From cannon fodder to Google fodder

19 Jan
I sucked at spin too

I sucked at spin too

I don’t mean to belittle the sacrifice of those who have experienced real combat, but I do recall feeling like cannon fodder when I started out in public relations 25 years ago.

An educator colleague used to describe the work as ‘media hustling’ – and I was as bad at it as everyone else.

I still shudder to remember some of my failed pitches. Like the time I phoned a senior technology journalist in an attempt to engineer a meeting at a trade show.

Me: Are you hoping to attend Client-Server World next week?

Him: [Long pause.] Have you any idea how that sounds?

More useful was the rebuff from a national newspaper correspondent in response to my lame attempt to offer him an environmental story.

Is it new or is it surprising?

This at least became a memorable test to apply before picking up the phone in future.

This talk of phone calls and conversations places me in the analogue world of public relations and I suspect we’re past the tipping point now.

About five years ago I noticed that more PR graduates were being offered work in digital agencies than as ‘media hustlers’ in ‘traditional’ PR roles.

Where we chased ‘coverage’, the mantra now is ‘content.’ Where I prized my clients’ appearances in the Financial Times or on the BBC, it seems that all that matters is feeding the Google machine.

Graduates have no problem making this transition as they never knew the old world, but it’s a challenge for many experienced practitioners.

The principles of public relations remain the same: reputations are hard-won and easily lost; relationships matter. But the practice needs to adapt.

Take the tried and tested news release. It’s still not died and still has a place, but you need to be careful how you distribute it since Google assumes that duplicate content must be spam.

So where we were once delighted to have our ‘news’ picked up word for word in multiple publications, it could now damage our Google search results.

It sounds like it’s time to relearn about customisation. It’s time to pick up the phone and develop some meaningful relationships.

For those who’ve blinked and missed the shift from media distribution to customised content sharing, I recommend Spin Sucks, a practical guide to the new world of Paid-Earned-Owned and -Shared media by US consultant Gini Dietrich.

It’s never too late to learn and it feels good to confess to the sin of spinning.

Why I won’t miss PR Week

6 Jan

PR Week coverPR Week has been the trade paper of the UK public relations industry for as long as I can remember. And that was its problem.

Coming from the stable that also published Campaign, it understood agency dynamics – the process of pitching and sometimes winning new business, of hiring new staff, of creating campaigns and winning awards. That perspective works well for the ad industry, since almost all of those involved work on the agency side.

But it led to some major blind spots when reporting on public relations: it undervalued the role of corporate comms practitioners including internal communicators (mostly working in-house), favouring the picturesque over the complex, the output over the outcome.

By taking a trade paper perspective, it had a blind spot over public relations education (a large sector) and of challenging discussions around the professional project (boring and uncommercial).

New books were rarely reviewed in the weekly format, and academic books were viewed dismissively when there was more space in the monthly edition. I couldn’t find a single academic or educator listed in the recent PR Week Power Book.

Looking back over my 25 years as a reader, all the memorable issues have been in the monthly format. I’ll be keeping the July/August 2014 ‘agency issue’ featuring Richard Edelman plus the top 150 agencies (see picture) and the October 2014 ‘integration issue’ featuring Sir Martin Sorrell.

Danny Rogers, having also edited Campaign, was on the ball in noting the blurring lines between advertisers chasing earned media and PR practitioners buying paid media.

I’ll miss that – but have decided not to pay for more of it as I can and do read Edelman and Sorrell’s thoughts elsewhere. I can read people’s opinions on their blogs, and there are some excellent debates on LinkedIn and on grown-up blogs such as PR Conversations. We don’t need more of this.

I’ve grown out of a trade paper because it no longer reflects what I do or what I’m interested in. I still wince at the use of ‘agency’ to mean ‘consultancy’, but have had to accept that some battles are not worth fighting. But I’m not yet quite ready to ditch ‘industry’ for ‘profession’ because I feel that would involve too much spin.

But I can agree that we’re on a journey of professionalisation. So here’s my challenge to members of the CIPR, who have signed up to the professional project.

We can get our news and our gossip online. We can have some enlightening (and some irritating) debates on social media.

But what we can’t always get from this is perspective.

Beyond 140 characters

We need something less hectic (in annual or quarterly format) to provide a deeper analysis of trends, to look at the currents beneath the frothing water.

We need practitioners to teach educators about what’s new in their work, and for educators to teach practitioners about new thinking and new research.

We need a record of achievements: new members, new fellows, New Years honours, senior appointments. We need a place for obituaries.

We need a debate about the future of the ‘profession’ and its representative bodies. Do we really need a CIPR, a PRCA, an IoIC, an APPC, a PR Guild and all the others? Are we still a trade, or worse, multiple trades?

We need reminding who we are, what we do – and why it matters, and where we’re going (as well as where we’ve come from).

It may sound dull to some. But are we ready for a professional journal?

On references and relationships

9 Nov

Let me speak some home truths to the students I teach.

You think your modules and your assessments matter. And they do – to an extent.

But something matters more. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that relationships matter in public relations. But let me spell it out.

Your module grades may matter to you, but they don’t to anyone else. Yet your degree stays on your LinkedIn profile for ever, and I’m often asked to supply references for graduates, even years after they’ve left university. I’ll decline sooner than write a negative reference, but what does it take for me to write a positive reference?

  • Do I remember you? Did you attend my classes? Did you do well? Do I follow you on Twitter or Instagram? In other words, have we formed the basis of a professional relationship?
  • Do I have anything positive to say about you? I’d be happy to report that you did well in assessments – but I’ll be even happier if I know something about your work experience and your initiative.
  • Are we still in contact? It’s limited if I can only comment on your achievements as a student when you’ve graduated years ago. So are we still in contact? It’s never been easier – and LinkedIn is the place for following people’s careers.

I was invited to a lunch to celebrate my university tutor’s thirtieth year at the same institution. I can’t claim to have ever used him as a reference, nor had I sought to keep in contact, and I’ve not done anything to make him proud of me. But it’s a reminder of the enduring value of a university education.

It lasts a lifetime – and you’re not forgotten!

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.

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