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)

Social media’s long history

23 Dec

Writing on the Wall

This brief review explores the book’s central thesis, so I should offer a spoiler alert to those who’ve not read Tom Standage’s ‘Writing on the Wall’ through to the end.

The argument explored in this intriguing and unusual media history is that social media goes back at least 2,000 years but that mass media has been a 150 year aberration in human history. The author writes:

“Social media is not new. It has been around for centuries.  Today, blogs are the new pamphlets. Microblogs and online social networks are the new coffeehouses. Media-sharing sites are the new commonplace books. They are all shared, social platforms that enable ideas to travel from one person to another, rippling through networks of people connected by social bonds rather than having to squeeze through the privileged bottlenecks of broadcast media. The rebirth of social media in the Internet age represents a profound shift – and a return, in many respects, to the way things used to be.”

The author is The Economist’s digital editor, a paid-up representative of the mass media world (The Economist was founded in the 1840s) and the book provides useful background to the debates about press freedom and regulation that have surrounded the Leveson Inquiry.

Historical examples in the book include the sharing of correspondence in Ancient Rome; how printed pamphlets helped spread the ideas of Protestant reformers; how coffeehouses promoted innovation; how self-expression has a longer history than the taking of selfies.

This historical analysis leads to a balanced concluding essay weighing up the arguments between the optimists who view social media as a channel for free expression and the pessimists who point out that governments can use the same tools to promote repression.  To those who condemn social media as a waste of time, Standage says that coffeehouses led to the same complaint (in the 1670s they were denounced as “great enemies to diligence and industry”).

An Oxford antiquarian blamed coffeehouses for the lack of learning among students. “Why doth solid and serious learning decline, and few or none follow it now in the university? Answer: Because of coffee-houses, where they spend all their time.”

The complaint in Cambridge was of students taking an interest in news. “The scholars are so greedy after news (which is none of their business) that they neglect all for it, and it is become very rare for any of them to go directly to his chamber after prayers without first doing his suit at the coffee-house, which is a vast loss of time grown out of a pure novelty.”

In his book tour talk, Standage defined social media as ‘media we get from other people, exchanged along social connections, creating a distributed discussion or community’.

For public relations educators and practitioners, the book is helpful as it reminds us what we do: we develop these social connections and encourage conversations and communities. It also enables us to respond to the familiar criticisms of social media, that it’s a fad or a waste of time. Conversely, if all we did was media relations, then the end of the mass media age would mean an end to our usefulness.

Standage provides a detailed, forensic reading of his chosen historical sources but this is emphatically not a book about technology. It’s about the people who have used various communication technologies (from writing and printing through to the Internet) to share ideas. The emphasis on behaviour reminds us that human nature is resistant to change.

For my part, I’m pleased when my students take an interest in news – and I have no plans to discourage their coffee consumption. Whether many of them share my interest in history is another matter.

Strategic Public Relations Leadership: my PR book of the year

15 Nov

Strategic Public Relations LeadershipDisclosure: I have worked with Anne Gregory and Paul Willis, and apologise for the rave review that follows. My thoughts are my own.

First, let’s tackle some myths.

Myth #1: That most PR practitioners work in the private sector. They don’t: in the UK most PR and communication practitioners work in the public and third sectors (see page 34). This book corrects the imbalance in much of the literature.

Myth #2: That the most rewarding – and best remunerated – PR jobs are in consultancies. If we exclude the few entrepreneurs who have become wealthy through building and selling consultancy businesses, many of the largest and best-paid PR roles are in complex public sector organisations. This book addresses them. But it makes the case for all public relations leaders to operate like consultants (see chapter 14).

Myth #3: That academics and practitioners don’t understand each other. There’s fault on both sides: on academics for writing inaccessibly and on practitioners for ignoring most academic thinking. Next year’s CIPR president Stephen Waddington has been tackling this problem – and who better than a past president (Anne Gregory) to respond with an accessible book aimed more at practitioners than at her academic peers.

This book manages to be  short (just 164 pages including the index) and wide-ranging. The key to this is that it has ditched academic referencing for footnotes, making the text much more accessible. So a typical chapter is of ten pages, with two pages of extensive footnotes. I hope I’m right in detecting a trend because this device alone will do much to demystify academic writing.

Part One reviews the strategic contribution of public relations. Just as marketing directors or HR directors see an organisation through their particular lens, so there is a distinctive PR lens that explains why this is a vital function embracing media, corporate communication, public affairs, community relations and investor relations.

“Communication is the word often used to describe these collective specialist functions, but we will use the phrase public relations because it best describes what happens: the organisation builds relationships in public and with these various publics. (p.11)”

This echoes with David Phillips’s view of the organisation as  a ‘nexus of relationships’. As Gregory and Willis state: ‘Organisations are organic, evolving and deeply relational. They are usually made up of people, although some organisations have very few, but facilitate connections between people, for example Twitter. Organisations interact with others. The create connections and conversations… ‘Organising’ happens as people communicate and undertake action.’ (p.8)

The centrepiece of this section is the authors’ new model of strategic public relations (the ‘four-by-four model’ p.35). In summary, this places organisations within a complex stakeholder environment (Coombs and Holladay’s definition of public relations as ‘the management of mutually influential relationships within a web of constituency relationships’ could have been cited here).

The first of the four dimensions note the contribution of public relations at societal, corporate, value-chain and functional levels (pp 36-40). The other four dimensions are the four attributes of public relations leaders (described as their ‘DNA strands’): an excellent understanding of the brand; leadership qualities; public relations as a core organisational competence (communication does not only come from the PR team); and excellence in planning, managing and evaluating public relations (note the emphasis on evaluation in Alex Aiken’s government comms strategy).

Part Two addresses the preoccupations of public relations leaders such as contextual intelligence, organisational values and ethical practice. This section relies more on practitioner research than on ‘pure’ academic research.

The authors identify ‘contextual intelligence’ as the core characteristic marking out the public relations leader. It involves coping with uncertainty and thriving on ambiguity, though intelligence is also supported by rational planning.

Part Three looks at the responsibilities of public relations leaders (the planner, the catalyst, the expert technician, the internal educator, the consultant).

I found the last of these particularly new and refreshing (and feel I can detect Paul Willis as the principal author of  this section).

‘A consultancy approach suits public relations. Consultants facilitate change in organisations and in Chapter 3 we highlight how public relations leadership is associated with being an agent of change… The applicability of consultancy thinking to public relations is also highlighted by the idea that consultants do not just intervene and implement solutions themselves; they also enable others.’ (p. 146-7)

What is needed is ‘transferable knowledge, as well as profound theoretical and practical understanding.’

It’s risky to make sweeping judgements, but this feels like a milestone text to me. Yet it’s written for senior practitioners, not for everyone. I’m pleased to have made sense of it – which is not true of that many academic contributions.

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