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

 

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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?

Journalism is the past, public relations is the future

29 Sep

I have taught public relations to journalism students (undergraduates and postgraduates). I’ve come to realise why they find the transition hard (though they don’t share their lecturers’ negative preconceptions and are invariably open-minded at the outset).

Journalists are trained to report on events that have just happened, or are happening right now. Their reports are written in the past tense (and journalism is often described as the first draft of history).

There are challenges in distinguishing news from noise; there are many practical and ethical obstacles to establishing what happened and reporting it fairly. It’s easy to see that from the reporter’s perspective public relations looks biased and can never represent the whole truth.

The challenge journalism students struggle with is the shift from the past to the future tense.

Public relations involves change – it looks to the future. The aim is to change specific groups’ awareness, attitudes or behaviour by some future point. It’s about mapping out a route from here to there.

And that explains the difficulty. An ability to report the news with accuracy and concision is a valuable transferable skill, but it can’t begin to help with the problem-solving challenge of public relations.

Which groups do you want to reach? How will you achieve this? How will you measure success? How will you persuade the boss or client to back the plan?

In short, public relations is a management discipline that includes elements of media practice. There’s a value to having an outsider’s perspective, but you need to understand about organisations and their environments. You’ll need teamwork to achieve your goals.

This shift from being the lone shark hunting the truth to being an organisational player is a difficult one. I struggled to bring a class with me in the summer as we moved from simple media tactics to the complexities of strategic planning in a few short weeks. I sensed their relief when we returned to a discussion of public relations and propaganda: writing an academic essay proved so much easier than writing a strategic PR plan.

There’s a misguided view that public relations is easy: journalists have all been the recipients of poor pitches and tend to assume they could do the job better. Some do succeed, but many find the going tougher than they had assumed. Reporting what happened this morning is easier than trying to change awareness, attitudes or behaviour in the future.

Graduates: why B2B is the place to be

19 Sep

You want your work to be interesting. You want it to be rewarding and to open up possibilities.

Many students and graduates make the assumption that interesting work involves products or brands they’ve heard of. So this means consumer brands (FMCG – fast moving consumer goods – in the marketing jargon). Many start out with ambitions to work in music or fashion.

By contrast, business-to-business companies are invisible and ‘boring’. Corporate work sounds too, well, grown-up.

Here’s why many are making the wrong call and limiting their career possibilities.

There are some high profile and award winning consumer PR campaigns (everyone cites the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty). But it’s hard to separate out the PR role from marketing. You’ll most likely be working for a boss or client who sees PR as the promotional P in the marketing mix.

This can be fun. It can be creative. But it’s not always well paid and it is potentially career limiting.

Contrast that with ‘boring’ business-to-business or corporate clients. They will usually adopt a PR-first strategy. This isn’t just about money, it’s about effectiveness. When you can name your existing and potential customers, and be specific about who influences them, PR can go beyond broad promotional activity and become much more personal. You’ll already be beyond the awareness-raising level and adopting a thought-leadership approach.

With corporate clients, the language shifts from concerns about promoting brands to concerns about protecting reputation. Target groups include employees and local communities. You are now speaking the language of PR, not of marketing, and learning lessons about the wide variety of corporate PR roles available.

You will start out as a hired writer – of media materials, website and blog content. Finding content requires you to become adept at taking an issues-led rather than product- or company-led approach. You will need to be able to explain and justify this approach to those who seek to change your copy into a crude advertisement.

You may continue in this role into senior posts and become a speech writer for senior executives. Or you may become a leader who can advise senior management on strategy and manage colleagues to deliver the tactics.

But how do you find interest in niche products with no broader appeal? You have to consider the business environment and the impact on jobs. Stop thinking of the product as the story, and start focusing on the issues.

There’s a sweet spot of course where business products crossover into the consumer space. This has happened with computers and telephones and is about to happen with battery technology in cars.

In a word, change is a great driver of PR activity. What’s boring about that?

Looking back on a golden age in PR

11 Sep

I have been a member of the Institute of Public Relations (now CIPR) since early 1998. That’s almost 20 years – and long before it achieved the Royal Charter in 2005. A Fellow since 2013, I am attending the Fellows’ lunch in the House of Lords this week. So now is a good time for a moment’s reflection.

The rules have since changed but when I became a member I did so the basis of having worked in the business for ten years. So my twenty year anniversary also marks a thirty year association with public relations (longer than the lifespan of many of the people I teach).

I’m not claiming wisdom simply based on longevity, but I do hope to have achieved some perspective. I am not alone: I see that Cambridge-based consultant Roger Darashah has noted the twentieth anniversary of his business by charting what has and hasn’t changed in that time.

Twenty years ago I was chief press officer within the corporate affairs team of a stock market listed British technology firm. Originally the scientific research arm of the UK government’s Atomic Energy Authority, it had been the last privatisation of that long period of Conservative government that started with Margaret Thatcher in 1979, was surprisingly extended by John Major in 1992, and ended with Tony Blair’s Labour landslide in 1997.

Two thoughts on this. One is that chief press officer was an important job commanding a good salary back then. It now sounds marginal and old-fashioned. We had email and the internet in 1997 – but we didn’t have Google, Facebook or Twitter. Media relations meant print and broadcast, not digital or social media.

British innovations in technology were sufficiently rare to merit reports in national newspapers and on BBC national radio and television channels and a firm with projects and personnel from Dorset to Dounreay was guaranteed lots of local media attention.

While my work as an educator defines my career, I can see in retrospect that I had reached a career high in my early to mid 30s – and suspect that’s true of many people in public relations.

The other reflection is that though my expertise was very much the media relations subset of public relations – and I was having to learn quickly the other aspects of corporate communication – context and timing are key to public relations jobs. This was a newly-privatised business complete with a stock market listing and a need for investor relations advice and competitor and market analysis, but most of my colleagues had been there when it was a public sector organisation and worked to different principles and timescales. I had to sign the Official Secrets Act on joining (and subsequently delved into the archives to learn some chilling and heroic Cold War stories).

I learnt that it’s easier to discuss innovation than to effect change. That people, culture and organisations are more complex than machines. That’s why internal communication is so important and so challenging.

I learnt that the future is unpredictable. The share price was soaring in 1997 and there were parliamentary questions claiming that state assets had been sold off too cheaply. Yet that market sentiment later evaporated, the share price stagnated and the firm no longer exists as an independent business. I had chosen to leave by the end of that year, another case of good timing.

In retrospect, I had been living through a golden age for public relations work. The wave of innovation introduced by the personal computer in the 1980s and the internet in the 1990s led to a booming technology PR sector. Privatisations and market liberalisation meant this was a good time for entrepreneurs. Startups tended to follow the Microsoft model of a PR-led strategy (Apple, a marketing success story, did not reach its dominant position until much more recently).

In this sector and at that time, public relations was distinctive and it was valued. Media relations was a well regarded specialism (and British technology journalists were notoriously challenging so there was no room for complacency).

PR looks less special and less distinctive today. Fewer people will build a career based on their media contacts and I’d advise graduates to look more broadly for roles from ‘content marketing’ to ‘corporate communication’. Today when people talk about working with influencers they rarely mean journalists.

That said, media relations is still an asset in the world of inbound or digital marketing since Google has been quick to penalise other SEO tactics. In these circles, media relations is shaking off its reputation for spam and returning to the idea that it’s about relationships.

One more change. When I joined the Institute of Public Relations, it was the only professional body representing individual practitioners. I felt this was an important professional step – and am still proud to profess my membership. The PRCA was then a trade association representing large consultancies and had been my natural network in earlier consultancy roles.

Today, I’m also an individual member of the PRCA – now renamed as the Public Relations and Communications Association. It used to be easy to explain the difference between the two organisations, but it’s much less clearcut today.

I have dedicated thirty years to public relations and tend to hold to the ‘stronger together’ argument. But others prefer to define their role as internal communication or public affairs or analyst relations – anything but public relations, it seems. Can the union hold?

Lies, damn lies and Unistats

5 Sep

I have a good sense of timing (though others will find my decision baffling).

I have just left a university job having helped put a new course on the map and having achieved a 100% student satisfaction score.

What was I thinking?

I use these stats so no one can accuse me of sour grapes for what I’m about to say.

I should also say that I was a reluctant convert to the current fees arrangement because I believe that universities should be properly funded and feel that a system that is in effect a graduate tax is fairer on everyone than raising general taxation so that a lawyer’s daughter can train to become a doctor at everyone else’s expense.

So I’m not opposed to everything that’s happened in HE in the last decade. But ‘student satisfaction’ is a monster. Let me explain why.

Once you create a market, you unleash the power of marketing. Just look at the amount universities spend on media advertising.

What a marketing-led approach to HE means is that all energies must be devoted to student recruitment (putting on a smile at open days). Once recruited, these students must be retained (so no low marks or fails, please – and do avoid being so boring in lectures). Ultimately, they must be kept happy for three or more years in preparation to the annual National Student Survey taken by final year undergraduates.

It’s true that these are best placed to evaluate their course across three years. But it’s also true that they’re focused on getting the highest degree classification with the lowest amount of risk. So no low marks or critical feedback on semester one assignments, please!

Look around our universities. The bright, primary (school) colours are all about the ‘student experience’. The higher fees have resulted in a building boom to improve facilities – and there’s a huge industry making large profits out of student accommodation in our big cities (again, look for the brightly-coloured buildings in city centres).

The safe spaces, no-platforming, puppy-petting culture is another sign of our student-centred world.

Now, where do lecturers fit into this? To university managers they are a cost. To many students they are the difficult people who set challenging assignments and give critical feedback. Why don’t lecturers simply explain how to do the assignment well?

In a perfect world of student satisfaction and university profitability, you’d do away with them. Except…

I’ve told bosses that you can either have high student satisfaction or be a university. Education is messy; it’s challenging. It involves asking difficult questions. It demands risk taking. It’s wasteful.

So much easier to put the money into marketing.

Then there’s the use of the stats. Every course at every university will look through their NSS results and cherry pick the high marks. So everyone’s a winner!

I share these stats because they look exceptionally good. But look down and there are some concerns:

Marking and assessment has been fair: 62%

‘It’s not fair! I tried really hard and you didn’t give me the mark I wanted!’

So, in order to improve my NSS results I’d have to allow students to mark their own work (that’s only fair). Now you see why the number of Firsts have increased year on year.

If I were in the same job next year, I’d be sitting in front of some university managers explaining why my student satisfaction scores had gone down. I’d have to show the plan I wrote this summer to improve on 100%. No, really.

There are good courses out there; there are good universities providing a supportive environment for good teachers. But you couldn’t tell that just from the student satisfaction results.

In a world of university marketing, everyone is putting on their best show. For prospective students and their parents it’s a case of ‘caveat emptor’.

Sorry, I shouldn’t use archaic language (think of student satisfaction).

In world of marketing, it’s a case of ‘buyer beware’.

Now, was I good at explaining this? I have a 100% score to maintain. How was my teaching today?

I confess

10 Aug

Cocktail lifestyle. Picture by @dubaipartyqueen on Instagram

I’m a male, middle-aged, middle-class university lecturer. There, I said it.

My students and graduates are overwhelmingly young, white and female. They jog, do yoga and enjoy beach holidays and smart hotels according to their Instagram feeds. In other words, they lead affluent and aspirational lifestyles.

And there’s nothing wrong with this: we are what we are. We either have no choice, or we have made choices that seem rational to us.

Except, so far so conventional.

Do our worldviews present a norm that excludes others? Lecturers might scoff at the popular perception of public relations as a glamorous, party-going practice – but it only seems to attract new generations of young women called Kate. Or Victoria. Or Olivia.

You get the picture. Success for some could mean lack of opportunity for others.

My British Asian students tell me that public relations is not viewed like medicine or the law or accountancy. For their families, it’s not a profession to aspire to.

Of course there are outliers. We have role models like Colleen Harris and Yasmin Diamond. But these individual success stories are not typical products of mass higher education.

We need to recruit more widely onto university courses and the profession needs to recruit more widely and sensitively. Age, gender, ethnicity are all problems: in a word, diversity.

But everyone knows this. The question is, who’s doing anything about it? What can I do?

The indefatigable Stephen Waddington and the admirable Sarah Stimson are campaigning to raise funds for the Taylor Bennett Foundation, which has a track record of action in this area.

I’ve pledged my support. Will you do too?