Christina’s Coffee Talk with Alex Aizenberg

For this week’s Coffee Talk I had the opportunity to chat with Alex Aizenberg, a successful PR professional, avid coffee drinker (just make sure it’s regular coffee with 2% milk), beard enthusiast and musician. I have gotten to know Alex through his rather entertaining Twitter stream, a nice blend of business and pleasure. I’m always learning something new from Alex as he is a savvy professional, currently working with one of the leading global public relations agencies, Weber Shandwick for 5+ years. I guess you could say he knows what he’s doing ;). In addition to PR, you can find Alex relaxing with his supportive wifeadorable dog, and playing on one of his eight guitars. Bet you didn’t know that A) Weber Shandwick has a house band named “Webster’s Sandwich” for an annual event called Agency Idol and B) that Alex has been the lead guitarist since the start! I hope you enjoy this chat as much as I did and learn something new along the way.

You work for one of the top agencies in the world, Weber Shandwick as Group Manager at the Global Strategic Media Group. Tell me a little on how you got there.

I studied Psychology and Business in college because of my fascination with IO Psychology (Industrial Organizational). My senior year I had yet to find a way to use the interest and impending degrees. I then interned at a small PR agency, which led to me being hired right out of college. It was during that (incredibly hands-on) internship that I realized that PR was more than Lizzy Grubman, which was my impression in school. After a story I placed ran on the cover of a business section of the Las Vegas Review Journal during my internship, a passion was born. I dub it, all of the business with none of the math.

At my first job, I was doing top tier media relations with small, and at times, tiny clients. Reporters would turn me away not because of the angle or my creativity but because of the clients. I wanted the big brands and felt I needed that to play with the big boys of NYT, WSJ, Forbes, Fortune, et al. Someone said to me at the time: “Big agency life is not for everyone, but if you want to give it a try, try Weber Shandwick.” And the rest is history.

As group manager you work daily with the C-suite. What are some obstacles you face the most? How do you overcome them?

Biggest obstacle I’d say is access to, and sign on by, the right people internally, which we overcome with baby steps; breeding encouragingly positive experiences with both media and overall PR tactics. Have to start slow by dipping a toe, then the ankle, then the foot and so forth. It’s a hard obstacle but it’s not that hard to overcome if you have (somewhat) solid proof as leverage.

Another major obstacle that I’ve faced throughout my career is showing the “American Face” to our global clients. With a global ‘parent’ company it’s always tough to bring the media to the base level of grasping that the clients I represent are actually American, and their initiatives/technologies/solutions are key to US, and not just to Europe or Asia.

Tell me about Re-Invention Economy and perhaps give an example.

Simply put the Re-Invention Economy is the state of the consumer and business landscapes right now. It necessitates innovation and new approaches in order to recapture the attention of disillusioned consumer and investor audiences (in lieu of the global downturn). It’s a follow up to the Attention Economy trend which was exemplified by the rise of the “ME” generation and ‘You’ as TIME magazine’s Person of the year a few years back.

Some examples would be in the tactics brands and corporations are taking to recapture their audiences. Anything from empowerment and crowdsourcing efforts (think iPhone apps, etc.) to true CSR (think Pepsi Refresh) and of course social media and engagement tactics (think… just about everyone).

There doesn’t seem to be too much SM outreach within GSMG. Is there some resistance from the C-suite or is it because it does not target the audience well?

Some of it is by design and preference of clients, on the other hand traditional media placements are our bread and butter (we are a media group after all). But yes, resistance from C-suite is pretty real, and within reason since it’s hard to show value of SM to those ranks (and frankly to a lot of people). As I said, dip toe, if it works, dip ankle… rinse and repeat.

In a recent TweenPRChat you said to Nicole “I now find myself talking about many clients to 1 vs 10 like used to.” Can you explain that further?

Ah yes, Nicole and I used to work together, she’s amazing, and also inspiring. Speaking off, I gotta get back to that chat group (Monday’s at 9pm EST – if you haven’t checked it out, do it) , fun and smart folks. I’ve slacked a bit, sorry Nicole!

I meant that with the media contraction, the top tier folks I spoke to before were much more beat driven. What I see now are core responsibilities of reporters not so much shifting, but combining. Where before I had several reporters in the ‘green beat’ (i.e. Solar, Wind, energy efficiency, etc.), now I have one reporter that covers all of those parts as an umbrella beat. It’s frustrating but also helps you grasp the true importance of relationships with the media. There is less of them, less time for you/your clients, and more serious repercussions if you don’t play nice in the sandbox.

On to the fun stuff: Build a Beard (B-a-B). Even though I suspect you are going to answer me with “why not”, I must ask, why B-a-B?

Build-a-Beard was a godsend. I wanted to have a “raising the profile of beards” type of beard blog for a long time (probably as long as I’ve had my beard), but it took the amazingly hairy initiative of my good friend and WS colleague Kristina Weise to start her own blog and then get me hyped up, get on board, stop talking and start doing what we both love. SM/Snark/Hirsute. The reality is also, that because I can’t exercise much of my deep personal interests and ideas in terms of SM and engagement with clients –  my personal blog wasn’t as friendly to that either – so B-a-B became an ongoing learning experience, fun social experiment, and hairy observation of society all lumped into one. I absolutely love it, and can’t thank Kristina  enough for bringing me on board.

I am a big fan of this facial hair movement. How many people send in their pictures of their awesome facial hair?

A LOT, and I mean A LOT. Which is amazing, we are proud (even if horrified sometimes) to peruse and post. I’d say about 10 a week, sometimes in spurts, sometimes consistently, but always hairy. The Beardo community is very very tightly knit, and proud as can be of their facial DIY creations. We are merely a conduit for a bearded soapbox.

Are you planning another B-a-B event?

Beard Ball Brooklyn was a huge success! We raised money for an awesome local charity, Right Rides (apparently Cog used to volunteer for the organization), got to hang out with awesome people and listened to bearded bands while drinking donated FireFly and Prohibition vodkas. Our work was featured in NBC4ny, NYPost and NYDaily News, Gothamist, Brokelyn, etc. It was an amazing experience.

We are currently working on venues/charities/bands etc. for Beard Ball LA, which will be this summer. We are also working on a charity bearded comedy event for a local literacy nonprofit which we are calling Beardgasm, more details soon!

It was a lot of fun getting to pick Alex’s brain for a bit. I’d like to thank him for taking the time to be a Coffee Talk guest. As always, if you have any additional questions or comments for Alex please post them below and we’ll see if he can spare a few more minutes for answers.

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