computer or an algorithm.