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.

The importance of being charming

23 Sep

Adina James portfolioWhat is charm? It involves thinking of others, and is particularly welcome as it runs counter to our apparently narcissistic, selfie-obsessed world.

Charm costs little, and is a necessary early step in developing relationships (the purpose, let’s remember, of public relations).

Yet I’m not advocating lessons in charm school. Actions that are charming when done for the first time, and with sincerity (or humour), can rankle when done automatically or out of a sense of duty or cynicism.

To understand how to be charming, let’s take money out of the equation. Gifts and presents may be welcome in some circumstances, but they introduce obligations and often reinforce power imbalances in relationships.

If you have no gifts to give them, then what can you offer people? The only thing is attention (this involves the gift of your time).

Visitors to the UK are often surprised that passengers thank their driver when they leave the bus. I hope the driver finds it charming rather than annoying. Yet passengers have paid for the service and are under no obligation to give thanks: there’s little incentive in developing a relationship with the driver, except that your life (and others) may depend on them.

Students are also paying for their lecturers’ time, and many remain resentful of a relationship in which the person they are paying makes them do challenging things and think difficult thoughts.

Others are quicker to understand that relationships involve give and take: in this case, someone teaches and someone learns. It’s a negotiated relationship.

Here are a couple of examples of charming students – but please don’t simply repeat what they’ve done. To be convincing, charm has to appear uncontrived and sincere.

  • Adina James was unique in her class in realising that by being assessed for a series of blog posts, she was in effect writing for an audience of one. (One lesson every writer learns is to think of the audience). Knowing this, she added a personal greeting to her online assignment (‘Hi Richard!’- see image). For the record, I thought her work was very good and this charming touch did not affect her grade. But I remember it months later.
  • Jess Ramsey. Here’s someone I’ve never met, and do not expect to assess. She has no obligation to me or incentive to be charming. Yet she’s more than once gone out of her way to thank me in a blog post. (Of course, I’ve just done so in return, which indicates the value of being charming. Americans call it ‘paying forward’.)

Here’s a final thought for students. I have an obligation to teach you and assess you fairly (charm is not a factor in this). Yet I don’t feel I have an obligation to recommend you all on LinkedIn, or to put your name forward when employers ask me for my suggestions.

Nor is charm the only factor. But if it helps me remember you warmly, and costs you nothing, then why not realise the importance of being charming?

CIPR Fellows’ lunch

4 Aug
Here I am collecting my CIPR Fellowship certificate from Stephen Waddington. Winston Churchill looks on.

Here I am collecting my CIPR Fellowship certificate from Stephen Waddington. Winston Churchill looks on.

Public relations: to promote and protect

27 Jul

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.

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.

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