So, what do we make?

21 Apr
Baked by Maddy Grey

Baked by Maddy Grey

In my Creative Arts faculty, students are preparing for their degree show exhibitions.

Public relations, as so often, is a misfit. What do we make? What do we have to show for all the talk and all the work?

Advertisers have their creative visuals. Journalists have their published articles.

There was a time when we made press releases, and had media coverage to show for it. Then we made blogs and gained comments.

These artefacts are not a good way to describe public relations as they only give a glimpse of an output, never an outcome. To explain the purpose of public relations, we resort to abstract concepts such as ‘reputation’ and talk about ‘intangible assets’.

Yet most students need to start with tangibles – things they make. Only then can they explore the extent to which the things they make, make a difference.

So, in an attempt to show a product of public relations, we created a social media event (#SOSM2015, summarised by Storify), We generated scores of tweets and shared photos on Facebook and Instagram. The virtual event went well, but there was one benefit to attending in person: only then could you enjoy the beer and the cake.

So, what did we learn? Public relations makes things happen in order to make a difference. (It’s like cake, but slightly longer lasting).

It’s deceptively simple. So how do you teach PR?

1 Apr

Comms and caffeineAt a junior level you need to make stuff happen. At a senior level, you need to add value to the organisation. Sounds easy?

When you break down the steps involved in making stuff happen, you realise there’s more to PR than just common sense (though that helps).

By way of illustration, a student blogger was invited to speak on local radio to share her thoughts on the role of social media in the election. I make that three steps and at least three years of preparation behind this activity.

  1. Interest and expertise. Post one or more articles about politics and social media (having studied or taken an interest in politics, journalism and public relations).
  2. Make your posts discoverable. You may assume that Google is all-knowing, but even the great search engine needs help in filtering (we all struggle with ‘filter failure’ in the social media age). Don’t miss out on simple tricks like completing your ‘About’ page and sharing your contact details and social media profiles.
  3. Make yourself available. You have to fit in with broadcast schedules, and commit to their timings and agenda.

There’s a fourth step: have something interesting to say, but you should already have passed that test at step one.

So, this is a good achievement for a student, whose reward is the experience (and perhaps being written about by those like me who don’t even teach her). But how does a local radio interview add value to an organisation (the challenge for the senior practitioner)?

This is where education can make a difference and help PR graduates overtake those with well-developed craft skills who may never master PR as a managerial function.

A radio interview, like a blog post or newspaper article or email or phone call, is merely a PR output. You need to see the bigger picture if you’re to explain how outputs contribute to outcomes.

To understand this, you need to articulate the purpose of your PR activity.

Is your PR activity focused on raising awareness of a cause, a person, a product or an organisation? Are you seeking to change people’s attitudes to these, or to change their behaviour (eg getting people to vote?).

Once you’ve decided what your activity is designed to achieve, you can build in suitable measures (an essential requirement of a managerial approach) and deploy appropriate resources. You’ll also realise that output measures like press clippings or social media shares and likes (though easy) are laughably inadequate.

It’s deceptively simple. And that’s the challenge faced by educators. We don’t want to overcomplicate for its own sake, but what seems straightforward to an experienced practitioner will seem very challenging to a student.

Remember your first driving lesson? Mirror-signal-manouevre may be simple, but coordinating the steering and the gear changes while performing this ritual seemed very challenging at first. It took practice.

Review: Crisis, Issues and Reputation Management

11 Feb

Crisis, Issues and Reputation ManagementThe CIPR defines public relations as being ‘about reputation – the result of what you do, what you say, and what others say about you.’

So it’s surprising that the very first book in the 15-strong CIPR/Kogan Page PR in Practice series to even mention reputation in its title was published only last year. It’s been worth the wait.

Andrew Griffin, chief executive of Regester Larkin has built on Mike Regester and Judy Larkin’s classic crisis management text and refocused it on reputation – or more specifically risk to reputation.

To Griffin, ‘what identifies a crisis is not the nature of what has happened but what is at stake – reputation, the bottom line, the licence to operate and the future of the organization – and the immediacy of the threat.’

He views risks as either issue-led or incident-led. But he several times distinguishes between crisis management, a strategic matter that demands the attention of senior executives, and emergency response to incidents, a more operational process. Clearly he has fought this battle many times and has learnt the need to talk up the strategic nature of reputation risk.

He discusses the scenario of product development or a joint venture. At what point should the proposed development be subjected to (reputation) risk assessment: early on or at the point of announcement? The idea that a corporate affairs team could have this power within an organisation is an intriguing counter to the literature that presents marketing as an all-encompassing function and public relations a tactical promotional activity.

So this is a grown-up book, born out of experience, that reads like a management consultant’s text – complete with many two-by-two grids.

In an aside, Griffin mounts a powerful critique of Corporate Social Responsibility. Subscribing to this concept is to accept the framing of business as instinctively self-interested, even irresponsible. Yet he argues that ‘the best way to prevent issue-driven reputation risks is to have exemplary financial, corporate, environmental and social performance.’

Much better, he argues, is the more neutral concept of corporate citizenship.

Classic crisis management cases are supplemented by more recent examples, notably BP Deepwater Horizon which has already cost the once-admired business over $42 billion (a rare occasion where reputation damage can be calculated in monetary terms).

Each situation is distinctive, though the risks and patterns may be predictable. In the case of Deepwater Horizon, BP’s Britishness  became a spur for the White House and US public opinion to escalate the war of words. Corporate manslaughter, massive environmental destruction in America blamed on a Hollywood British baddie.

The book is full of models and practical approaches, though it avoids simple checklists and formulaic approaches. The author completely ignores the academic literature on issues and crisis management – whether because he’s never consulted them or because he feels they add no value, I’m not sure.

Students and less experienced practitioners can benefit from Griffin’s evident expertise, but could also have been helped even more if there had been a further reading section. But this is a challenging and sophisticated addition to the PR in Practice series, so I can hardly fault it for not being an academic textbook.

From cannon fodder to Google fodder

19 Jan
I sucked at spin too

I sucked at spin too

I don’t mean to belittle the sacrifice of those who have experienced real combat, but I do recall feeling like cannon fodder when I started out in public relations 25 years ago.

An educator colleague used to describe the work as ‘media hustling’ – and I was as bad at it as everyone else.

I still shudder to remember some of my failed pitches. Like the time I phoned a senior technology journalist in an attempt to engineer a meeting at a trade show.

Me: Are you hoping to attend Client-Server World next week?

Him: [Long pause.] Have you any idea how that sounds?

More useful was the rebuff from a national newspaper correspondent in response to my lame attempt to offer him an environmental story.

Is it new or is it surprising?

This at least became a memorable test to apply before picking up the phone in future.

This talk of phone calls and conversations places me in the analogue world of public relations and I suspect we’re past the tipping point now.

About five years ago I noticed that more PR graduates were being offered work in digital agencies than as ‘media hustlers’ in ‘traditional’ PR roles.

Where we chased ‘coverage’, the mantra now is ‘content.’ Where I prized my clients’ appearances in the Financial Times or on the BBC, it seems that all that matters is feeding the Google machine.

Graduates have no problem making this transition as they never knew the old world, but it’s a challenge for many experienced practitioners.

The principles of public relations remain the same: reputations are hard-won and easily lost; relationships matter. But the practice needs to adapt.

Take the tried and tested news release. It’s still not died and still has a place, but you need to be careful how you distribute it since Google assumes that duplicate content must be spam.

So where we were once delighted to have our ‘news’ picked up word for word in multiple publications, it could now damage our Google search results.

It sounds like it’s time to relearn about customisation. It’s time to pick up the phone and develop some meaningful relationships.

For those who’ve blinked and missed the shift from media distribution to customised content sharing, I recommend Spin Sucks, a practical guide to the new world of Paid-Earned-Owned and -Shared media by US consultant Gini Dietrich.

It’s never too late to learn and it feels good to confess to the sin of spinning.

Why I won’t miss PR Week

6 Jan

PR Week coverPR Week has been the trade paper of the UK public relations industry for as long as I can remember. And that was its problem.

Coming from the stable that also published Campaign, it understood agency dynamics – the process of pitching and sometimes winning new business, of hiring new staff, of creating campaigns and winning awards. That perspective works well for the ad industry, since almost all of those involved work on the agency side.

But it led to some major blind spots when reporting on public relations: it undervalued the role of corporate comms practitioners including internal communicators (mostly working in-house), favouring the picturesque over the complex, the output over the outcome.

By taking a trade paper perspective, it had a blind spot over public relations education (a large sector) and of challenging discussions around the professional project (boring and uncommercial).

New books were rarely reviewed in the weekly format, and academic books were viewed dismissively when there was more space in the monthly edition. I couldn’t find a single academic or educator listed in the recent PR Week Power Book.

Looking back over my 25 years as a reader, all the memorable issues have been in the monthly format. I’ll be keeping the July/August 2014 ‘agency issue’ featuring Richard Edelman plus the top 150 agencies (see picture) and the October 2014 ‘integration issue’ featuring Sir Martin Sorrell.

Danny Rogers, having also edited Campaign, was on the ball in noting the blurring lines between advertisers chasing earned media and PR practitioners buying paid media.

I’ll miss that – but have decided not to pay for more of it as I can and do read Edelman and Sorrell’s thoughts elsewhere. I can read people’s opinions on their blogs, and there are some excellent debates on LinkedIn and on grown-up blogs such as PR Conversations. We don’t need more of this.

I’ve grown out of a trade paper because it no longer reflects what I do or what I’m interested in. I still wince at the use of ‘agency’ to mean ‘consultancy’, but have had to accept that some battles are not worth fighting. But I’m not yet quite ready to ditch ‘industry’ for ‘profession’ because I feel that would involve too much spin.

But I can agree that we’re on a journey of professionalisation. So here’s my challenge to members of the CIPR, who have signed up to the professional project.

We can get our news and our gossip online. We can have some enlightening (and some irritating) debates on social media.

But what we can’t always get from this is perspective.

Beyond 140 characters

We need something less hectic (in annual or quarterly format) to provide a deeper analysis of trends, to look at the currents beneath the frothing water.

We need practitioners to teach educators about what’s new in their work, and for educators to teach practitioners about new thinking and new research.

We need a record of achievements: new members, new fellows, New Years honours, senior appointments. We need a place for obituaries.

We need a debate about the future of the ‘profession’ and its representative bodies. Do we really need a CIPR, a PRCA, an IoIC, an APPC, a PR Guild and all the others? Are we still a trade, or worse, multiple trades?

We need reminding who we are, what we do – and why it matters, and where we’re going (as well as where we’ve come from).

It may sound dull to some. But are we ready for a professional journal?

On references and relationships

9 Nov

Let me speak some home truths to the students I teach.

You think your modules and your assessments matter. And they do – to an extent.

But something matters more. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that relationships matter in public relations. But let me spell it out.

Your module grades may matter to you, but they don’t to anyone else. Yet your degree stays on your LinkedIn profile for ever, and I’m often asked to supply references for graduates, even years after they’ve left university. I’ll decline sooner than write a negative reference, but what does it take for me to write a positive reference?

  • Do I remember you? Did you attend my classes? Did you do well? Do I follow you on Twitter or Instagram? In other words, have we formed the basis of a professional relationship?
  • Do I have anything positive to say about you? I’d be happy to report that you did well in assessments – but I’ll be even happier if I know something about your work experience and your initiative.
  • Are we still in contact? It’s limited if I can only comment on your achievements as a student when you’ve graduated years ago. So are we still in contact? It’s never been easier – and LinkedIn is the place for following people’s careers.

I was invited to a lunch to celebrate my university tutor’s thirtieth year at the same institution. I can’t claim to have ever used him as a reference, nor had I sought to keep in contact, and I’ve not done anything to make him proud of me. But it’s a reminder of the enduring value of a university education.

It lasts a lifetime – and you’re not forgotten!

How to be a student

12 Oct
Photo via @lookitsben on Instagram

Photo via @lookitsben on Instagram

There’s a good piece in today’s Observer newspaper on the marketisation of higher education.

The paradox is that as universities have become more expensive, they have managed to recruit higher numbers of students.

Yet a more expensive does not necessarily mean a better education, in part because of the transactional expectations of paying consumers. ‘I’ve paid. Just give me my degree!’

As a public relations lecturer, I’m comfortable with the expectation that a pricey education should result in above average earnings. There’s a strong story to tell in terms of employability – for the right candidates.

Yet I’m not comfortable with the idea of university simply as a vocational training course. For one thing, it’s an expensive and wasteful way to be trained, since most lessons learned in the first year will be forgotten by the third. More important, do 17 year-olds have an infallible instinct for what they will be doing as 30-year-olds?

I certainly didn’t, and spent part of my 20s doing things I was already aware of (teaching and publishing) before finding my feet in areas I’d not previously known about (technology journalism then public relations).

Training has its place, but you can only train people for existing industries. You cannot train people for the jobs of the future – but you can build this flexibility into a broader education.

So a university course has to provide a greater focus on education than on training. Students have choices: they do not have to go to university and they do not have to study specific courses.

If a school leaver is set on public relations, they have the option of an apprenticeship that will allow them to earn while learning.

University suits the open minded – those who’ve yet to settle on their future career, and those who are willing to learn. It’s about the journey, not just about the destination. It takes time.

Being a student is a full-time activity, even if classes only take up a small proportion of your week. Don’t moan about this – but celebrate your freedom. Look at your parents: I’m sure they have very little free time between the demands of jobs and the commitments of a family. You’ll be busier than you can imagine for decades to come, so do please revel in your new-found freedom.

As a student, you may be cash poor but you’re time rich. Here are some suggestions of how to use your time to invest in your future:

  • Make friends for life
  • Learn to cook
  • Try to manage your finances
  • Travel (lengthy journeys, not just short holidays)
  • Learn additional skills (eg languages, computer programming)
  • Dream up an idea for a new business venture

This overlaps with some more specific things that public relations students should be doing to help them stand out to employers:

  • Develop an online brand (across your blog, website and social media accounts)
  • Follow industry leaders and employers
  • Participate in online chats and attend industry networking events
  • Gain specific work experience
  • Volunteer for a cause, campaign or charity you care about

Not having a degree may exclude you from even applying for some jobs, as might not having achieved a 2:1 or above.

But please don’t become solely focused on your degree classification. Employers don’t hire you for what you’ve learnt at university: they take your good degree as an indication of your future potential. There are more and better ways to demonstrate your potential than your grades.

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