The Public Relations Strategist

Embracing the Digital Transformation: Q-and-A With Jim Roberts, Managing Director, Mercury

April 24, 2017

Jim Roberts, a longtime editor and leader of digital innovation for The New York Times, Reuters and most recently Mashable, is a managing director at Mercury, and leads the public strategy firm’s digital practice.

Prior to joining Mashable, Roberts spent 26 years in a variety of editing roles at The New York Times, where he helped to usher the Times into the digital age.

Roberts has also been a leader in showing how to personally use the power of social media to inform news coverage and help spread it. His Twitter timeline (@nycjim) is considered one of the smartest and most curated feeds of what’s news and what matters, with a following of more than 180,000 people.

What’s your take on digital communications?

One of the things that I have embraced for the past 10 years is to think of communications as a conversation, not as a one-way broadcast. You’re not talking at somebody or talking to somebody — you’re talking with them. This idea immediately drew me to the digital world when it came to news coverage.

Many of my former colleagues have gotten a lot better at it but, at first, it was a tough transition for many of them to make. The journalists of my generation grew up thinking their role was strictly to inform. But today, it’s every bit as important to listen to and understand your audience. If you can’t understand them, then you’re not going to be able to reach them now, when they are bombarded by so many different messages. If you’re not willing to engage with them, then they’ll leave you behind. Thanks to social platforms, many brands have come to learn the value of listening to their audiences and consumers.

There has been so much discussion in recent months about fake news. How much do you think the average news consumer is concerned about it?

It’s hard to answer that without really knowing how to define the average news consumer. Because a lot of these [news outlets] seem to reflect the political polarization of the country, its core values and beliefs. People do tend to believe reporting that reinforces their own thoughts and beliefs.

I’m very old school; I’ve been in the news business for 40 years. I still have faith that facts and truth will ultimately prevail. There will always be a certain part of the audience that believes what it wants to believe. And there have been plenty of unscrupulous people who have taken advantage of that willingness to accept those types of reports as facts. I think the majority of people in this country are smart; they know right from wrong, and they know truth from fiction. I do think that what happened — as painful and cataclysmic as it was — was a wake-up call. Facebook has to come to grips with the role it played [in Election 2016]. Maybe it wasn’t active, but it did play a role and it does seem as if people within Facebook are trying to figure out how to manage it and change some of the practices within [the company].

You are a prolific user of Twitter. How have you seen the platform evolve?

What we’ve seen on Twitter in 2016 and 2017 has been the politicization of the platform. When I first became fascinated with Twitter, it was as a news vehicle in 2008 and 2009. In those years, it was a fascinating tool, and incredibly useful because of its speed and ability to inform people in places where reliable information was hard to come by.

I remember vividly the horrific day when [U.S. Rep.] Gabby Giffords was shot in January 2011, and how people turned to Twitter for immediate updates on that story. Within a few weeks, we had the Arab Spring uprisings; and then in March of 2011, there was the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. These were very big news moments where Twitter played a valuable role.

But as Twitter’s popularity grew, it began to reach more people who just wanted to use the platform as a way to argue politics. And the more you got into politics, particularly in the United States, things got pretty ugly.

In some ways, it’s a manifestation of how bitterly divided this country has been. But what happened this past year was an explosion of anger and ugliness. The platform became a convenient way that somebody could be incredibly hurtful and mean-spirited, and say things that they probably wouldn’t say face-to-face.

You are a prolific tweeter. What advice do you have for people either just getting started on Twitter or wishing to be more active?

It’s obviously a crowded space — there are a lot of voices out there. If you want to make an impact, then I would hope you have a niche, an area of some expertise. Expertise counts for something. It’s not the easiest thing to build followers, but if you’re smart, if you’re aggressive, if you have something to say, you can make yourself noticed. But you need to have that kind of expertise, whether it’s a legal matter or maybe you know something about the banking world and Trump is talking about Dodd-Frank reform.

I have counseled journalists who are just starting to embrace Twitter to remember that the information is the most important thing, not the advertisement. Deliver your information in a smart, concise way.

What are the positive aspects of social media?

I could talk infinitely about the problems with social media — the difficulties, the contribution to inaccuracy and fake news, and all of that. But there’s been probably no more important and valuable tool for communicators than these social platforms.

Unfortunately, particularly for news organizations like the ones I have worked for... social media has made the business of running a conventional news organization much more difficult. But I’ve never wavered in my support of social platforms.

If I’m advising a news organization, an advocacy campaign or a brand, I always tell them that you cannot develop any kind of a communication strategy without looking to these platforms. The reach is undeniable, as is the ease with which your pieces of content can be consumed. You just have to be really good at it.

John Elsasser

John Elsasser is PRSA's publications director. He joined PRSA in 1994.


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