Joined-up public relations

13 Oct

Here’s the challenge. It’s easy to teach tips and tricks, but it’s much harder to teach students to join up the dots.

There’s an obvious analogy here. Imagine learning a foreign language (one not using the Roman alphabet). First you have to learn the shape and sound of the letters; then you learn some words; then phrases. But you still can’t read, write, or hold a conversation. That takes months or years of immersion and hard work.

Students can learn to recite some models and theories; they can easily be taught to write press releases. But they don’t know why they should (or shouldn’t) use one. They don’t have a bigger picture in mind.

They’re not alone. Many practitioners focus on the ‘what’ and avoid answering ‘why’. I see this when I visit work placements and realise that too many practitioners are still counting the value of PR based on spurious measures such as AVE.

Who are the experts in joined-up public relations? I’m sure there are many, but the following four people stand out for me because they’re not only doing it – they’re regularly sharing insights with the rest of us in books, blogs and talks.

David Brain (@DavidBrain). Co-author (with Martin Thomas) of Crowd Surfing, and a leading figure in global consultancy Edelman. Key quotation: ‘in the era of enfranchised consumer and stakeholder… it is PR thinking not advertising thinking that is best placed to succeed.’

Robert Phillips (@CitizenRobert). This former Jackie Cooper PR and Edelman consultant presents an articulate critique of PR’s role in the consumer society. Key quotation (from his chapter in Where the Truth Lies): ‘We urgently need to change our language and to appreciate that citizenship is a more vital element of a healthy society than consumption without restraint. PR is no longer merely a sales tool’.

Stephen Waddington (@wadds). He’s co-authored or edited four books in the past two years, which would be a prodigious output for a research-focused academic, but is an astonishing one for a family man who’s a full-time PR consultancy director who has also been elected as CIPR president for 2014. Key quotation (from Brand Anarchy written with Steve Earl): ‘Shedding the shackle of media relations will be critical to the future success of the public relations industry.’

Heather Yaxley (@greenbanana): Research academic, author, tutor, blogger, consultant, Yaxley seems to be everywhere at present. Her key insight is to unearth the shamefully hidden female side to public relations (she will condemn me for this unbalanced shortlist). Her thinking’s joined up because it draws on insights from history, psychology, business and management. PR Conversations is a must-read blog and I’m using her co-authored book The Public Relations Strategic Toolkit in my teaching this year.

Even from this short summary, you can see that joined-up thinkers are looking outside and beyond one narrow discipline, and asking (often awkward) questions about its future. We need more of them.

4 Responses to “Joined-up public relations”

  1. Heather Yaxley 14/10/2013 at 12:35 pm #

    Richard – what can I say. Stunned to be in this list of those who join up thinking around the dots (or any other shapes). Thank you for including me – and I look forward to challenging the thinking, practices and theorising of those joining us in the occupation as students and practitioners this year. Not least, I look forward to how they will continue to challenge my own thinking, practice and theorising – especially when they ask the best question of all: why?

  2. jeanvalin1 14/10/2013 at 1:51 pm #

    Richard,
    I very much like your analogy to learn a language as ome must learn to walk stumble and then run in our wonderful world of public relations.
    Perhaps the term ‘joined up” is more prevalent in the UK? I’m not sure I completly understand the term.If you mean that thinking strategicly is at one end of the continum of public relations skills and competencies, and that this is the ‘join up’ juncture of basic skills meets analysis and determination of strategy, then I get what is meant by that term.
    Heather et al mentioned in your post deliver great advice and teachings to learn how one arrives at that end of the continuum. It is not given that everyone perform well at that level but the building blocks of critical thinking and other elements contained in Heather’s co-authored book and a few others out there, are excellent.

  3. Richard Bailey 14/10/2013 at 2:21 pm #

    Thanks for commenting, Jean.

    Joined-up is indeed slang, though it is a useful shorthand way to communicate something more complex. When children learn to write, they start with individual letters which they then form into words. Only later do they learn to connect the letters in joined-up words.

    So joined-up thinking suggests sophisticated thinking. Its a useful concept in our practice area, since public relations does not operate in isolation. Practitioners need to connect the practice to the internal and external environments (described by Grunig as the ‘boundary-spanning’ role of public relations).

  4. Catherine Sweet (@CSweetPR) 18/10/2013 at 1:47 pm #

    As ever, your post is thought provoking. And I agree with your roll of honour. My initial instinct was to agree with what you said- and then I thought about my own Masters degree students, who seem able to do something original and distinctively exciting, by combining both theory and practice. It’s less a case of “joining up the dots” as you put it, than thinking from a different perspective. Too much of PR teaching- both in degree programmes and on-the-job in agencies is based on a tool kit approach- grab this tool and use it, rather than on thinking strategically. And you don’t need a lot of experience to be able to think strategically.

    In fact, the very best use of the VMM instead of the hackneyed AVE measurement that I have ever seen came out of MA students rather than practitioners! So, in my view the idea that great PR takes a lot of baby talking, and years of learning a dictionary before you can put together a sentence? Well, it just doesn’t work for me. I am reminded of Heather’s brilliant blog post (which I still use in my teaching and my consultancy work)- “How many PR people does it take to change a light bulb?” My answer was one- the PR person who says “why change a light bulb? Just open the curtains.”

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