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In praise of time wasting

8 Feb

In the week that Facebook turned ten, it’s worth remembering the role that university played in its origin.

Facebook was not a classroom project, but it did emerge from the gap that university provides to be inventive – or simply to waste time. Mark Zuckerberg did not complete his Harvard education, but it didn’t matter. The space university gave him resolved his career dilemmas: he created his own future. Go back a generation and we recall that Bill Gates also dropped out of the same university before founding Microsoft.

These two are not an example of the failure of higher education, they are the apogee of achievement. University is less about teaching and more about offering an opportunity to learn.

The most important lesson young people have to learn is about themselves: about their aptitudes, resilience and direction. These are not qualities that can be taught; they are qualities that need to be discovered.

The time and space that university provides between the disciplined timetable of school and the routine of work is a valuable resource. It’s an example of what Clay Shirky calls Cognitive Surplus.

For every Zuckerberg of Gates there will be thousands who waste time without inventing their futures. Many may come to regret the expense of higher education. Sure it’s wasteful; but consider the alternative. If we only trained people to do what they were told, we would not have Microsoft or Facebook. We would have unimaginative drones only fit for an industrial economy in a less certain but much more exciting post-industrial age.

The only sure way to fail higher education is to gain nothing from the classroom and to learn nothing about yourself either. It is a failure of imagination, that vital commodity if we’re to create a better future.

University remains the best way to gain the space to develop your imagination; to envisage your future. But I accept that there’s competition: the same fees and expenses could fund some extended world travels (another way people have traditionally broken out of the constraints and predictability of home and developed their self-awareness and imagination.)

Travel (as distinct from tourism) and university both work because they break with conventional structures and routines. They force people to be resourceful. Package holidays have not created great travel literature; longer structured timetables do not foster great creativity and independence.

That’s why I still believe in the gap that university provides to help people develop, and why I welcome the spare time it provides (even if it’s mostly to be wasted).


Marketing is ‘me’, public relations ‘we’

1 Jan

Looking up at the night sky, our ancestors gained an understanding of the stars, planets and constellations, naming many of them.

It was only much more recently that a scientific approach gave currency to the view that planet Earth was just another peripheral object – not the centre of the universe around which everything else revolves.

ME_WE_small-724x1024During the twentieth century – the age of industrialisation and mass media – marketing approaches put ‘me’ at the centre of the promotional universe. Branding, advertising and, yes, much of public relations were devoted to the promotion of ‘me first’.

This makes sense; it’s how capitalism works. It’s what clients want to hear from their agencies and employees. So what’s changed?

In the twenty-first century we’re no longer passive audiences reached by mass media. Following the financial crisis and with ever present concerns about environmental and economic sustainability, there’s a need for a new approach. A need for us to consider citizens above consumers, as Robert Phillips argues.

This presents an opportunity for public relations to emerge from its marginal role within the ‘marketing mix’ and to return to what it was always designed to do – to develop relationships with constituencies vital for the success of the organisation.

As Steve Earl and Stephen Waddington show in their new book, the best defence an organisation can build to protect itself from attack is to have a network of influential friends willing to volunteer their support in a time of crisis. Since this support cannot be bought and nor can it be negotiated in advance, it’s a risky strategy. But the greater risk is extinction.

The end purpose of public relations is legitimacy – the continued licence to operate. This licence is granted – and can be withdrawn – by politicians, employees, customers, activists (in short, by society). So the job of public relations is to gain understanding and support from groups beyond the organisation’s direct control (even employees have autonomy, and are often the organisation’s fiercest critics).

There are risks in putting ‘we’ first. It’s the problem politicians face in a democracy: they have to present policies with popular appeal, so promoting short-term interests over the long-term.

The danger of ‘we’ capitalism is that it’s no more successful but that it’s much less honest than ‘me’ capitalism.

The challenge for public relations is to emerge from marketing-led short-term measures and to find ways to measure how public relations contributes to long-term sustainable success.

To make a start, let’s recognise our place within the universe.

Image credit: Peter Hathaway (

Strategic Public Relations Leadership: my PR book of the year

15 Nov

Strategic Public Relations LeadershipDisclosure: I have worked with Anne Gregory and Paul Willis, and apologise for the rave review that follows. My thoughts are my own.

First, let’s tackle some myths.

Myth #1: That most PR practitioners work in the private sector. They don’t: in the UK most PR and communication practitioners work in the public and third sectors (see page 34). This book corrects the imbalance in much of the literature.

Myth #2: That the most rewarding – and best remunerated – PR jobs are in consultancies. If we exclude the few entrepreneurs who have become wealthy through building and selling consultancy businesses, many of the largest and best-paid PR roles are in complex public sector organisations. This book addresses them. But it makes the case for all public relations leaders to operate like consultants (see chapter 14).

Myth #3: That academics and practitioners don’t understand each other. There’s fault on both sides: on academics for writing inaccessibly and on practitioners for ignoring most academic thinking. Next year’s CIPR president Stephen Waddington has been tackling this problem – and who better than a past president (Anne Gregory) to respond with an accessible book aimed more at practitioners than at her academic peers.

This book manages to be  short (just 164 pages including the index) and wide-ranging. The key to this is that it has ditched academic referencing for footnotes, making the text much more accessible. So a typical chapter is of ten pages, with two pages of extensive footnotes. I hope I’m right in detecting a trend because this device alone will do much to demystify academic writing.

Part One reviews the strategic contribution of public relations. Just as marketing directors or HR directors see an organisation through their particular lens, so there is a distinctive PR lens that explains why this is a vital function embracing media, corporate communication, public affairs, community relations and investor relations.

“Communication is the word often used to describe these collective specialist functions, but we will use the phrase public relations because it best describes what happens: the organisation builds relationships in public and with these various publics. (p.11)”

This echoes with David Phillips’s view of the organisation as  a ‘nexus of relationships’. As Gregory and Willis state: ‘Organisations are organic, evolving and deeply relational. They are usually made up of people, although some organisations have very few, but facilitate connections between people, for example Twitter. Organisations interact with others. The create connections and conversations… ‘Organising’ happens as people communicate and undertake action.’ (p.8)

The centrepiece of this section is the authors’ new model of strategic public relations (the ‘four-by-four model’ p.35). In summary, this places organisations within a complex stakeholder environment (Coombs and Holladay’s definition of public relations as ‘the management of mutually influential relationships within a web of constituency relationships’ could have been cited here).

The first of the four dimensions note the contribution of public relations at societal, corporate, value-chain and functional levels (pp 36-40). The other four dimensions are the four attributes of public relations leaders (described as their ‘DNA strands’): an excellent understanding of the brand; leadership qualities; public relations as a core organisational competence (communication does not only come from the PR team); and excellence in planning, managing and evaluating public relations (note the emphasis on evaluation in Alex Aiken’s government comms strategy).

Part Two addresses the preoccupations of public relations leaders such as contextual intelligence, organisational values and ethical practice. This section relies more on practitioner research than on ‘pure’ academic research.

The authors identify ‘contextual intelligence’ as the core characteristic marking out the public relations leader. It involves coping with uncertainty and thriving on ambiguity, though intelligence is also supported by rational planning.

Part Three looks at the responsibilities of public relations leaders (the planner, the catalyst, the expert technician, the internal educator, the consultant).

I found the last of these particularly new and refreshing (and feel I can detect Paul Willis as the principal author of  this section).

‘A consultancy approach suits public relations. Consultants facilitate change in organisations and in Chapter 3 we highlight how public relations leadership is associated with being an agent of change… The applicability of consultancy thinking to public relations is also highlighted by the idea that consultants do not just intervene and implement solutions themselves; they also enable others.’ (p. 146-7)

What is needed is ‘transferable knowledge, as well as profound theoretical and practical understanding.’

It’s risky to make sweeping judgements, but this feels like a milestone text to me. Yet it’s written for senior practitioners, not for everyone. I’m pleased to have made sense of it – which is not true of that many academic contributions.

The long tail of teaching

6 Nov

I’ve had a number of interactions with former students in recent weeks. These have mostly been positive – and have included lots of praise and thanks for the content of my classes several years ago. (This is one of the main rewards of the job, so I’ll enjoy it while I can).

This delayed gratification contrasts with the monitored and measured world of ‘student satisfaction’ we operate in. We can judge our satisfaction with a purchase or with a meal or film – but how is a student to assess their satisfaction with their teaching? If my only goal was student satisfaction I’d set easy, explicit assignments and give high grades – a guaranteed route to high student satisfaction scores.

Yet education is not a shopping transaction, it’s a long-term investment. Satisfaction has to be assessed at different stages as its rewards are not always immediate. Graduates rarely make use of the lessons we teach them in the early years of a PR career, but those lessons become more valuable as people climb the career ladder.

The distinction between immediate satisfaction and long-term returns is very similar to the discussions we have in public relations about measuring outcomes, not outputs.

Nor are long term outcomes from education only to be assessed through earning power (though this may be a useful measure). It’s too easy to overlook the lessons to be learnt from failure (‘fail fast and fail often’). One of the former students who expressed satisfaction with her long-ago classes never even completed her degree course. She’s now working in a digital communications role. Is she a success or a failure? It depends on the measures you choose to apply.

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.

Dissertations: a two-step guide for students

19 Sep

It’s that time of year again. I’m holding conversations with students, receiving emails and this blog has new visitors searching for answers to common questions.

In an attempt to help, here’s a simple two-step guide to dissertations for public relations students.

  1. Choose a broad topic, based on your interests. At this stage, it could be celebrity, social media, evaluation or dozens of others. Then check that your topic is covered in recent textbooks (eg Theaker, Theaker and Yaxley, Tench and Yeomans to name a few). The relevant chapters in these books should give you a start, and point you to dozens of further sources (books, articles, news reports etc). If you can’t find a chapter on your topic, you may struggle to develop a good literature review, so perhaps should think again.
  2. Ask a specific question about your topic.  As well as being based on a review of published literature, your dissertation requires you to conduct some original (or ‘primary’) research on the subject. So make sure you’re asking a specific question to give a strong focus to your research. Research can be done in many ways, but typically students use a selection of interviews, questionnaires, observation, content analysis etc. An example of a specific question on the topic of evaluation might be: ‘What measures should replace advertising value equivalency (AVE)?’

Some students view the dissertation as a chore. But it’s one of the few things you will take away from your course to show for your efforts, and it can differentiate you from other graduates at job interviews. So it’s worth doing well.

Public relations: on the side of the angels?

19 Aug

Four books, two themes

new booksIn place of full reviews, here are some themes from four new books I’ve been reading this summer.

The first is long-awaited. It explores the connection between public relations and leadership (as distinct from management).

Kevin Murray’s The Language of Leaders (first published in 2012, but I’m reading the 2013 second edition) is concerned with the leadership traits and communication skills of senior executives, not the PR skills of their advisers. Based on interviews with CEOs, it’s an anecdotal but intellectual book that covers key traits and explores ‘why you need to be a better communicator if you want to lead.’ The book presents twelve principles of leadership communication.

Though Richard Branson was an interviewee who eluded the author, his example as a communicative leader is an inspiring one.

Kevin Murray is a senior practitioner, though one with an impressive commitment to scholarly publications.

Anne Gregory and Paul Willis, both based at Leeds Metropolitan University, have written the pioneering Strategic Public Relations Leadership. From Grunig and Hunt’s landmark textbook Managing Public Relations in 1984 to Moss and DeSanto’s 2012 Public Relations: A Managerial Perspective, management was the key challenge in the academic literature.

Now it’s leadership. The book articulates the strategic contribution of public relations and explores the qualities and attributes of public relations leaders before describing their responsibilities.

It’s a rich and rewarding read, but the practitioner is spared the opaque language and obscure references of many academic texts. That’s because the book uses footnotes, many of which are detailed explanations of academic sources and concepts.

It’s an ideal textbook for a senior practitioner qualification that doesn’t yet exist (since the CIPR Diploma is still stuck in the management paradigm).

My second theme is public relations and the public good. At first glance, this is a challenging concept, since it’s much easier to see how public relations is used to protect and promote private interests.

John Brown, Pat Gaudin and Wendy Moran have written PR and Communication in Local Government and Public Services for the Kogan Page PR in Practice series.

Some texts in this series are purely ‘how to’ guides written by practitioners, showing little awareness of wider debates and academic contributions to the field. This is an altogether more sophisticated read, even containing some historical context and citing scholars such as Jacquie L’Etang and Scott Anthony (see below).

‘Public relations and public services go together’ the authors write. ‘They are intrinsically linked to a belief in both the public service ethos and public interest.’

Yet is the rebranding of PR as communication in the title and throughout the text an attempt to distance responsible communicators from the discredited image of PR consultants?

Scott Anthony’s Public Relations and the Making of Modern Britain was published last year, but I waited for the (much cheaper) paperback to appear this year. Its subtitle is ‘Stephen Tallents and the birth of a progressive media profession’ and this indicates the balance of the book. Rather than being a straightforward biography of Stephen Tallents, one of the founding fathers of British public relations, the book presents the emergence of public relations within the context of the history of ideas.

Anthony writes: ‘Public relations today has an image problem. Seen through the prism of popular works… public relations is a profession that has endowed sectarian interests with the ability to manipulate entire populations… By contrast, this book argues that the development of public relations in Britain was a product of the Great Depression that was animated by the same liberal ideas that inspired William Beveridge and John Maynard Keynes.’

In other words, public relations originated in a desire to create a more harmonious and cohesive society. I’m sure the authors of PR and Communication in Local Government and Public Services would agree.

As with the Gregory and Willis book, the text is supported by extensive footnotes, making a complex book a manageable and brief read.

Just as many seem to be ditching the name ‘public relations’ we have a Cambridge academic writing a revisionist history to make professionals feel much better about their practice.

How to teach (step three)

26 Jun

You’ve given a guest lecture. You’ve run one or more classes on an hourly-paid basis.

If you still want more and hanker after greater security (tenure), then the next step is to consider a permanent academic post. It looks very alluring: there are agreed limits to your teaching hours; you’re encouraged to conduct your own research and get it published; and you have the chance to shape the team and faculty through management roles.

Permanent academic roles are still very attractive, but they’re becoming more scarce and competition is increasing. So here’s what you need to know. To prepare your CV and to hone your interview skills, you need to play to your strengths. Which of the following are you strongest in?

  • Teaching and assessment
  • Management and admin
  • Research outputs

A permanent job is a dynamic mix of all three, and it’s a rare individual who’s equally good at all three. So first decide where you’re strongest and develop a narrative around this.

Next, you need to cover the other areas. Academics who are primarily interested in research are often bored and frustrated by classroom teaching. Those who prioritise teaching and scholarly activity have less time for management and admin.

It’s worth considering, too, that there’s no future in only focusing on teaching (it won’t get you promoted). All of the more senior roles (principal lecturer, head of school, associate dean etc) involve taking on more management. Professorial roles are reserved for those with the highest rated research (that brings esteem and funding to the institution).

Finally, it’s a professionalising field. Universities worried about their standing in league table rankings are increasingly expecting candidates for academic posts to have a PhD (completed or nearing completion). Note that this is a research qualification, not a teaching qualification, and there may be problems with academic researchers in the classroom, and there are problems with this stipulation in vocational areas such as public relations. (Some job descriptions allow for extensive professional experience as an alternative to a research qualification.)

So you need to think through your professional development before applying for an academic post. What relevant practice experience do you have? What ambitions do you have to become a research academic? What enthusiasm do you have for the day job (classroom teaching). What contribution will you make to management in an increasingly audited world governed by league tables, external scrutiny and student satisfaction?

If it all sounds too burdensome, then here’s a glimmer of hope. Universities are offering more fractional jobs and are open to job sharing arrangements. So your first academic post could be a part-time role alongside your existing work.

This should be an ideal arrangement. Your work as a practitioner gives you credibility in the classroom; you can offset the steadiness of one role against the commercial ups and downs of the other; and a part-time role shouldn’t mean you’re overburdened with teaching and admin duties. The challenge, though, is that you’ll be juggling ever more roles and responsibilities. The teaching may be timetabled, but the emails are non-stop and clients are always demanding. But if you’ve worked in the public relations field, you’re a natural multitasker, right?

Defending the indefinable

25 Apr

‘Public relations can’t be defined.’

I read this often in student essays. It’s a consequence of teaching that offers multiple perspectives and encourages independent thought on the practice and profession.

But if public relations can’t be defined, then how do you explain the existence of so many different definitions? The evidence suggests that it’s too easy to define public relations, not too hard. It’s so easy you can have a go yourself (many students, practitioners and lecturers do).

Rather than discussing the definitions of PR, let’s consider its purpose. Let’s try to answer the question ‘why?’ rather than the question ‘what?’

If the purpose of PR is to generate publicity, then this simplifies matters. We can scrap the professional bodies, end most PR qualifications and merge the PR and advertising industries.

Professor Tom Watson argues here that there are two industries living unhappily together: a publicity business and a strategic communication business.

So what’s the purpose of strategic communication? Many would argue it’s legitimacy (and I agree): it’s about organisations retaining their ‘licence to operate’ in a complex world in which competitors, customers, politicians, activists and the media can all turn on an organisation in full public view.

This legitimacy business (it goes beyond reputation) sounds important; it should be professional.

This leads us to the intriguing prospect of a high calibre contest for the CIPR presidency between a practitioner who writes (Stephen Waddington) and an academic who talks to practitioners (Dr Jon White). Their discussion, sparked by another blog post by Tom Watson asking if the CIPR isn’t past its sell-by date, already has 80 comments on LinkedIn.

It’s an important debate, and it’s good to see engaged academics mixing it with intelligent practitioners.

Back to earth. Back to reality.

5 Sep

There's a feeling of 'back to school' this week. But that's not the reason for the jolt.

The reality check is the decision to fold the Media Guardian supplement (and Education and Society supplements too) into the main paper. Clearly, this is a commercially-driven decision taken because of the migration of job advertisements from print to online (and elsewhere). Decades ago, before the world of the web, each Monday's Media Guardian had page after page of job ads and was the place to find a whole range of graduate opportunities. Times change, and so does technology.

The second jolt relates to this first one. Here's a very lucid perspective on the issue of unpaid internships from an MSc Marketing student. The phrase that leaps out at me is this uncontentious-looking one: 'I’m 23 and aspire to a career in advertising'. Only connect. The Guardian loses its well-established Media supplement  because of the migration of classified ads online. Then ask some questions about the future of display ads and print media.

Yes, but surely broadcast ads have bounced back in the past year. Perhaps; but what's the wider picture? The future of advertising isn't in advertising. It's in creating ideas, delivering compelling communications, fostering communities and managing digital campaigns (as this student is already aware). In other words, the future of advertising looks very like public relations…

Hopefully smart graduates are alert to this. Hopefully their lecturers and textbook authors are too. But I very much doubt that university marketing and management teams are when they offer courses that appear to promise glittering careers in glamorous twentieth-century industries that evoke a Mad Men world.

Bump. Back to reality.