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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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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.

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?

When I were a lad…

20 Jul

I was teased the other day for lapsing into Four Yorkshiremen* territory.

The context was a discussion about the purpose of higher education and how we should free students from timetables and assignments and coach them towards solving big problems.

The problem – as it seems to me – is that secondary education is going the other way and students would feel adrift without the constraining structures we provide in higher education.

Assessments were indeed harder ‘when I were a lad’. My university degree was achieved entirely on the results of a series of three-hour closed-book exams. Luckily, I am good at concentrating for short bursts and rose to the challenge. But I’ve never since been required to hand write an exam script. So was this a valid form of assessment?

My students have it easier at one level. But there’s more to life than grades and exams, and they have to negotiate different challenges.

A typical degree course has multiple modules or units each year. Each of these may have several different forms of assessment at different times in the university calendar. Multiply four modules by three assignments and you have 12 assessment points in the year, say. Miss any of these – or mess up on them – and passing the degree becomes much harder.

Keep this in mind when you read the headlines about grade inflation.

We now have the statistics to back up my sense that there are more Firsts being awarded.

It’s said employers can’t make sense of these awards. So what if a First is no longer an indication of a genius (and a red flag to many sensible employers). Instead, it’s a mark of supreme organisational skills – so becoming a useful guide to a skill employers should admire.

Setting aside the problem of handwriting (I’ve lost this skill after decades of typing) – I’d still choose to be assessed by an exam than by continuous assessment. I’d find it easier to perform well the once than to be as well-organised as the best of my students.

When you consider in the challenge of growing up with the pressures of always-on social media, we clearly had it easy ‘when I were a lad’.

I’m meeting some very switched-on graduating students tomorrow. I have high hopes for them and because of LinkedIn and social media I’ll know whether my judgement is vindicated by their performance in the workplace in the coming years.

My degree showed I was good at monotasking. Now let’s praise the multitaskers.

*I already knew I had Bailey ancestors from industrial revolution Yorkshire (see photo). I learnt only this week that my mother’s Sibson ancestor was born just a few miles from me in sheep farming country.

The most important year of your degree

16 Jun

A conventional three-year degree course is more of a marathon than a sprint.

I’ve seen students begin strongly but lack the passion to sustain this to the end. I’ve seen yet more begin slowly but come good at the end.

Most students probably view the year in the middle as the unexciting bit: it’s not new, but nor is it near the end.

That’s why your second year is the most important of the three.

You’ve adjusted to higher education by surviving year one. You’ve worked through the doubts and questions about whether you’re on the right course.

Year two is your time to make progress without the imminent pressure of graduating (or the self-imposed pressure of believing that only a First/Upper Second counts).

You’re familiar with your surroundings, your classmates, your lecturers, the routine. You should have learnt a lot about yourself and what motivates you. It’s time to start putting some lessons into practice.

If you’re studying public relations, that means gaining work experience in different sectors. That means applying lessons to ‘brand you’ and exploring how to develop professional relationships.

Who does this well?

Lucy Hayball has won our #bestPRblogs contest while still in her second year (of four: she’s about to spend a year working in the PR team at L’Oreal in London).

She was an outsider to win the contest as she’d started her blog during the year and had taken time to find her voice.

She’s not a show-off. She’s not a know-it-all. Instead, she’s a thoughtful learner who took us with her as she made connections, applied for placement opportunities and built her personal brand.

Most impressive of all, she did it alone. No classmates were in competition to produce better blogs; no tutors incentivised her by assessing her efforts; the placement year application process is solitary (she’s potentially in competition with her classmates).

I’ve spoken to Lucy about her year, and these are the lessons worth capturing from her year two experience:

  • Keep learning
  • Be humble
  • Push yourself
  • Experiment to find your niche and your voice
  • Find your community and be supportive of others
  • Busy people find time

She made the long journey to spend an afternoon with me at the Search Leeds conference yesterday (where we met someone who’s achieved spectacular success in the five years since graduating with a PR degree).

Lucy knows she’s still a work in progress and there are many tougher challenges to come – but she has the ability to see the bigger picture.

Only at the end did I think to check her age. She turns 20 next month. So she’s achieved this as a 19 year-old.

That’s worth noting – and her achievements are worth celebrating. Youth and wisdom: what a great combination (as we saw from most of the speakers at Search Leeds).

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.