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Love it or loathe it

16 Oct

I’ve always liked ‘word of mouth’ as a description. (I once hoped to register for my freelance business only to find that this domain name had already been snapped up.)

Others are suspicous of the phrase, fearing a loss of message control and doubting whether it can ever be practised ethically when used for marketing purposes.

So we have something powerful, rather ill-defined and in need of best practice guidelines. Sounds a bit like public relations… What we need is an industry association to show leadership. So I’m behind the new Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOM UK) which is being launched today at the Marketing Week word of mouth conference. It follows on from the well-established Word of Mouth Marketing Association in the US.

The ubiquitous Stuart Bruce is involved, which bodes well. My only quibble: that this shouldn’t just be about marketing. Its remit should also cover conversations, participation and democracry – the whole of the public sphere (the space in which public relations operates). I find the thought of a marketing sphere depressing, and not just because I’m reading JG Ballard’s bleak new novel, Kingdom Come.

Awareness, campaign, action

28 Sep

Raising awareness, gathering support and generating activity are the purposes of many public campaigns. There’s nothing new in this.

But the speed and international spread of the Facebook group Support the Monks’ protest in Burma does suggest a new departure. 90,000 supporters within a week and growing fast. (It’s a timely reminder after a few bad weeks in the press that Facebook users are not only interested in ephemera and ‘me me me’.)

Of course, joining a Facebook group is easy; doing something, sustaining a campaign and making a difference are harder tests.

One day in history

17 Oct

History Matters campaigns to raise awareness of history in everyday lives. Today there’s an attempt to create the ‘biggest blog’ in history.

I’m a two-times history graduate, a one-time history teacher, and a PR lecturer who frequently draws examples from history. Here are some examples of what history means to me today:

  • I saw Alan Bennet’s The History Boys on stage in Bradford recently (a Yorkshire venue is appropriate to the author and the subject), though I haven’t yet seen the film. The play was sure to appeal to me (given my potted biography above), but has been a huge hit on stage in New York before being filmed. Now it seems everyone’s interested in history and in education – not just me.
  • I used to teach ‘new media’ from the perspective that technological developments were new. Then I reminded myself that to an 18 year-old school leaver the web has existed all their conscious lives. Google (founded in 1999) is now a middle-aged company. ‘New’ isn’t always so new as we think.
  • Last month, I went for lunch to celebrate my Cambridge history tutor’s 30 years in the same job. Will any of my students remember me in 30 years? Will any of us still be remembered three generations from now?
  • A PR student spoke to me today very about her conversion to Islam. I’m not religious, but can understand how comforting it must be to be (or become) part of a continuous tradition dating back millennia. A business student I teach is building a new life in Britain having grown up in Baghdad: a reminder that history is being made today; it’s not confined to the past.
  • If journalism is the ‘first draft of history’, then public relations sources will become footnotes to history.

A defining question

24 Sep

Open day attendees yesterday left my session with unanswered questions about the distinction between public relations and marketing (my faculty offers both degree courses, and a marketing lecturer colleague was to follow my talk so I had to choose my words with care).

I often turn to public affairs or not-for-profit campaigns for illumination of the distinction. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth provides a good case. His campaign to raise awareness of climate change is undoubtedly public relations; yet it has nothing to do with marketing (I doubt that the commercial success of the movie is uppermost in his mind).

These were the defining qualities of this movie as public relations. It is:

  • Polemical: he challenges his critics, is able to depict the ‘bad guys’, while forcefully making his own case;
  • Persuasive: there’s no lack of numerical and scientific evidence;
  • Personal: We can see why the 2000 US election result still hurts him; his sister’s death from lung cancer allows him to draw parallels from past attempts to deny the evidence of tobacco’s harm; but I couldn’t see why his son’s injury was included here.

Marketing may have its 4 Ps; here are my 3 Ps for public campaigns (essentially the same as ethos, logos, pathos).

Astroturfing is evil

17 Jul

Antiastroturfing This is the provocative opening salvo from Trevor Cook’s campaign against activities that fake the appearance of grassroots support.

The term astroturfing (ie synthetic grass) is not widely used in the UK. But it seems to me it’s already outlawed by the relevant codes of contuct. The CIPR code of conduct emphasises the importance of integrity: ‘honest and responsible regard for the public interest’ and ‘never knowingly misleading clients, employers, employees, colleagues and fellow professionals about the nature of representation’.

The PRCA’s professional charter (pdf) is even more explicit. A member firm shall ‘conduct its professional interests with proper regard to the public interest’ and ‘have a positive duty at all times to respect the truth and … not disseminate false or misleading information knowingly or recklessly, and use proper care to avoid doing so inadvertently’.

Of course, most UK practitioners have not signed up to either of these codes as they’re not CIPR members, nor do they work for PRCA consultancies. But this shows that the industry (or its professional wing) is already opposed to ‘astroturfing’.

Fair dues

6 Mar

It reminds me of those mid 1990s announcements that company X had set up a website (they gained some approving news coverage early in the Web 1.0 era). Marks & Spencer has hit the press with advertisements declaring its move to Fairtrade coffee (and gained a news report in The Guardian too).

Of course, the timing’s good, with Fairtrade Fortnight beginning today. But I can’t imagine many more large organisations gaining much easy press by making a similar announcement. Fairtrade’s good; I support the campaign – who doesn’t?; it’s just that the more successful it becomes, the less newsworthy it will be.

(Congratulations to my first year student who spotted this. The warm-up questions asked them to identify an example of editorial and an example of an advertisement from a newspaper; the follow-up was to identify an example of public relations. Bullseye!)

Where PR saves lives

18 Jan

The many critics of PR tend to pick on its two extremes: the sometimes nefarious world of lobbying and the often flakey world of celebrity promotion. Yet many PR people work on public awareness campaigns for government agencies or not-for-profit organisations. Their campaigns often do good, and sometimes save lives.

The successful ‘back to sleep’ campaign is being credited with a 75% decline in SIDS – ‘cot death’ – since 1991, as reported in medical journal The Lancet. Yet the media picks up on the downside of the campaign – its relative lack of success among low income families. Will this give another crumb to the critics: a chance to characterise public relations as the elite talking to the educated, but not reaching out to the have-nots?

Love in the time of chlamydia

10 Oct

That headline’s gratuitous: it’s the (brilliant) title from a recent Telegraph Saturday magazine article (not online) on sexual health.

I use it to introduce the theme of the next issue of the PR student magazine, Behind the Spin. The editors (I’m one of them) are looking for student articles about health awareness campaigns. Drink driving; blood donation; quitting smoking; anti-obesity; sexual health. Your proposals are needed now; finished articles by early December.

Articles from the current issue are appearing on the Behind the Spin blog and the magazine has been sent out to CIPR student members and contributors. Take a look.


3 Oct

Former Yes Minister scriptwriter Sir Anthony Jay gave a good description of what’s needed for home-made campaigns on the Today Programme:

  1. Organisation
  2. Publicity
  3. Ability to write letters (in the language of your bureaucratic opponents).

The piece was broadcast at 7.47am and is now available online.

Campaign without words

30 Sep

Heritage Watch is campaigning to protect ancient monuments in Cambodia. Their campaign aims at education, and tactics include the use of cartoon story books. Dougald O’Reilly is the charity’s energetic spokesman (he was interviewed on BBC radio last night).