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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.

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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."

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Book review: Loose

13 Mar


Loose: The Future of Business is Letting Go
Martin Thomas, Headline Publishing Group 

Marketing consultant Martin Thomas was co-author of Crowd Surfing, one of my favourite books in 2008. When I saw the new book's contents page containing such chapters as 'Not a place for tidy minds' and 'The end of planning?' I knew I was in for a treat.

In follow up to Crowd Surfing and Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody (my top pick from 2008), this feels like a radical manifesto. It's certainly a challenge to the micro-managers, the planners and brand consultants whose traditional role has been to offer predictability and certainty.

We live in a complex, non-linear world – and the challenge is how to 'embrace the chaos and ambiguity of modern life'.

The author is keen to stress that this is not a web phenomenon. 'Something interesting is happening beyond the world of social media: public meetings are suddenly all the rage.'

It's a social phenomenon – and an understanding of behavioural economics is more useful than mastery of technology, Thomas argues. 'The simplistic view of man as a rational economic animal doesn't appear to fit the mood of the times.'

Simple prescriptions obviously won't do, though the author does offer some broad guiding principles for successful loose organisations (on page 168). He also gives many case studies to show where loose principles prevailed (ASDA, Pret a Manger, First Direct and Unilever among them).

He quotes Google's Shona Brown discussing loose management: 'The way to succeed in fast-paced, ambiguous situations is to avoid creating too much structure, but not to add too little either.'

Those singled out for criticism include business schools that have inculcated a rational approach to business. '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.'

Thomas writes well of the millennial generation who 'take great pleasure in subverting any attempts by authority figures to silence them.' But I should say that I'm more likely to be criticised by my students for teaching in too 'loose' a way by those who want me to give them much more precise instructions ('just tell me what you want me to do').

The author is an articulate and well-read guide. Though it's a business book and not an academic text, he frequently makes me feel inadequate by his erudition.

While there's nothing I can disagree with the in the book's premise, it's not an original idea. I'm surprised the author makes no reference to open source, whose concepts have already been taken beyond software development into politics and marketing.

And a book that makes an even more compelling case for creativity and innovation in business is Charles Leadbeater's We Think (not cited here).

But it's an enjoyable and valuable read and the challenge for many will be to learn the lessons and put them into practice.

'The principles that appear to determine the success of any social media initiative are becoming well established: be responsive, be human, be transparent… Unfortunately, most institutions struggle to live by them.'

New thinking in public relations

11 Mar

Where do the best ideas appear? In textbooks, in business books, in academic journals, in conference papers, on blogs, in conversation, in white papers?

The answer, of course, is in all and any of these.

In the last week, my attention has been grabbed by:

  • Philip Sheldrake's keynote address at the Euprera Spring Symposium
  • Consultant Martin Thomas's new book, Loose (review to follow)
  • Public Relations 2011: a free e-book of essays edited by Craig Pearce

Public Relations 2011 Public Relations 2011 contains essays from well-known public relations educators, consultants and bloggers.

In this uneven but interesting collection, Australian public relations academic Jim Macnamara calls for the teaching of more theory – in an explicit plug for his forthcoming book Public Relations Theories, Practices, Critiques.

In apparent contradiction, Southampton Solent PR course leader Catherine Sweet explains how educators should use practice examples to engage students.

Her point is that we should go beyond textbook case studies and engage through storytelling.

"My teaching has made me realise the power of ‘story telling’ as being the best form of PR and communication there is. As humans, we are hardwired to listen and learn; it’s how we acquire language in the first place."

Macnamara and Sweet are both right; there is no contradiction. Public relations educators should not oversimplify, though they should engage. Practice illustrates theory, and theory (as Macnamara argues) informs practice:

"Because theories are established through collection of substantial empirical evidence, extensive experimentation, testing and rigorous analysis in many different situations over many years – even decades in many cases – they provide a vast knowledge resource available to practitioners. Being unaware of or ignoring the body of knowledge accumulated by others before us and in other markets and societies is short-sighted and even foolhardy."

Why I teach: it’s the biggest communication challenge

25 Feb

Teaching in Bulgaria Looking back on almost thirty years in the workplace, I think I can spot the twin peaks of my career.

Twenty years ago I was a public relations consultant with an outstanding list of clients in the fast-growing technology sector. Working life was hectic, and we were building and developing a great team of colleagues.

I'm now in full-time public relations education. Working life is hectic, but I'm helping develop some talented young people.

I've made one rather banal link between the two roles. Much better is this from Maister et al's The Trusted Advisor, a book about consultancy skills in business:

In many ways, advisory skills are similar to those of great teaching. A teacher's task is to help a student get from point A (what they know, understand, and believe now) to point B (an advanced state of deeper understanding and knowledge). It is poor teaching for the professor to stand at the front of the class and say "B is the right answer!" (As the old joke goes, a lecture is the fastest means known for getting ideas from the notes of the teacher into the notes of the student without passing through the minds of either.)

Maister et al 2000: 33

The one obvious difference between my two peaks is that the technology sector was fast-growing then, and has remained so ever since. Higher education has had a twenty year growth spurt in the UK (it was in 1992 that former polytechnics became universities), but the brakes are on right now.

We're still in business and our skills are still in demand, but it's a tougher world to enter now. That said, I'm always willing to talk to practitioners about the journey from PR practice to PR education, a journey that often starts when you give a guest lecture and discover it to be a very worthwhile communication challenge. Perhaps you too will come to find it the biggest communication challenge of your career.

Photograph from Apeiron Academy's photostream on Flickr

What’s wrong with CSR?

15 Feb

Please note: this is not a principled attack on corporate social responsibility. Who would argue in favour of corporate irresponsibility? Certainly not Milton Friedman, whose famous attack on CSR remains a very potent one.

My objections come from two perspectives: the name is wrong, and the history is wrong.

Let's start with history.

Cadbury CSR is often presented as a towering achievement of late twentieth century stakeholder capitalism, and therefore as a grown-up strategic justification for public relations.

This narrative fails adequately to respond to the fate of such cynical cheerleaders for CSR as Enron.

It also airbrushes out the pioneering achievements of nineteenth century capitalists such as Sir Titus Salt, whose Saltaire near Bradford, begun in the 1850s, is now a World Heritage Site. Or Bournville in Birmingham or New Earswick in York – housing developments by two Quaker chocolate manufacturers, Cadbury's and Rowntree's, for their factory workers.

Sure, there was something paternalistic about these Christian capitalists who encouraged improving activities (institutes, schools, church, chapel or meeting house) over perceived bad practices (public houses).

But the advocates of CSR do not deny the rights of donors to pick their causes for maximum and sustained social impact.

What's wrong with the name?

People have been moving away from 'social' responsibility because of the rise of the environmental agenda – preferring instead the broader 'corporate responsibility' to refect the triple-bottom-line of 'people, planet, profits'.

The Stockholm Accords have thrown out the whole idea and replaced it with one word – sustainability. The Accords allow for both interpretations of this word: sustainable organisational success within a sustainable environment.

Then there's the question of sustained legacies. Companies and organisations decline; people die; but a Peabody, a Rowntree or a Carnegie lives on through their legacies. Where are the great philanthropists from the twentieth century? Bill Gates and Warren Buffet head the list, but their achievements will belong to this present century.

Time for some perspective, please.

My books of the year

28 Dec

Here's my personal list of the five best books about – or of value for – public relations students and practitioners published in 2010. Notes and further discussion follow at the end.

1. Mediactive by Dan Gillmor ( / Kindle / Online)

Mediactive Had this book been published traditionally, it would have had a 2011 publication year. In the event, Dan Gillmor (author of We The Media) chose to self-publish as he wanted to make his ideas available more widely through a Creative Commons licence.

Since his topic is the pressing need for change in the media industries, this is an example of the medium being the message. Nor does he pretend this book is complete, as is usually expected from published works. He describes it as a work in progress – Mediactive 1.0 – supported by the updates and discussion at the website, where the full text is freely available.

Gillmor begins with a critique of traditional journalism and an analysis of the evolving media ecosystem and moves on to provide a manifesto for media literacy ('mediactivism') suitable for the new media age.

Though he barely mentions public relations, his thoughts apply to all media consumers and media content creators (ie to all of us) and core concepts such as trust and transparency are central to public relations practice.

Gillmor now teaches entrepreneurial journalism and educators like me will find his ideas applicable to their teaching (there's a chapter on 'Teaching and Learning Mediactivity').

UPDATE: I've reviewed Mediactive for Behind the Spin.

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PR books of the year

24 Nov

RB books In a month's time I'll be announcing my top five books about (or useful for) public relations published this year.

I produced similar lists in 2008 and 2009.

Here's the shortlist of ten [update: twelve] I'm currently selecting from.

This allows time for others to alert me to any important books I should read before I announce the final list.

PR books 2010 shortlist

  • Anne Gregory, Planning and Managing Public Relations Campaigns: A Strategic Approach (3rd edition) Kogan Page
  • Brian Solis, Engage: The Complete Guide for Brand and Businesses to Build, Cultivate, and Measure Success in the New Web, Wiley
  • Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus, Allen Lane
  • Dave Stewart and Mark Simmons, The Business Playground, FT Prentice Hall
  • David Meerman Scott, The New Rules of Marketing and PR (2nd edition) Wiley
  • Jim Macnamara, The 21st Century Media (R)evolution, Peter Lang
  • Julia Hobsbawm, Where the Truth Lies (2nd edition) Atlantic Books
  • Lucy Laville and Neil Richardson, Develop Your PR Skills, Kogan Page
  • [Update] Chris Barr et al, The Yahoo! Style Guide, Macmillan
  • Timothy Coombs and Sherry Holladay, PR Strategy and Application, Wiley-Blackwell
  • [Update] Robert McCrum, Globish, Viking
  • [Update] Dan Gillmor, Mediactive, Lulu / Kindle