RSA 2015: Does the Security Industry Need a Reality Check?


Yes, it’s that time of year again: The RSA conference is the world’s flagship security technology tradeshow and later this month it will be back in San Francisco. To prepare for the event, the Blanc & Otus Analyst Relations team spoke with many prominent analysts regarding the likely hot topics at this year’s show. Several themes quickly emerged from those discussions – some of which vendors should be worried about:

Vendor marketing is increasingly diverging from reality: While powerful marketing is part and parcel of being a successful vendor, analysts are becoming increasingly fatigued with vendor hype within overcrowded segments. Expect to see more and more research notes countering vendor claims, especially on areas of contentious category creation. Many analysts told us that they increasingly see the show’s value as centering on various networking opportunities, rather than the content vendors provide during the show.

AR Recommendation: When approaching new narratives and messaging work, marketing and communications teams should be asking themselves: “How can we best tell compelling and useful stories?”

CISOs…sweating in the spotlight: The pace of high-profile breaches is increasing and security has never been higher up the boardroom agenda than it is today. While this attention may help the Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) secure much-needed funding for security initiatives and technologies, it also increases pressure on them to deliver. Some CISOs do a fine job of explaining their strategies to their boards, peers and the broader company, but too many revert to the comfort zone of ‘speeds and feeds’ speak, and as a result they don’t address business risk succinctly and compellingly enough. This ultimately leads to a failure to secure the necessary behavioral changes at the cultural level, which drastically impacts their ability to deliver in the long term. With growing numbers of ‘non-IT’ executives running their own shadow IT investments beyond IT’s control, this challenge is only increasing.

AR Recommendation: When framing up sales enablement materials prior to launch, sales teams should ask themselves: “How can I help my clients succeed in winning hearts and minds within the business?”

The user politics of digital transformation are unstoppable: Technology has always been successful based on user acceptance at a behavioral and cultural level. This has always been a particular challenge for security teams who have historically wanted to lock assets down. However, the shift towards digital business models – based on cloud, mobile, social and Internet of Things-based technologies – means that old ‘lock down’ style security models simply aren’t feasible (if they ever were). While pioneering vendors are improving the usability of their solutions, they often do a much less compelling job when it comes to addressing the cultural, political and procedural impact of security technologies – specifically how security teams and processes can work with (rather than against) the business. To succeed, security must become invisible.

AR Recommendation: When creating content to support a product launch, product management teams must consider: “How do I articulate how this new technology changes the way the business operates?”

There are no easy answers here. Standing out from the crowd in 2015 – without being excessive – is a real challenge. However, vendors should keep themselves honest by running regular reality checks as the year progresses. Remember:

  • Narrative Always Trumps Messaging – It’s great to have a well-crafted product message, but that hard work is wasted if the broader narrative it sits within isn’t also working. A great narrative generates interesting viral conversations by generating questions and answers that can play back to product strengths. Does the narrative gel with the end user’s experience and situation? Messages need roots.
  • Authenticity Has Never Mattered More – Yes, perceptions matter, but ultimately it is reality and the facts on the ground that makes or breaks careers. Be sure you can stand out with a smart idea, but you must also stand by your claim and own it. Does the excitement of the initial concept marry the possible with the probable?
  • Research Hard, Fail Fast and Re-iterate – Research can make all the difference, turning early adversity into future opportunity. Take a DevOps approach to your communications activities – use analyst inquiry and messaging sessions to quickly develop Kevlar for your Narrative prior to launch. Better to fail early, and then quickly re-iterate your way to success, than continue with an approach that’s not working.

So what’s got you excited about this year’s RSA? If you have an RSA story to share, or want to discuss how analysts can help bulletproof your story then drop me a line at

Your Brand Is Probably Not Bae


If you’re a social media-obsessed public relations professional like me, you may have noticed a certain “ep-bae-demic” spreading across brands’ social media conversations over the past several months.

In the midst of developing an identity on social media, several brands – many in the food and restaurant industry – have chosen to adopt a voice that resonates, or should I say “seeks to resonate,” with a much younger audience.

Introducing “bae”: A common term among millennials that often refers to one’s boyfriend or girlfriend. For example, “Can’t wait to come home and curl up with #bae (insert long list of lovey-dovey emojiis).” Interestingly, The Wall Street Journal also adds the following definition: “Bae can be aspirational – someone of romantic interest. The term has also inevitably evolved to apply to inanimate objects. On Instagram, a particularly mouthwatering plate of BBQ could be #bae, for example.” Among brands tweeting the #bae hashtag are Taco Bell, Burger King, Chili’s, Applebee’s, IHOP, Jimmy John’s, Mountain Dew, Walmart and Gain. (To see more brands that have been caught in the act, check out the “Brands Saying Bae” Twitter account.)

In an effort to sound “less corporate” and more like the 14-year-old kid next door, brands are aging down their social conversation to better connect with their younger audiences. The real question though, as discussed in a recent article in Digiday, is “whether it makes sense for brands to go down that road – and at what point they begin to risk looking ridiculous.”

The article suggests that brands that age down their language by adding in terms like “bae” and “on fleek” are struggling to connect with their audience in a meaningful way. This is because brands that don’t understand their audience enough to develop a natural connection find it easier to mask their message in more youthful terms. (“On fleek,” for the record, is defined as being “on point.”)

The key to creating an engaging and meaningful relationship is understanding the audience, and using the right language is one way for a brand to show it understands its audience. Brands such as Taco Bell and Mountain Dew might find it more beneficial to use this type of language because of their youthful following. However, brands such as Walmart and Gain, with an audience of predominately women and mothers, might want to think twice before tweeting their “bae.”

PR Pros: Shut Your Phone Off This Valentine’s Day. I Dare You!

Just turn it off. (Thinkstock)
Just turn it off. (Thinkstock)

We have written a lot about the changing nature of communications. But when it comes to personal communications, many things haven’t and shouldn’t change.

That’s why I’m shutting my phone off for 24 hours this Valentines Day. And I dare my fellow PR professionals to do the same.

If you’re like me, you’ll find it harder than it sounds. PR is a dynamic and fast-moving industry that often requires us to be hyper-connected, but at times that can be stressful and make us a little obsessed with our phone, tablet or other personal device of choice. To make matters worse, people everywhere are turning to technology of all kinds to give Cupid’s arrow a little boost with Valentine’s Day coming up. That means we risk spending more time than ever with our other secret lover—our mobile device—right before we re-engage in real life.

For those who already have a valentine, the stakes are high. A recent study showed that 53% of all U.S. women will dump their man if they don’t get a Valentine’s Day gift, which might explain the last-minute online rush for flowers, chocolates and that perfect corner table at the romantic restaurant.

For those still looking for love, there’s historically a spike in online dating site traffic, as folks spend extra time swiping through Tinder, Zoosk, OkCupid or And we won’t even get into what happens on the biochemical side of the innovation equation around Valentines Day. Whether it’s alcohol, aphrodisiacs, aromas, or little blue pills, people try to hack the human code when the stakes are high, as MSNBC reported a few years ago.

But the one thing all these tech tools have in common is this—they’re used by people seeking to improve a distinctly offline experience. We find our partner, we get the flowers, we buy the chocolates, we get the perfect table … and then hopefully we switch the smartphone off and spend time actually looking into the eyes of the person for whom we’ve gone through all this trouble. Hopefully this is all in service of authentic human connection.

Sadly, that’s not always the case. The problem is that the same tools we use to find love are the same tools that can get in the way all too easily. Last fall, The Huffington Post reported on studies that showed how mobile devices, apps, and social media can ruin relationships. Just search “Technology and Intimacy” and see what comes up—article after article warning of the perils of tech addiction, occasionally interspersed with a pitch for how a new technology can help relationships.

That’s why this Valentines Day I’m shutting all my mobile devices off for 24 hours. I want to see what it’s like to go cold turkey and re-engage with the people around me. I’d love to rediscover the electricity from simply maintaining eye contact. And I’d love to test my ability to process the exabytes of data rushing at me in the form of my hand being held, hearing a joke, observing body language or smelling perfume.

If you’re looking for something to fill the hours, try this: 36 questions that are engineered to build authentic human intimacy between two people who’ve just met. You could even print it up if you want to hold true to your vow of digital abstinence.

At B&O, we believe that technology is most amazing when it lives in service of people and their quality of life. We also believe in the importance of work-life balance, even in a profession as hectic as tech PR. And we’re going to encourage all of our people to switch off and reboot over the Valentines Day weekend. Because in the always-on lifestyle of PR professionals, a little downtime and authentic human connection helps us stay true to our mission and ourselves.

LeBron: A Lesson in Reshaping Perception

What a PR superstar (oh, and basketball, too). Credit: Keith Allison
What a PR superstar (oh, and basketball, too). Credit: Keith Allison

Let us take you back to early 2003.

LeBron James, the most hyped high school basketball player of all time and the supposed next Michael Jordan – which is one of the most misused pieces of acclaim for any basketball player who shows any flash of brilliance – was in his senior year and the undisputed #1 pick in that year’s talent-rich NBA draft. True to the ideal narrative, LeBron, raised in Akron, Ohio, was taken with the #1 pick by his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers. In his seven years with the Cavaliers, LeBron made all the right moves (short of winning a championship). To the NBA, its fans and the media, LeBron was an uber-talented player who had deftly and maturely handled an enormous amount of pressure since entering the league. Public perception: overwhelmingly positive.

And then, in 2010, came “The Decision.”

The main storyline of the 2009-2010 NBA season wasn’t the actual games, but LeBron’s impending free agency. The bottom line was that there were only a few teams that had the financial flexibility to sign LeBron to a full-term, high-paying contract, including the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Miami Heat. On the evening of July 8, 2010, LeBron was the star of a bloated, self-indulgent television special on ESPN that was held solely for LeBron to announce which team he had chosen. The now-iconic line uttered by LeBron at the climax of the show: “I’m going to take my talents to South Beach.” Miami it was.

The backlash was immediate.

Back in Cleveland, LeBron’s former fans burned his jerseys in the street, and the owner of the Cavaliers wrote a scathing screed against LeBron (that might’ve held some weight if it hadn’t been written in Comic Sans font). Everyone who wasn’t a Heat fan was sour on the fact that he was teaming up with fellow superstars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to form a “super team.” The result was that LeBron was public enemy number one to everyone but Miami fans, and the crassness of “The Decision” had a lot to do with it. Public perception: overwhelmingly negative.

As LeBron won two championships in Miami, the majority of the public began to somewhat warm back up to him: chalk it up to the adage that time heals all, or most, wounds. Cleveland also positioned itself perfectly to potentially sign LeBron to a maximum contract and bring him home in the 2014 offseason, when LeBron was once again (and maybe for the last time) a free agent, and this became more of a reality when LeBron’s Heat team got thoroughly outplayed in the 2014 NBA Finals by the San Antonio Spurs. The best player on the planet surveyed his surroundings, perhaps realizing that his current super team wasn’t so super, and disappeared for a few weeks to make one of the most crucial decisions of his life.

Then came the bombshell.

On July 11, 2014, LeBron revealed in a first-person essay in Sports Illustrated that he had decided to return to the Cavaliers. His announcement was in stark contrast to The Decision: his essay was genuine, heartfelt, and devoid of fanfare. Here was a player who wanted to return to his roots and deliver his hometown team something they’d never had: a championship. THIS decision – probably owing largely to how it was communicated – was roundly applauded by fans and the media. Public perception: overwhelmingly positive.

In life, and especially in the sports world, people tend to get second chances. You need to look no further than the NFL’s Michael Vick for a prime example. But LeBron’s case was unique in that he never really did anything wrong – at least, nothing that brought real harm to anyone or justified any legal action against him – but he toyed with a few of the emotions that are most sacred to sports fans: loyalty (leaving Cleveland in such a cold manner) and humility (doing so during a national TV show). In returning to Cleveland, however, LeBron orchestrated one of the most profound and immediate reputation makeovers in the recent public consciousness. He let us know that he had unfinished business in Cleveland and that delivering a title would be one of his greatest accomplishments, and we knew he had the wisdom afforded by experience to mean what he said. But undoubtedly most importantly for LeBron, he was making a decision that was completely true to himself – and at that point, public perception be damned.

Human Marketing: Innovations We Love

Humans. They’re everywhere you look!

We’ve been fans of the Humans of New York phenomenon for a while now. With a camera and simple stories, Brandon Stanton has been able to tap the power of global communities, along with the Internet and social media to create a New York Times best selling book, nearly 10 million followers on Facebook, and many copycats and satires seeking to ride its coattails.

Screen Shot 2014-11-06 at 1.07.00 PM
(Mike Mozart/Wikimedia Commons)

We’re drawn to the authenticity, simplicity and lack of pretense that Humans of New York offers. It showcases humanity, reminding us that we are all connected and similar, experiencing triumphs and defeats, challenges and opportunities in our lives.

Humans are definitely back in vogue. And as such, they are getting a bigger piece of the marketing pie. Look no further than the recent campaigns of Coca-Cola and Beats by Dre to see human marketing in its full form. Coke’s campaign is all about celebrating relationships. It’s not about consuming a soda, but sharing a moment with Jenny, Mike, a Star, a Friend – whatever name you are lucky enough to find on your can. Not only was this a brilliant, people-inspired campaign, it also sent consumers out in droves to search for cans with their desired name on it.

The Beats by Dre campaign appealed to the human spirit of various athletes in major sporting competitions – from tennis, to football, to the World Cup.  The campaign was not about headphones, it was about the athletes’ stories. The music of their life set the tone for a heart-tugging commercial. The headphones were simply a vehicle.

You may be thinking that sure, it’s easy for consumer companies to appeal to humans, but if you search across the websites and campaigns of major tech companies, including OracleIBM’s People 4 Smarter Cities and GE, what you will find is humans. Humans using technology to make their job, their industry and the world at large better.

So what are the implications of human marketing for the technology sector and how its stories are told?  Here are three takeaways:

  1. It’s all about the customer experience. Customer experience may be a buzzword, but we don’t expect it to fade into the well-worn woodwork of tech trends anytime soon. The customer, potential customers and basically every constituency a company interacts with has the power to voice their experience via social media and make headline news.  Look no further than one bad Comcast call to see this scenario in action.
  2. Stories need characters, not speeds and feeds. Marketers have spent years telling you how they are bigger, badder, faster. They need to stop thinking about themselves and put themselves in the shoes of their customer. Customers today need to feel that vendors understand them and their unique needs. There is always going to be some shiny new technology knocking at your customer’s door – one that tries to lure them away from you with the promise of something better. But empathy and understanding of your customer delivers lasting competitive advantage.
  3. Simplicity is key. Remember when you used to open a website and you could not make heads or tails of what the company actually did? It was a game of “he who uses the fanciest language and most buzzwords wins.” But no longer. Humans need language they understand – they need you to talk to them like, well, humans. Content needs to cut through the clutter and deliver simple, compelling messages that are easy to grasp and understand in seconds.

Humans may not be innovative or cutting edge – they’ve actually been around for quite a while.  And while they may have fallen into the trough of disillusionment for a while when it came to marketing, we for one are glad to see them back. For starters, one simple fact remains true. Companies need people to buy stuff.  So why not appeal to them as people. After all, being human is the one common factor we all have.

This blog post continues our series on PR innovations we love that kicked off last week. Co-written by B&O VP Kris Reeves.

Holmes Report Innovator 25: A Thank You

I’d like to take a moment to thank the Holmes Report for including me in their list of Top 25 PR Innovators. It feels awesome to be included in such inspiring company, and I’d also like to take a moment to commend my friends and colleagues who’ve been recognized as fellow innovators in PR. In particular, I’d like to say congratulations to my friend Charlene Li for also making the list, and for inspiring so many of the ideas that many of us have been putting into practice this year.

What strikes me about the list this year is to what extent the people on this are passionate about their own particular vision for communications and content. Whether or not we “made the list,” that’s something all of us in PR share—we are all in service of telling somebody’s story, and we are all in service of innovating new ways to tell that story. And that involves a fair amount of “creative destruction”—which in PR takes the form of blowing up old processes and form factors to make way for more useful ones. As a troublemaker at heart, I have to admit to enjoying the destructive aspect of the creative process, and I’m curious how many of my colleagues on this list share my penchant for rhetorical demolition.

At B&O, the creative destruction in 2014 has been all around storytelling. If anything, my inclusion on this year’s innovators list is a nod to the hard work the entire B&O team has put into advancing our shared vision for Viral Storytelling. Our storytelling model, which like many other successful story models is based on Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, is pre-engineered to generate the positive word of mouth that drives sales, reputation, talent retention and brand engagement. And it’s a storytelling model we use in each and every one of our accounts.

What’s best about this story model is that it’s based on authenticity. We find what is most true about our clients. We help them discover the most compelling way to evangelize themselves and attach themselves to the trends that make them the most relevant. And we help them articulate their purpose and mission in a way that gets their audiences to want to see them succeed. It’s amazing what storytelling can do when it’s authentic and not all about yourself, as I had a chance to discuss in a recent speech at LinkedIn TechConnect 14.

It’s been fun to blog about storytelling and essentially open-source our Viral Storytelling model to the industry. We believe that smart innovations are worth sharing. And we’re just getting started. In the coming months, the broader bench here at B&O will be sharing even more inspiration and insight into innovative trends in communications, including:

  • The power of human connections and community uprising
  • Social and multichannel messaging
  • Brand journalism
  • Research tools, analytics and the power of big data in PR
  • Focusing our storytelling on the human impact of new technologies

Again, my thanks to Aarti Shah, Paul Holmes and the Holmes Report for including me as a Top 25 PR Innovator. And perhaps most importantly, on behalf of my B&O teammates and myself, I’d like to express our deep appreciation to our clients who’ve had the curiosity and courage to creatively destroy a few old models and co-create some high-impact stories with us this year.

LinkedIn TechConnect 14 and the Power of Authentic Connection

Tech ConnectLast week, I had the pleasure of presenting to a crowd of tech marketers and entrepreneurs at LinkedIn’s TechConnect 2014 conference. For those of you who missed it, video of the presentation is available, as are the slides from the presentations themselves.

The event opened with an inspiring presentation from Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy, who among other things spoke to the importance of having a clear mission. In the case of Khan Academy, that mission is all about giving a world-class education to anybody, anywhere, for free, and that anybody can—and should be given the opportunity to—learn anything. It was a powerful example of the impact communication can have when it’s authentically rooted in a strong belief in something that matters.

I had the opportunity to speak to ways that tech marketing often gets in its own way when it strays from this principle of authenticity, something I wrote about in my last blog post. There’s just no substitute for being in service of something bigger than yourself. And when that belief shines through with authentic storytelling, it’s more compelling. It attracts customers, talent, partners, valuation and public support.

Of course, there are so many traps we can fall into that pull us off our authentic centers. There’s the temptation to overhype leadership, be it market leadership, technology leadership, thought leadership or team leadership. There’s the temptation to put your own agenda ahead of your audience’s agenda and make your story all about you instead of them. There’s the temptation to dictate the story, rather than co-create it with your audience. All these pitfalls are such a natural part of the tech marketing landscape, they’re sometimes hard to see. In my presentation, I explored some practical tips for spotting these traps and ways to inject authenticity and meaning back into our communications.

But looking again at the example of the Khan Academy, Sal himself is a wonderful model for what happens when you’re serving a genuine purpose. He doesn’t worry about claiming market leadership—he simply talks about how many people his organization has educated and how many educational videos are available. He doesn’t brag about his great technology, he simply demonstrates how easy and intuitive the learning experience is and what problems are solved. He doesn’t fall back on buzzwords in an attempt at thought leadership, he simply provides compelling example after compelling example of how he and his organization have had a real human impact. And as a team leader, he demonstrates overwhelming humility in the light of his accomplishments and instead focuses the spotlight on his team and their shared vision.

So I’d like to conclude this week’s XTC post with a simple thank-you to Sal Khan, not only for his inspiring work with Khan Academy—a resource my own children use daily—but also for how brilliantly he models what is authentic and impactful about leadership.

XTC (Examining the Change) is a weekly column in which B&O CEO Josh Reynolds examines the intersection of technology, disruption and storytelling.