I remember when I first heard that Bill Bourdon, general manager at Bateman Group, was in talks earlier this year to hire Syreeta Mussante as a senior vice president. I thought to myself, “Hell yeah!” That’s because when I was on the other side of the fence, working as a journalist at CNET, I respected Syreeta’s knowledge of the tech industry, admired her energy and humor and appreciated the obvious fact that she “gets it.”
Syreeta brings a ton of experience to Bateman Group, having worked at Blanc & Otus, Spark PR and Lewis PR. I sat down with her recently to tease out some of her history and veteran insights, and find out what makes her tick.
Q: So, what do you see as your role here at Bateman Group?
A: I think a big part of why I came here is the opportunity to be a part of building something special. I bring a lot of experience working with large enterprise software providers, and hopefully I can be an anchor for the enterprise team in terms of better understanding the industry, the business issues faced and the PR strategies that truly move the needle. That said, I am in no way putting myself in an enterprise box. That’s only one facet of what I’m here to do. In my last role, I was a generalist, which I loved, and prior to that, I ran a social and video game practice. It’s important to me to remain balanced. Bring consumer-style energy and ideas to the enterprise clients, and enterprise-style strategy and depth to the consumer side of things. Bateman has an amazing consumer practice based out of New York; I hope to help balance that consumer experience in our West Coast office, through my experience with companies like PlayStation, Rdio, Skype, and Wayfair.com.
Q: Content seems to be the hot topic right now. What’s your approach to content and it’s value to PR?
A: Content is critical. Your body of work is the truest reflection of you and your company’s insight. It’s your stake in the ground. It is what you think, it’s why you matter, and how you let people know.
Thought leadership can raise a company’s visibility but the truth is, if you want to be a thought leader, you have to “think” something. Being a visionary requires vision. The companies best positioned for success have a point of view and are genuinely thinking about what the world is going to be like in five or 10 years. And as a result, they are positioning their product in some unique way to allow customers to succeed in that future environment. That is one way that I assess the potential of a new client: Are they thinking beyond this year?
As an entrepreneur, if you’re not doing that, you need to stop, take a look at your market and re-evaluate. It doesn’t necessarily mean you should shift your entire strategy, but you may see an opportunity to change the nuance of your business and grow its potential. And by the way, now you have something to say that will actually contribute to the industry dialogue.
I think there’s opportunity for companies to more publicly talk about what they’re doing and why it matters. Predict what comes next. Being wrong is ok – as long as you are smart about it. And you’re already betting your business on it. No one will remember in 5 years that what you projected didn’t come to pass, anyway. But they might remember your company’s name, or the name of that smart CEO who evolved his thinking over time, and the story of how the company succeeded because of it. Thought leadership gets a bad rap by the media as fluff, but it doesn’t have to be pontification in a vacuum. It can be in the context of a very concrete business activity.
People are questioning the value of blogs right now — Does anyone read it? Do you need it from a corporate standpoint? I think that a blog with few exceptions is like having a web site now. It’s a requirement. It’s a costly investment sometimes, but if you’re smart about it and if you’re saying something worth saying, you need a place for people to go to find it.
For some companies it becomes a customer service channel. That’s ok, too. Maybe the customer isn’t the audience. Maybe you’re looking for industry leadership, or valuation, any number of things. But you can’t achieve any level of leadership or visibility if people can’t find you. It doesn’t have to be the traditional blog. Blogs are evolving too. It can be visual, have video, be short, long — make it your own. But it is your easiest and most direct way to comment on the industry, in your own words. A blog serves as your content hub, the foundation for social media activity, a connection with other bloggers for link love, and a jumping off point for influencer relationship building. And it is a repository for media — declining in numbers, always busy and in need of a trusted, informed, interesting resource — of your perspective.
Creating content is your opportunity to say what you think without the filter of external interpretation. If you are a successful businessperson you are paying attention to what’s happening in your industry. What you do makes you well-positioned to comment on something. PR can help you figure out what. You have an opinion – you know you do. Share it. Contribute an article. Comment on industry blog posts. Blog. You might get some help with the writing, but the ideas are yours to convey. You need to be engaged. The best PR helps you express things you are already thinking. If you don’t have an idea, you’re in trouble.
Q: How did you get into PR?
A: Through failure (laughs). My first internship in college was with a political consulting firm. I wanted be political consultant, and I ran a campaign as an intern. I was the primary driver for the campaign for district attorney for San Diego, and we lost. I think I was 22. I don’t know if I had ever really failed at anything before, and it was devastating. I took it a little too personally. I thought, “I can’t do this over and over and live this life with this much risk.” But it was an intriguing experience. I didn’t like the fundraising element, but I liked the media strategy, the press conferences and the content. I was fascinated by the part where the campaign anticipated what questions would be asked in interviews and then figured out the responses. I thought, “How can I do this without the hard win or lose at the end?”
The thing about PR is that the stakes are often very high, but it’s a very different set of criteria for success and a very different time frame. You can have a failure; I’d even go so far as to say that you should fail occasionally. You manage the fallout, and you learn from it. But it’s not over. It’s expected that a successful tech entrepreneur will have failed start-ups in their past. Some of most successful companies have had failures at some point. How many things has Google failed at, for instance? Anyway, I got into this job out of a fear of failure. And, ironically, the secret in this industry is you’ve got to fail faster to succeed sooner.
One of my first PR clients was a local bakery, and others were a local architectural firm and the San Diego County Bar Association.The PR wasn’t very thoughtful, and I left that job thinking, “What a ridiculous field.” I said that I would never do PR again; then I came back later and joined a tech PR firm, and it was a very different experience. At a tech PR firm you have to learn. All the time. You are immersed in PR strategy and changing technology; you have to be informed and thoughtful about business in a way I had not experienced before.
At an agency you have a new client every few months and sometimes you have to learn a whole new sector and, very quickly, be able to talk in an informed manner to a senior executive who has been in this field for 20 years or to a kid who dropped out of college last year and is well on his way to being a millionaire because of a new technology or idea, invented by him. It’s a constant intellectual challenge. An ongoing, stressful, exhilarating, foreign, fascinating, awesome learning experience. People who don’t love to learn aren’t successful in this job.
Q: What are you passionate about in your professional life?
A: I’m not good at jobs where my day is the same every day. I work well in an agency environment because I don’t get bored. I can be passionate about anything. I kid you not — I can be passionate about apps and video games, enterprise software and virtualization technologies, networking and infrastructure, workplace trends and leadership styles. All at the same time. It’s not the industry or product. I can get passionate about a new consumer gadget that’s yellow. I can promote that; I love yellow. It’s about what we can do for the client, how we can advance their business objectives, what creative ideas we can generate — what fun things can we do?
I love ideation, collaboration and getting in a room with people and throwing ideas around; coming up with something that would be a good cover story for The Economist. The whole creative process is endlessly fascinating. If I could just sit with colleagues and innovate around some new delivery mechanism for client messages I would do that all day long.
I think, “How can I tell a story with this?” I like to think about what’s next. I may not know, but I’d love to get in a room and come up with the answer. Or at least some possibilities to test out. We as PR people don’t do that enough. We’ve got to be bold. Cover the bases absolutely – I’m a big one for streamlined processes, and nailing the fundamentals. But you do that so that you can move on to the fun stuff with no obstacles. I want to be inventive all the time. I want to surprise my client. I ask my teams, “How did you surprise the client this month?”
Shake things up, take the client out of their comfort zone. Make the PR call the most fun meeting of their week. They may not go with your idea, but they will like that you thought outside the box. And they will keep coming back for more.