Here’s my belated contribution to Andy Green’s #PRredefined initiative – and also to those who would separate craft from professional public relations, or internal from external comms.
The interesting question for me is not ‘what is PR?’ but rather ‘what’s the purpose of public relations’?
Publicity is not an end in itself, but a means to some other end. The purpose of publicity is often to serve a sales or marketing end. There”s nothing wrong with this except that it makes it hard to distinguish public relations from marketing.
Yet if we separate publicity from public relations, we lose the base of the pyramid, the most widely-practised part of the business. We also lose our foot-in-the-door since the desire for promotion is universal, and by no means limited to the private sector. (Just think how charities and campaigning organisations use public relations).
So I’m happy to accept the promotional aspect of public relations – and would argue that the proliferation of media channels and rise of social media makes public relations a more broadly-useful approach to promotion than advertising. The decline in trust also makes it more valuable than SEO or search marketing.
But PR’s trump card has nothing to do with one-way publicity. It’s to do with reputation and relationships – with an end goal of maintaining an organisation’s ‘licence to operate’.
Let me back up a bit in order to explain this. Let’s take the long view of the promotional industries.
In the nineteenth century, promotion was in its infancy. What mattered most was resources: capital, energy, raw materials and cheap labour. Making things was the hard part – promotion could come later.
In the twentieth century, the means to make things became more widespread. Many people could make chocolate, or cars, or fizzy drinks. So the differentiating factor became the ‘brand’ – the recognisable quality that set a Cadburys, or a Ford or a Coca-Cola apart from their many competitors. Public relations became a part of the promotional industries serving these brands (though as public relations historians point out, it had not begun there.)
What’s changing in the twenty-first century? We don’t yet have the benefit of hindsight but it seems to me that brand is a diminishing rather than a growing concept. What’s becoming important is ‘legitimacy’.
Let’s take an example. Marlboro was an exemplary twentieth century brand, complete with memorable advertising. What’s changed is the public acceptability of smoking – and the tightening restrictions on tobacco promotion in western countries. No amount of brand recognition counts against the legal and societal constraints on smoking.
The only credible strategy for Philip Morris it to de-emphasise its tobacco business in favour of its food and drink brands (in other words to save the business, not the brand).
Which business will come next? It could be a fast food supplier like Macdonalds (because of concerns over obesity and over meat production) or energy or transport companies (environmental concerns).
Promotion and promotional culture are not about to vanish, but they are becoming less important than the other role of PR – the defensive and adaptive role that helps organisations manage society’s expectations (or to argue for society to change its view of an industry as has been happening with nuclear power generation in the context of the need to meet low-carbon energy needs).
That’s why I view public relations as a double-edged sword (‘to promote and protect’) and that’s why I believe it has a bright future.
I’ve tried them all. I’ve succeeded sometimes, but failed mostly. But here are the four ways to teach public relations:
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
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 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’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 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).