In praise of excellence

17 May

In my day job, I primarily have to teach to assignments. Curiosity, interest and long-term value are secondary.

Teaching to assignments is repetitive and often involves a discussion of rules (word counts, referencing conventions etc). In truth it’s a dull business (but someone has to do it).

I’m also a mean marker. By that I don’t mean I’m particularly miserly, but that I keep an eye on averages. I’m delighted to award high marks, but they will tend to be counterbalanced by low ones as marks revolve around a mean (as well as recording the achievement of ‘learning outcomes’). Yet university administrators really don’t like low marks to be awarded: it looks bad, and is assumed to reflect bad teaching and support rather than any failing on the part of the (fee-paying) student.

Luckily, the day job’s constraints have their limits. As a volunteer magazine editor for almost ten years I’ve been able to set my own rules and to strive for different standards.

What do I have to show for this dedication? Not as much as I should, but allow me to be very proud of one achievement only.

Consistency is king

After a misfiring experiment with ranking students on their influencer metrics (#socialstudent), I came up with a better formula to identify and recognise outstanding PR students. Our #bestPRblogs contest has been running for four academic years. I don’t want to take anything away from the achievements of the three past winners (they were the best in their year) – but to me the contest has never been stronger than this year.

It’s an exercise in excellence. It rewards exceptional achievement, but is also a long-running contest that rewards consistency over sporadic brilliance. It’s a true test of PR ability.

Here’s the breakdown. To compete, a student has to:

  • Have a blog, partly or wholly focused on public relations. Easy. Then they have to post consistent, quality content to their blog (the hard part) – and make sure that others know about their efforts (by using, but not abusing, social media channels).
  • Be selected for my pick of the week roundup. This ran throughout the academic year. 39 students from 13 universities made it. No doubt I missed several talented student bloggers, but part of the exercise involved them finding ways to draw their efforts to my attention. Most of those shortlisted were outliers, who faced no competition from classmates at their universities. They found their own way.
  • Be consistent. Those shortlisted after 24 weeks were those who had appeared most often in the weekly roundup. Some had scarcely missed a week. There’s a time and a place for brilliant, original content – but let’s not overlook the virtue of consistency.
  • Be brilliant. In a crowded field where anyone can have a blog and a social media presence, how do you stand out? Here are two lessons I’ve learnt from our shortlisted student bloggers:
    • Brilliant writing counts. It’s so simple really: good writing is easy to read. But what’s difficult is getting the balance between the personal and the professional.
    • Quality content has value. Your blog does not demand a stream of personal anecdotes or confessions. This year, we’ve had shortlisted candidates who have been editors as well as writers. They have commissioned and published interviews with practitioners. This is doubly valuable as an exercise in networking.

The strength of the leaders this year has meant there were fewer opportunities for others to force their way into the competition. There was little space for the merely ordinary.

So, just this once, let me praise some exceptionally talented individuals. Let’s recognise excellence and out of the ordinary achievement. Far from diminishing others, our shortlisted bloggers are leading by example and inspiring others. It’s the best lesson of all.

Four Modes of Public Relations

27 Dec

four-modesIt can be trivial, it can be serious. It can be transactional and it can be relationship-driven. It can be tactical and also strategic. It can be external or internal. It relates to marketing – and also to management consultancy.

So how do we describe the full scope of what we call public relations to those students whose life experience and imaginations may be limited to just one or two modes (usually the press office, content marketing and publicity functions)?

Here’s a model that seems to me to describe these four modes. It’s based on the relative level of creativity and the relative level of value-added consultancy offered. It uses the existing division between marketing communication (‘marcom’) and corporate communication (‘corpcom’).

In this model, the ideal position is to be a highly creative consultant adding value to the client or organisation through strategic public relations leadership.

The least value is offered by those transactional functions that are routine and less creative: these roles attract the lowest pay and are first in line to be automated.

There are tensions, though. At one end, there is the continued encroachment of marketing into the domain of public relations (or some would say blurring of the boundaries between the two). At the other end, there is the question of whether public relations remains a distinctive management discipline, or whether it becomes a part of management consultancy.

The recently-announced acquisition of risk and crisis management experts Regester Larkin by business advisory firm Deloitte is a significant development in this value-added space.

Teaching quick, learning slow

15 Dec

Education is ripe for disruption. The expense, the waste, the disappointment, the frustration.

I see this first as an educator and describe it in this paradox: the more I teach, the less they learn. But if more is less, does it necessarily follow that less is more?

Large fees and the pressure for high levels of student satisfaction mean that higher education is in danger of offering less just as paying ‘customers’ are demanding more.

So I’m not surprised that the entrepreneurs are circling. I’m glad that Richard Branson sees the irony of speaking out on education, but welcome his challenge to what we do.

Of course education can be speeded up (I’ll give some examples); but it’s growing up that takes time.

I have taught in two weeks a postgraduate course that would normally take a whole semester. We had classes from 9-1 five days a week for two weeks (that’s 40 hours of ‘contact time’) and assessed students before, during and after the teaching. It was intense; it was exhilirating. We were all in a foreign country which added to the richness of the experience and ensured near 100% attendance.

I also teach on professional qualifications which are taught over several days within a year (or by a mix of online and face to face teaching). This reduces costs and increases effectiveness.

Both approaches work well. But in the former case, these were sophisticated, older postgraduates. In the latter cases, these are practitioners who can apply the lessons to real-world contexts.

The challenge comes in the traditional space for HE – the 18 year-old school leaver. For them, HE still needs to provide a rounded education if it’s to provide value lasting a lifetime. Independence, resilience and team working are some of the soft skills that students gain by leaving home and attending university. That’s before they start gaining any specific vocational skills.

So training can often be quick, but education is necessarily slow because it proceeds at the pace of the learner, not of the teacher.

Besides, time is the most precious commodity we have. We deny our children time by over-scheduling their lives. Adults are denied time by the demands of work, living and family. University students are granted a special opportunity in being allowed time to develop.

Sure, much of this time will be wasted – or spent working to pay the bills. But some of it will be used to dream up a better future or new business opportunities. Creativity demands this cognitive surplus, and that’s surely something Richard Branson would applaud.

Without creativity, we’re just drones.

 

 

What’s your relationship with education?

11 Aug

the unseen powerUp to aged sixteen, our relationship with education is defined by compulsion. Up to eighteen by coercion since there’s pressure to stay on at school until 18 and young people are still strongly influenced by parents and teachers.

When students then go on to higher education, many assume their relationship with their university changes to that of a consumer (since they’re paying for a service).

In reality, it’s something else. A consumer is entitled to the product or service they have paid for, but a student is not entitled to a (good) degree just by paying. They have to earn it by demonstrating attainment over a succession of increasingly challenging assignments.

So educators view students as collaborators in learning. Without the levers of compulsion or coercion, we rely on encouraging a culture of collaboration. Among postgraduates and professionals, it’s even possible to achieve a community of learners who can gain as much support and motivation from their classmates as from their lecturers.

Compared to the simple transaction of a consumer paying for a product or service, this may sound nebulous. Some good graduates do not even recognise the role of their lecturers and tutors in collaborating in their progress. But greater autonomy is the outcome of this collaborative process and educators do not necessarily seek recognition. They are, like public relations, an unseen power.

Delayed gratification

21 Jul

tweetsOne of the most important measures of performance in Higher Education is ‘student satisfaction’, as measured through the annual National Student Survey.

There’s nothing wrong in principle with gauging student satisfaction after three years of (expensive) education. But in practice final year students tend to be satisfied with manageable assignments and high grades. So higher student satisfaction can only be guaranteed by lowering educational standards, ultimately leading to dissatisfaction…

Wouldn’t it be good to gauge a student’s response to their education over time? My Twitter timeline gave some clues this morning.

One noted how far he’d come in five years since graduating, and how well his year group were doing.

Another blogged about his experiences in the workplace one year on, and polled some classmates for their experiences.

This isn’t scientific or statistically valid, but education should be a long-term investment – just as student debt is a long-term commitment. So a longitudinal study of graduate achievement and satisfaction would be valuable addition to the snapshot provided by the National Student Survey.

I’ll leave the final word to one of last year’s graduates who’s degree has been less directly useful to his emerging career.

As for working in PR, that didn’t really work out for me. I’m happier carving out a new career in Digital Marketing and SEO. I do still feel, however, that my degree has come to some use as it taught me to be more analytical and inclined towards finding concrete facts as opposed to swallowing assumptions whole.

I don’t know whether than amounts to a satisfied ‘customer’ or not – but it sounds like an acknowledgment of value.

 

My thoughts on Influence magazine

5 Feb

InfluenceI’d been calling for a publication for CIPR members ever since we lost our free subscription to PR Week, so I was quick to welcome the arrival of Influence magazine last week.

I chose not to pay for PR Week because I no longer wanted to read a trade publication. Yet there’s clearly a gap in the market for a professional publication.

So what has Influence done well – and where can it develop in future editions?

Good points

  • Editorial independence from the CIPR. We need a professional journal, not a house journal.
  • Strong production values. It’s well designed and well illustrated. The photoshopped images in the devolution article are superb.
  • Strong content overall in the launch edition.

What’s missing?

  • It lacks personality. Most of the articles are exercises in even-handed journalism. I’d welcome more opinion (along the lines of the George Pitcher piece in the launch edition). Who’d like to brief us on the lobbying register? Or on the new Barcelona Declarations on measurement and evaluation?
  • Where are the people? A profession includes people at all stages of life. So where are the obituaries? Where the profiles of those who’d received New Year’s honours (eg Sandy Lindsay MBE)? Where the lists of those awarded pass, merit and distinction in professional qualifications? Where the accounts of who the CIPR’s benevolent fund has helped? Where’s some insight into the growing number of PR apprentices (some as young as 17). Give us the whole profession, from cradle to grave.
  • Where is education and training? There’s a focus on CPD, but still no book reviews, or digests of conference keynotes, or developments in research and education. One Saturday last November, PR Academy ran six simultaneous training sessions in one London venue. That’s a lot of education for a lot of committed and ambitious practitioners. It may seem marginal to the day job – but it’s an essential pillar of the professional project. This magazine could be the perfect space to blend academic and practitioner insights.

 

Getting in, or getting on?

13 Jan

Junior doctors have been in the news this week. It’s a reminder of how high the barriers to entry are in medicine. Years of undergraduate and postgraduate study followed by an extended spell working long hours as a junior doctor.

Only then can medical practitioners expect to secure a stable and well-paid role as a hospital doctor or general practitioner.

So in medicine, it’s hard to get in but the rewards for success are high.

Compare that with public relations. Broadly, the opposite applies. It’s easy to get in – but hard to get on.

Students often don’t get this. They assume the challenge is securing the first role. They need experience for this, but how to gain experience when you don’t have any, they ask?

Here’s how it looks to me. The public relations business is dynamic and fast-growing: consider the growth in internal comms and the emergence of ‘content marketing’ – all roles that fit broadly within my understanding of PR.

 

There must be more positions than available candidates because a day rarely goes by without me becoming aware of someone sharing their vacancy or opportunity. Take a look at these sites managed by Sarah Stimson and Rachel Miller for numerous current vacancies.

Then consider that not only do PR people work in consultancies and in-house within larger organisations in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors – but many choose to work for themselves (as freelance or independent practitioners).

Despite the many degree courses that have been offered for the past 25 years, despite professional courses like the CIPR Diploma (over 15 years old), there is no single point of entry into public relations. School leavers can become apprentices; non-PR graduates can apply for graduate roles in PR; digital and marketing teams can offer PR services; mid career professionals can take on PR responsibilities.

Yet there’s still an apparently insatiable demand for new talent. So it’s not getting in that’s hard. The challenge is getting on. Here are some tips on how to succeed:

  • Be curious.  Never stop learning about the media, about different business sectors, about technology. Show that you’re curious and ambitious (graduates don’t have a monopoly on curiosity, but your degree is more useful as an indication that you’re capable of learning than as evidence of what you’ve already learnt).
  • Be strategic. Entry level roles are not often well paid, but they may be worth taking for what they can teach you and and for the opportunities for training and development. Being strategic also means seeing the bigger picture: what does your boss do all day? Is this something you could aim to do too? While your entry-level role may require you to crank out press releases or blog posts, these activities do not define public relations. So are you gaining an understanding of how press coverage or social media shares contribute to business objectives?
  • Plan your own career.  Only the largest consultancy firms can offer interesting graduate roles that give you experience in different sectors and of different PR specialisms across different countries. If you’re not in a graduate programme, can you broaden your own experience and avoid becoming a one-trick pony? You may have to do this by moving between jobs, sectors and even countries. Have you joined a professional body? Are you attending training courses or further study? Are you collecting CPD points?

Remember: graduation should not mark an end of study. Rather, it’s a platform that shows you’re capable of further learning.

There are many opportunities out there; there may be riches and other rewards to a career in public relations. But you will need a plan to get on – not just a plan to get in.

Being strategic means being adaptable and playing the long game.