New Business Opportunities By Asking the Right Questions with Mike Fernandez

Sometimes the key to discovering new business opportunities is asking the right questions. Mike Fernandez, the U.S. CEO of the global public relations firm Burson-Marsteller, says publishers need to ask new questions in order to understand the changing media landscape. “The questions that the industry needs to ask itself is not only, ‘Do we know where our primary audience is?’ but also, ‘Where is it going?’” says Fernandez.

Mike Fernandez, U.S. CEO, Burson-Marsteller

Fernandez has a long career in communications, beginning as the youngest press secretary to ever serve on the Hill and taking on the role of chief communications officer at State Farm, ConAgra, Cigna, and US West. In the following interview Fernandez shares some of the lessons he’s learned as a communicator in a multi-platform, data-driven communications industry and how those lessons can be applied to publishing.

You’ve said that questions can be more important than answers as they force us to come up with better ideas and actions. What questions should the publishing community be asking right now?

Today, publishing is dominated by platforms. The questions that the industry needs to ask itself is not only, “Do we know where our primary audience is” but also, “Where is it going?” Also, [we need to ask as an industry], “Are we looking at a broader array of media to better understand where our audience is going, or are we looking at that too narrowly?”

At one point, I was the chief communications officer at what was then called ConAgra Foods. We ran an exercise to review the process of each of our strategic frameworks and key brands. We would go through 20 to 30 brands, and each quarter we would look at data that came from Nielsen, shopping data, our sales, and competitors in a category. We asked ourselves, “What would prompt our intended customers to prefer our product over others in its competitive landscape?” That led us to redefine our competitive landscape.

An example is Chef Boyardee. For years, Chef Boyardee had defined itself as the giant killer in canned pasta. The problem was that canned pasta was a narrow space. It did not get at the heart of consumer choices. Consumer choices were driven by meal opportunities. What we learned by continually asking questions is actually that the primary competitor was not Franco American; it was Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, Happy Meals, etc. We were a small player in the opportunities for kids snacks and meals. All of a sudden we pivoted on how we marketed this product to meet the needs of the market.

Folks in the publishing industry need to do these same exercises. Where does their audience intersect through all channels? Do they understand what that marketplace is and could be, or are they viewing it through a traditional or narrow lens?

How should evidence-based data be balanced with instinct when it comes to content strategy?

Clearly there are elements of both. One of the things you can do to better understand your audience is study what content they look at that is competitive or similar in nature to your own. There are amazing tools at our fingertips to conduct research and track metrics to better understand this than ever before.

Some examples include Brandwatch, which tracks and analyzes conversations about brands, Crimson Hexagon, which helps brands target new markets and gather insights for product development, and NetBase, a social media analytics tool. Many of these tools are fairly inexpensive and require just a few keystrokes. It’s lack of understanding and laziness that prompts people not to do this sort of research.

In an interview last year you said, “The true measure of excellence in our profession isn’t so much technology, but how to use it, and more importantly, how you strengthen and build relationships.” Please expand on that thought.

We have always had technology to communicate faster and cheaper and allow us to reach a broader audience. When I started out, I can remember fax machines going from 12 to 6 minutes. Now, in a matter of seconds I can type something and send it to you. The ideas that I communicate are still fundamentally important. What the technology does is offer tools that enable us to communicate at greater breadth and speed. The main point is you are in the ideas business. Technology enables us. We need to understand it and have the appropriate skills to tap it. But still, this is a world that is moved by ideas, and that’s what is fundamental to communications and creating content.

How can publishers build a revenue-driving content strategy?

What happens unfortunately for some in the publishing business is that they look at what they do as a craft in and of itself, and they don’t necessarily see that craft tightly tied to outcomes, whether that includes profit or other metrics.One helpful exercise I use to build a content strategy is by identifying what I call the “Four I’s”.

Begin with tracking information that is on-hand or accessible about the audience you want to reach. You can gather that information through surveys, interviews, social listening tools, or on-site metrics.

Ideas are the next element. Ideas build on information and try to organize the story in a particular way that might engage or change your audience’s perceptions or behaviors. In the 1980s, Harold Burson said that communications should be intentional – otherwise it is just noise.

The third “I” is integration with distribution of content. How do we integrate the story across multiple streams or platforms?

Last is impact. Measuring the impact of communications and content with defined metrics is important. What you measure should help you evaluate whether a particular strategy is effective and how you might improve it.

Who were the biggest influences on your career?

First would be my parents and grandparents. I have a father who grew up in Spanish Harlem. My mom grew up in an orphanage. I can remember people not renting us an apartment due to my father’s background and skin color. But they persevered. They focused on the cup being half full rather than half empty, and trying to shoulder on.

Next would be my collegiate environment. My parents and older relatives did not go to college, so it was a dramatic decision for me to attend college and to go to Georgetown University. Every week my grandfather sent me notes in Spanish encouraging me to press on and a $5 bill. He had never even been on a plane until he flew to my graduation at Georgetown. What I learned at Georgetown is to focus on the questions, not just answers.It’s the fundamental belief that you only improve and advance mankind by asking and probing and using inquiry to achieve something better. I realized that I had always asked questions, but I became more focused on it. When I started working on the Hill, I asked all kinds of questions.

And that brings me to Dr. Benjamin Mays. Years ago when I was working for Senator Hollings as press secretary, I was to meet the Senator at a scheduled meeting with Dr. Benjamin Mays, a civil rights icon who was President of Morehouse College and an advisor to Marking Luther King, Jr. I arrived early and Dr. Mays asked me into his office to wait. Even though I was in awe of him, I took the opportunity to ask questions, one of which was, ‘What advice do you give to young people who come to meet with you?’ He responded, ‘What you need to understand is that you should never stop learning. Even at my age, every day I think about what have I learned and what do I want to know next?’

When I got into the business world I took that advice literally. Every day I asked questions that led to insights and the opportunity to meet and work with amazing people. And I still follow that practice today. When I come into the office, I ask myself what do I have to learn, what do I have to know to improve the lifeblood of this firm and make it more successful.