The power of public relations

3 Oct

Comms and caffeine 2I love teaching: it’s the hardest communication job I’ve ever had.

Let me explain this – first to practitioners who’d like to teach more, then to students.

To those who think university lecturers inhabit an ivory tower with endless free time for abstract research, let me put you straight. We’re much closer to school teachers with heavy timetables and endless admin and emails. We snatch time for study and research around the teaching, assessment and admin.

So why is it such a good communication challenge? Because teaching isn’t about you, the teacher. It doesn’t matter what you know or what you say. Teaching is all about learning, and your words can have unintended consequences.

I’ve given a version of an introductory lecture for over ten years. I show a range of definitions of and perspectives on public relations. That’s what I say. But what do students write in their essays?

They take from this lecture the lesson that it’s impossible to define public relations – which is the opposite of the intended message.

Teachers have to show, not tell. To encourage a culture of learning rather than imposing a rigid view of the world.

Sometimes metaphors help.

Some students and graduates tell me they struggle to gain work experience placements or job interviews. So I ask what methods they’ve used. It sometimes turns out they’ve been bombarding businesses with emails or (worse), hassling them through public channels like Twitter.

Is that how you’d try to get a first date, I ask. By emailing random strangers? Or by publicising your desperation?

How does this make you look to the recipient of your messages?

You need to start over and first make yourself attractive to your potential partner. In public relations terms, this means showing you can do PR for yourself before you offer to do it for someone else.

  • Do you have a blog or website? Is it up to date?
  • Check your About page and your Twitter bio
  • Scroll through your Tweets: what impression are you giving to a professional?
  • Are you a visual communicator? Then show off your Instagram, Pinterest or YouTube streams and channels

Ashley Keir-Bucknall did not believe that blogging could help her on the way to a career in public relations. Now that an employer approached her to offer an interview that led to a job, she’s a convert.

It’s a better lesson than I can teach. What’s more, Ashley’s never been in my classes; we’ve not even met, though we now work together on a spare-time project.

That’s the power of public relations. It can help turn strangers into friends.

Campaign of the century

14 Jul

This is a summary of a paper I presented at the International History of Public Relations Conference at Bournemouth on 8 July 2015.

Presenting the paper at Bournemouth. Photo: Heather Yaxley

Presenting the paper at Bournemouth. Photo: Heather Yaxley

Is the anti-smoking campaign the public relations campaign of the twentieth century?

It scores on awareness of the link between smoking and disease; it has achieved widespread attitude change around the issue of passive smoking; and it has reduced smoking from a majority to a minority habit.

Some might argue that the campaign has not succeeded because almost one in five of adults (19%) still smoke. But those behind the campaign had a different goal – to make smoking abnormal in society.

This was not initially a government campaign. It was initiated by a professional group of doctors – the Royal College of Physicians – whose only previous public campaign had been to lobby for an increase in the price of gin in 1725.

Nor was it obvious that doctors should take a stance on smoking. Some still smoked in the 1950s, and many felt that it was not their role to campaign against cigarettes as they were not a disease (though smoking could lead to disease).

Change came with the election of Robert Platt to the presidency of the Royal College of Physicians in 1957. His greatest achievement as president was the report on Smoking and Health published in 1962. The catalyst for this report was a chest physician, Charles Fletcher, who had presented two BBC television programmes about health in the late 1950s and was a natural communicator.

Fletcher edited the report to make it comprehensible to the public and members of parliament (previous reports from the college had been written for medical practitioners only).

Smoking and Health coverThis report was launched on 7 March 1962 – Ash Wednesday – when the college held its first ever press conference.

The morning press conference was well attended and the press release from this event provides an early and compelling example of risk communication. How to present the mortality risks from smoking to a roomful of journalists? Platt is reported as saying:

‘Those who smoke 25 or 30 cigarettes a day have about thirty times the chance of dying of [lung cancer] than a non-smoker does. Of course you might say it is still only the minority, about one in eight of heavy smokers, who died of the disease, and this is true. But supposing you were offered a flight on an airline and you were told that usually only about one in eight of their airlines crashed, you might think again.’

The report received extensive and largely positive press coverage – and interviews were given to the BBC and ITV (the only two television channels in the UK at that time).

Journalists accepted the evidence, though some questioned what action government should take.

The Daily Mail editorial from 8 March 1962 illustrates this ambivalence:

Risk in a cigarette

Men and women must decide for themselves whether to continue smoking or not. For the Government to try to do it for them would be an interference with individual liberty.

That is our first reaction the latest report on the relationship between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. It comes from the Royal College of Physicians, whose warnings should be taken to heart.

After years of argument there is no longer any doubt about the correlation between the smoke and the disease. The evidence is too overwhelming to be explained away.

We would strongly oppose the suggestion that the price of cigarettes should be made almost prohibitive. This is the wrong approach.

Smoking is a virtual necessity for millions of people and there would be widespread resentment (or pay demands) if a packet of 20 were put up to, say, 10s.’

To regulate smoking in public places is a better proposal. The foul atmosphere of cinemas and some theatres is a reproach.

But if restrictions are to be applied to tobacco, as they have to smoke from chimneys, why not also to car fumes? It is time some cleansing apparatus on exhaust pipes was made compulsory.

The tobacco manufacturers have spent a lot of money on research into lung cancer and have published the results without fear or favour. As they say themselves, still more is needed.

If they could find how to take the risk, but not the pleasure, out of cigarettes, they would do themselves and the public a great service.

The report presented seven recommendations for possible action by government:

  1. ‘more education of the public and especially schoolchildren concerning the hazards of smoking
  2. ‘more effective restrictions on the sale of tobacco to children
  3. ‘restriction of tobacco advertising
  4. ‘wider restriction of smoking in public places
  5. ‘an increase of tax on cigarettes
  6. ‘informing purchasers of the tar and nicotine content of the smoke of cigarettes
  7. ‘investigating the value of anti-smoking clinics to help those who find difficulty in giving up smoking.’

Looking back after more than 50 years, we can see that the aims of the report’s authors had been achieved. Indeed, in one case action has gone beyond what they had asked for (the health warning on cigarette packets has evolved into a blunt warning that ‘smoking kills’.)

The report sold well in the UK and the US and it received widespread and largely positive press coverage. But it did not initially lead to government action.

Some limited restrictions on TV advertising were introduced in 1965 and the Health Education Council (now Health Education Authority) was formed in 1968. It commissioned anti-smoking campaigns from Saatchi & Saatchi in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

So the initial response was disappointing, and after a brief decrease, numbers of those smoking (especially women) began to rise again.

The Royal College of Physicians decided to keep campaigning. A follow-up report ‘Smoking and Health Now’ was published in 1971 (this described the deaths from smoking-related diseases as a ‘holocaust’) and the College established the campaigning group ASH (Action on Smoking and Health).

Further reports followed in 1977 and 1983 – by which time attention had shifted to the issue of passive smoking.

Today, the UK has the strongest controls on tobacco of any country in the EU. Banning tobacco advertising, increasing taxes, banning smoking in public places have all helped to make smoking abnormal – but government was initially slow to act.

The campaign against smoking is now seen as a model for other public health campaigns (only this week doctors have called for an increase in the price of sweetened drinks). It marked a shift from doctors focusing on treating infectious diseases to campaigning on chronic (‘lifestyle’) disease, using the tools of public relations and public affairs.

Unfollow me

12 Jun

Twitter screenshotNothing to see here. Move along please.

I keep half an eye on vanity measures (likes and follows etc) but don’t pay them much attention.

My Klout score of 58 (today) is a perfectly respectable average grade, but slightly below the percentage most of my students aspire to achieve. Yet it doesn’t mean much.

One number I have been watching is the number of my Twitter followers as it crept slowly up to the 5,000 mark – before promptly falling back below this level, then creeping up once again.

For the most part, people add others on social media, but don’t remove anyone since it’s easier to ignore someone if you’ve no interest in what they have to say, and no desire to invest in a relationship.

Yet clearly some people do unfollow. Who are they, and why?

Twitter alerts you to new followers (via email alerts), but you get no such warning of people who unfollow you. To do this, you need to use another tool.

I’ve installed Unfollowers and so have been receiving alerts when people unfollow me. I can see who they are, and also check on people I follow who don’t follow me back (and vice versa). So it’s a useful exercise in investigating reciprocity in online relationships.

I’ve not learnt much though. Some unfollowers are because their accounts have been suspended. They’re no loss to me. Others (so far) have been people I didn’t even know were following me.

Some, I’m told, will follow as many accounts as possible in the hope of gaining a proportion of follow-backs before discreetly unfollowing these and then presumably moving on to dupe some new targets. Not cool – but it happens.

How to mute or block users on Twitter

How to mute of block users on Twitter

Is there an alternative to unfollowing? Twitter now offers the chance to mute someone we’re following so their updates won’t appear in our feeds.

Muting is invisible to others, and we can simply reverse it if we change our mind (or the person we’ve muted changes their communication behaviour).

Let us praise

7 May

Let’s stop to consider a group of people who are widely derided – and assumed to be liars.

Yet they’re natural communicators who take every opportunity to seek public engagement. They live with a high degree of job insecurity, yet they are strategic thinkers as well as doers, managers and activists. They believe in the power of ideas to effect positive change.

They work long hours (the job never stops), having had to put in long stints of voluntary work to build their CVs.

Public relations practitioners will recognise the description – but I’m thinking of politicians.

Most impressive of all, politics is not all about elections. The winners today (and even some of the losers) will have to start work tomorrow to form a government. Those in government will have to work hard to meet the goals of a balanced economy and a fairer society.

They will suffer from external events, from the news agenda, from public derision – and from the claim that they can’t keep their promises.

Yet they only retain their jobs with public approval. Many will be looking for work tomorrow – but you could write the damning article now about the revolving door between politics, business and public affairs.

Who’d be a politician?

Here’s what it takes to succeed in PR

28 Apr

Class of 2015We’re at that time of the year when graduates start worrying about jobs and careers and students are looking for summer work experience. So I’m reading lots of regurgitated advice on what it takes to succeed in PR on blogs and magazine sites.

At the risk of over-simplification, I’d suggest it comes down to just three things.

  1. Aptitude: Can you do it? Writing, social media, data, interpersonal skills, presentation skills and a nose for news are all examples of the skills you should be able to demonstrate.
  2. Achievements: So have you done it? You should be able to talk about your previous placements and jobs and say what you’ve learnt. If you’re light on experience, then you should at least be able to show what you’ve done for your personal brand. Major accolades can help too, even if they come from your hobbies rather than your work.
  3. Attitude: Do you love doing it? Fanatical about Formula One or obsessed with shoes? This is where you can turn your interest into an asset. But please avoid burning any bridges since that dream job in fashion PR may prove elusive and other sectors may be more interesting than you think as well as more lucrative. Employers will expect you to be interested in their business, not just your hobbies.

So if you’re looking to get a foot on the PR career ladder, I suggest a skills audit, a CV or LinkedIn makeover and a workout for your motivation. Remember, it’s a test: the successful PR practitioner will be able to find a point of interest in even the dullest-looking widget.

If you can gain early experience of working in-house and in a consultancy, in marketing PR and corporate PR roles, in external and internal communication then you will be open to a world opportunities and well-placed to succeed. Even short-lived and unsuccessful roles can build your experience, self-awareness and resilience.

Students and young people may feel that the odds are against them, but employers see it differently. They’re constrained only by a lack of suitable candidates. So you can get ready to succeed by focusing on your aptitude, achievements and attitude.

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.


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