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Remember the good ol’ days of social media? When Facebook wasn’t a stomping ground for family members to share ridiculous conspiracy theories, and Twitter was a peaceful source of news and information? Episode 5 dives into the historical evolution of social media. From what makes content viral to predictions for what’s to come, TikTok Communications Manager Cynthia Dew shares her expert advice on what to expect from the evolving industry.

Impressions # 5 Transcript

Jenn: It’s nostalgic to think back on a time when choosing your top-eight on MySpace was the prime of social media. Before anyone knew what an Instagram Reel was, the early days of interactive technology was nothing compared to what it is today. To talk more about the evolving world of social media, we are joined this week by Cynthia Dew, Communications Manager for the Creator Community at TikTok. Good morning, Cynthia, how are you today?

Cynthia: Hi, I’m good. How are you?

Jenn: We’re great. Thanks so much for joining us. We’re really excited to talk to you and learn more about what you do at TikTok and some of those social media trends that Kalli and I are a little too old to really understand, so thank you for that. So let’s start from the beginning. We just want to know what inspired you to pursue a career in communications? How did you know that that this was the field that you were supposed to be in?

Cynthia: Yeah, so it all started back in college, I went to USC – University of Southern California – and I had first gone there as a Psychology major. I was really interested in how the mind worked, how people worked. And I had this big dream that, you know, I’d become like a therapist for the rich and famous or stars in Hollywood. I studied Psych in high school, I loved it and thought, you know, this is what I wanted to do in college.

When I got to college, I found out very quickly that I didn’t quite love all the prerequisites. I think stats is one that comes to mind. When I got to school, I had seen this beautiful program in the Annenberg building. And I was just so in awe, like, wow, I actually really love this field of communications, but I have no idea what it is. So I talked to a counselor, and they were like, “Well, you know, you love writing you love reading, you have entertainment, you know, I think this would be a really great program for you. Have you ever heard of PR, public relations degree?” And I was like, “No, I’ve never heard of it. But you know, I really want to try it out. And I really want to see if I like it.” And switched majors. 

Literally the next week, I had my first class and Annenberg where I think we had to write like, it was something like write a tweet for like a business or write a short brief on how you would pitch this to someone. And I just fell in love. I fell in love with the copywriting. I fell in love with how smart you have to be with the certain amount of characters or space that you have to tell a story. I loved everything about it. And I just knew from that point on that that’s what I wanted to do with my career. What specifically in comms, I didn’t know. And that was a journey in and of itself. But I think it was really in college I found a love for it, because of just the nature of the field of writing and reading and just being so immersed in pop culture.

Kalli: That’s awesome. And, I think for me, I am also one of those people that went to school for PR and stayed in it. It’s funny, because like you said, a lot of people don’t even know what PR is, I didn’t before I went to college, and kind of entering that world. It’s almost like you found the door behind the wardrobe and you feel like opened up Narnia. All these wonderful, magical things that just like speak to your heart. 

How did you go from really like more traditional PR and press roles to now managing communications for TikTok, tell us about that journey for you and how you kind of progressed.

Cynthia: So, this kind of goes into a little bit what I was saying before, kind of like trial and error, finding out exactly what kind of PR I wanted to do, I fell into entertainment absolutely loved it. 

And that’s where I began my career, very traditional PR – I mean, old school press releases picking up the phone to pitch people, you know. That was during a very formative time in my career. I was under a lot of really great inspiring managers who were all women in the field really showing the foundations of PR. I think that’s really where I got foundational knowledge of how to write a press release, how to pitch someone over the phone. And I think at the time, which was something that I love the most is, like, how to carry talent through the beginning and end of a show series. 

I worked with people who had never been famous before, or, you know, they had 100 followers on their Instagram to overnight successes from these massive shows. My first experience with that was at Paramount having to manage cons and to kind of work through that world of like, wow, this is what it’s really like to work on a massively successful show. And it really taught me a lot. And I think I always thought I’d stay in entertainment. I really, sincerely was like, you know, this is what I’m going to do for the rest of my career. This is where I see myself in 10 years, you know, being a VP or an EVP or working at a studio. And then I will say, the pandemic absolutely changed everything. TikTok was really a leap of faith. I was like, “you know, I’ve done this work. I know how to bring you know, someone through this process. In the back end. I know how to pitch I know the fundamentals of PR – I can do this in tech.” And this role was perfect. I mean, they were looking for someone with entertainment experience who can apply that same sort of knowledge to the creator community and it just it felt perfect.

Jenn: So I want to ask the golden question here because – I’ll admit it. I don’t know too much about TikTok. But I know that a lot of things go viral, and kind of make its way to other platforms. But TikTok seems to be kind of the originator. Do you have any favorite TikTok trends? What’s something that you see on the inside? You’re like, wow, this is this is a big hit.

Cynthia: Yeah, I think it’s so funny. It’s like, I can never name a favorite because there’s just so many trends in my mind, I feel like it’s become like a Rolodex of trends. But I think it’s a moment, it’s like capturing lightning in a bottle. It’s not something like, I feel like when people try to purposely, like start a trend, like, “Okay, this is going to be a trend,” it doesn’t always work, I think it’s really those authentic moments that people really latch on to, because the thing on TikTok is it’s about very authentic platform. And it’s all about authenticity. It’s about you coming as you are, showing the world who you are, and little glimpses and moments of your life, you know. Trends that took over the platform, whether they’re a dance trend, whether it’s a sound, whether it’s, you know, a recipe that’s selling out ingredients in stores, it always started with someone just being like, “I want to show you something that I love to do, whether that’s dancing, eating, cooking, whatever,” and really just talking to the void, and then the entire world coming back and saying, “Oh, we love this.” So I would say like, my biggest advice is to not set out to do a trend – just be authentic post authentically, and then people will come to you.

Kalli: That makes a lot of sense because, you know, it’s those real moments that really attract people and that being said, you know, tell us a little bit more about the Discover list, what was the inspiration to introduce this for creators?

Cynthia: So for the discovery list, with my entertainment background, I was always a huge fan of lists. I’m all about packaging, I’m all about, you know, how can we showcase talent on this level, and in having, you know, conversations with creators and all the creators that they meet and talk to, you know, if their goal was like, “Hey, I want to be or I see myself going in entertainment.” I’m like, “Oh, this is a great tool, and a great way to showcase that.” I think it’s all about the packaging. 

And we have so many incredible creators. And I think for the Discover list, I was moreso thinking, if someone doesn’t have my exact For You page – none of us have the exact same For You page, it’s different for all of us, right? If you wanted to see a collection of creators that you maybe have not discovered yet, what is a way we can present that to you and that was how the Discover list was born. And I really want it to be so highly elevated with professional photography of the creators. It had also a physical printed magazine, I thought it was just super, you know, I thought it was super funny to bring kind of the digital back to the physical for that moment. And it was really great. I really loved celebrating the creators. 

So the first year we did it, it was in the US, and then it expanded globally the next year. And it’s just been like such a great way for creators to not only find each other, but for people to find these creators.

Jenn: And I love a list, too, because it highlights some really important aspects of culture. I know there was recently a list about creators who are making like a global impact. Those it’s just a really great way to utilize social media for good. So I just think it’s something very, very beautiful and inspiring.

Cynthia: The creators – they inspire me every day, I think that was that was also a very huge draw to for working at TikTok, just the amount of creativity that’s there. The amount of people that the platform has changed their life. I was like, “Yeah, this is just a really, really great place to be.” And I’m excited, I was able to highlight them in that way.

Jenn: When you’re developing a communication strategy – what type of important factors do you evaluate that you want to ensure resonates?

Cynthia: I think when developing a strategy – and this is just broad, like across my career in general – I think the most important thing is just who is your audience? Because it’s not always going to be who you think it is. And I say that to say like, you know, when most people think of TikTok they think, oh, it’s only you know, younger people or only Gen Z, but TikTok is for everyone. So, the audience that I’m speaking to is everyone, but I also think that there’s additional ways to kind of get the message out there. And that really goes into being extremely knowledgeable of who your audience is. 

And that’s also why I just anyone who asks me, I so recommend, like, just be so fully immersed in culture, so fully immersed in what’s going on, keeping up to date on trends and news and that will just help you be able to speak to your audience where they are.

Jenn: It’s actually quite funny because we had interviewed somebody recently on the show and he’s an older guy, and he uses Tik Tok to pitch. And I thought that was so interesting. And he says he follows reporters, and he doesn’t really email anymore. He goes on TikTok and he pitches reporters. And he said that the measure of success, I mean, he’s seen so much more success in utilizing the platform for pitching than he has through traditional email and press releases. So I just thought that was really interesting that you said that because even somebody, you know, who skews older, because people do think typically TikTok is for the younger generations. But he’s a little older and has found a lot of success doing that, so it’s really interesting.

Kalli: Yeah, he actually sent us a couple of really great accounts to follow, so it’s been really interesting watching them. And just crazy to see how TikTok is creating such a shift and in so many different ways. 

One other question we had was, you know, can you tell us about a time that a brand campaign actually didn’t perform as well as you expected, and how you handled it and pivoted to either make it work or go in another direction?

Cynthia:  There’s a lot of news, constantly. Every day, we’re being bombarded with information as a part of our job. It’s like, “How do we break through the noise?” and sometimes you just can’t. Sometimes there’s things happening in the world, you know, you spent six months building up the show pitching, pre-briefing press, waiting for this announcement, and then something else happens, or there’s some sort of announcement or something happening in the global world or universe that’s like, “okay, all news is about this.” 

So I think it’s kind of trying to figure out like, how do you pivot in that moment? And then in the past, like things that we’ve done, and things that I’ve done specifically is, “okay, how can we salvage out the work that we’ve already done?” How can we be really smart about pivoting to a new date – either we go out and then just re-circle back in another week or two? Or do we just quietly launch all together, and then make sure for the next season that we have a very specific ramp up plan. 

So across the board, I mean, it’s different everywhere that I’ve worked. But I will say that is surprisingly, the thing that has happened the most, where it’s like, there’s been some sort of announcement or something happening in the world that has completely derailed like, our five months of planning for some sort of PR release or announcement, whether that has to do with the brand itself, a specific shell, a new feature or something like that, that that seems to be the thing that happens the most. So it’s really just, I think, in PR in general, it’s about being quick on your feet, being able to pivot, having those contacts – media contacts – who you know you can call up and say like, “Hey, this is what’s happening. But here’s what I’m thinking. I think that’s really valuable.”

Jenn: So amplifying the voices of underserved communities is an important part of your core values, both as an individual and a communications manager for a global social platform. What types of initiatives are you heading to promote underrepresented talent?

Cynthia: Yeah, so Diversity Media is just one of the absolute most important things to me, it’s one of my pillars of my career, it’s my North Star, it’s what I work towards. As a black woman in PR there aren’t, you know, a ton of people that look like me and I think on both the talent and creator side, the same thing, there’s not a lot of examples of that. 

And I think Black creators, specifically, are paving the way for culture or creating trends that are just transcending the platform and beyond and it’s just really exciting to be able to see them grow. I think initiatives include like the Discover list, like the originator series, where we highlight originators of trends and creators who’ve started, you know, global dances or global sounds or things like that. 

I think back to my roles in entertainment, it was about, you know, pitching black talent and talent of color on carpets and making sure that their voices are heard as well. It’s highlighting, you know, the producers, the directors, the people behind the camera who may not always get that moment to shine, who are creators of color as well, and really showing that, you know, there’s a whole team of people but there’s so many talented people that deserve their flowers, and it’s really important that we give them that recognition and show that there’s incredible creative people behind this work, who come from you know, underrepresented backgrounds who haven’t traditionally been highlighted. 

So again, just continuing to do campaigns like the Discover list, originator’s list, things like the Showbiz list, so many lists, I love a list. Things that really showcase that there are the people that you may not personally see on your scrolling feeds or anything that you’re looking at on social media, but here are the people that you should know about. And here’s why.

Kalli:  That’s really interesting. And, you know, it actually kind of goes into the next point we, we wanted to touch upon with you, when brands are trying to grow their reach and engage their audiences, you know, what are the top three things that you should consider?

Cynthia: The top three things for any platform is number one, just know your audience, it’s super, super important that you understand your audience. It’s even better if you know you happen to be a part of the audience that you’re targeting, but if not, really talking to people and finding out like, “Okay, where are people getting their news? Where are people in this audience finding out more? What are their habits, what are the things that they’re most interested in?” So that’s one.

I’d say two is be immersed in culture and know what’s going on. And I don’t know how many times you’ve seen, you know, a really misdirected tweet or post or something where it’s like, “wow, I don’t really think that his brand is very aware of like what’s happening in the world right now,” our current conversation. So that’s why it’s super, super important to be kind of dialed in to the global social conversation, what people are talking about what people are interested in, what’s trending, what’s not trending, so that, you know, you’re able to approach a strategy with that in mind with both the audience and the tone that you should be kind of bringing to that conversation. 

And then I think three, it’s also knowing yourself. Because it depends on who the brand is, it depends on what you’re representing, it depends on what you’re doing and what your function is. So I think that’s also really important to toe that line so that it doesn’t cross over the line of authenticity.

Jenn: This is all so true. And such solid, solid advice for people trying to, you know, really engage your audiences. 

So from a PR perspective, though, what piece of advice would you give to someone maybe just starting out in the industry, or somebody maybe in school that is thinking about pursuing a career in PR, any, any advice that you can give?

Cynthia: So the number one thing, and I definitely learned this, definitely in college, but network across. I know, networking is such a scary word I personally get so, so nervous, meeting new people even still to this day. But I think it’s the people around you, especially as I know PR is becoming more and more popular now. But I think especially at the time that I was going to school, there were so few of us, I want to say in total my classroom might’ve been like 60 people. It was truly like tiny, and I follow up with them. To this day, you know, we’re still friends on social media and friends in person, and just really seeing how people have grown and really being able to lean on each other for whether it’s advice, whether it’s knowing what’s happening in the industry, whether it’s being able to hop on the phone for an informational about like, “Oh, where are you working? Like, what’s it like over there? What’s up in your industry?” Or “What are different things that I could be doing to kind of leverage those audiences?” And I think that’s super, super important. 

I’d also say for someone entering PR, do not be afraid to try new things. I think one of the best things that I could have ever done was just intern, intern, intern for all these different kinds of industries. You know, I interned for government PR, nonprofit PR, I did entertainment on the development side, entertainment on the talent side, until I really found what it is that I’d love to do. But then I also think for comms professionals in general, just never be afraid that you know, if, let’s say you start your career in a certain field, you’re like, you know, I don’t really love this – never be afraid to start over and to try something else.

Jenn: I love that. That’s so true. And even here at the agency, we have people reach out to us on LinkedIn and you know, I went to Marist and people that are graduating from Marist are like, 
“Hey, can we, you know, jump on the phone? And can you tell me a little bit about what you do?” And it’s so refreshing and it’s so sweet. And I absolutely love being a pillar for people that aren’t sure. And they, you know, want a little bit more insight, especially working at it in an agency in New York City. So really, really profound, solid advice and definitely, definitely recommend that. 

But yeah, Cynthia, on that note, it’s truly been a pleasure to have you on our show. I’m sure many of our listeners will take your advice in stride and do what they can to become the next viral sensation. It was really great. It was great learning more about what you do. 

For those listening – if you have any questions or topics or just want to say hello, email us at impressions@pollackgroup.com.

‘Till next time!