Four ways to teach public relations

3 Jul

I’ve tried them all. I’ve succeeded sometimes, but failed mostly. But here are the four ways to teach public relations:

Skills

You can teach the craft of public relations as a set of skills, for example:

  • Writing news releases
  • Writing and editing blog posts
  • Presentation skills
  • Analytics

This approach has the advantage of making for an interesting classroom experience – but it has serious limitations. There’s the ‘performing monkey’ danger – that you’re teaching people to do things without knowing why they are doing them. And if you’re teaching at university, what you’ve taught in the first year might be forgotten (or redundant) by the time a student graduates years later.

Anecdotal

Guest lecturers bring great energy and insight to the lecture theatre and illuminate the practice of public relations based on their experience. There are dangers, though, in the anecdotal approach. I’ve often caught myself telling a story from the 1980s only to realise that no one else in the classroom had been born then and that the fax machine was current communications technology.

As a teaching experience, it’s limited too. I might be fascinated listening to Stirling Moss talking, but it would not make a motor racing driver out of me.

Academic

This approach views public relations as a legitimate subject to be studied. So the classroom becomes a place to explore different perspectives on the subject (many highly critital). Credit is given for citing reputatable authors and understanding their arguments, so the approach tends to be backward-looking and constrained by what has gone before. It’s the best approach for a group of sophisticated postgraduates, but risks boring undergraduate classes.

Intellectual

I should explain my distinction between the academic and the intellectual approaches. It’s perfectly possible for a student to produce an academically sound dissertation but not have shown much intellectual mastery. So the dissertation would contain an adequate literature review of what has been published on this topic, an essay on research methodology and some analysis of research findings. The academic approach favours the process without encouraging original thought.

An intellectual approach views public relations as applied problem-solving. So you first have to identify the problem. How to get publicity is not often a challenging problem, but most questions relating to reputation management or consensus building are complex. They’re also highly contextualised, so other factors have to be considered requiring a breadth of knowledge and insight.

Understanding the problem, applying suitable strategies and tactics and considering the implications of your actions (or inactions) makes for a complex web. It mixes the theoretical with the practical and makes public relations a worthy subject for study in higher education.

The benefits of the academic and, above all, the intellectual approach are that they provide a framework or approach for solving future problem (the skills and anecdotal approaches are limited to doing what’s been done in the past).

 

Confession: I’m an imperfectionist

24 Apr
Shipwreck, Ireland (John O'Sullivan on Flickr, Creative Commons)

Shipwreck, Ireland (John O’Sullivan on Flickr, Creative Commons)

Here’s the problem.

University is a tidy environment that suits tidy minds. Hard work is often rewarded and perfectionists tend to thrive. And if at first you don’t succeed, there’s usually another opportunity to try again.

Yet those same perfectionists with their first class degrees tend to hit the rocks early on in a public relations career. Here’s why.

Most public relations jobs cannot be done perfectly. Some try to do so by extending the working day, but this is not a recipe for success. It adds to emotional exhaustion and in a consultancy environment leads to over-servicing. Our always-on world of mobiles and social media have made ‘office hours’ a redundant concept.

The tidy planning and to-do lists that work so well at university (and also in junior roles) become a problem as your career advances. How do you adequately respond to a crisis if it’s not on your to-do list or in your plan?

So what’s the solution?

Each individual will develop their own approach, but it surely must involve some amount of imperfectionism. If there are no perfect outcomes, you need to stop worrying about them and focus instead on good-enough. Rather than fighting battles you can’t win, put your energies into tasks that are achievable and which contribute to your direction of travel.

There’s another approach; it’s the one I used in my consultancy career. Just as there’s a role for imperfectionists in a team, they should surround themselves with tidy-minded completer-finishers, combining agility with solidity. A flexible approach works best if you want to survive the storms ahead.

Under pressure

6 Mar

I’m busy.

I’m working for two universities in different corners of the country and currently teach first, second and third year undergraduate classes; full-time and part-time postgraduate classes and a professional course. I’m a placement tutor and a dissertation tutor among other student-facing responsibilities. Time in the classroom means less time for emails, paperwork and meetings, though the demands don’t go away.

I’m odd.

In my experience most academics seek to negotiate away classroom commitments in return for more administrative or research responsibility. I’ve only ever met two people who seemed perfectly able to balance the conflicting demands of teaching, administration and research – and they’re both now professors.

I’ve been here before.

This level of busyness reminds me of my peak in corporate and consultancy public relations two decades ago. The work and the demands were relentless: fun in the short term, very hard to sustain over a long period.

I observe.

Back then I used to wonder how the busiest business executives I worked with also managed to have the shiniest shoes. Was it that they could afford many new pairs, or was it that their efficiency extended itself to small matters of personal presentation?

In the past week, I’ve heard from the chairman of a large plc that employs 300,000 people. He appeared calm and considered. I’ve met a former high-flying BBC executive and a former university vice-chancellor and both were charm personified. They made time for additional meetings in the evening and at the weekend.

I’m busy, but my work does not involve life-saving surgery or decisions of national importance. I should put it in perspective.

Busy people are often the most productive. Stephen Waddington is a PR consultant, a family man and this year’s CIPR president. He publishes one of the best PR blogs and has co-written or edited five publications in the past two years (but I may have lost count). He seems to be everywhere. That’s properly busy.

1984 revisited

24 Feb

1984 was not the most momentous year I’ve lived through. That was probably 1989 when the ‘iron curtain’ crumbled leading to the later reunification of Germany and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. But 1984 is the more resonant date.

Thirty years on, let’s revisit 1984. Here are three reasons to remember a year long before most of my students were born.

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four

Orwell 1984Orwell’s book was published in 1948, and the title came from reversing the final two numbers to produce a future date by which his nightmare vision of state suppression of individual identity might have come true.

It didn’t, and today the nearest thing to Orwell’s nightmare is North Korea (officially exposed by a United Nations report last week).

Or is this too optimistic a view? Pessimists might argue that the greatest threat to individual liberty comes from surveillance, not least by ‘free’ nations (as exposed by Edward Snowden’s revelations).

Whether it’s a flippant observation on the popularity of Big Brother, or a more serious debate about the limits of individual liberty, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four still resonates years later.

Grunig & Hunt (1984)

Harvard referencing conventions mean that 1984 is also memorable for one of the most frequently-cited academic contributions to our field, Managing Public Relations.

Thirty years on and PR students are still debating the ‘two-way symmetric’ model in class and in their dissertations, and one of the co-authors – James Grunig – now has an eminent place in public relations scholarship.

In contrast to Orwell’s dystopian novel, this book (with its now-famous model) can be viewed as a rather utopian vision of how public relations can benefit society as well as the organisations paying for it.

Many more books have been published and the field has expanded since then, as well as adapting to changes in the business and media environment, but the frequent citations mean this book has gained the status of a seminal text.

Ridley Scott’s 1984 ad for Apple

This is one of the most discussed advertisements of the twentieth century, yet it only played once during the Superbowl. The Orwellian echoes are obvious; less so now is the attack on the unnamed enemy (assumed to be IBM).

The IBM PC had launched a few years earlier, and Apple introduced its friendly Macintosh personal computer as the opposite of the corporate choice.

You’d be wrong to assume that the narrative turned out this way. Apple found itself in trouble a year later and its founder Steve Jobs was forced out. It was only after his return that Apple reinvented itself with new categories of products (music players, smartphones and tablets) that became bestsellers.

Arguably, it was the open architecture and low cost of the IBM PC with its Windows operating system that helped turn computing personal and which provided the platform for the internet to take off in the 1990s. But don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story: Apple’s narrative of individualism, dating back to 1984, is compelling.

In praise of time wasting

8 Feb

In the week that Facebook turned ten, it’s worth remembering the role that university played in its origin.

Facebook was not a classroom project, but it did emerge from the gap that university provides to be inventive – or simply to waste time. Mark Zuckerberg did not complete his Harvard education, but it didn’t matter. The space university gave him resolved his career dilemmas: he created his own future. Go back a generation and we recall that Bill Gates also dropped out of the same university before founding Microsoft.

These two are not an example of the failure of higher education, they are the apogee of achievement. University is less about teaching and more about offering an opportunity to learn.

The most important lesson young people have to learn is about themselves: about their aptitudes, resilience and direction. These are not qualities that can be taught; they are qualities that need to be discovered.

The time and space that university provides between the disciplined timetable of school and the routine of work is a valuable resource. It’s an example of what Clay Shirky calls Cognitive Surplus.

For every Zuckerberg of Gates there will be thousands who waste time without inventing their futures. Many may come to regret the expense of higher education. Sure it’s wasteful; but consider the alternative. If we only trained people to do what they were told, we would not have Microsoft or Facebook. We would have unimaginative drones only fit for an industrial economy in a less certain but much more exciting post-industrial age.

The only sure way to fail higher education is to gain nothing from the classroom and to learn nothing about yourself either. It is a failure of imagination, that vital commodity if we’re to create a better future.

University remains the best way to gain the space to develop your imagination; to envisage your future. But I accept that there’s competition: the same fees and expenses could fund some extended world travels (another way people have traditionally broken out of the constraints and predictability of home and developed their self-awareness and imagination.)

Travel (as distinct from tourism) and university both work because they break with conventional structures and routines. They force people to be resourceful. Package holidays have not created great travel literature; longer structured timetables do not foster great creativity and independence.

That’s why I still believe in the gap that university provides to help people develop, and why I welcome the spare time it provides (even if it’s mostly to be wasted).

 

PR and the media

7 Jan

[Notes and links for use in class]

Media selection used to be easy – a straight choice between editorial and advertising. It’s a more complex picture now.

The world’s largest public relations firm – the one that remains independent of advertising agencies – is now talking up media partnerships in the form of sponsored content. It (Edelman) has appointed a new ‘head of sponsored content and media partnerships‘.

Ian Burrell, writing in the Independent, thinks that the availability of new channels means that ‘the PR industry and its clients would rather reduce the press to the margins’.

While ‘advertorials’ were always an unlovely (and unloved) hybrid, they’ve been given a boost under their newer name, ‘native advertising’. But Is native advertising really anything new?

This world of sponsored content is widely known as content marketing. Yet read these 7 Tips for Effective Content Marketing and tell me how many are not the domain of (traditional) public relations? Number 6 perhaps – though even then the PR approach seems to me to be trumping blatant SEO.

Content marketing may sound like a new concept to some, but Mark Schaefer argues in Content Shock: Why content marketing is not a sustainable strategy that the boom is already over and it will become increasingly ineffective and uneconomic.

And there are still some voices speaking up for these traditional PR approaches. Alex Singleton has a new book out called The PR Masterclass. He argues in a blog post for PR to be done better rather than to be radically rethought.

Stephen Waddington is a moderniser envisaging a future for public relations beyond media relations. Yet his 10 areas of work in progress for public relations opens with an acknowledgment that it’s hard to change traditional workflows.

Marketing is ‘me’, public relations ‘we’

1 Jan

Looking up at the night sky, our ancestors gained an understanding of the stars, planets and constellations, naming many of them.

It was only much more recently that a scientific approach gave currency to the view that planet Earth was just another peripheral object – not the centre of the universe around which everything else revolves.

ME_WE_small-724x1024During the twentieth century – the age of industrialisation and mass media – marketing approaches put ‘me’ at the centre of the promotional universe. Branding, advertising and, yes, much of public relations were devoted to the promotion of ‘me first’.

This makes sense; it’s how capitalism works. It’s what clients want to hear from their agencies and employees. So what’s changed?

In the twenty-first century we’re no longer passive audiences reached by mass media. Following the financial crisis and with ever present concerns about environmental and economic sustainability, there’s a need for a new approach. A need for us to consider citizens above consumers, as Robert Phillips argues.

This presents an opportunity for public relations to emerge from its marginal role within the ‘marketing mix’ and to return to what it was always designed to do – to develop relationships with constituencies vital for the success of the organisation.

As Steve Earl and Stephen Waddington show in their new book, the best defence an organisation can build to protect itself from attack is to have a network of influential friends willing to volunteer their support in a time of crisis. Since this support cannot be bought and nor can it be negotiated in advance, it’s a risky strategy. But the greater risk is extinction.

The end purpose of public relations is legitimacy – the continued licence to operate. This licence is granted – and can be withdrawn – by politicians, employees, customers, activists (in short, by society). So the job of public relations is to gain understanding and support from groups beyond the organisation’s direct control (even employees have autonomy, and are often the organisation’s fiercest critics).

There are risks in putting ‘we’ first. It’s the problem politicians face in a democracy: they have to present policies with popular appeal, so promoting short-term interests over the long-term.

The danger of ‘we’ capitalism is that it’s no more successful but that it’s much less honest than ‘me’ capitalism.

The challenge for public relations is to emerge from marketing-led short-term measures and to find ways to measure how public relations contributes to long-term sustainable success.

To make a start, let’s recognise our place within the universe.

Image credit: Peter Hathaway (http://peterhathaway.co.uk/wordsculpt)

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