Why study public relations? Why now?

3 Jul

We have an open day at the university today. Normally, these are opportunities to meet and show, and to answer questions from applicants (often accompanied by family members). Today, it’s all online, so rather than a schedule of talks and a location for informal conversations, I’m waiting to answer any chat box queries.

Here are some questions you should be asking along with my suggested answers.

Why study public relations?

It’s not the most important question for you, but it is the one that interests me most. You will most likely be choosing a city first; a university second; and a course third. But let’s turn straight to the course question.

Public relations, or a combination of public relations with journalism and/or marketing, is interesting in its own right, but also highly applicable in many career contexts. If you enjoy writing and creating content, if you like building connections on social media, if you’ve thought about your personal branding – you’ve already made the first steps towards paid work in this field. Brands, businesses, charities and public sector organisations all need help developing relationships with customers, volunteers, employees and allies. So you can apply your university studies to sectors that interest you.

Why study now?

This is a harder question, because it must be tempting to hold off on university entrance when so many aspects of the university experience will be denied to you next academic year. But university is a three (four, or more) year journey, so I think you need to see the bigger picture. Your options for paid work and travel may also be limited in the short term, so investing in your future could be the wise choice.

But you need to be sure you’re investing in skills and approaches that will be useful in future. Public relations is needed in the good times. Many sectors are suffering right now, but there are exceptions and these are book times for the technology sector (think how reliant we’ve all become on online and streaming services). Other sectors with promising futures include pharmaceuticals, green energy and financial technology (fintech). But public relations is not only needed in the good times: it’s really needed in the bad times. Think of those firms announcing redundancies and closures: they all need help communicating the message to staff, investors, politicians and the media. The more difficult the challenge, the more important becomes the role of the public relations adviser.

The future is unpredictable. You will change in the coming years. So there are no guarantees, but the long list of challenges facing the world means opportunity for curious graduates who are up for a challenge and who have demonstrated their capacity to learn.

The bigger the problem, the greater the need for problem-solving graduates. That’s how to view university, and the choice of public relations.

Tough love

24 Mar

It’s always surprised me that the thinking behind the Welfare State and the National Health Service emerged from the darkest days of the second world war. The Beveridge Report, on which these reforms were based, having been published in 1942.

How did people have the space to envisage a better future when faced by a daily struggle to survive? How was there spare capacity to ‘think the unthinkable’ when all energies were devoted to the demands of total war?

The answer is now clear to me – and may well have been all along to others. You need an optimistic vision to help you through the darkest days. You need to believe in a better world to cope with the privations of the present situation.

(Another example is the experience of art historian Nikolaus Pevsner. It was while watching for incendiary bombs in London that this German Jewish refugee dreamt up his postwar series ‘The Buildings of England’. By seeing the destruction of historic buildings, he realised the urgent need to record the nation’s architectural heritage.)

I was born in 1961. In hindsight, not that long after the war, but at the beginning of an age of expansion and opportunity. Yet there were anxieties. The Berlin wall was built that year; Dr Strangelove satirised the fears around accidental nuclear war in 1964. The Cold War lasted until the collapse of the Soviet Union three decades later.

Since then, the world has become less predictable, with threats more likely to come from non-state actors such as terrorist groups or even individuals.

We will always be anxious: it’s hard-wired into our survival instincts to scan for threats. Perhaps my generation had it too easy: no conscription, no total wars. A mostly benign economy with rising indices allowing for the accumulation of capital.

What of those born around the turn of the millennium, like most undergraduate students? They’ve been doubly shielded from existential threats because they’re two or even three generations on from the effects of war, of privation and the imminence of death. Yet while work is abundant, it’s less secure and the challenge of matching the capital accumulation of wealthier older generations seems insurmountable. How can you ever save for a pension if you’re stretching to afford a mortgate and a travelcard?

So rather than dreaming of a better future, we have a generation of young adults who’d rather retreat into dreams of childhood. Disneyworld and Harry Potter, created for children, are reassuring experiences for young adults too.

Will the present crisis enable a rethinking and a resetting, similar to the Beveridge Report and the Welfare State? It’s not going to be easy, but the outlines of a more optimistic future are already apparent in these early days of lockdown.

  • The climate will thank us. Already, noise and vehicle pollution is lower. Air quality has improved. Long term, our survival depends on collective action, so this is a social experiment that will be studied for its lessons.
  • Consumption will slow. We can no longer shop for entertainnment, or buy non-essentials because of wants rather than needs. We already know we needed to stop doing this, but what was finally going to nudge us away from shopping? Will we revert to ‘make do and mend’ or learn greater self-sufficiency? Will having fewer things mean we value them more highly?
  • Food. There are already signs of a ‘dig for victory’ approach from some. If nothing else, a vegetable patch in the garden is proving good for health and mental wellbeing, though not everyone has a garden. Beyond this, we were already facing disruption to supply chains and to a crisis in farming because of tariffs and Brexit. Supporting local farms and food producers will see a return to local and seasonal produce, with less year-round choice of luxuries flown from all corners of the globe. It’s a major challenge to feed 60 million from locally-produced food. If farmers are to get a better deal we’ll have to get used to less choice and more expensive food. Not easy, but this reset gives us as chance to rethink. More of us will have to give up or reduce our meat consumption if we’ve any chance to feed all of us.
  • Travel. Already, some Instagram feeds and weekend newspaper travel supplements, so popular until so recently, are looking socially unacceptable. Where the generation before mine settled for a week at Blackpool or Scarborough, and mine would backpack to a beach in Greece, my students and graduates seem to think nothing of taking a holiday flight to Bali, while their grandparents book onto oversized cruise ships that are contributing to the destruction of Venice. Now, we’re being discouraged from driving to beaches and national parks for exercise, so will be forced to enjoy spaces closer to home. Since the lockdown is coinciding with spring, many will rediscover the solace to be found in an acute observation of nature.
  • Work. This is the big one. Near full employment has been the norm in recent years, but many jobs in hospitality and retailing are threatened. Will these sectors ever recover? Then there’s the question of work-life balance which has been a problem for people in higher paid, ‘white collar’ jobs. Most are now classified as ‘non-essential’, so will people ever return to commuting and the 9-5 lifestyle now they’ve been forced to work remotely and rely on technology instead? The short-term effects of the lockdown will be difficult for businesses and for workers. The long-term effects are unpredictable, but there will be opportunities for business that can prove that they’re essential, and for entrepreneurs and traders to dream up vital new services. Many will involve a return to the past: crafts that can be sold, markets that travel to us, food from farms.
  • Sport and exercise. I understand that people are busy and gyms meet a social need in cities. But they’re surely only essential for elite sportspeople. Walking, jogging, cycling, rowing can all take place at home (with minimal equipment) or locally. Climbing the stairs, walking and gardening are probably the best exercise for older people. The loss of major sporting events is damaging to morale, but we will channel our time and energies into other activities. It’s a creative opportunity. Online gaming may come to seem like a good obsession, like chess!
  • Community. People need company and a sense of common purpose. Changes to family life and the decline in churchgoing mean that we’ve increasingly been relying on private business to meet these needs. In the short term, volunteers and charities will have to step up but in the longer term there will be opportunities for individuals and social entrepreneurs to meet people’s needs and earn some money doing so.

I don’t mean to gloss over what will be a very difficult and unpredictable time for many. We don’t know who or how many will die. I am above all concerned for a generation of young people who were already anxious and who will now have good reason to be so. We’re all missing the social experience of the classroom and lecture theatre. But that’s why we need to think about their future and to make sure that an opportunity to reset and rethink provides some positive outcomes to offset the obvious and immediate negatives.

Rules are there to be broken

18 Feb

It’s a conventional saying. What made it memorable was when it was used by one of my school teachers.

I may have misinterpreted the meaning. There’s a difference between rules ‘should’ be broken and rules ‘are there’ to be broken.

If I speed, I may be fined, or lose my licence. If I don’t pay my taxes, I’ll be in trouble. So there’s some merit in following the rules if you want a quiet life.

But look around you at the world. The rules-based post-war world order is being torn down by the current president of its principal creator. And does the Kremlin play by the rules? What exactly are the rules when it comes to dinsinformation campaigns and asynchronous warfare?

In the UK, is politics following the normal rules when a Conservative government wins a majority thanks to votes in traditional Labour seats in the north while liberals in affluent areas in the south hold their noses?

But my topic is not politics but education. We’ve created a generation of students who’ve learnt how to follow the rules just as the world is overturning the principle of ‘business as normal’. We incentivise those who respond to manageable tasks in predictable ways. We don’t do enough to encourage individualism or creativity.

This may be an appropriate way to prepare people for rules-based workplaces. But how does it allow for disruption or innovation?

Can you set an assignment when there are no rules other than the requirement to ‘go solve the problem’? Educationalists say you can’t. The world says we must.

What was memorable about my school teacher telling me that ‘rules are there to be broken’ is that it sounded subversive to me. It was unexpected and liberating. It was a valuable lesson.

We’ve learnt about the value of the memorable teacher this week from retired footballer Ian Wright. There’s a soft power in teaching that can lead to some unexpected outcomes long after the assumed ROI of grades or student satisfaction survey responses. I bet no one included that in the ‘learning outcomes’ of a long ago lesson.

Ask why, not what

15 Jan

Allow me a moment of professional pride.

Yesterday, my first year public relations students sat an exam. For one thing, they were all there (bar one who was taken ill overnight). For another, they all stayed for the full two hours.

During this time they wrote answers to just three questions. I’ve not yet graded the scripts but I don’t expect to be disappointed.

Now, there should be nothing surprising in students prioritising exams. But the educational establishment disapproves of open questions at this level. Instead, the expectation is that I should be assessing knowledge through a series of closed, multiple-choice questions. How does that even work in public relations? What preparation would it be for the future?

What’s the value in knowledge when so much is just a Google search or Siri enquiry away? Certainly, it doesn’t justify years of study and thousands of pounds in tuition fees.

Besides, as a new book by Daniel Susskind argues, in a world of automation we should encourage our young people to opt for non-routine jobs that require subjective judgements (that sounds just like public relations, to me). To ask ‘why?’ questions, which AI is bad at, rather than ‘what?’ questions which machines are better and cheaper at answering than us.

It’s a deeply frustrating paradox that as education has become more expensive, we have been discouraged from challenging young people. Just imagine what difficulty might mean for ‘student satisfaction’!

Now, my students are not customers who need to be kept constantly satisfied. Nor were they visibly dissatisfied with their exertions yesterday. The end game of education is something much more important than a customer satisfaction survey.

It ain’t easy

15 Nov

Learning isn’t easy. Nor is teaching.

Last year, my first year class told me the teaching was too unstructured, and that they wanted more lectures and more theory.  Yes, really. This year, you guessed it: too much lecture material; too much choice of theoretical perspectives.

Why isn’t there one authorised (ie correct) definition of public relations, someone asked? What is the distinction between marketing and public relations?

I found myself defending the messiness of real life against the over-simplification of a classroom perspective.

I can do simple. I told my class the purpose of public relations is ‘to promote and protect.’ That’s simple. (The problem is, it’s too simple, but you have to start somewhere.)

So we present a menu of alternatives for discussion and critique. Welcome to higher education.

So let me ask the question again, why can’t I make it simple? Because the world does not stand still, it continues to revolve. The world this first year class will graduate into will be different from the world today, which is different from the world described in previous textbooks.

Let’s say there was one, fixed, immutable view of the practice called public relations. Let’s say it was written in the 1990s and designed to describe the practice in straightforward terms. Let’s have a try:

‘Public relations practitioners fax news releases to journalists working on print publications.’

How future-proof would this be? What would be the point of studying it at university? What would your chances be of earning a good living a decade or two from now?

So, we don’t want immutable and inflexible views of the purpose or the practice of public relations. We want agile and adaptable people working in a valuable field. It may or may not be called public relations, but it will cover many of the concepts we discuss (relationships, reputation, communication etc) and involve an ever-changing selection of media and channels.

At a time when the future seems especially uncertain, a historical perspective gives some comfort. There are now three decades of PR graduates in the workforce in the UK. The range of roles and job titles is ever-changing. Some have left the field for recruitment, or teaching. But most are working in the broad field of public relations, but with titles such as:

  • Director of corporate affairs
  • Social media manager
  • Digital marketing
  • Copywriting and editing
  • Agency owner
  • Brand manager
  • Content marketing
  • Communications manager
  • Public affairs manager

That’s a cause for celebration, not a reason for a narrow-minded lament.

Stick with simple, if you must. Choose the primary colours of a cartoon if you must. But I think you’ll find the rich, full colour moving picture much more interesting, challenging and rewarding. Just don’t ever expect it to be easy.

The purpose of education

16 Nov

The end goal of education is to encourage people to learn.

Knowledge is not the goal, as in a world of Wikipedia and Google information is at our fingertips. There’s little value in memorising it.

Yet with so much information available, how to sift out what’s important? How to recognise what is reliable from what’s merely distracting – or even fake?

Learning is not about knowing, it’s about finding out. It’s about questions, not answers.

None of this will come as a surprise to educators. But it involves culture shock for new students who are used to facts being incontrovertible, and questions having answers.

My first year class have asked me to give them more theory. Why? I suspect because theory is definite and known, whereas practice is shifting and unknowable. Unpredictable even. I will of course adapt to their wishes, and hope to meet them half way.

I can make my classes easier, but I can’t close off questions and pretend that knowledge is finite and finished. My students need to loosen up and learn to be curious.

This student blog post makes me very happy as an educator. Not because I’m mentioned in it. But because it illustrates the learning journey so well, including the inevitable doubts and introversion.

Lucy’s bright. She’s ambitious. She’s four years in to her degree course. But let’s not dwell on the exceptional, let’s look at the universal.

  • Learning involves stepping out of our comfort zone
  • We have to take risks, otherwise how will we reap rewards?
  • If we give, then we’re likely to receive
  • ‘Yes, it’s scary at first. Try it.’

Finally, students assume when coming on a public relations course that they’ll learn about communication. They will. But they also need to ask questions about the purpose of communicating. Lucy has learnt that one answer to this is community.

Here endeth the lesson.

Not working

26 Oct

I’m running the #prstudent #bestPRblogs contest for a fifth year. This time it’s at PR Place, and selections appear each Friday.

There are some confident and experienced student bloggers posting most weeks. I’m loving the quality of the content they’re producing, but I’m also aware that it may be daunting for novices. How to join? What’s blogging? What to write about?

So as a learning device, I’m not about to tell you what you should do. I’ll let you work out what not to do.

What’s wrong with this (apparently genuine) Twitter profile pictured here?

Of course you know. No picture, no credible bio, no followers, no tweets of any substance. Would you follow this person? Me neither. It looks like the least successful bot ever created.

Am I being unfair? Sofia may be a real person, wisely using her Twitter presence to lurk while she works out the answers to what, when, why. That could make sense, but the clock is ticking and it’s been six months…

So you can work out from here how to get started.

  • You need an integrated approach to your personal brand across social media (and are allowed to separate out personal from professional networks)
  • You need to give people a reason to follow you
  • You need to think through your approach to content, conversations and curation (your sharing of others’ content)
  • Your goal should be to build your professional network and establish a credible personal brand

You don’t have to blog (unless it’s a requirement for assessment on your course). There are alternatives to owning your own property (you can ‘rent’ on LinkedIn or Medium).

I’ve noticed a fashion for building personal sites using Wix. This works for some, but I find that it’s not always possible to subscribe to Wix sites using RSS (you see, I’m old-fashioned). What that means is that your content is harder to find and follow.

There’s an easy answer to that, suggested above. If you’ve integrated your social media accounts, you should share your latest posts using the #prstudent hash tag. That way I (and others) can find you.

Though I’ve described #bestPRblogs as a contest, in reality it’s a community. A community of learners who are supplementing their studies by developing their voice, building a network, and learning. What more could you ask of a public relations student?

You’ve probably noticed that I rarely post to this blog. So I’m not exactly practising what I preach. Good point: you don’t only have to aspire to be as good as those teaching you, you should aspire to go beyond them. To use their experience as a springboard for greater things.

I’m ambitious for you, not for me. I want you to gain a face, to find a voice, to build a network and to pursue a fulfilling career. I want you to know what not to do.


PR professional qualifications: the shock of the new

19 Jan

Last year the CIPR Diploma had a major revamp: new syllabus, new assignments, new focus (on corporate comms). It’s now the CIPR Professional PR Diploma.

We ran the new course with a very small cohort at Leeds Beckett University and this year, the second year of running, we have a full class.

Now it’s the turn of the CIPR Professional PR Certificate (formerly the CIPR Advanced Certificate). There was always a positioning problem – as this was never an advanced qualification. It’s now like a younger sibling of the Diploma – so it shares some of the sophisticated focus on corporate comms, while being pitched at ‘technicians’ rather than ‘managers’.

How is it going? It’s still too soon to tell, and I’m not an objective observer.

So I’ve asked some from the first cohort to give me their reflections, mid course (reflection is now built-in to the assessments for this professional qualification).

Millie Hamnett writes

The CIPR Professional PR Certificate. Sounds scary, doesn’t it?

My first thought when I started researching public relations qualifications was how does someone just starting out, with only a couple of years’ experience as a Communications Executive and a degree in Journalism manage to complete a ‘Professional PR Certificate’. Surely ‘professional’ means I need more than that?

But not being one to be put off at the first hurdle, I delved further into what the CIPR and their foundation degree level qualification had to offer. Reassured by their entry requirements which included a UK degree (tick), two years’ experience in a public relations role (tick), and the promise of not only creative, but theoretical learning, too, I took the plunge, filled out my application and pressed submit.

Fast forward to three months down the line and I’m half way through the eight teaching days, with one assignment under my belt and a hundred ideas for the second flying around my mind.

I’m already seeing the benefits of studying for the Professional PR Certificate.

At work, I’m now starting to have a deeper understanding of not only the how, but the why behind what we do – giving me growing confidence and credibility in my role. The varied content of the course and the opportunity to research, learn and put into practice newly gained skills is a sure fire way to get geared up for the world of PR.

The flexibility the CIPR qualification offers suits me down to the ground. A couple of days in the classroom at regular intervals to really get my head into the theory of PR, followed by the creativity of the assignments that I can fit into my schedule when it suits me, is the ideal way to fit in studying alongside a full time and demanding job.

To anyone like me, with aspirations to progress their career in Public Relations and looking for the next step, I’d say go for it! The Professional PR Certificate’s proving to be a great investment in my future and a move in the right direction for this stage of my career.

Tom Holt writes

I’m part on of an in-house communications team with a social housing association in West Norfolk and was among the first in the country to take up the CIPR Professional PR Certificate in October 2017.

Here are my experiences of the certificate so far:

If like me you have taken the road less travelled into public relations then you will understand the phrase ‘learning on the job’.

My undergraduate degree was in Archaeology, but it wasn’t until I completed my NCTJ in Journalism that I began to see PR as a viable career path.

After 18 months of on the job development, picking up skills and techniques as I go, this course is giving me the nuts and bolts of theory and practical application that I needed to complement my own on-job experience.

Public Relations is all about continuous development and learning from experience,  but there is always a place for a qualification that structures and formalises that development.

The great thing about the CIPR Professional PR Certificate course is that it’s all practical. From the very first classroom session I have been employing techniques learnt on the course in my day job.

The assignments that you are required to produce for assessment can be based on your own place of employment, giving you a chance to immediately see payback for your investment  into the course.

I have personally found that the certificate has complemented rather than competed with my regular workload.

You won’t be dealing with PR as an abstract concept, you’ll be getting your hands dirty with the business of public relations and seeing the benefits of that from the outset.

I would recommend the CIPR Professional PR Certificate to anyone in the early years of their career in PR who is looking for a structured and instantly applicable course for professional development.

Protestantism and the rise of PR

31 Oct

It’s implausible to link an event 500 years ago to an industry that only became established in the last century. But hear me out.

I’m more interested in the effects of Martin Luther’s attack on corruption in the church than the theological details that seemed so important at the time (the sale of indulgences).

Public relations scholar Simon Moore has described the Ninety-five Theses as a ‘mighty act of communication.’

‘With this work, driven into a door, a storm broke which has still not subsided, and has been fed by the communication it released. It is the forerunner of single-issue, campaign-based communication: direct, morally certain, and using passion to energize or distort reason.’ Moore 2014: 49

Though we may no longer read Luther’s original text (Luther was a monk, and he was writing in Latin), we’re aware of the echoes of his manifesto centuries later. So were the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto when they published their own 95 theses online in 1999 (‘1. Markets are conversations’.)

The new-fangled printing presses helped spread Luther’s anti-authoritarian message. The spirit of Protestantism was to establish an unmediated relationship for individuals with God, through access to the scriptures in their own language (we talked about ‘disintermediation’ when the internet became popular in the 1990s).

Let’s consider the reaction to the Protestant Reformation led by Martin Luther’s act 500 years ago.

The Catholic Church responded with its own ‘counter-reformation’ that has given us the word ‘propaganda’ (for spreading of the faith).

A Reformation that started with Luther did not end there. Hundreds of sects proliferated: if you want to meet Anabaptists today, look for an Amish community in the United States. Shaker furniture is still admired for its simplicity and craftsmanship.

In England, there was an attempt to replace the church in England with the Church of England. This in turn was threatened by reform and revivalist movements from inside (Methodism, Anglo-Catholicism) and outside (Quakers, Congregationalists and others).

This chaotic clamour is a familiar world to those in public relations: we typically operate in noisy, competitive markets and are slower to find legitimacy in monopolies (it took a long time for public relations and professional communication to become established in Britain’s National Health Service).

The rise of individualism and nationalism can also be traced to this moment in history. We are still dealing with the consequences today.

I am aware of the connection between public relations and (mostly secular) Jews, from Edward Bernays onwards. But that does not change this narrative because it was the ‘free market’ for religion that began in 1517 and accelerated with the creation of United States that provided a space for new industries and new voices to thrive.

  • Simon Moore, PR and the subjugation of reason in Moore, S (2014) Public Relations and the History of Ideas, Abingdon: Routledge


Teaching failure

17 Oct

Teachers have a powerful weapon. It’s not the power of grading, it’s the power of words.

Words can inspire. They can shape perceptions and be memorable. They can – and often do – bore and confuse.

In any one lesson, the same words could have all these effects on different members of the class. So teaching is not a linear, predictable process. It’s more like alchemy.

Humility is useful. It doesn’t matter what I teach: it’s what you learn that counts.

(An elaborate example of how we can no more understand how Stonehenge was used than a future civilization could work out the rules of cricket from the shape of Lord’s cricket ground led to ripples of mirth around my classroom of primary school aged children. All I had succeeded in doing was associate the image of the great stones to a cricket wicket with pictures of some stone age flintstone bowlers and batters in their minds.)

Only this week, I’ve had my teaching praised. I’m not good with compliments, so I’m much more worried about a complaint I recently received years after the event.

A successful graduate in the digital PR space wrote to me recalling a lesson I’d given in their second year:

During a lecture, you once told me that you didn’t think I would make it in the PR industry, an industry which has evolved thanks to the ever growing landscape of digital that now sits hand in hand with social as the main driver of buzz and reputation. You actually said I was forgettable, and I would just like to tell you I’ve never forgotten those words.

If I had said those things, I shouldn’t have – and did apologise in my reply. (It doesn’t seem likely that I could have been this personal in a lecture theatre, but students tend to use lecture/seminar/tutorial interchangeably.) But it doesn’t matter what I said: it only matters what impact my words had.

This was in 2010. I had probably been encouraging the class to wake up to the emerging opportunities in the digital landscape. My intention was to push my students to succeed, not to be personally offensive.

This graduate remembered. They took the trouble to write to me – most courteously – to correct me years later.

I’m ashamed of the short-term impact my words had. But I’m pleased that they were memorable and I’m delighted if they’ve acted as a spur to succeed.

Now, does that make me a bad teacher?