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?

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.