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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.

The craft that dare not speak its name

14 Dec

I love PRPublic relations (or PR). There, I said it.

Many people (including some of those who work in the field) have a problem with the term ‘public relations’.

But what’s so disreputable about paying attention to the public (or, better, having regard for the public interest)?

What’s wrong with building relationships with those who matter to your organisation or cause?

If there’s nothing wrong with PR in principle, then the problem must lie in the way it’s practised – or in the gap between principle and practice.

That allows its critics to condemn public relations as, um, a PR exercise. To damn it as spin, manipulation or lies.

That’s why so many practitioners – particularly in the public sector – prefer to use the neutral sounding ‘communication/s’. When the public is paying for your service (though taxes), you want to avoid the charge that you’re using public money to hide the truth.

Communication/s: sounds good, doesn’t it?

There are two problems though (besides the point that no one can agree on whether it should be singular or plural).

One is practical. In a world in which all professional and managerial work involves communication, what sets the paid communicators apart? Doctors and lawyers communicate; accountants communicate; managers communicate. Communication may even distinguish the good ones from the rest, but communication doesn’t define what they do.

The other is a question  of professional status. Communication is what you do when a decision has been reached: you tell people about it. There’s no implication that professional communicators help shape those decisions. (In other words, it suggests a functional rather than a strategic role for comms practitioners).

Yet public relations – the practice that manages relationships with groups that are important to the success or failure of the organisation and which has regard for the public interest – goes beyond communication. It has a say in how the organisation behaves.

Why does this matter? Public relations had a good twentieth century, its first century as a named practice and would-be profession. It established itself; became an academic discipline; increased rapidly in numbers and gained professional and trade associations. There’s now a lot invested in the name.

If that name is misunderstood and widely discredited – then how can the field continue to assert its relevance and significance?

There are no lack of those in more assertive and less self-critical fields who’d like to make a land grab. Marketing, advertising, human resources, management consultancy and the law all overlap with public relations.

This is why discussions around the role, purpose and (even) definition of public relations matter. They’re not mere academic questions: they matter to the work of tens of thousands of people. They matter to the organisations why hire and pay them.

These questions even have implications for the strength of our democracy and society.

 

Clue 1

17 Nov

See if you can work out who our guest will be in our class next week (hint: s/he’s a prominent public relations practitioner). The first clue is in this paragraph. For the next clue in our blog treasure hunt, you’ll need to head to:

www.thebettinsonblog.wordpress.com 

 

The power of public relations

3 Oct

Comms and caffeine 2I love teaching: it’s the hardest communication job I’ve ever had.

Let me explain this – first to practitioners who’d like to teach more, then to students.

To those who think university lecturers inhabit an ivory tower with endless free time for abstract research, let me put you straight. We’re much closer to school teachers with heavy timetables and endless admin and emails. We snatch time for study and research around the teaching, assessment and admin.

So why is it such a good communication challenge? Because teaching isn’t about you, the teacher. It doesn’t matter what you know or what you say. Teaching is all about learning, and your words can have unintended consequences.

I’ve given a version of an introductory lecture for over ten years. I show a range of definitions of and perspectives on public relations. That’s what I say. But what do students write in their essays?

They take from this lecture the lesson that it’s impossible to define public relations – which is the opposite of the intended message.

Teachers have to show, not tell. To encourage a culture of learning rather than imposing a rigid view of the world.

Sometimes metaphors help.

Some students and graduates tell me they struggle to gain work experience placements or job interviews. So I ask what methods they’ve used. It sometimes turns out they’ve been bombarding businesses with emails or (worse), hassling them through public channels like Twitter.

Is that how you’d try to get a first date, I ask. By emailing random strangers? Or by publicising your desperation?

How does this make you look to the recipient of your messages?

You need to start over and first make yourself attractive to your potential partner. In public relations terms, this means showing you can do PR for yourself before you offer to do it for someone else.

  • Do you have a blog or website? Is it up to date?
  • Check your About page and your Twitter bio
  • Scroll through your Tweets: what impression are you giving to a professional?
  • Are you a visual communicator? Then show off your Instagram, Pinterest or YouTube streams and channels

Ashley Keir-Bucknall did not believe that blogging could help her on the way to a career in public relations. Now that an employer approached her to offer an interview that led to a job, she’s a convert.

It’s a better lesson than I can teach. What’s more, Ashley’s never been in my classes; we’ve not even met, though we now work together on a spare-time project.

That’s the power of public relations. It can help turn strangers into friends.

It’s deceptively simple. So how do you teach PR?

1 Apr

Comms and caffeineAt a junior level you need to make stuff happen. At a senior level, you need to add value to the organisation. Sounds easy?

When you break down the steps involved in making stuff happen, you realise there’s more to PR than just common sense (though that helps).

By way of illustration, a student blogger was invited to speak on local radio to share her thoughts on the role of social media in the election. I make that three steps and at least three years of preparation behind this activity.

  1. Interest and expertise. Post one or more articles about politics and social media (having studied or taken an interest in politics, journalism and public relations).
  2. Make your posts discoverable. You may assume that Google is all-knowing, but even the great search engine needs help in filtering (we all struggle with ‘filter failure’ in the social media age). Don’t miss out on simple tricks like completing your ‘About’ page and sharing your contact details and social media profiles.
  3. Make yourself available. You have to fit in with broadcast schedules, and commit to their timings and agenda.

There’s a fourth step: have something interesting to say, but you should already have passed that test at step one.

So, this is a good achievement for a student, whose reward is the experience (and perhaps being written about by those like me who don’t even teach her). But how does a local radio interview add value to an organisation (the challenge for the senior practitioner)?

This is where education can make a difference and help PR graduates overtake those with well-developed craft skills who may never master PR as a managerial function.

A radio interview, like a blog post or newspaper article or email or phone call, is merely a PR output. You need to see the bigger picture if you’re to explain how outputs contribute to outcomes.

To understand this, you need to articulate the purpose of your PR activity.

Is your PR activity focused on raising awareness of a cause, a person, a product or an organisation? Are you seeking to change people’s attitudes to these, or to change their behaviour (eg getting people to vote?).

Once you’ve decided what your activity is designed to achieve, you can build in suitable measures (an essential requirement of a managerial approach) and deploy appropriate resources. You’ll also realise that output measures like press clippings or social media shares and likes (though easy) are laughably inadequate.

It’s deceptively simple. And that’s the challenge faced by educators. We don’t want to overcomplicate for its own sake, but what seems straightforward to an experienced practitioner will seem very challenging to a student.

Remember your first driving lesson? Mirror-signal-manouevre may be simple, but coordinating the steering and the gear changes while performing this ritual seemed very challenging at first. It took practice.