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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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Managing Online Reputation

16 Dec

Managing Online Reputation: How to protect your company on social media
By Charlie Pownall
Palgrave Macmillan, 2015, 236 pages

Managing Online ReputationIt seems to me there are two types of book about public relations: the analytical and the anecdotal.

Books by academics tend to be strong in the first and weak in the second. Books by practitioners are usually the other way round.

I continue to read on in the hope of one day finding the perfect balance between the two.

Before giving my verdict on this contribution, let’s review what Charlie Pownall does well.

He brings an international perspective (he divides his time between Hong Kong and London) and the case studies cover tourist boards, airlines and global brands.

He has real-world experience (he’s a consultant and trainer) and he writes well.

His chapter on activists v corporates is a highlight of the book. While Greenpeace v Shell may not be an original choice, the incident he illustrates (a parody attack) is fresh – and the conclusion he reaches (in praising Shell’s response) is surprising.

The book is well structured, reviewing the threats, then discussing the angry mob (customers, activists etc) before turning to handling crises.

But is this book needed? How could you write about managing reputation or about handling crises in 2015 without discussing digital and social media and 24/7 news?

If it’s a book about reputation management, where’s the discussion of reputation concepts (who owns it, how to measure it)?

If it’s a book about digital and social media, why no discussion of the principle and practice of editing Wikipedia entries, a major talking point this year?

Though useful to public relations students and practitioners (there’s a lifetime’s experience here, and the case studies are very recent), this book is written for senior executives who must have sleepless nights over the risks to reputation.

The message is that they need competent advisers to help them navigate the challenges ahead. So who can they turn to? Lawyers? IT experts? Risk managers? Management consultants? PR consultants?

The answer is all of the above, and the question is not answered about the role of the public relations adviser. Though the need for good PR advice is more important than ever, it’s not clear whether PR consultants will be the winners.

Pownall’s approach appears to be to avoid the term public relations. Though he’s worked for Burson-Marsteller in the past, he seems to find the term too limiting and too discredited. Here’s what he says when discussing Gini Dietrich’s Spin Sucks:

‘Many people consider reputation management to be a function of public relations first and foremost. Yet public relations people are closely associated with spin doctoring and the manipulation of the media, search engines, and anything else they can twist to their advantage.’

So how does this book score on the analysis-anecdote equation?

It’s of most value when the author gives examples. To pick one, who would have thought there could be anything new to say about Malaysia Airlines, yet Pownall has some insights into the early handling of the disappearance of flight MH370.

I find it lighter in analysis – perhaps because a consultant’s advice is necessarily specific to the circumstances and not readily generalisable. There is a chapter on defining online reputation threats, but I find Andrew Griffin‘s framework more practical.

This is a timely and sensible book, and the author provides a useful critique of reading too much into social media conversations:

‘It is … tempting to consider your online reputation as your reputation, a kind of mirror image of what people think about you in the real world. Tempting, but mistaken. An organization’s reputation is the sum of how many different stakeholders view it, from customers, employees, and investors to government, investors [sic], and suppliers, each of which can have very different expectations. But online conversations are usually dominated by discussions about products and services by customers and prospective customers, while other stakeholder voices are voiced less frequently. When was the last time you heard a high-level regulator, pension fund manager, or buy-side analyst actively discussing a company on Facebook?’

Is not this distinction between a customer-centric view and a stakeholder view a key distinguisher between marketing and public relations?

Pownall may protest, but this book demonstrates the continuing importance of public relations.

Review: Crisis, Issues and Reputation Management

11 Feb

Crisis, Issues and Reputation ManagementThe CIPR defines public relations as being ‘about reputation – the result of what you do, what you say, and what others say about you.’

So it’s surprising that the very first book in the 15-strong CIPR/Kogan Page PR in Practice series to even mention reputation in its title was published only last year. It’s been worth the wait.

Andrew Griffin, chief executive of Regester Larkin has built on Mike Regester and Judy Larkin’s classic crisis management text and refocused it on reputation – or more specifically risk to reputation.

To Griffin, ‘what identifies a crisis is not the nature of what has happened but what is at stake – reputation, the bottom line, the licence to operate and the future of the organization – and the immediacy of the threat.’

He views risks as either issue-led or incident-led. But he several times distinguishes between crisis management, a strategic matter that demands the attention of senior executives, and emergency response to incidents, a more operational process. Clearly he has fought this battle many times and has learnt the need to talk up the strategic nature of reputation risk.

He discusses the scenario of product development or a joint venture. At what point should the proposed development be subjected to (reputation) risk assessment: early on or at the point of announcement? The idea that a corporate affairs team could have this power within an organisation is an intriguing counter to the literature that presents marketing as an all-encompassing function and public relations a tactical promotional activity.

So this is a grown-up book, born out of experience, that reads like a management consultant’s text – complete with many two-by-two grids.

In an aside, Griffin mounts a powerful critique of Corporate Social Responsibility. Subscribing to this concept is to accept the framing of business as instinctively self-interested, even irresponsible. Yet he argues that ‘the best way to prevent issue-driven reputation risks is to have exemplary financial, corporate, environmental and social performance.’

Much better, he argues, is the more neutral concept of corporate citizenship.

Classic crisis management cases are supplemented by more recent examples, notably BP Deepwater Horizon which has already cost the once-admired business over $42 billion (a rare occasion where reputation damage can be calculated in monetary terms).

Each situation is distinctive, though the risks and patterns may be predictable. In the case of Deepwater Horizon, BP’s Britishness  became a spur for the White House and US public opinion to escalate the war of words. Corporate manslaughter, massive environmental destruction in America blamed on a Hollywood British baddie.

The book is full of models and practical approaches, though it avoids simple checklists and formulaic approaches. The author completely ignores the academic literature on issues and crisis management – whether because he’s never consulted them or because he feels they add no value, I’m not sure.

Students and less experienced practitioners can benefit from Griffin’s evident expertise, but could also have been helped even more if there had been a further reading section. But this is a challenging and sophisticated addition to the PR in Practice series, so I can hardly fault it for not being an academic textbook.

From cannon fodder to Google fodder

19 Jan
I sucked at spin too

I sucked at spin too

I don’t mean to belittle the sacrifice of those who have experienced real combat, but I do recall feeling like cannon fodder when I started out in public relations 25 years ago.

An educator colleague used to describe the work as ‘media hustling’ – and I was as bad at it as everyone else.

I still shudder to remember some of my failed pitches. Like the time I phoned a senior technology journalist in an attempt to engineer a meeting at a trade show.

Me: Are you hoping to attend Client-Server World next week?

Him: [Long pause.] Have you any idea how that sounds?

More useful was the rebuff from a national newspaper correspondent in response to my lame attempt to offer him an environmental story.

Is it new or is it surprising?

This at least became a memorable test to apply before picking up the phone in future.

This talk of phone calls and conversations places me in the analogue world of public relations and I suspect we’re past the tipping point now.

About five years ago I noticed that more PR graduates were being offered work in digital agencies than as ‘media hustlers’ in ‘traditional’ PR roles.

Where we chased ‘coverage’, the mantra now is ‘content.’ Where I prized my clients’ appearances in the Financial Times or on the BBC, it seems that all that matters is feeding the Google machine.

Graduates have no problem making this transition as they never knew the old world, but it’s a challenge for many experienced practitioners.

The principles of public relations remain the same: reputations are hard-won and easily lost; relationships matter. But the practice needs to adapt.

Take the tried and tested news release. It’s still not died and still has a place, but you need to be careful how you distribute it since Google assumes that duplicate content must be spam.

So where we were once delighted to have our ‘news’ picked up word for word in multiple publications, it could now damage our Google search results.

It sounds like it’s time to relearn about customisation. It’s time to pick up the phone and develop some meaningful relationships.

For those who’ve blinked and missed the shift from media distribution to customised content sharing, I recommend Spin Sucks, a practical guide to the new world of Paid-Earned-Owned and -Shared media by US consultant Gini Dietrich.

It’s never too late to learn and it feels good to confess to the sin of spinning.

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 (http://peterhathaway.co.uk/wordsculpt)

Social media’s long history

23 Dec

Writing on the Wall

This brief review explores the book’s central thesis, so I should offer a spoiler alert to those who’ve not read Tom Standage’s ‘Writing on the Wall’ through to the end.

The argument explored in this intriguing and unusual media history is that social media goes back at least 2,000 years but that mass media has been a 150 year aberration in human history. The author writes:

“Social media is not new. It has been around for centuries.  Today, blogs are the new pamphlets. Microblogs and online social networks are the new coffeehouses. Media-sharing sites are the new commonplace books. They are all shared, social platforms that enable ideas to travel from one person to another, rippling through networks of people connected by social bonds rather than having to squeeze through the privileged bottlenecks of broadcast media. The rebirth of social media in the Internet age represents a profound shift – and a return, in many respects, to the way things used to be.”

The author is The Economist’s digital editor, a paid-up representative of the mass media world (The Economist was founded in the 1840s) and the book provides useful background to the debates about press freedom and regulation that have surrounded the Leveson Inquiry.

Historical examples in the book include the sharing of correspondence in Ancient Rome; how printed pamphlets helped spread the ideas of Protestant reformers; how coffeehouses promoted innovation; how self-expression has a longer history than the taking of selfies.

This historical analysis leads to a balanced concluding essay weighing up the arguments between the optimists who view social media as a channel for free expression and the pessimists who point out that governments can use the same tools to promote repression.  To those who condemn social media as a waste of time, Standage says that coffeehouses led to the same complaint (in the 1670s they were denounced as “great enemies to diligence and industry”).

An Oxford antiquarian blamed coffeehouses for the lack of learning among students. “Why doth solid and serious learning decline, and few or none follow it now in the university? Answer: Because of coffee-houses, where they spend all their time.”

The complaint in Cambridge was of students taking an interest in news. “The scholars are so greedy after news (which is none of their business) that they neglect all for it, and it is become very rare for any of them to go directly to his chamber after prayers without first doing his suit at the coffee-house, which is a vast loss of time grown out of a pure novelty.”

In his book tour talk, Standage defined social media as ‘media we get from other people, exchanged along social connections, creating a distributed discussion or community’.

For public relations educators and practitioners, the book is helpful as it reminds us what we do: we develop these social connections and encourage conversations and communities. It also enables us to respond to the familiar criticisms of social media, that it’s a fad or a waste of time. Conversely, if all we did was media relations, then the end of the mass media age would mean an end to our usefulness.

Standage provides a detailed, forensic reading of his chosen historical sources but this is emphatically not a book about technology. It’s about the people who have used various communication technologies (from writing and printing through to the Internet) to share ideas. The emphasis on behaviour reminds us that human nature is resistant to change.

For my part, I’m pleased when my students take an interest in news – and I have no plans to discourage their coffee consumption. Whether many of them share my interest in history is another matter.

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.