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Four Modes of Public Relations

27 Dec

four-modesIt can be trivial, it can be serious. It can be transactional and it can be relationship-driven. It can be tactical and also strategic. It can be external or internal. It relates to marketing – and also to management consultancy.

So how do we describe the full scope of what we call public relations to those students whose life experience and imaginations may be limited to just one or two modes (usually the press office, content marketing and publicity functions)?

Here’s a model that seems to me to describe these four modes. It’s based on the relative level of creativity and the relative level of value-added consultancy offered. It uses the existing division between marketing communication (‘marcom’) and corporate communication (‘corpcom’).

In this model, the ideal position is to be a highly creative consultant adding value to the client or organisation through strategic public relations leadership.

The least value is offered by those transactional functions that are routine and less creative: these roles attract the lowest pay and are first in line to be automated.

There are tensions, though. At one end, there is the continued encroachment of marketing into the domain of public relations (or some would say blurring of the boundaries between the two). At the other end, there is the question of whether public relations remains a distinctive management discipline, or whether it becomes a part of management consultancy.

The recently-announced acquisition of risk and crisis management experts Regester Larkin by business advisory firm Deloitte is a significant development in this value-added space.

Delayed gratification

21 Jul

tweetsOne of the most important measures of performance in Higher Education is ‘student satisfaction’, as measured through the annual National Student Survey.

There’s nothing wrong in principle with gauging student satisfaction after three years of (expensive) education. But in practice final year students tend to be satisfied with manageable assignments and high grades. So higher student satisfaction can only be guaranteed by lowering educational standards, ultimately leading to dissatisfaction…

Wouldn’t it be good to gauge a student’s response to their education over time? My Twitter timeline gave some clues this morning.

One noted how far he’d come in five years since graduating, and how well his year group were doing.

Another blogged about his experiences in the workplace one year on, and polled some classmates for their experiences.

This isn’t scientific or statistically valid, but education should be a long-term investment – just as student debt is a long-term commitment. So a longitudinal study of graduate achievement and satisfaction would be valuable addition to the snapshot provided by the National Student Survey.

I’ll leave the final word to one of last year’s graduates who’s degree has been less directly useful to his emerging career.

As for working in PR, that didn’t really work out for me. I’m happier carving out a new career in Digital Marketing and SEO. I do still feel, however, that my degree has come to some use as it taught me to be more analytical and inclined towards finding concrete facts as opposed to swallowing assumptions whole.

I don’t know whether than amounts to a satisfied ‘customer’ or not – but it sounds like an acknowledgment of value.

 

Getting in, or getting on?

13 Jan

Junior doctors have been in the news this week. It’s a reminder of how high the barriers to entry are in medicine. Years of undergraduate and postgraduate study followed by an extended spell working long hours as a junior doctor.

Only then can medical practitioners expect to secure a stable and well-paid role as a hospital doctor or general practitioner.

So in medicine, it’s hard to get in but the rewards for success are high.

Compare that with public relations. Broadly, the opposite applies. It’s easy to get in – but hard to get on.

Students often don’t get this. They assume the challenge is securing the first role. They need experience for this, but how to gain experience when you don’t have any, they ask?

Here’s how it looks to me. The public relations business is dynamic and fast-growing: consider the growth in internal comms and the emergence of ‘content marketing’ – all roles that fit broadly within my understanding of PR.

 

There must be more positions than available candidates because a day rarely goes by without me becoming aware of someone sharing their vacancy or opportunity. Take a look at these sites managed by Sarah Stimson and Rachel Miller for numerous current vacancies.

Then consider that not only do PR people work in consultancies and in-house within larger organisations in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors – but many choose to work for themselves (as freelance or independent practitioners).

Despite the many degree courses that have been offered for the past 25 years, despite professional courses like the CIPR Diploma (over 15 years old), there is no single point of entry into public relations. School leavers can become apprentices; non-PR graduates can apply for graduate roles in PR; digital and marketing teams can offer PR services; mid career professionals can take on PR responsibilities.

Yet there’s still an apparently insatiable demand for new talent. So it’s not getting in that’s hard. The challenge is getting on. Here are some tips on how to succeed:

  • Be curious.  Never stop learning about the media, about different business sectors, about technology. Show that you’re curious and ambitious (graduates don’t have a monopoly on curiosity, but your degree is more useful as an indication that you’re capable of learning than as evidence of what you’ve already learnt).
  • Be strategic. Entry level roles are not often well paid, but they may be worth taking for what they can teach you and and for the opportunities for training and development. Being strategic also means seeing the bigger picture: what does your boss do all day? Is this something you could aim to do too? While your entry-level role may require you to crank out press releases or blog posts, these activities do not define public relations. So are you gaining an understanding of how press coverage or social media shares contribute to business objectives?
  • Plan your own career.  Only the largest consultancy firms can offer interesting graduate roles that give you experience in different sectors and of different PR specialisms across different countries. If you’re not in a graduate programme, can you broaden your own experience and avoid becoming a one-trick pony? You may have to do this by moving between jobs, sectors and even countries. Have you joined a professional body? Are you attending training courses or further study? Are you collecting CPD points?

Remember: graduation should not mark an end of study. Rather, it’s a platform that shows you’re capable of further learning.

There are many opportunities out there; there may be riches and other rewards to a career in public relations. But you will need a plan to get on – not just a plan to get in.

Being strategic means being adaptable and playing the long game.

Let us praise

7 May

Let’s stop to consider a group of people who are widely derided – and assumed to be liars.

Yet they’re natural communicators who take every opportunity to seek public engagement. They live with a high degree of job insecurity, yet they are strategic thinkers as well as doers, managers and activists. They believe in the power of ideas to effect positive change.

They work long hours (the job never stops), having had to put in long stints of voluntary work to build their CVs.

Public relations practitioners will recognise the description – but I’m thinking of politicians.

Most impressive of all, politics is not all about elections. The winners today (and even some of the losers) will have to start work tomorrow to form a government. Those in government will have to work hard to meet the goals of a balanced economy and a fairer society.

They will suffer from external events, from the news agenda, from public derision – and from the claim that they can’t keep their promises.

Yet they only retain their jobs with public approval. Many will be looking for work tomorrow – but you could write the damning article now about the revolving door between politics, business and public affairs.

Who’d be a politician?

Here’s what it takes to succeed in PR

28 Apr

Class of 2015We’re at that time of the year when graduates start worrying about jobs and careers and students are looking for summer work experience. So I’m reading lots of regurgitated advice on what it takes to succeed in PR on blogs and magazine sites.

At the risk of over-simplification, I’d suggest it comes down to just three things.

  1. Aptitude: Can you do it? Writing, social media, data, interpersonal skills, presentation skills and a nose for news are all examples of the skills you should be able to demonstrate.
  2. Achievements: So have you done it? You should be able to talk about your previous placements and jobs and say what you’ve learnt. If you’re light on experience, then you should at least be able to show what you’ve done for your personal brand. Major accolades can help too, even if they come from your hobbies rather than your work.
  3. Attitude: Do you love doing it? Fanatical about Formula One or obsessed with shoes? This is where you can turn your interest into an asset. But please avoid burning any bridges since that dream job in fashion PR may prove elusive and other sectors may be more interesting than you think as well as more lucrative. Employers will expect you to be interested in their business, not just your hobbies.

So if you’re looking to get a foot on the PR career ladder, I suggest a skills audit, a CV or LinkedIn makeover and a workout for your motivation. Remember, it’s a test: the successful PR practitioner will be able to find a point of interest in even the dullest-looking widget.

If you can gain early experience of working in-house and in a consultancy, in marketing PR and corporate PR roles, in external and internal communication then you will be open to a world opportunities and well-placed to succeed. Even short-lived and unsuccessful roles can build your experience, self-awareness and resilience.

Students and young people may feel that the odds are against them, but employers see it differently. They’re constrained only by a lack of suitable candidates. So you can get ready to succeed by focusing on your aptitude, achievements and attitude.

On references and relationships

9 Nov

Let me speak some home truths to the students I teach.

You think your modules and your assessments matter. And they do – to an extent.

But something matters more. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that relationships matter in public relations. But let me spell it out.

Your module grades may matter to you, but they don’t to anyone else. Yet your degree stays on your LinkedIn profile for ever, and I’m often asked to supply references for graduates, even years after they’ve left university. I’ll decline sooner than write a negative reference, but what does it take for me to write a positive reference?

  • Do I remember you? Did you attend my classes? Did you do well? Do I follow you on Twitter or Instagram? In other words, have we formed the basis of a professional relationship?
  • Do I have anything positive to say about you? I’d be happy to report that you did well in assessments – but I’ll be even happier if I know something about your work experience and your initiative.
  • Are we still in contact? It’s limited if I can only comment on your achievements as a student when you’ve graduated years ago. So are we still in contact? It’s never been easier – and LinkedIn is the place for following people’s careers.

I was invited to a lunch to celebrate my university tutor’s thirtieth year at the same institution. I can’t claim to have ever used him as a reference, nor had I sought to keep in contact, and I’ve not done anything to make him proud of me. But it’s a reminder of the enduring value of a university education.

It lasts a lifetime – and you’re not forgotten!

How to be a student

12 Oct
Photo via @lookitsben on Instagram

Photo via @lookitsben on Instagram

There’s a good piece in today’s Observer newspaper on the marketisation of higher education.

The paradox is that as universities have become more expensive, they have managed to recruit higher numbers of students.

Yet a more expensive does not necessarily mean a better education, in part because of the transactional expectations of paying consumers. ‘I’ve paid. Just give me my degree!’

As a public relations lecturer, I’m comfortable with the expectation that a pricey education should result in above average earnings. There’s a strong story to tell in terms of employability – for the right candidates.

Yet I’m not comfortable with the idea of university simply as a vocational training course. For one thing, it’s an expensive and wasteful way to be trained, since most lessons learned in the first year will be forgotten by the third. More important, do 17 year-olds have an infallible instinct for what they will be doing as 30-year-olds?

I certainly didn’t, and spent part of my 20s doing things I was already aware of (teaching and publishing) before finding my feet in areas I’d not previously known about (technology journalism then public relations).

Training has its place, but you can only train people for existing industries. You cannot train people for the jobs of the future – but you can build this flexibility into a broader education.

So a university course has to provide a greater focus on education than on training. Students have choices: they do not have to go to university and they do not have to study specific courses.

If a school leaver is set on public relations, they have the option of an apprenticeship that will allow them to earn while learning.

University suits the open minded – those who’ve yet to settle on their future career, and those who are willing to learn. It’s about the journey, not just about the destination. It takes time.

Being a student is a full-time activity, even if classes only take up a small proportion of your week. Don’t moan about this – but celebrate your freedom. Look at your parents: I’m sure they have very little free time between the demands of jobs and the commitments of a family. You’ll be busier than you can imagine for decades to come, so do please revel in your new-found freedom.

As a student, you may be cash poor but you’re time rich. Here are some suggestions of how to use your time to invest in your future:

  • Make friends for life
  • Learn to cook
  • Try to manage your finances
  • Travel (lengthy journeys, not just short holidays)
  • Learn additional skills (eg languages, computer programming)
  • Dream up an idea for a new business venture

This overlaps with some more specific things that public relations students should be doing to help them stand out to employers:

  • Develop an online brand (across your blog, website and social media accounts)
  • Follow industry leaders and employers
  • Participate in online chats and attend industry networking events
  • Gain specific work experience
  • Volunteer for a cause, campaign or charity you care about

Not having a degree may exclude you from even applying for some jobs, as might not having achieved a 2:1 or above.

But please don’t become solely focused on your degree classification. Employers don’t hire you for what you’ve learnt at university: they take your good degree as an indication of your future potential. There are more and better ways to demonstrate your potential than your grades.