We’re back with Part 2 of Ask the Experts: Outdoor Industry Communications Agency Leaders. In Part 1, three of our favorite outdoor industry agency executives shed some light on how they got into the outdoor industry, how they stay motivated day to day, and what it’s like managing an agency.
In this second segment, we’re asking these three to look ahead and make some predictions on where the future of the outdoor industry is heading.
Looking ahead, what trends do you foresee shaping the PR landscape for outdoor industry brands and how are you preparing to adapt to these changes?
Darby: Great question. I’m just back from the ICAST trade show and I am really amazed at how many print publications still serve the fishing market. Obviously, that’s not the case in the outdoor industry where our media market is about 95% digital which means there are infinite opportunities for exposure but also tons of competition for customers’ attention.
At Darby Communications, we suggest our clients take an omnichannel approach to PR. This can mean we work with them to promote owned content and leverage an email marketing strategy, in addition to PR. By pulling in these other elements, we are able to get traction for the brand faster and utilize all parts of the communications strategy to grow awareness and draw in customers.
Blake: In general, I prefer the term communications over PR. Comms incorporates so many different tactics from public affairs to editorial and internal comms. I think the general evolution continues by blurring the lines between owned, earned, and paid for both a brand and a media outlet.
My career started in marketing so my communications philosophy continues to be one of integration. How can comms leverage all the programs marketing is executing and vice versa? How does an influencer or affiliate strategy work within the editorial goals? So as a professional, it’s important to have some understanding of all marketing tactics.
Simmons: If you’re going to look ahead, you might as well climb a tree or a nearby peak and look as far ahead as possible. What that view looks like to me (and many others) is a world where big companies keep getting bigger through consolidation, and small companies are facing an ever-mounting headwind. In that worldview, behemoth companies generally don’t need or care much about touchy-feely ideas like the “outdoor industry,” but small companies actually need that community and strength-in-numbers approach to survive.
What this means is that if you enjoy the idea of the outdoor industry, if you want to keep it rolling so that you can build a career or grow your business, then it’s absolutely essential to support independent small businesses in any way you can. Maybe that’s by lowering your rates a bit, being open to collaborations, or just shopping at your local outdoor shop instead of Amazon. We’re all in this together.
If you enjoy the idea of the outdoor industry, if you want to keep it rolling so that you can build a career or grow your business, then it’s absolutely essential to support independent small businesses in any way you can. ~ Drew Simmons
The outdoor industry tradeshow landscape is changing. How do you feel about the direction it is going and/or how do you think it needs to evolve?
Coral: Trade shows are experiencing a reset. Today, within the outdoor industry, legacy brands are connecting with their customers in innovative, new ways and are finding that this approach is yielding a stronger ROI. Conversely, our existing industry shows are giving fresh space to emerging brands, allowing them to capitalize on the visibility often overshadowed by the more mature companies.
I am happy to see young, small companies able to capitalize on these opportunities as they build their wholesale business. Ultimately, in this new era of business, I don’t believe there’s a one size fits all show anymore that can serve every unique outdoor industry brand.
All that said, I miss having a gathering that brings the old and the new generations of industry members together – to share information and accomplish important industry goals. I’d like to see a future event that gives reason for seasoned industry folks to meet for a day or two in advance of the product debuts and sales meetings.
I am happy to see young, small companies able to capitalize on these opportunities as they build their wholesale business. Ultimately, in this new era of business, I don’t believe there’s a one size fits all show anymore that can serve every unique outdoor industry brand. ~ Coral Darby
Blake: To be honest, tradeshows were designed with a purpose for manufacturers and retailers. As PR professionals we were just lucky to leverage the merchandised space to meet with the media.
So, I can’t really comment on this except to say that as PR professionals we have to continue to be creative in how we interact with media and our storytelling.
Simmons: To me, questions about the “evolving trade show landscape” are really just code for “don’t you miss the days when Outdoor Retailer was awesome?” And yes, I do miss those glory days when you could go into a single huge room and see a vision of what the outdoor industry looked like in its entirety. But the world has changed.
Trade gatherings have been growing and fading since dinosaurs roamed the earth, and when they’re needed and provide value they draw a ton of deserved attention. I’m more interested these days about the evolution of the outdoor industry itself, and whether it will continue a healthy and growing trajectory when a big chunk of companies seem to be siloed up and focused exclusively on inward thinking. This trend has definitely impacted the trade show calendar, but it has also caused significant collateral damage to what I feel is the true heartbeat of the outdoor industry — the working media corps that used to thrive in and around those gatherings.
The “evolution” I’m rooting for is a realization among the outdoor sector that both individually and as a whole we need more independent media sources telling more stories. Much more. And to get to that place, we need to invest real cash dollars.
What are your feelings on the role AI and large language models play in the PR process moving forward?
Darby: We are approaching AI with an open mind and hoping that it becomes an indispensable asset. AI will never replace the art of storytelling but it can enable us to be more creative with the campaigns we develop and implement for our clients.
Blake: I think this is fascinating and I am still discovering the possibilities…both professionally and through my kids as this plays a big role in schools now as well.
Simmons: Probably 10 years ago, we had a fantastic intern at the office who was a Summa Cum Laude graduate from St. Lawrence. She was super smart and just getting her feet wet in the professional world. At one point, she walked by my office and pointed at a contraption with a bunch of buttons and dangling cords on the shelves behind my desk, and asked me what it was. I laughed … “It’s a fax machine.”
When I was in newspapers, I watched the world change from manual paste-up to digital pagination. And while in PR, I saw from my desk the arrival of social media and how email completely eviscerated the telephone (pro tip: just for fun, ask a PR old-timer what it was like to call a metro newspaper newsroom to pitch a story). So in general, I’m not too worried about AI and ChatGPT. We’re using it for research and formative writing tasks, and exploring how else it might help.
My approach to technological advances in communication has always been to get under the hood as quickly as possible to better understand it.
You’re standing in front of 200 recent graduates excited about the potential of working in the outdoor industry PR field, what are three key pieces of advice you’d give them?
- Do meaningful work for an organization you believe in.
- Be hungry, yet patient.
- Focus on your creativity, there are other ways to enter the industry beyond retail.
Blake: I mentor and speak to young people regularly, ones looking to get into the outdoor industry or PR. I really take it on a case-by-case basis, ask a lot of questions, and listen to their story and what they think they want. Everyone is so different. I guess the main pieces of advice I would suggest include:
- Ask questions and be a good listener.
- Be resourceful.
- Be flexible.
- Make sure you are happy. Sorry, that’s 4.
- Support quality journalism. Without a healthy independent media community, you’ve chosen a very, very short career track. So when you see cool magazines or websites doing interesting things, buck up and subscribe. And tell your friends to subscribe, too.
- Stay curious. The best part of PR is the open door to ask questions and learn about the world.
- Respect your elders. If there are actually 200 smart young graduates looking to get into outdoor industry PR, then I’m in trouble. So when you see me, be nice and buy me lunch.
The main pieces of advice I’d suggest are to: ask questions and be a good listener, be resourceful, be flexible, and make sure you are happy. ~ Kelly Blake
Outside of work, what’s the next skill you’re looking to master?
Darby: Fly fishing! And I’d take proficiency.
Blake: Learning to have fun with all my free time because my kids are almost all out of the house.
Simmons: You know those backyard pizza oven things? I think they’re called an Oozi or some sort of made-up word. My mom gave me one for my birthday last year, and I’ve yet to figure out how to dial in that thing without creating a napalm-calzone mess.
What do you do to unwind after a long day/week?
Darby: Exercise is key for my stress management and my overall well-being. I will often run in the morning or hit our local YMCA for an outdoor class. Post work, I love to get my senior dog, Ziggy, out for a walk in the woods.
Blake: Go for a long walk or hike with friends or play Pickleball. A Friday night cocktail is fun too!
Simmons: Depends on the time of year. In the winter, I’ll try to catch the last chair at Sugarbush or Mad River Glen, as there’s nothing better than a few ski runs to shed the detritus of a workweek from the brain.
In the summer, it’s either a casual mountain bike ride — or if it’s simply too hot, a little bass fishing on the fly at Blueberry Lake, which I find to be an incredibly dumb and fun pursuit, and really helps me reset.
Where can people follow you on social?