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PR and the power of ideas

11 Nov

Evolving client needs 'The power of the idea is more important that ever'.

So reports @souljaof4tune attending today's Impress conference via Twitter.

It's an echo of the point made by Martin Thomas, co-author of Crowd Surfing, at last week's PRCA conference (illustrated here). The idea is central to all PR and marcoms campaigns.

You don't start with the execution (eg advertising); you start with the idea. We recall the 'Best Job in the World' campaign. Some will know that it won a PR award, though fewer recall that this was collected by an ad agency, Cummins Nitro. It's the idea that matters, not the agency or the discipline.

In passing, I did not attend either the Impress or the PRCA conference. Nor do I know Zubair Ahmed (souljaof4tune) or Martin Thomas personally (though I have read his book). But neither drawback is a barrier to the communication of (good) ideas.

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Summertime, when the learning is easy

25 Jul

Feedly It's late July. I've noticed people apologise when contacting me in case they're interrupting my holiday. So what do educators do when the students have left?

I'm not taking much official holiday (for one week at the start of September I'll be off-grid: staying on an island with no electricity, no running water, no mobile phone signal, no shops…). But life certainly does slow down in the summer and there's scope for more spontaneity as the mood and the weather allow.

There's still work to be done. The undergraduates may have left, but postgraduates and professionals still need supervising and assessing. For the tutors, the deadlines never end.

But there is more time for reading and thinking. I've just read Clay Shirky's Cognitive Surplus and Lucy Laville and Neil Richardson's Develop Your PR Skills. I'm looking through the new third edition of Anne Gregory's Planning and Managing Public Relations Campaigns and the newly-published Yahoo! Style Guide and I'm catching up with Communication Power by Manuel Castells.

Online there are new tools to try and skills to learn. HootSuite has been my preferred social media dashboard for a while but Feedly looks a promising way to gather and display news, blog posts and tweets (see screenshot above).

I'm up-to-date with submissions to Behind the Spin – so am keen to receive more contributions from any students and graduates not on the beach. We welcome summaries of your dissertations and are also publishing tales of graduate job-seeking struggles and successes.

Macnamara on media and the future of PR

13 Apr

Cross posted from Behind the Spin.

The 21st Century Media (R)EVOLUTION: Emergent Communication Practices
by Jim Macnamara
410 pages, Peter Lang, 2010

MacnamaraThis scholarly book is an important – but complex – contribution to the literature on PR and social media. So let’s start by unpicking the book’s title.

Macnamara tries to steer a course between the utopians heralding a major media revolution and the dystopians who see declining standards all around them. Hence the ambivalence over whether new media should be considered revolutionary or evolutionary. Then there’s the concept of emergence: as he explains it, ’some media and systems of communication are mutating, becoming self-organizing, and evolving into wholly new forms… Emergent media owe as much to chaos theory as to evolutionary systems theory’.

The cited example of emergent media is simple enough: the unanticipated rise of text messaging on mobile phones. Then the author complicates it by saying the trend emerged  ’because of a ground-up bifurcation led by teenagers’. The author is a professor of public communication – and his desire to profess to his academic peers is evidently more powerful than his desire to communicate to the general reader. This book belongs on the media studies shelf in university libraries and will be read with most enthusiasm by research academics.

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Are your friends making you fat?

18 Jan

Malcolm Gladwell dissected the power of social contagion in The Tipping Point. Other researchers and writers have subsequently explored the power of connectedness (such as Mark Earls with Herd).

Now there's buzz around the latest contribution to this field: Connected, soon to be published in the UK.

In the Observer magazine, Simon Garfield profiles the book's author, Harvard professor Dr Nicholas Christakis: Are your friends making you fat? It's a beguilingly simple idea: that we can 'catch' obesity from our friends. 

In two words: what is public relations?

28 Dec

Meaning pr More than half of the readers to this blog come here as a result of a search. 

Someone arrived having typed meaning pr into Google. An archived post at PR Studies came second to Wikipedia for this cryptic search string.

Who were they and what were they thinking? I can imagine it was a student attempting some last-minute 'research' before an essay deadline.

Well, let me disappoint you. Google isn't yet a complete library containing all the wisdom of the world. I suggest you view a search as the start of your research, not the end.

In that spirit, here are some helpful pointers. I can't write your essays because that wouldn't be right, and I don't know what your essay question is. But I can provide some straightforward two-word explanations of public relations and some sources for further reading (yes, that conventional activity that still mostly involves printed books). What follows may help explain [the] meaning [of] PR (or rather several competing meanings).

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My PR books of the year 2009

16 Dec

Here's my end-of-year list of the most notable books I've read about – or relevant to – public relations this year. (For the record, here's my list from the year before).

In truth, I've found much less to be excited about this year and it's perhaps telling that my top two are both updates of books first published around a decade ago. But the primary emphasis on PR and social media with a secondary emphasis on global public relations does fairly reflect developments in our industry.

  1. Cluetrain  The Cluetrain Manifesto, Tenth Anniversary Edition, Doc Searls et al. Yes, we all now know that 'markets are conversations'. But it took the Cluetrain authors to come up with the most cogent critique of their own work: markets are also transactions – and relationships. A thought-provoking addition to the original manifesto (still freely available online). Sadly, it lacked further analysis of public relations, which claims to be the discipline which manages relationships (see next book). (Also see my review.)
  2. Online Public Relations, David Phillips and Philip Young. For this much improved second edition, the UK's internet PR maven David Phillips was joined by university lecturer Philip Young. Together, they have written a sophisticated and challenging book in which PR is conceptualised as relationship optimisation. (See my review.)
  3. Global Public Relations: Spanning Borders, Spanning Cultures, Alan Freitag and Ashli Quesinberry Stokes. What good timing! In the depths of a recession precipitated by failures in the financial system, and with doubts about the extent of western imperium, this was just the time to bring out a book challenging the anglo-centric view of public relations. An important academic text. (See my review.)
  4. Communications and behaviour change, Mairi Budge and others. This freely available and well-designed electronic booklet comes from the UK government's Central Office of Information. It draws on psychology to address the tough question surrounding communications for social good: how to get people to change their behaviour.
  5. Personal Reputation Management: Making the internet work for you, Louis Halpern and Roy Murphy. A practical guide, not an academic text, but it's not without concepts and an understanding of history. This book usefully applies branding principles to personal reputation, and search engine optimisation techniques to an individual's online presence. (See my review.)

‘Markets are conversations’ revisited

7 Oct

Ten years ago, The Cluetrain Manifesto was published on the web, declaring that 'markets are conversations' and proclaiming 'the end of business as usual'. What happened next?

The dot com bubble burst in early 2000 (the book was the authors' attempt to prick this bubble, or specifically the millions being spent advertising risky startup businesses). Google, Amazon and eBay are notable survivors from this era.

Then so-called Web 2.0 emerged from the wreckage, and the optimism returned. The social media landscape seemed to prove the central thesis that 'markets are conversations' as blogging, social networks and Twitter emerged and gained critical mass.We the people appeared to take over the web and The Cluetrain Manifesto achieved iconic status.

In the tenth anniversary edition, the authors revisit their text in four new essays, supported by three contributions by some notable friends of Cluetrain. (We also get the explanation of the cluetrain word, which didn't make it into the first print edition).

The original authors are considered and humane in their reflections; they've grown wiser and some have moved on to other things, giving them a broader perspective. The most cogent critique we have of Cluetrain comes from the original authors themselves.

Rick Levine (who now makes chocolate truffles for a living) tackles the central concept. Markets may be conversations, but that's not all they are. 'Everything that happens in a market falls into just three categories', he writes: 'transaction, conversation and relationship.'

'In our First World business culture, transaction matters most, conversation less, and relationship least… By looking at markets through the prism of transaction, or even conversation, we miss the importance of relationship. We also don't see how relationship has a value all its own: one that transcends, even as it improves, the other two.'

So the next challenge is to study another thesis: markets are relationships.

Levine and Doc Searls, another of the authors, do this by reviewing the state of CRM – customer relationship management. Public relations – another industry with the relationships concept embedded in its name – doesn't feature, so there's more work to be done here (following David Phillips's lead).

Levine notes that they may have been too quick to dismiss advertising (thesis 74: 'We are immune to advertising. Just forget it.'). Ten years on, there's more advertising than ever (but it's spread across many more media channels).

'Trust me. It's still a bubble', he writes. 'So is the rest of the "attention economy" that includes promotion, public relations, direct marketing, and other ways of pushing messages through media.' Levine argues that this attention economy will still crash.

In his broad-ranging essay, David Weinberger asks whether we can still be optimistic about the internet. He divides us into three categories: utopians, dystopians and realists. 'Utopians and dystopians think the Web has uncanny power because they are closet McLuhanites who think media transform institutions and even consciousness. Realists feel the inertial weight of existing institutions and social structures, and thus tend to think any changes the Internet brings will be slow and minimal.'

With Shel Israel's Twitterville, we're onto more conventional business publishing territory. Based on the post-Cluetrain premise that we're no longer in the era of broadcasting but in the era of conversations, the book provides some fresh and well-written case studies of how businesses of all shapes and sizes are using Twitter to get closer to customers.

It's unchallenging stuff; only towards the end is the darker side of Twitter explored (scams, spam, trolls and identify theft).

The book will satisfy two groups: business executives needing examples of 'markets are conversations' and individuals needing some advice on getting started.

But it's light on analysis. Does Twitter work so well alongside other social media spaces (blogs, photo sharing etc) because it's a push channel? We're not told, though the author quotes one of his interviewees saying this in contrasting Twitter with blogging: 'One is very fast but constrained to shallow content. The other is longer and deeper but does not draw traffic as easily.'

There's a good section on institutions speaking with a human voice (a Cluetrain concept): 'Because messages must be so short, Twitter filters out adjectives and conditional phrases, leaving posts that are unusually succinct, candid and clear.' Yet it would be just as easy to show that Twitter exchanges are gnomic and exclusive.

Israel is a cheerleader for Twitter and this publishing genre doesn't allow for critique. He's keen to disown his past as a publicist, yet this book reads like a one-sided PR account.

What became of blogging, a previous Next Big Thing? Wasn't Israel's last book, Naked Conversations written with Robert Scoble, an equally optimistic account of how blogging was transforming the way businesses talk to customers? They even criticised Google and Apple for being less than encouraging of employee blogs: remind me, how have those two businesses done since 2006?

The problem with relentless optimism is that it requires you to have no memory. But then, in Weinberger's analysis I'm a realist – and always tried to be even when I worked in public relations.

If less is more…

2 Oct

If less is more, then logically least is most of all. This takes us into the debates around Chris Anderson's latest book, Free.

Today we learn that the London Evening Standard is to be given away free, despite the closure of The London Paper.

It's easy to envisage there being a large market for free in the digital world (websites, music, software), but it remains harder to see the commercial case for free in the world of atoms (eg newspapers).

Somewhere in between free and expensive, we can anticipate the emergence of niche markets for 'less'. Here's Mark Simmons introducing his latest venture, USE LESS – a for-profit business in the US that's more about the message than the product (encouraging a more sustainable model of consumption). Simmons is the co-author of Punk Marketing; to make a full disclosure, he's also my brother in law.

Public relations literature barely touches on these concepts, even though a free model has long been built into the publicity and media relations models. Yet, in defending the excellence theory, Grunig and White wrote in 1992: 

‘In short, excellent organizations realize that they can get more of what they want by giving publics some of what they want.' 

The inherent compromises built into public relations (whichever model is practised) suggest PR should be flexible enough to cope with different business models – even free.

The currency of the web is attention and reputation

28 Aug

In her review of The Long Tail author Chris Anderson's new book Free, Debbie Weil discusses what matters online:

"I've been saying for years that the currency of the Web is links. Anderson says it better: the currency of the Internet is 1. Attention (translated as number of visits or traffic to your site) and 2. Reputation (roughly translated as number of links pointing to your site or blog)."

That reads like a good summary of online public relations and reputation management, with suitable measures of success.

The premise behind Free is also readily comprehensible in a PR context. The publicity and media relations role has always been based on the giving away of free (ie no cost and copyright free) content in the hope of receiving free media coverage. There are critics of this hidden exchange, but fewer of the underlying principles of a free society underpinned by free speech, press freedom and 'free and fair' elections.

From communications to community

27 Aug

It's only a small linguistic step, but it's a big conceptual leap to view the public relations role as community facilitator rather than communications manager.

Yet this is consistent with the consensus-building role of PR and is in step with relationship management principles.

I've said this before, but the idea of community was at the heart of most of last year's interesting books (just consider some titles: Here Comes Everybody, Groundswell, Crowdsourcing, Tribes, Crowd Surfing etc).

Expect to see more over the coming months being published on the risks, rewards and responsibilities of community building.

In the meantime, here are some things to do or to think about.

  • Join PROpenMic – a 5000-strong social network for PR students, teachers and practitioners.
  • Read Richard Millington's Feverbee blog and Seth's blog for the valuable (free) lessons
  • Consider the limitations of the community (or relationships) model: sometimes we simply want a transaction from a commercial organisation, saving relationships for close friends and family
  • Remember that the boundaries between public and private are shifting as Kevin Dugan's recent experience suggests