Archive | Books RSS feed for this section

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.

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.

Basil Clarke: past and present of PR

15 Jul

From the FrontlineJournalist, propagandist and public relations adviser Sir Basil Clarke (1879-1947) has some claim to be considered the father of British public relations. He now has a full-length biography, written by Richard Evans (whose day job is head of media for Diabetes UK).

Clarke made his name as a fearless war reporter for the Daily Mail, but he gained his knighthood for his work as a British propagandist in Ireland in the years immediately before Irish independence.  His legacy to the industry comes from his establishing of Editorial Services, a pioneering public relations agency later absorbed into Burson-Marsteller.

Histories of public relations, mostly written from a US perspective, give prominence to Ivy Lee and his Declaration of Principles. Clarke is his UK equivalent.

As a published writer, there is good source material for Clarke’s life and Evans does a good job of weaving the sources into a compelling narrative. While the events of the first half of Clarke’s life are the most interesting, it’s only in the later chapters that we learn something about the early years of public relations.

Clarke’s first PR role was for the Ministry of Reconstruction, in 1917. His duties were listed as ‘getting matters connected with this ministry inserted in the daily Press, interviewing journalists, discussing the matter of the work of the Ministry of Reconstruction with distinguished foreigners… and in keeping in touch with what is being done in foreign countries with regard to Reconstruction.’

His record in Ireland remains controversial, but from Clarke’s perspective his goal was ‘propaganda by news’. In other words, the unadorned truth was a more effective tool than manufactured or distorted news. There’s clearly an echo of his work as a war reporter here, and a premonition of the thousands of apparently objective news releases written by public relations practitioners. Propaganda, let’s remember, only gained its negative associations a few decades later.

In another prediction of the problems facing all PR practitioners, Clarke struggled to get colleagues to accept ‘propaganda by news’. Evans writes: ‘Clarke is far from alone in this; the history of public relations is littered with examples of people who identified the right approach but were then unable to win support for it within their organisation.’

Clarke’s career in government suffered from changes of policy towards publicly-funded publicity. As one memo records: ‘The Chancellor has set his face firmly against the policy of spending the taxpayers’ money to tell the taxpayer how his money is being spent.’ Ouch.

In 1924, after a period out of work, Clarke set up Editorial Services Ltd, the UK’s first public relations agency. As a pioneer, he had to grapple with the questions of definition, ethics and professional status that have concerned practitioners ever since.

Here’s how he explains the difference between public relations and advertising: ‘While our Press work will sell nothing and does not aim to sell, it nevertheless creates an atmosphere of greater and more enlightened public interest in a commodity, or idea, or service, generically – in other words, creates an atmosphere in which sales are much more easily effected.’ This from a previously unknown publication identified by the author and dating from around 1934.

If Clarke’s government work was ‘propaganda by news’, his intention with Editorial Services is evident in the choice of name. This was to be ‘publicity by news’ and Clarke seems to have avoided the stunts associated with Edward Bernays around this time in the US.

Though most of the work was aimed at news coverage, Clarke also wrote speeches for King George V and was involved in ‘industrial propaganda’ (ie internal communication). Clarke thought this ‘the most difficult and delicate type of propaganda work that can be imagined.’

He also defended the ethics of press agentry:

‘Why, then, is the press agent to be condemned if he offers, free of charge, some “copy” or information which the editor may like to publish and which he can always thrown away… if he does not? Does the fact of its being a press agent’s copy, and therefore publicity copy, automatically condemn it, destroy its news-value, vitiate its interests for the public? Of course not. For it is one of the truths the editor knows from his editorial cradle that virtually every single item in the paper is publicity for some person, cause or thing.’

The author is sceptical about Clarke’s argument: ‘The large number of people working in public relations today is proof that Clarke was right about the usefulness of public relations. But he was wrong to see it as just another source of news and many people today argue that the media’s reliance on public relations has become extremely damaging.’

In 1930, Clarke set out a code of practice for public relations practitioners, calling for an end to anonymity in public relations (he was grappling with the issue we call transparency today). Other aspects of the code related to receiving a professional fee rather than accepting payment by results; respecting the independence of journalists; and calling for the inclusion of footnotes in press releases giving the sources for the claims made. It was not until decades later that the professional bodies published their own codes of practice.

In describing the aptitudes required for a public relations role, Clarke identified the need for broad understanding as well as narrow technical skills:

‘The duties of a press agent who is directing or advising in the public relations of a big undertaking or movement demand something more than ordinary journalistic qualifications. They demand a knowledge of men and affairs more comparable with an editor’s knowledge; a certain aptitude for, and knowledge of, business and administration which a journalist need not necessarily possess.’

Today, we still debate whether public relations should sit alongside journalism in a media school, or alongside marketing in a business school.

I’ll leave the final word to author Richard Evans:

‘For all the attempts by academics to theorise about it and the efforts of the industry itself to become more respectable, and despite the rise of 24-hour news and then social media, it is remarkable just how little change there has been in the tactics used in public relations and in the ethical dilemmas facing those who use them. This means that even though just a tiny proportion of those working in public relations have today even heard of Basil Clarke, all of them are walking down the trail he blazed.’

Disruption

14 Mar

Drew Benvie PR WeekDrew Benvie has resigned from Hotwire, launched a new consultancy business Battenhall and used his Huffington Post column to explain why the Comms Agency model is ripe for disruption.

So what does the future hold? I firmly believe a new kind of agency that is built for the social media economy can thrive, where everything starts with social, but the experience backing that up in each individual adds another dimension. Disruption of the agency model as we know it.

He’s not alone. Jed Hallam (author of The Social Media Manifesto) writes that PR isn’t dying, but PR agencies might…

It used to be that public relations was the pipeline to the public, but now that’s no longer true. So the role of PR now has to become more strategic. It has to evolve and has to take centre stage at a more strategic, and senior level.

Steve Earl and Stephen Waddington probably share this thinking. Last year they resigned from leadership roles within a mid-sized consultancy and are now in senior roles in different international consultancies.

To me, this suggests that boutique public relations businesses can thrive if they find their niche, but mid-sized businesses might be squeezed between the specialists and the large international networks.

I’m sure I’ll return to this theme because it interests me – but my blog’s theme is public relations education. For many of the same reasons, education is also ripe for disruption. That’s what I want to explore here.

Some thoughts on PR theory and practice

12 Jun

Public Relations, Society & Culture In preparation for a peer group discussion this week, here are my thoughts on PR theory and practice drawn from some notable recent contributions to public relations literature.

As so often when discussing theories of public relations, we start with Professor James Grunig.

I assess many student essays at undergraduate, postgraduate and professional levels, and there's a sense from so many of these that Grunig's symmetry/excellence paradigm is the only 'correct' theory of public relations. All others are somehow flawed subversions of the truth, and practice that falls short of the ideal is somehow aberrant. (Grunig has, of course, argued in favour of a 'general theory' of public relations.)

Grunig and Hunt's 'two-way symmetric' model was articulated in a famous textbook published as long ago as 1984, and James Grunig (a Professor Emeritus who still actively defends and promotes his thinking) continues to win hearts and minds.

Two impressive new practitioner texts published this year, Katie Delahaye Paine's Measure What Matters and Philip Sheldrake's The Business of Influence both draw heavily and predominantly on his work.

Like the other milestone textbook of the era, Cutlip et al's Effective Public Relations, Grunig and Hunt's Managing Public Relations drew on systems theory. Systems theory once seemed as solid as Newtonian physics – until some new theories came along (Relativity, String Theory) to change the way we think about the world.

Scientists and mathematicians are now more interested in chaos theory than systems theory. As Jim Macnamara writes in The 21st Century Media (R)evolution, 'Emergent media owe as much to chaos theory as to evolutionary systems theory.'

Consultant Martin Thomas has written a new book called Loose: The Future of Business is Letting Go, in which he analyses 'the chaos and ambiguity of modern life'. 

'We are witnessing the unravelling of the most fundamental building blocks of the commercial world and a collapse of faith in tight, empirical rational models and ways of thinking.'

Modernist paradigms such as symmetry/excellence look less compelling a decade into a twentieth-first century in which chaos theory has replaced systems theory.

Then there is the explicit focus of some emerging public relations scholars. In their introduction to Public Relations, Society and Culture, Lee Edwards and Caroline Hodges deliniate the battle lines. 'Historically, public relations research has been driven by organisational interests, treating the profession as an organisational function first and foremost. The view is exemplified in the work of James Grunig and his colleagues in the United States of America … This singular focus on public relations in organisations has tended to exclude the social world in which those organisations operate.' (pp 1-2) 

There's nothing new here. The contrast between an organisational perspective and a societal perspective has been made for at least 15 years by Jacquie L'Etang and fellow critical scholars and postmodernists. Yet if it has taken over 25 years for the theories of Grunig et al to gain currency within public relations, it's perhaps no surprise that newer theories have yet to gain wider recognition.

I expect to continue reading essays revolving around 'symmetry/excellence' for years to come, but those teaching public relations have a responsibility to challenge the dominant paradigm and to illuminate alternative thinking.

It’s not what we do, it’s whether it works

1 Jun

Measure what matters Book review: Measure What Matters: Online Tools for Understanding Customers, Social Media, Engagement and Key Relationships by Katie Delahaye Paine. Wiley.

Let's start with one of the author's anecdotes from her own practice experience.

"I spent millions of dollars each year writing, designing, and producing pieces of paper that were supposed to make my sales force more effective," she writes. "Whether it ever worked was never questioned, it was what we did."

She's right. The emphasis in public relations practice has traditionally been on what we do, not on whether it works.

This is true of public relations practice. What doesn't or shouldn't change are the principles behind the practice. Now for another quotation from the author:

"The future of public relations lies in the development of relationships, and the future of measurement lies in the accurate analysis of those relationships. Counting impressions will become increasingly irrelevant while measuring relationships and reputation will become ever more important" (p 219).

This quotation is from the conclusion to the same author's 2007 book, Measuring Public Relationships. She cites it again in this new text to point out that what was true then remains true now. Four years ago is not a long time, of course, unless you live in Twitter time.

Continue reading

Review: The Business of Influence

1 May

Business of Influence Philip Sheldrake's The Business of Influence is a useful contribution to the literature on PR, marketing and social media – but above all it adds to the literature on measurement and evaluation.

The account starts with two milestone texts from 1999: The Cluetrain Manifesto and Permission Marketing. So we know to expect a discussion of rapid change and blurring boundaries between marketing and PR.

The author covers some theory and definitions (drawing heavily on the work of James Grunig), but is equally keen to cite arguments on blogs and responses on Twitter.

There's original thinking too. The concept of influence flows is an extension to the more usual discussion of communications models. Influence, Shelrake notes, is different from popularity.

He's strong on measurement – and acknowledges that his book complements Katie Paine's Measure What Matters (see my review). Sheldrake's description of AVE reads like a sentence from Cluetrain:

AVE: "a specious sum based on false assumptions using an unfounded multiplier, only addressing a fraction of the PR domain."

Continue reading