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In praise of excellence

17 May

In my day job, I primarily have to teach to assignments. Curiosity, interest and long-term value are secondary.

Teaching to assignments is repetitive and often involves a discussion of rules (word counts, referencing conventions etc). In truth it’s a dull business (but someone has to do it).

I’m also a mean marker. By that I don’t mean I’m particularly miserly, but that I keep an eye on averages. I’m delighted to award high marks, but they will tend to be counterbalanced by low ones as marks revolve around a mean (as well as recording the achievement of ‘learning outcomes’). Yet university administrators really don’t like low marks to be awarded: it looks bad, and is assumed to reflect bad teaching and support rather than any failing on the part of the (fee-paying) student.

Luckily, the day job’s constraints have their limits. As a volunteer magazine editor for almost ten years I’ve been able to set my own rules and to strive for different standards.

What do I have to show for this dedication? Not as much as I should, but allow me to be very proud of one achievement only.

Consistency is king

After a misfiring experiment with ranking students on their influencer metrics (#socialstudent), I came up with a better formula to identify and recognise outstanding PR students. Our #bestPRblogs contest has been running for four academic years. I don’t want to take anything away from the achievements of the three past winners (they were the best in their year) – but to me the contest has never been stronger than this year.

It’s an exercise in excellence. It rewards exceptional achievement, but is also a long-running contest that rewards consistency over sporadic brilliance. It’s a true test of PR ability.

Here’s the breakdown. To compete, a student has to:

  • Have a blog, partly or wholly focused on public relations. Easy. Then they have to post consistent, quality content to their blog (the hard part) – and make sure that others know about their efforts (by using, but not abusing, social media channels).
  • Be selected for my pick of the week roundup. This ran throughout the academic year. 39 students from 13 universities made it. No doubt I missed several talented student bloggers, but part of the exercise involved them finding ways to draw their efforts to my attention. Most of those shortlisted were outliers, who faced no competition from classmates at their universities. They found their own way.
  • Be consistent. Those shortlisted after 24 weeks were those who had appeared most often in the weekly roundup. Some had scarcely missed a week. There’s a time and a place for brilliant, original content – but let’s not overlook the virtue of consistency.
  • Be brilliant. In a crowded field where anyone can have a blog and a social media presence, how do you stand out? Here are two lessons I’ve learnt from our shortlisted student bloggers:
    • Brilliant writing counts. It’s so simple really: good writing is easy to read. But what’s difficult is getting the balance between the personal and the professional.
    • Quality content has value. Your blog does not demand a stream of personal anecdotes or confessions. This year, we’ve had shortlisted candidates who have been editors as well as writers. They have commissioned and published interviews with practitioners. This is doubly valuable as an exercise in networking.

The strength of the leaders this year has meant there were fewer opportunities for others to force their way into the competition. There was little space for the merely ordinary.

So, just this once, let me praise some exceptionally talented individuals. Let’s recognise excellence and out of the ordinary achievement. Far from diminishing others, our shortlisted bloggers are leading by example and inspiring others. It’s the best lesson of all.

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.

Graduates in a spin

16 Aug

We’re in a recession, with high levels of youth unemployment. And yet the PR industry’s demand for bright young people appears to be insatiable. Each summer I find there are more employers asking me to recommend good candidates than there are graduates desperately seeking opportunities.

I’ve been teaching public relations in universities for ten years, yet even I’ll admit that a degree is not enough (and a PR degree is still not essential). So how are employers to select the right candidates?

A degree indicates something. It should indicate curiosity and an ability to learn, and this is easily assessed at interview by asking about current affairs (or sport or popular culture).

Good candidates should also have gained some experience (many degree courses expect students to spend a year on an industrial placement and there are many other chances to gain short-term work experience). If nothing else, work experience shows a candidate’s dedication and networking skills.

They will also have the right attitude. While I’d warn against hiring perfectionists, good candidates will be doers and triers. They should have something to show for their time outside the classroom and the workplace. Have they written for online magazines? Do they have their own blog? What about their presence on social networks? What about their offline activities (team sports, volunteering and so on)?

For the past two years, I’ve run a national ranking of UK PR students judged by their social media influence metrics (Klout and PeerIndex). While such metrics are a work in progress, this is arguably a better measure of PR potential than a degree classification.

Then there’s the question of change. We’re not educating young people for the PR industry of 20 years ago, but for a different world of 20 years from now. There’s been a shift from traditional media skills (press release writing and AVEs) to broader online engagement (community management and stakeholder relationship management).

Media skills are a PR tactic and these change with time and circumstances. What doesn’t change is the need for public relations advisers to help organisations to communicate, develop relationships, protect reputation and help avoid risks and crises. Risk and issues management – not media relations – is ultimately the distinguishing characteristic and distinct domain of the public relations consultant.

That sounds like a discipline that merits some serious study.

This article was first published on the PRCA blog.

Virtual virtuoso

17 May

virtualvirtuosoI picked up a gong last night. Now, bragging’s not charming and two awards in two days might be pushing my luck.

But the inaugural Golden Robes awards 2013 were special: these are awards made by students at an event organised by the students’ union. The loudest applause of the night went to Barry Galawan, a member of the security staff, who won a ‘hidden hero’ award.

I was presented with ‘virtual virtuoso’ in another alliterative category. The citation mentioned a social media stunt in a class before Christmas. It also referred to the opportunities I give for students to get published on Behind the Spin.

All evening, the phrase ‘over and above’ was mentioned in the context of academic and support staff who have done their utmost to help students.

So it’s perhaps unsurprising that no mention was made in the citation about teaching in the area of digital and social media. This year, I’ve shared teaching with Stuart Bruce on one undergraduate and two postgraduate modules. Though I say it myself, I think our teaching is fresh, innovative and embracing of academic and practitioner perspectives. I don’t apologise if it’s also challenging. I think this (not me) is a worthy winner!

A week in the life

27 Jan

Increasingly it seems that education never sleeps. Particularly if there's an educational aspect to one's presence on social media.

I'm not complaining: it's a privilege to teach and I'm fortunate to be busy. Here are some things I'm looking forward to over the next seven days:

  • Teaching on a CIPR Diploma course in Bulgaria (Saturday and Sunday)
  • Teaching public relations to second year business, marketing and journalism students (Monday)
  • Moderating a batch of Diploma scripts and some MA PR Writing assignments (Tuesday)
  • Starting delivery of a new, experimental Public Relations and New Media module (Wednesday)
  • Giving positive feedback to returning CIPR Diploma students and first year PR students (Thursday)
  • Planning a paper for the International History of Public Relations conference
  • Discussing a proposed chapter for a textbook
  • Designing new social media modules for a revamped Sport Marketing course
  • Giving feedback to dissertation students
  • Hunting out more stories for our subject group blog
  • Attending the CIPR networking event on Thursday
  • Editing new stories for Behind the Spin
  • Keeping up with RSS, Twitter, blogs, news, email and books (last, not least)

We all fall short of our highest expectations, and I'm sure I'll slip up and forget some things I should be doing, but I like to keep my eye on the goal. If I can put it in one word, I aim to be encouraging.

New year, new projects

29 Sep

20yearson I love this time of year; the optimism is infectious.

Though the mood will be different as we approach the darkest days of winter, it's always a good idea to capture the early year enthusiasm.

So here are three projects I'm involved in that welcome student input (NB only one is open to all).

Behind the Spin

Our PR student magazine is over two years old, and well established. But there's so much more we could do: all we need is time and ideas. I welcome contributors (ideally in response to our forward features listed on the About page) but also welcome those who'd like to contribute regularly by becoming a part of the editorial team. Tell me how you'd like to be involved – or tell me what we should be writing about.

PR@Leedsmet: 20 Years On

We're marking a 20th anniversary of public relations education in Leeds this autumn with a souvenir site profiling graduates and lecturers from the course. I need help reaching out to graduates and writing up profiles for the site. NB: this opportunity is only open to current Leeds Met PR or journalism students and will run to the end of November.

Euprera 2011

Next year's Euprera academic conference is in Leeds, and I'm hoping to work with some postgraduate students to develop content, connections and community around this forthcoming conference. This activity will continue until September 2011. NB: this opportunity is only open to current Leeds Met PR or marketing students.

Student challenge: make sense of your dissertation

27 May

Dissertation Final year students start out with a major worry: how to write around 12,000 words on a single topic. It sounds a very high hurdle.

Most end up struggling to squeeze it all in to the word count once all the reading and the research has been conducted.

Here's a paradox, though. I often find less of interest in a 12,000 word dissertation than in a 6,000 word CIPR Diploma project. The candidates are very different, of course, but the process is similar.

Could it really be that less is more? That fewer words force you to think harder and pad out less?

If so, here's a new challenge. I'd like to receive some short, 1,000 word summaries of student dissertations for publication at Behind the Spin. Think of them as an 'executive summary' of your work rather than a chance to edit down what you already have. Here are some questions to answer:

  • Why did I choose to study this subject?
  • What did other people have to say on the subject (the literature)?
  • What were my headline findings?
  • How might this be useful to me or to the PR industry?

It could be a way to bring your hard work to a wider audience – or perhaps even the important audience of graduate employers. So before you pack your beach towels, time for a bit of editing.

Articles plus author or other relevant photos should be sent to by the end of June. Earlier submissions are more likely to be published.

Photo by johnwilliamsphd on Flickr (Creative Commons)

Behind the Spin: next themes

31 Mar

BehindtheSpin We've had our busiest ever month at Behind the Spin.

There has been a focus on political communication (with thanks to guest editor Darren Lilleker); there have been articles on PR and social media and a stream of stories from our news editor, Adam Burns.

We're not yet finished for the academic year, though. I'm seeking articles on graduate prospects for publication between now and June, and also more articles (like this one) on PR in the public sector.

See the About page for more information, or contact to discuss your contribution.

Politics: personality or policy?

6 Mar

Parliament at night We've published an Election Special at Behind the Spin – with thanks to Darren Lilleker of Bournemouth University who commissioned and vetted the articles.

In overview, the articles belong in one of two camps. Those written by professionals are concerned with the process of elections: campaigning tactics and issues of electoral reform. Those written by students are primarily interested in the personalities of political leaders.

It's hard for someone of my generation (my first election as a voter brought Margaret Thatcher to power) to view politics from the perspective of the post-Cold War generation. Left-right no longer has any meaning, and there are few clear ideological lines between the main parties. What's a young voter to do? Turn off politics and turn on The X Factor.

If there's no longer meaning in left-right, here are some issues that should cause young voters to be concerned or angry:

  • The previous generation have borrowed and spent to such an extent that they will most probably be poorer than their parents. (This could even be the first generation in seven centuries to be poorer, less healthy and to die younger than their parents). Money matters. The coming election will be about finances more than anything else.
  • Previous generations have been taking natural resources from the planet with no thought for the future. There will be a price to pay. The environment is a major issue that sits outside conventional left-right party politics.

I'm still accepting articles for publication on politics, political communication or the other issues we cover. Please keep sending them to

It’s about ideas, not events

17 Feb

News used to be the currency of public relations. Event-led stories were our speciality (pseudo-events if you like). But it's a dying craft and most practitioners need to move on (and advise their clients accordingly). Here's why news is limited:

  • It has a short shelf-life that's becoming ever shorter in the social media age
  • Neither PR people nor journalists have a monopoly on news any more
  • There are fewer publications taking PR news
  • The conventional press release is treated like spam

If news is no longer our currency, what should be? How about ideas, or content? Note how Edelman has appointed a senior BBC executive as 'chief content officer'.

Content, conversations, communities are what it should be about (Jim Macnamara goes further and lists 8 Cs that count in the current media landscape).

Or to put it a different way, don't be so fixated on getting your news event mentioned that you pass up the opportunity to contribute an ideas-based feature to the same publication.

It's about ideas, not events. Adapt or die!