I met Phil Gomes about four years ago when I was still working on the traditional PR side at Edelman. We worked together on a number of accounts and he played a big part in pushing some great (and very traditional) brands out of their comfort zone and into the social media space at a time when it was not quite as in vogue as it is today. Needless to say, he quickly earned the respect of both the client and myself (and aside from his digital brilliance, he’s kinda fun to work with!).
I recently got to pick Phil’s brain and among other things, I got some more information on the much buzzed about Edelman Digital Belt System which Phil pioneered. Today is the kick-off for a new belt: the Black Belt…read on for more with Phil.
Zeenat Subedar: I’ve heard that you were one of the first employees to join the “Edelman Digital” brand. How would you describe the recent growth, and what contributed to it?
Phil Gomes: Well, Edelman Digital (known as “Edelman Interactive Solutions” or “EIS” at the time) was around for a whole decade before I showed up in 2005. I was certainly one of the first to be brought on because of the public attention I had received surrounding my early writings about the intersection of social media and PR, though.
As to what is responsible for the group’s growth and success? To quote Richard Edelman from his 2007 AdAge interview (PDF) “our thesis around social media actually works.” The market sees this and the great work of our very talented group speaks for itself. If we were simply growing as fast as the market or the general interest in digital, we wouldn’t be in the great position we are today.
ZS: There seems to be an industry shift in folks abandoning personal blogs and focusing their energy on Twitter, why do you think that is? Also, I’d like to know exactly when and where you were when you made that decision yourself.
PG: You’re talking to someone who just shuttered his old blog and started a new one, to say nothing of the blog I’ve dedicated to Brazilian cachaça (with companion Twitter account, natch) and the one that my wife and I use as a family newsletter.
My old blog suffered from a kind of benign neglect that, frankly, became somewhat less-benign over time. I know that a lot of folks went through that same experience. Part of it could be explained by the Twitter-killed-my-blog theory but, to be perfectly honest, other factors include:
- When I started blogging in 2001, I made some truly bad technology decisions. Then again, how many decisions were actually available to me at the time?
- Some stuff I was giving away for free online via my blog had value. Back then, who knew? Today, I have a very thorough process for determining what goes on the blog and what stays within Edelman and its clients. Does it mean that my blog doesn’t have a whole lot of output? Perhaps, but I don’t make my living from my blog.
I’m really happy with where things are going on my new blog, Where the Fishermen Ain’t. It has some stuff up there that I just don’t see in a lot of other places within the PR blogosphere.
Everyone likes a horserace, though. Lots of self-styled influencer types like to stoke the non-debate about which platforms are “dead” and which implementations of a technology “killed” them. They’ll keep doing it as long as people fall for the linkbait, I suppose. If reed-etched clay tablets are what A) my audience reads and B) makes sense for me to publish on, I’ll use those. Folks get way too hung up on that kind of thing.
ZS: Let’s talk about the Social Media Belt System. For people who are not yet familiar with the Belt System, what is it and what was your thinking behind creating this system?
PG: The Belt System is a way we develop, deliver, and certify social media education and training for every employee worldwide. Available via our intranet, the several dozen learning modules are divided into “Belts” a la martial arts—about six to twelve modules per Belt with no single module taking longer than four minutes. To earn a Belt, you have to pass a quiz. The content covers everything from conversation search and basic online citizenship, all the way to planning and strategy. Belt status is tied to promotion and advancement, and we have the capability to track progress by individual, market, region, and practice.
Our path to the Belt System was a windy one but, suffice it to say, we’ve explored every form of training from week-long lock-you-in-a-purple-windowless-room immersions to distance learning and everything in between. Each has its place, of course, but the economics and cost/benefit ratio of the Belt System when looking at the sheer number of people to be trained—well over 3,000—work out very, very well. This has been a very successful partnership between Edelman Digital and the firm’s MIS department and we continue to improve the content and delivery system.
ZS: We’ve passed the one-year anniversary of the Belt System launch in North America and it has since been deployed globally. In social media years, a lot has changed. How do you plan to keep content up-to-date?
PG: Well, the first and most obvious way to do this is by adding more modules and Belts. In our first year, we developed and deployed the White, Yellow, Orange, Green and Blue Belts worldwide. Brown Belt (a simulation-based set of modules) was released last month and Black Belt came out today.
The team is particularly proud of Black Belt. For this, we went to our global experts all around the world and asked them “What does everyone need to know about digital PR in your country?” We launched with modules representing nine countries and more modules are coming in the next quarter or so. Since Belt Status is tied to promotion and advancement, the message that the Black Belt sends is a very powerful one—it’s the Belt that sits between the VP and SVP titles, essentially saying that people at that level need at least a basic familiarity with global digital PR.
As with previous new Belts, we dropped Black Belt into employees’ intranet learning-dashboards as a kind of “easter egg” ahead of the official launch, which was today. In less than two hours, two employees earned their Black Belts. Three days later, the number jumped to 27. This isn’t surprising considering, on average, someone in Edelman’s global network views a lesson every eleven minutes or so.
Within the older Belts, we’ve altered and removed some units and added a few more. This necessarily means that people with a certain Belt status will have to re-certify if they want to keep that status—a concept that really shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.
Recently, we just launched “Badges”, which are Foursquare-like recognitions for achieving certain specializations—both digitally related and otherwise. Interest from the global network in this concept has been highly encouraging.
ZS: Edelman expects all employees, Digital or not, to have a level of social media expertise, why is that? Do you anticipate that eventually, every Edelman employee will be a Digital employee?
PG: Well, I look at it this way. Every employee is expected to develop a strong degree of aptitude in media relations, however, we also have a Media Services group that specializes in national media campaigns. Every employee we hire should possess more than just basic research skills, but we also have our research subsidiary, StrategyOne. In other words, there will always be room for specialists and experts, but the well-rounded agency consultant will have touched and absorbed some degree of skill in those specialist disciplines. Digital is very much going the same way.
As I’ve joked before, my business card says “Edelman Digital”, though my responsibility is “digital Edelman.” I think that, to some degree, the firm’s success relies on how good we are at both.
ZS: Once you complete the Belt System, are you a social media expert? (Or can you at least claim to be?)
PG: Completion of the Belt System means that you meet the minimum knowledge standard we expect from our employees with regard to social media. True expertise, like with anything else, comes from keeping your hand in the field.
Also, I strongly believe that people in this business should strive to be communications experts first, with a strong facility in social media and online community principles. The marketplace is chock full of folks who mistake the latter as all that’s required to be competent in the former—that would be irresponsibly wrong.
ZS: You thought you were special, and then Edelman Digital hired a doppelganger named Rian Merrill [Edelman Digital, Portland]. Is it true? Is he your brother from a different mother?
PG: Rian wasn’t born from a “different mother” or any mother, per se, but was actually grown from a hair follicle I left behind in Portland’s Hollywood Theater during the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival in October 2001. This was evidently part of an odd form of DMCA enforcement: I found out later that the bootleg DVD of The Dunwich Horror I bought said “COPYRIGHT WARNING: If you bought an illegal copy this disc, we will clone you.”
Anyway, Rian reached full adulthood in about three days thanks to a solution composed of peppar vodka, rare lichens, ambergris, giraffe spinal fluid, and about a thousand Airborne tablets. He requires a regular infusion of this solution in order to maintain the photovoltaic efficiency of his hairless dome, which is in reality solar panel to a digital PR machine!
We do look a lot alike, so much so that (and this part is true) a colleague in our Silicon Valley office managed to carry five minutes worth of a conversation with him before finally realizing it wasn’t me. God bless Rian, true gentleman that he is, for not using the moment to its fullest advantage.
Joking aside, he does a great job over there. Tell him I said “hi.”
ZS: What is your favorite latest and greatest social media tool/discovery?
PG: I like Plancast a lot. I see it as a location-based service for the fourth dimension (that is, time as first-order variable), whereas FourSquare is the service for the third dimension (space). I don’t use it nearly enough. It’s probably just as well, since I’ve generally sought to roll back my conference appearances quite a bit since 2009. I guess it’s more interesting for me to see where influencers with more aggressive conference schedules are going to be.
Anyone I introduce to HootSuite ends up looking at me as if I reached into the space/time continuum and stuffed their Outlook calendar with a few extra minutes.
Pouring my Yahoo! Pipes experiments through Google Reader has been illuminating in terms of information management. My favorite Pipe is also the simplest: mashing together the tech and business channels from Fark, Digg, plus all of Gabe Rivera’s TechMeme sites (e.g., Memeorandum, WeSmirch, etc.) into a single reverse-chrono feed.